What happens when a football club loses its soul? Schalke's story shows us

Sascha Duerkop June 30, 2020
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Schalke 04 is more than just one of the better known Bundesliga clubs. It’s tradition is largely built on that of the area it comes from – the mining Ruhr Area in the deep west of Germany. The club is nicknamed “The Miners” and gave itself the motto “we live you”.

Like with no other football club, Schalke is what people living in Gelsenkirchen, the home city of the club, identify with. The suburb that gave the club the name is barely known and has nothing to attract the eye of a visitor – but the club does. The club still markets itself as the honest worker’s club they once used to be. But that is no more.

While football fans around the world today sing “football is for you and me, not for f***ing industry,” Schalke has gone the other way and embedded itself in the most dubious industries imaginable. This is a story of football losing its soul.

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The patron, president and slaughterer

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Today, after leading the club for 26 years, Clemens Toennies has resigned from his position as the president of Schalke, following vigorous and continuous protests by fans, who accuse him of sacrificing everything the club claims to stand for during his reign.

Toennis is not only one of the richest Germans, with a net worth of 2.2 billion Euro, according to Forbes magazine, he is also arguably the most controversial billionaire in Germany. He built his wealth on slaughtering animals in one of the largest slaughterhouses in Europe, which he still co-owns with his nephew Robert. And while slaughtering is rarely a very clean or morally perfect business, Toennies is widely believed to owe his success to the absence of any business ethics, which allows him to literally walk any barely legal path to making money.

There were investigations against him for tax fraud in 2012, he was twice sanctioned for breaking cartel laws (2013 and 2016) and there were alleged illicit profits from tax revenues in 2014. But that is all history – and the story about the moral decline of Toennis and Schalke does not even need that backstory.

In 2019-20 alone, Toennies caused two scandals that made headlines globally:

  1. In August 2019, he gave a talk about “entrepreneurship and responsibility” in which he said “The [German] development minister should instead finance power plants in Africa, he then donates 20 big power plants to Africa every year. Then the Africans stop to chop trees and, when it’s dark, when we electrified them, to produce kids”. The public was shocked to hear such blatant racism and calls to sanction him came quickly. The German FA pre-investigated and concluded that “Toennies could convincingly elaborate that he is not a racist,” and thus closed the case without a proper ethics council investigation. Schalke’s own ethics council announced that the accusation that Toennies made a racist comment is unsubstantiated. Toennies voluntarily paused his presidency for three months and on return gave several interviews about the “hardest time of his life”.
  2. In June 2020, when the global covid-19 pandemic started to lose traction in Germany and the state of North Rhine Westphalia (NRW), home of Toennies and Schalke, started to ease lock-down, a second wave broke out in Toennies’ slaughterhouse. Up to today, more than 1,500 cases, more than Slovenia had in total, occurred among his workforce. So many that you can spot his factory on a global 10-day average case graph.

    Gütersloh, the city the plant is in, complained that Toennies did not at all support investigating the outbreak, workers complained that they got orders to not tell anyone that they are infected to ensure the plant is not closed down and that they are fed on a potato and onion a day. The state government hit out that they had to put two entire counties under curfew again, thanks to Toennies. It spread so quickly, due to insufficient hygiene in the company’s canteen and inhumane housing conditions for Romanian workers that were employed via subcontractors to avoid labour regulations. 
Source: Financial Times analysis of data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the Covid Tracking Project and the UK Dept of Health & Social Care. Data updated June 30 2020 11.13am BST

Schalke 04: A club sold out

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But what do all these scandals around Toennies have to do with Schalke 04 as a club? Firstly, he was still the president of the club until earlier today and the club keeps defending his actions. Naturally his image has rubbed off on the club, which fans have been complaining about for weeks now.

Secondly, as Schalke’s president, he is responsible for the club itself, which has been anything but successful, and not only on the pitch. It also emerged today that the club is approaching insolvency. The club’s two top men have been under investigation for trading insolvent for years already.

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Toennies has run down the club financially, led it to its worst run in its history of 16 matches without a win and has sacrificed the club’s values on the way. Likewise, the club has allowed this to happen and has done nothing to hold its president accountable for his racist remarks, for his dubious business ethics or his ongoing exploitation of his workforce – it has embraced the sell-out and was proud that it could help Toennies networking with Vladimir Putin through their sponsorship deal with Gazprom. The worker’s club is no more. It became an exploitative oligarch’s toy. The fans, who have been protesting that development for a decade or more, got robbed of what they lived. 

The club will survive somehow. Despite being poorly managed for years or decades now, the state of NRW is now said to be ready to bail out the club and save it from insolvency by making a €40 million guarantee. An unprecedented move that many see as a gift from the head of NRW, Armin Laschet, to his good friend Toennies. Rumour has it that Toennies had to step back to make such a guarantee possible, as the general public is still outraged that Toennies has not been held accountable and would not forgive the government that taxpayers’ money is now being spent on a club led by the same person. The move would be a controversial one, especially as a nearby former Bundesliga club, Wuppertaler SV, just went insolvent four days ago, due to lost ticket sales as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and received no support whatsoever. Seemingly, they did not have the right friends.

Schalke has these powerful friends, but it took losing its soul, its fans, many of its players and its reputation to keep them.

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Sascha Düerkop is a German mathematician, economist, football maniac, geography nerd and traveller. He has travelled to most unrecognised countries and way beyond, organised football tournaments for not-quite-states and has over 500 football national team shirts in his wardrobe.