Uwe Kemmer, an elected board member at Bundesliga giants Schalke 04, was being shown around Old Trafford by Bobby Charlton before their 2011 Uefa Champions League semi-final against Manchester United. “Can I just thank your club for the two best minutes in sports history when you beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League final,” he said to the United legend. Schalke reached the semi-finals that season with Raul and Manuel Neuer in their team, but, despite their vast size and 61,000 average crowds (and 160,000 paid up members) which make them the third best-supported team in Germany and seventh in the world, they’re not a name you associate with success. “When I started watching football in the ’70s, we were actually like Man United,” Kemmer tells The Post . “We never won the Bundesliga – we’ve been runners up six times – but we had huge crowds and would take 15,000 fans to away games. Along with Bayern we were the only club with a nationwide support. Dortmund has that now with their more recent success, but while Schalke still don’t win the league, we still take 15,000 to away games – and we definitely don’t sing You’ll Never Walk Alone.” There’s a nice line in self-depreciation in Gelsenkirchen, where Schalke play. It’s not beautiful, moneyed Munich, but a former coal-mining town with blue collar support. Nearby Dortmund is the same, a small football city where vast crowds gather. The iconic football stadiums falling by the wayside in the name of progress But not on Saturday the pair meet in the Ruhr derby as the Bundesliga becomes the first major league to return to action after the Covid-19 lockdown. Normally, 81,000 would watch – Dortmund have the highest average crowds in the world – but the game will be played behind closed doors. “I don’t know what to expect – or even if I’ll be nervous as usual – from an empty stadium with no noise,” says Kemmer, who can attend as a director. “It’s not ideal, but the clubs need the money and the fans stand with them. “The team have had no chance to play together since March. Schalke were losing games then but the injured players are back. We have a very good team but we suffer badly when we have injuries. It’s true we need a striker who scores 15 goals a season.” Dortmund are second and hoping to become the first team aside from Bayern to win the title in eight years, Schalke are sixth under David Wagner, formerly of Huddersfield Town. They have two Liverpool-born players in their squad: Jonjoe Kenny excelling on loan from Everton and Rabbi Matondo, the Welsh international who joined from Manchester City for £11 million (US$13.4m) last year. Under Wagner, the team was more attacking this season and its early positive results surprised, but they had only one win in 2020 before the lockdown. “Economically this has been a difficult time because we have almost no turnover,” says Kemmer. “At least we have the TV money, but we make money in ticket sales. Teams like Bayer Leverkusen can just ring their owners, their rich uncle, and ask for money. Schalke don’t have that and I’m afraid this current situation will make it even more unfair than it is now. We have sponsors because we’re a popular club but we don’t have a benefactor.” A club with such vast crowds the underdog? Germany’s ultra fans are fighting for the future of Bundesliga clubs and against the establishment “Schalke is the last big German club which is 100 per cent owned by the members,” says Kemmer, “but that brings pressure because we have to compete with clubs with very wealthy owners who want to be in the Champions League spots.” Could Schalke change and take a benefactor? Would they even want to? It’s unlikely. “I’d really like to know what a Manchester City fan truly feels,” says Kemmer of perhaps the most famous club where outside wealth has transformed their fortunes. “City were like Schalke, a big blue collar club with no success until they have this big spender from Abu Dhabi who treats the club – and I don’t want to sound disrespectful – like a champion horse and buys titles. It’s the same at PSG. It’s prestigious for these owners to own star players like M’Bappe or Neymar, but football was traditionally a blue-collar sport and it still feels like it is here.” Three other Bundesliga clubs are owned by fans – Union Berlin, Freiburg and Mainz. But wasn’t German football supposed to be safeguarded by the famous 50+1 rule, which means that 50 per cent of the shares of a club – plus one share – have to remain in the hands of the parent club? “That rule is on paper only,” explains Kemmer, who is unpaid for his board role. “Hoffenheim is 100 per cent owned by their funder. Volkswagen is with Wolfsburg, Bayer with Leverkusen or Red Bull (Leipzig). When these clubs fail to have success they get more money from the investor. It’s not fair.” Schalke have ambitions to be a top four or five club in Germany and a top 15 club in Europe but feel hamstrung. “We own our stadium, we pay for our academy from our own revenue without outside money, but if we have one or two terrible seasons we lose €30-40 million from not being in the Champions League. So then we have to sell players. “In England, you at least have four or five clubs – or even a Leicester – who can win the league because of the huge income from TV money,” Kemmer says this with no bitterness, but much resignation. “In Germany a big club should be able to do well and challenge for the league after two or three years, but they can’t because the dream is dead. Bayern Munich win the league every year, they are so far away from the rest. Bayern, who only own 28 per cent of their own club, used to get more sponsorship than us, but the gap was not like it is now. Adidas, a major stakeholder in Bayern, has no motivation to encourage competition. They only want to see their shirts on the winner – Bayern.” The Bundesliga will attract a large new international audience this weekend. It has been painted as a football utopia in the past for its cheap admission prices, terracing and vast crowds, but as Schalke know, it’s not quite true. Help us understand what you are interested in so that we can improve SCMP and provide a better experience for you. We would like to invite you to take this five-minute survey on how you engage with SCMP and the news.