Some twelve cities across Germany will welcome fans to the 2006 World Cup finals - from Hamburg in the north to Munich in the south, from Leipzig in the east to Cologne in the west. But for traditionalists the epicentre of the four-yearly football earthquake lies just to the north of Cologne in the Ruhr homeland of longtime rivals Schalke of Gelsenkirchen and Borussia Dortmund.
In English terms the Ruhr has always been most conveniently described as a cross between the North-east and the Black Country between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. This was the region from which, just like the English North-east, it was enough to whistle down the pit to summon up another outstanding footballer. No fewer than seven clubs from the Ruhr have played Jn the two Bundesliga divisions this past season, by far the heaviest concentration of any region: Dortmund and Schalke plus Rot-Weiss Oberhausen, MSV Duisburg, VfL Bochum, Armenia Bielefeld and LR Ahlen. To the southern fringe are Köln, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach.
The industrial image is being bulldozed into history. A towering old gas holder at Oberhausen has been converted into an esoteric 'action art' gallery and viewing platform; the slag heaps in Gelsenkirchen have been razed or grassed over and turned into parkland. But glance out of the train slithering across the Ruhr's World Cup axis and you can still glimpse the occasional skeletons of abandoned factories and their weed-strewn railway sidings. It is social and industrial history but also football history with a fascination of its own. The fuss and fury that accompanied Dortmund and Schalke's fade-outs last season illustrate the hold perpetuated on the German game by not just these clubs but the entire region.
Dortmund, winners of the European Cup in 1997 and Cup-winners Cup in 1965, ended up third in the table, having won the title the season before. Founded in 1909, they have won the German championship six times and the Cup twice. History freezes them as European pioneers: they reached the second round of the second Champions Cup in 1956-57 and the quarter-finals the following season.
Schalke, UEFA Cup-winners in 1997, ended up seventh in the 2002-03 Bundesliga under Frank Neubarth then Marc Wilmots, on his way to the Belgian senate. Founded in 1904, they have won the German title seven times and the Cup four times. They beat Wolves on their one and only path to the quarter-finals of the European Cup in 1958-59.
Dortmund boast the modern-day advantage. But legend leans to Schalke. Just as the Ruhr equated to the English North-east and the Black Country, so Schalke equate to Newcastle or Aston Villa: a club with a proud history, but a club part-buried under the weight of expectation built on that history.
In Schalke's case, the history is also contentious. One of the most remarkable of football studies unpicks the Schalke legend with delicate precision. Sturmer fur Hitler by Gerhard Fischer and Ulrich Lindner (Verlag die Werkstatt) explores the history, both fact and fiction, of German football under the Nazis. Schalke command pivotal analysis because the club won the old German title in 1934, 1935, 1937, 1939, 1940 and 1942, in the days when the championship was played out at the season's end between the winners of the various regional leagues. As well as those six titles, they were also runners-up in 1933 and 1938, and third in 1936.
Did Schalke benefit from Nazi support, as popular assumption now holds? Fischer and Lindner think not. They conclude, from studying newspapers, official documents, memoirs and from first-hand interviews, that Schalke benefited only indirectly, from the wish of prominent Nazis to bask in their glory. "There were no special privileges for us," says Herbert Burdenski, Schalke keeper and later coach. "Once we were refused admittance to a youth tournament in Breslau [now Wroclaw in Poland] because we weren't wearing Hitler Youth uniforms. It didn't matter that we were Schalke."
It was in Breslau that the German national team, built on a Schalke nucleus of inspirational inside forward Ernst Kuzorra and versatile Fritz Szepan, thrashed Denmark 8-0 in May 1937. The game marked the birth of the so-called 'BreslauElf' (Breslau 11), which remains a legend to this day. They might even have threatened Italy at the 1938 World Cup finals. But the annexation of Austria prompted political pressure to mix the team with the newly acquired 'Vienna School'. It didn't work for stylistic and personal reasons. Greater Germany lost 6-3 in Berlin to England in front of Goebbels, Goering and Hess, though not Hitler - ahead of their first round exit to Switzerland at the World Cup in France.
Political pressure compromised Schalke too. In the spring of 1941 Nazi leaders were concerned about fading enthusiasm for the Greater German cause in Austria. By coincidence, Schalke's rivals in the German championship Final were Rapid Vienna. Schalke cruised to a 3-0 lead in 52 minutes; Rapid's great striker, Franz 'Bimbo' Binder, even missed a penalty. Then Rapid benefited from another disputed penalty and hit back to win 4-3. Binder scored a hat-trick from two free-kicks and that second penalty. Austrian pride was, apparently, vindicated. "This wasn't football, this was politics," grumbled Kuzorra as he collected his runners-up medal from the Sports Minister, Hans von Tschammer und Osten. Professionalism being banned under the Nazis, Kuzorra was officially a miner. But he never made any secret of the fact that he had only spent two weeks of his life before his talent was spotted - down a pit. Team-mate Szepan was considered the greater player, the finest of German footballers before Fritz Walter, Uwe Seeler then Franz Beckenbauer. But disputed tales of how Szepan was supposed to have benefited from the enforced acquisition of a previously Jewish-owned business cast a long shadow over his reputation.
Thus visitors to the World Cup - or even to next year's Champions League Final - will find the avenue east of the Arena AufSchalke immortalises only the name of Kuzorra. Worthy, even so.
This article originally appeared in World Soccer Magazine August 2003. Subscribe at a discounted rate here.