It has taken a long time - and twists and turns - for Ralf Fährmann to establish himself as Schalke's No. 1 keeper. Against Bayern, he is to face a friend he once couldn't displace from the Schalke goal.
There is an ugly piece of graffiti on the reverse side of an advertising board at one of Schalke's training grounds in Gelsenkirchen. It reads: "Neuer is the coolest." Factually speaking, there isn't much to quibble with here. After all, the current Bayern Munich goalkeeper, who started playing with Schalke at the age of five, has beenregarded as a world-class keeper for
what now seems like an eternity. But could the graffiti actually be a dig at the current Schalke keeper, Ralf Fährmann?
This seems unlikely, as the 196-centimeter (6 foot, 5 inches) tall giant has long since joined Neuer among Germany's elite netminders. As a footballer, Fährmann doubtless has some deficits in his game compared with Neuer. However, he takes a back seat to nobody in terms of his reflexes and command of the penalty area. German football experts such as former Schalke and national team goalkeeper Jens Lehmann and Fährmann's former coach, Ralf Rangnick, are convinced that he ison his way to cracking the national team.
Life's dream: No. 1 at an amazing club
The now 27-year-old Fährmann is a Schalke man through and through. He joined the club's youth program from Chemnitzer FC when he was just 14.
"We have nobody on our roster who identifies himself more strongly with Schalke 04, press spokesman Yilmaz Sanli said. Fährmann himself stressed that "from my first day at Schalke it was my life's dream to one day wear the No. 1 for this amazing club."
However, Fährmann's path to the No. 1 job was anything but straightforward. To begin with, Neuer, who is two years his senior, long blocked his path to the starting job. In fact, Fährmann regarded the situation as so hopeless, that in 2009 he moved to Eintracht Frankfurt. There, though, he wound up embroiled in a relegation battle and was unable to get past the aging Frankfurt fan favorite Oka Nikolov.
At the start of the 2011-12 season, Fährmann seized his chance to return to Schalke, after Neuer had accepted a move to Bayern. This time though, he was laid low by a cruciate ligament rupture after appearing in just nine games. During his forced break, Fährmann fell back to No. 4 in the pecking order - behind young hopeful Lars Unnerstall, newly signed veteran Timo Hildebrand, and Mathias Schober. For Fährmann it was back to the reserves.
Taking out aggressions in the weight room
"Yes, this was one of the most difficult periods in my football career. I often felt like I was running into a wall, and this over and over," Fährmann recalled.
Instead of giving up though, Fährmann decided take out his aggressions by train even harder, adding six kilos (13 pounds) of muscle working out in the gym. At the same time he began working with a mental coach, paying for the sessions out of his own pocket.
These days, it is hard to imagine Schalke without Fährmann between the sticks, and what's more, he has developed into a tower of strength that coach Andre Breitenreiter is aiming to build the Royal Blues around in the longer term.
Rendezvous with Manuel Neuer
Fährmann has long been looking forward tothis Saturday's game at home against Bayern Munich,
not just because the Bundesliga's dominant club is coming to town, but his friend and rival, Manuel Neuer will be between the sticks at the opposite end. With a view to the national team though, Fährmann has said that he is not looking at the game as a chance to prove that he has closed the gap on Neuer.
For most fans, the hurt feelings over Neuer's departure for Munich a few years ago have faded. And that piece of graffiti at the training ground proclaiming that "Neuer is the coolest" seems even more outdated. In the meantime somebody has crossed out Neuer's name and written "Fafan" over it (apparently referring to former Schalke attacker Jefferson Farfan). Farfan's best years are well behind him now - he is now plying his trade in the United Arab Emirates.