As their team ended the season with yet another defeat, Schalke fans demonstrated against club chairman Clemens Tönnies. It's about more than football; it's about transparency, values, racism and a coronavirus outbreak.
It's not been a good year for Schalke.
David Wagner's team ended the season with a club record 16 Bundesliga games without a win and only scored nine league goals in 2020. In the second half of the season, only bottom side Paderborn performed worse, and were it not for a half decent run before the midseason break, Schalke, Bundesliga runners-up just two years ago, would have been in serious relegation danger themselves.
On Saturday, while the Royal Blues suffered yet another pitiful defeat away at Freiburg, over 1,000 Schalke supporters turned up outside the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen to protest against the management of their floundering club.
Organizer Katharina Strohmeyer told the Westdeutsche Zeitung newspaper: "It's been shameful to be a Schalke fan recently. It has nothing to do with a workers' club anymore. We expect the club leadership to adhere to the constitution. If not, we need a new start."
Her colleague Stefan Barta told the Westfälische Anzeiger newspaper that he was satisfied with the turnout, which he estimated as high as 1,500, and the message. "All fan groups were represented here, from the ultras to all other supporters. We want to maintain the protest. We want Clemens Tönnies to step down and his system to come to an end."
However, it's not even the pitiful sporting situation which has the fans up in arms — or rather linking arms, as they formed a huge human chain with blue and white tape stretching around the area where the club's offices are located. Incredibly, the football is the least of their problems.
Controversial money-saving measures
Schalke ended the 2018-19 financial year with debts of almost €200 million ($224 million). When it was reported that football's coronavirus-enforced hiatus could send 13 Bundesliga and second-division clubs into insolvency, Schalke were widely presumed to be most at risk.
Money-saving measures taken by the club confirmed the suspicions. At the end of March, marketing director Alexander Jobst admitted it was "a question of survival" and wrote to VIP box owners in April asking them to refrain from requesting refunds for the club's remaining four home games.
Unlike many other Bundesliga clubs, Schalke didn't offer their season ticket holders a refund option either. On June 3, they took the unprecedented step of asking hard-hit fans to detail exactly why they needed their money back immediately — even requesting proof in the form of receipts or unpaid bills.
The club subsequently apologized and long-serving financial director Peter Peters resigned but, just a week later, it emerged that Schalke had made 24 drivers from the club's academy chauffeuring service redundant — most of them retirees who had so-called "mini-job" contracts worth just €450 a month and who would help drive young players to training if their parents couldn't.
Board member Jochen Schneider responded, saying the club had spoken to each driver and was working towards finding solutions.
For Schalke fans, the developments could not be further removed from the values they associate with their football club, technically the second largest in Germany with 160,000 members. Schalke pride themselves on their youth academy and continually emphasize their socialist roots in the traditional, working class, mining communities of the industrial Ruhr region.
Saving money at the expense of some of the club's most loyal and most vulnerable supporters, employees and youth players is not considered the Schalke way, and the fans have had enough.
In a furious statement, the Ultras Gelsenkirchen, one of the most vocal and well organized Schalke fan groups and one of the largest ultra groups in Germany, criticized the club's supervisory board, its honorary board, its financial management and the perceived abandonment of the club's values.
"This entire season has been a declaration of moral bankruptcy," they wrote. "The club is rapidly losing trust and identification. The family feeling that makes the club so special only seems to exist among the fans … We will not let the club be taken from us and destroyed. We're not interested in excuses or apologies anymore, those who don't live according to Schalke's values must leave."
Schalke and the slaughterhouse
The demonstration on Saturday was organized by several supporters' clubs under the slogan: "Schalke is not a slaughterhouse! Against the destruction of our club!" — the wording a direct reference to the coronavirus outbreak at the Tönnies meat processing plant in nearby Rheda-Wiedenbrück, owned by Schalke chairman Clemens Tönnies, the chief target of the fans' ire.
Many of the employees at the abattoir are poorly paid immigrant workers from Eastern Europe, housed in cramped and unhygienic accommodation, conditions which are believed to have accelerated the spread of the coronavirus among the workforce. Whistleblowers from within the company claim that hygiene measures such as temperature checks have not been thoroughly implemented.
It's not the first time that Tönnies, a 64-year-old local billionaire who has chaired Schalke's supervisory board since 2001, has made headlines for non-footballing reasons. Last August, he was obliged to step down from his position for three months after making comments about Africa which were widely deemed to be racist.
At the time, Schalke supporters demanded that Tönnies be "shown the red card" and removed from the club completely. It has now been claimed that the internal case against Tönnies before the club's honorary board featured significant irregularities.
Criticism of the 'Tönnies system'
Kornelia Toporzysek is a high-court judge in Düsseldorf. She is also a Schalke supporter and, in June 2019, was elected onto the club's honorary board – an unpaid panel which acts like an internal judiciary, ensuring the club and its elected officials remain true to its constitution.
Toporzysek last year resigned from the board in protest at the racism affair and, this week, she broke her silence, telling German football magazine 11Freunde and a Schalke supporters' initiative that Tönnies had been defended in the case by a member of the board itself — an irregular constellation at any trial. For Toporzysek, the affair was symptomatic of the culture she had encountered within the club.
"It's Tönnies' system — Schalke bows to the interests of its chairman," she said, adding: "The structures which have developed represent an old-fashioned patriarchal system which is no longer fit for purpose. We need a different leadership culture which is not centered around one person."
The supporters who gathered outside the club's offices on Saturday shared that view, and as they followed updates of Schalke's disastrous season ending in an appropriately awful fashion, one comment summed it up: "Is it even a surprise anymore?"