Heart of Football

Four Minutes in May: Remembering Schalke 04’s Champion of Hearts 20 years on

Football stadiums are many a person’s place to be on a weekend. Since March 2020 onwards with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, however, venues across nearly all of Europe’s leagues have fallen silent with games being played behind closed doors. Whilst games have continued in this eerie fashion, many have stated that the ‘new normal’ of games behind closed doors truly doesn’t feel normal at all. This all simply confirms what many have stated all along: that football without fans truly is nothing.

Unless one supports one of the very elite clubs in your country’s footballing pyramid, it’s no exaggeration to suggest that being a football fan can be a hazardous occupation. Disappointment rather than delight often unravels in front of one’s own eyes. Anytime one’s team emerges as a force and enjoys a productive campaign with a chance of success, one has to truly make the most of it. Such a scenario unfolded before the eyes of supporters of a club based in Germany’s 11th biggest city in the 2000/01 season as they enjoyed their best campaign in years. That club is, of course, Schalke 04.

Based in the former north-western coalmining city of Gelsenkirchen, it is a one-club city, and the locals back Schalke in huge numbers. Since moving to their state-of-the-art Arena AufSchalke stadium in 2001, Schalke have, with the understandable exception of the Covid-19-interrupted 2019/20 campaign, averaged over 60,000 spectators per game in every season. This attendance success has not been replicated with German league titles, however. Despite winning seven German championships, Schalke’s last success came in 1958, five years before the first-ever German Bundesliga season in 1963. 

In 2000/01, everything was in place for Schalke to end this drought. Die Knappen (The Miners) possessed a squad containing experience including 1990 World Cup winners Andreas Möller and Olaf Thon, defender Thomas Hajto and Czech Euro 96 runner-up Jiří Němec. Some promising youngsters were also on display in the shape of 22 year-old forwards Emile Mpenza and Gerald Asamoah. In addition, Koenigsblauen (The Royal Blues) also possessed amongst their ranks Danish striker Ebbe Sand, the joint-top scorer in that season’s Bundesliga with 22 goals.

Finally, the contribution of the man in the managerial hot seat cannot be underestimated; Dutchman Huub Stevens. Appointed in the summer of 1996, Stevens had guided Schalke to triumph in the 1996/97 UEFA Cup defined by his capacity to get their defence perfectly organised. In fact Stevens’ phrase to describe this defensive organisation and frugality – “Die Null Muss Stehen” (The score must remain zero) – entered into German football folklore. Stevens’ fifth season in charge of the Gelsenkirchen outfit should have seen all his hard work crowned with a title win. Alas it was not to be. Here is the story of German football’s Champion of Hearts.

The Build-up

Going into Matchday 29 out of 34, 2000/01 Bundesliga title race was turning into one of the most exciting in years. Just six points separated the leaders, with seemingly perennial champions Bayern Munich on 50 points at the time, and Hertha BSC and 1 FC Kaiserslautern both on 44 points in fifth and sixth place respectively with just six matches remaining. The game of the matchday was without question the contest between the top two; leaders Bayern, and second-placed Schalke on 49 points at the Olympic Stadium in Munich.

The importance and magnitude of the contest seemed to get to Schalke early doors and after some poor defending, Bayern striker Carsten Jancker gave the Bavarians the lead just three minutes in. Heads could easily have dropped at this moment. Nonetheless, Schalke showed true champion-like character to respond. Ebbe Sand struck on 14 minutes to level the contest, before then scoring twice more in the second half to seal a remarkable 3-1 comeback win for Schalke and take them two points clear at the top.

Going into Matchday 33, the penultimate matchday of the season, Schalke led Bayern on goal difference and the previous six-team battle for the title had given way to a two-team showdown. The matches that weekend saw Schalke face VfB Stuttgart away from home, and Bayern square off against Kaiserslautern at home. With the score at 0-0 in Stuttgart in the 90th minute, Bulgarian attacking midfielder Krasimir Balakov scored a late winner for Stuttgart. One hundred and forty three miles east, with the score level at 1-1 between Bayern and Kaiserslautern, substitute Alexander Zickler struck a 90th minute winner for the Bavarians.

Going into the final matchday of the season, therefore, Bayern led the table by three points but Schalke had a superior goal difference, thus ensuring that the title race was not over. On the final day, Schalke faced Unterhaching at home in the final-ever match at their old Parkstadion. Bayern on the other hand travelled to Hamburg SV. The equation was simple; Bayern needed just a point to guarantee a third straight Bundesliga title. The only way Schalke could end their long title drought was to defeat Unterhaching and then hope Hamburg did them a favour. 

Whomever one supports in the Bundesliga, the events of Saturday 19 May 2001 will stay etched in folklore forever.

Saturday 19 May 2001: The Bundesliga’s most dramatic final day ever

Schalke’s old Park Stadion stadium, the scene of their most dramatic and heart-breaking moment 20 years ago.

Unterhaching, a team from the eponymous town just outside of Munich, were battling against relegation on the final matchday of the campaign. As a result, Schalke’s visitors were not going to make it easy, as emphasised when they went 2-0 up 29 minutes into the contest. The Gelsenkirchen outfit had to show character once more and Unterhaching’s early goals transformed Schalke Null Vier into Schalke No Fear (a joke shamefully taken from an episode of Bleacher Reports’s YouTube football cartoon series “The Champions”). Schalke pulled the score back to 2-2 going into half time courtesy of goals from Nico van Kerckhoven and Asamoah.

Another spanner was thrown in the works of Schalke’s title challenge on 69 minutes when Jan Seifert put Unterhaching 3-2 ahead in the contest. However, Stevens’ troops once more displayed true character and Joerg Boehme’s double on 73 and 74 minutes put Schalke back into a 4-3 lead. Late on, Ebbe Sand – who else – finally ensured Schalke held their side of the bargain by grabbing a fifth goal to ensure a 5-3 Schalke victory. All eyes now turned to Hamburg and the match involving Bayern.

If Schalke vs Unterhaching was dramatic from first minute to last, Hamburg vs Bayern evoked equal drama – but all of it came from the 89th minute onwards. It’s fair to say the preceding 88 minutes were cagey and forgettable. Bayern played like a side which only needed a point to secure a title; their passing was sloppy in midfield throughout, and they created very few clear-cut goalscoring chances. Despite having nothing to play for on the final day and not creating many clear-cut chances themselves, it is fair to suggest that Hamburg had been the better side.

However, from the 89th minute onwards this calm was followed by a storm. After receiving the ball on Hamburg’s left flank, Marek Heinz – a star of the Czech Republic’s memorable Euro 2004 campaign – crossed into Bayern’s penalty box for Sergej Barbarez to head home the opener for Hamburg. For the Bosnian striker, the strike drew him level with Schalke’s Sand on 22 goals in the race to be Bundesliga top scorer. Most notably though, with Bayern trailing and Schalke winning, Die Knappen were on course to be crowned Bundesliga champions.

After Barbarez wheeled away in delight after scoring, TV cameras captured memorable images of Bayern substitutes, non-playing squad members for the game, club officials and directors all looking shellshocked. Immediately afterwards, footage showed Bayern’s midfield general Stefan Effenberg. He too looked stunned, but curiously his expression and body language appeared to also be indicating something else. Effenberg seemed to be stimulating his teammates with renewed steel and confidence that all was not lost.

Bayern, now needing to score to win the title, suddenly found impetus and threw the proverbial kitchen sink at Hamburg. However, HSV managed to comfortably repel everything FCB had to offer until the fourth – and last – minute of added time. Hamburg’s Czech defender Tomáš Ujfaluši, pressured by Bayern’s substitute Paulo Sérgio, got his foot to a ball passing it in the direction of his goalkeeper Mattias Schober. In a moment of blind panic, Schober picked up the ball – a clear violation of the back-pass rule – and an indirect free-kick was given to Bayern inside the Hamburg penalty box. Referee Markus Merk instructed the players that this would be the last action of the game.

It was left to defender Patrik Andersson, a member of Sweden’s bronze medallists in the 1994 FIFA World Cup to have the final say of the 2000/01 Bundesliga season. What a final say it was too. Andersson lashed the free kick beyond the diving Schober into the back of Hamburg’s net to secure a dramatic title win for Bayern in the most remarkable finale to a Bundesliga campaign

Aftermath & analysis

Last day title or relegation deciders will always be tense for managers, players and supporters. However, for the latter, the rise of smartphones and the ability to keep track of the scores elsewhere with just a quick internet search has changed the dynamic slightly. The 2000/01 Bundesliga final day drama was from a time before smartphones. To keep track of scores elsewhere, one had to sneak a pocket radio into a stadium and find the correct frequency. Another alternative was to ring a relative watching on TV and attempt to hear them over thousands of screaming fans; more complicated situations than the modern day, yet ones that unquestionably create more tension, confusion and drama.

It is worth mentioning that upon the final whistle going in the Schalke vs Unterhaching match that confusion reigned at Schalke’s Parkstadion as to whether the Bayern match had finished. Of course, all matches on the final day of a season are played at the same time to maintain the integrity of competition. Despite this, with various factors in play such as numbers of goals scored, injuries, substitutions and other stoppages, no two games ever finish at the exact same time. This became evident on German television coverage of the Schalke match in the aftermath of the final whistle, with the commentator repeatedly asking “Is it full time in Hamburg?” and “Is the game finished in Hamburg?”

What followed was a classic case of what could happen in the days before instant updates. Someone on the side-lines obviously had got a false tip-off, possibly from someone in the stands, that the match in Hamburg had finished. This passed onto the Schalke players, who began hugging each-other in celebration. Most noteworthy though, it passed onto the fans. Masses of arms and clenched fists starting throwing themselves up in the air. Within seconds, these fans stormed the field in celebration. 

A classic case of false news leading to false hope; the game at Bayern had not finished. Remember the reference to four minutes? That length of time had passed between Schalke’s match finishing and Andersson’s dramatic title-winning shot; four minutes and 36 seconds to be exact. Put yourself in the shoes of Schalke fans who stormed the field that day – full-time brings happiness at your team’s victory. Checking to find out whether the Bayern game had finished brings confusion. Falsely finding out it had finished brings elation, when storming the field; a moment of completely losing oneself. Finally, right at the death when Andersson scored, despair and sorrow. All emotions are expressed, something only football supporters inside a stadium following their club live in the flesh can experience to the fullest of extents.

What made it worse was that, almost immediately after those fans who ran onto the field celebrating, the big screen at Schalke’s old stadium began to show images that showed everyone that the game in Hamburg had in fact not finished. Astoundingly, the first image shown on the screen was Schober picking up Ujfaluši’s back-pass. Delight and celebration were instantly replaced with tension. For Schalke fans, it was like a hundred ice-cold lightning bolts suddenly hitting them in the back. If ever a line from a song summed up the thoughts at that moment of those fans, “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to dance with you again”, was it.

The events of 19 May 2001 can be analysed in so many ways. In a two-way battle when the underdog misses out on the title, one understandably always feels much more for them. The title was in Schalke’s hands for the briefest of moments, but long enough to be branded German football’s ‘four-minute champions’. Schalke also lost the chance to crown the final game at their old stadium in the best possible way by winning a title, not just a game. A penny for the thoughts of Mathias Schober, the Hamburg goalkeeper (and Schalke youth academy product) who had picked up that fateful back-pass; due to a goalkeeping injury to Hamburg’s initial first choice goalkeeper at the time, Schober was actually on loan from Schalke to Hamburg in as cruel a twist of fate as any.

As for Bayern, two late goals in consecutive weekends had won them a title, something described and derided in equal measure by many fans of other clubs with no love for Bayern as their “Typischer Bayern-Dusel” (typical Bayern luck). Not only do supporters of other clubs feel this way towards Bayern at times, it also affects players as illustrated in Uli Hesse’s fine book on the history of German football, Tor!. Reportedly upon hearing news of Bayern’s last-gasp winner, goalkeeper Adam Matysek, at the time playing for Bayer Leverkusen, who had lost out on the title on the final day of the previous season to Bayern, stated: “It’s always the same load of crap”.

Understandably, there was a vast outpouring of disbelief from supporters of clubs other than Bayern and fierce local rivals Dortmund at Schalke’s plight. Despite having nothing to play for on the day, Hamburg’s supporters would have demanded nothing more than maximum effort from their team to deny Bayern the title. To HSV’s credit, they gave that and more, having nothing left in the tank at the end of their match.

Many other memorable last day title deciders have of course took place such as Michael Thomas’ late goal that won Arsenal the English title at Anfield in 1988/89 or Sergio Agüero’s injury-time strike that sent the blue half of Manchester wild against QPR in 2011/12. Whether Andersson’s late strike is as or more dramatic than those two is open for debate. However, unlike Thomas and Agüero, Andersson’s goal was actually the very last kick of the game, something truly unique. Six years on in 2007, German television channel Premiere (now Sky Deutschland) commissioned a documentary on the dramatic day’s events titled “Vier Minuten in Mai(Four Minutes in May). 

One Hamburg supporter in attendance on that famous day stated his accounts of the action. “I think every supporter of every other club has a strong desire to beat Bayern, it’s just the club you want to beat. I was in absolute disbelief after the Ujfaluši/Schober back-pass occurred, to be honest, I didn’t even see it live because me and my mates were still celebrating Barbarez’s late goal. Normally, I don’t care about Schalke, however, here I felt a lot of sympathy for them, especially considering that they came back from 2-0 behind to win 5-3 in such a great fashion and ended up being champions for a few minutes – and then only Meister der Herzen (Champion of Hearts).”

Champion of Hearts, a term given to Schalke by fans of rival clubs and the media, bestowed upon Schalke for a variety of factors. They had scored the most goals that season and had conceded the fewest, alongside doing the double over Bayern in the league. However, it was that dramatic Saturday 19 May 2001 which justified the tag the most, given the way Schalke lost the title and how for their supporters a title wait (which is still ongoing) was agonisingly delayed right at the end. Normally only surprise winners are remembered and those who fall just short seem to be forgotten. However, no-one can forget Schalke’s 2000/01 Meister der Herzen.

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