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Football Reporting

Bayern Munich

€200m in debt, player unrest and a 26-game winless run

The English language, lacking a convenient word to convey the feeling of joy in the suffering of another, instead turned to German. It might be uncomfortable to admit but we have all experienced feelings of Schadenfreude at some stage.

When it comes to football, it is natural to take voyeuristic pleasure in watching a giant fall. I sensed many Bundesliga followers were touched by these emotions watching Hamburg suffer through a series of close brushes with relegation before finally going down for the first time in 2018. HSV, though they continue to try to plot a route back into the top division, have undoubtedly passed the Schadenfreude torch to Schalke.

I must admit to feeling slightly uneasy about this. While not a Schalke fan as such, I have tremendous respect, indeed affection for the Gelsenkirchen club and their traditions. Some of my favourite conversations on trains up and down Germany have been with fans of Die Konigsblauen (Royal Blues) about the club’s triumphs domestically and in Europe, as well as their near misses for league titles.

But this season’s Schalke incarnation is wretched, although we can’t say we weren’t warned. In July, at a grim, foreboding news conference, senior board member Alexander Jobst laid bare the harsh truth. Sporting goals would be downgraded with European football no longer reachable, massive internal savings would be called for amid mounting debts of almost €200 million ($225m). Schalke had been hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic more than most.

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Despite this bleak disclosure from Jobst, we had to see it on the pitch this season to really believe it.

Schalke, who had gone 16 games without a win to end last term, were at least not in relegation bother thanks to a fruitful Hinrunde (the first half of the campaign). But sporting chief Jochen Schneider raised eyebrows by remaining true to under-fire coach David Wagner when many thought a summer change would be best to match the club’s new reality.

The optics were not great for Schneider when he was forced to sack Wagner two games into this campaign, following an 8-0 opening night humiliation away to Bayern and a 3-1 defeat at home against last season’s master escapologists Werder Bremen.

Manuel Baum, a man with a sound reputation based on his previous work as a developer of talent and coach at Augsburg, was brought in. A decent enough appointment but what raw material did he have to work with?

One of their biggest assets, United States international Weston McKennie, had already been sent on loan to Juventus out of financial necessity in a deal worth €3m which could become permanent for €18m. The Schalke squad wore a disjointed look, full of players who had been on loan elsewhere like Hamza Mendyl, Nabil Bentaleb, Ralf Fahrmann and Mark Uth. Square pegs in round holes were everywhere and so there was a frantic attempt to add to the squad in September even given the club’s considerable financial strictures.

Vedad Ibisevic, a Bundesliga servant of long-standing, joined at age 36; striker Goncalo Paciencia moved on loan from Eintracht Frankfurt; 20-year-old Kilian Ludewig, who had been on loan at Barnsley from FC Salzburg, was asked to plug a considerable gap at right-back. It all appeared very jumbled rather than part of a comprehensive plan.

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Under Baum, Schalke have gathered a meagre three points from eight games. The winless run stretching back to January has now encompassed 26 matches, as the Royal Blues close in on Tasmania Berlin’s 31-game unwanted Bundesliga record set in 1965-66. Tasmania, last-minute additions that season, only got in because Hertha’s licence had been revoked for breaking player salary rules. They were relegated, never to return after scoring just 15 goals and conceding 108.

It has been bad enough watching mistake after mistake from a Schalke side low on confidence, but there was also the spectacle of “Turbulent Tuesday” a couple of weeks ago. More Schadenfreude for some. The axe fell on technical director Michael Reschke, whose relationship with Schneider had gone past the point of no return. It was also announced that Ibisevic would be leaving in January by mutual consent.

The main interest though was in supposed miscreants Amine Harit and Nabil Bentaleb, both suspended from the squad. Young Harit’s Denkpause (pause for reflection) is now over and he returned to the squad in midweek. There is a good player there and hopefully he can show again just what a valuable and creative contributor he can be. Bentaleb, on the other hand, does not appear to fit Schalke any longer (the club’s words not mine) and they will look to offload him this winter.

Injuries are not helping Baum’s side, either. This past weekend, with Frederik Ronnow and Ralf Faehrmann both out, the third-choice keeper, 35-year-old Michael Langer, stood between the posts against Bayer Leverkusen. The appearance came more than 13 years (5,020 days) on from his only previous Bundesliga appearance against Stuttgart.

Actually, Langer acquitted himself superbly, making a string of top-notch saves as opponents Leverkusen tested him time and again. But Schalke still fell to a 3-0 defeat.

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USMNT great Steve Cherundolo reflects on California native Matthew Hoppe’s Bundesliga debut for Schalke.

Recently there has been an emphasis on younger players from the youth academy, the famous Knappenschmiede, such as American Matthew Hoppe, who was recently promoted from the Under-23 squad. The coach of that team, Torsten Froehling can expect more of his players to be recruited by the first-team squad in the hard months ahead.

While it seems like a winless run without end, Schalke have at least shown a willingness to fight, scrap and run in the last couple of games, covering more than 120 kilometres as a team both times. But when every match is littered with fundamental errors in defence and in the attack, there’s not much wiggle room for a struggling team.

As much as Schalke have become something of a laughing stock, their league games between now and Christmas do offer possibilities for wins get them back on track and bridge the four-point gap to safety. I’m not so sure I would back them to prevail away to Baum’s old club Augsburg on Sunday, but the home games thereafter to round out the Bundesliga calendar against Freiburg and Bielefeld, teams still within touching distance, look more promising as potential barren run busters.

The portents are anything but positive for this avidly followed side and the Royal Blues will already be planning in case relegation befalls them for the first time since 1988. Right now, it’s easy to make the case that those who indulge in Schadenfreude are far from finished with Schalke.

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