Schalke was at the forefront of the new soccer academies, working with the Berger Feld school, which sits in the shadow of the stadium, to turn physical education classes into world-class training. The professionals at Schalke are often referred to as the miners, a nod to the club’s roots among workers, and the youth program is called the Knappenschmiede, or forge of the miners.
Their coaches hammer out goalies at an astonishing rate. One Saturday this autumn, five goalies who trained at Schalke took the field for Bundesliga squads. One of them, Manuel Neuer, a star at Bayern and the national team’s No. 1 keeper, began training with Schalke when he was 4 years old. Losing him to its rival in Munich was devastating, a reminder of the cutthroat nature of competition for talent.
Schalke won its Champions League group but has had trouble with stiff competition at home. On game day Dec. 15, the otherwise gray industrial town was decked with royal blue and white, the club colors. The team’s high-tech Veltins Arena, which opened in 2001 and was one of the World Cup sites in 2006, has not only a retractable roof but a grass field that slides in and out of the stadium like a giant drawer so it is not trampled at rock concerts and other events.
So successful in Europe, Schalke was picked apart by a precise and obviously hungry Freiburg team with its own young, homegrown players. Five of the starters were products of the Freiburg youth program, a necessity for a team representing a Black Forest town of only 230,000 residents. Freiburg won, 3-1.
Schalke’s coach, triumphant victor on the European stage, was fired for his trouble keeping up with the competition at home.
Looking at the achievement of the soccer academies and the rise of the German game, Schalke’s Menze displayed a German form of positive pessimism.
“We can’t make the mistake of easing up,” he said. “In success, one makes the biggest errors.”
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