All or nothing! There’s nothing in between. Black and yellow will never turn into blue and white, and a love of Cologne will never morph into one of Mönchengladbach. Once allegiance to a club is sworn, a fan will accompany their chosen favourite down all the way into the basement of the league table in a worst-case scenario. Football is more than just a sport around the Rhine and Ruhr rivers. The people here practice football as a passion, a way of life, and an identity.
It’s a story of integration and a feeling of belonging, of good luck and holy blessings, of the good times and the bad. Football means cheering and tears, kicking and dribbling, football pitches and curls. Football happens at the stadium every Saturday. Champions League and regional league. Standing space and stadium sausage. Football equals NRW. NRW equals football.
“Being a Schalke fan is part of who I am”
Olivier Kruschinski has the window of St Joseph’s Church in Gelsenkirchen tattooed on his calf. It shows St Aloisius with football shoes, socks, and ball.
Open and honest
FC Schalke 04 was the German football champion for exactly four minutes and 38 seconds in 2001. The fans stormed the pitch, hugged each other, and celebrated their team. Then it was all over again. Four minutes and 38 seconds had passed. FC Bayern Munich became the champion after scoring another goal - and life at Schalke went on just as it had.
Olivier Kruschinski makes his home here, in the Gelsenkirchen district of the same name. The family man, whose son had a membership card with the “Knappen” before he had a first name, says: “Only if you know the past will you be able to understand the present day and shape the future.” As a result, he regularly takes guests to the birthplaces of his football association. They look a bit faded in places, like pictures from the 1930s, when the mining industry produced football talents such as Ernst Kuzzora and Fritz Szepan and people would go to church before going to football on Sundays. Some streets may have seen better times – but, just like football, the Ruhr area is dirty, open, and honest by nature.
God & football
Visitors from afar can trace the football myth of Schalke on the Extratour 04, pause, and pray for the next victory. The route sets out at St Joseph’s church, right on the Schalker Meile, which opens its doors to football fans specifically before every FC-Schalke 04 home game. Blue and white candles are lit there on those days, and visitors can lift their eyes to the window with St Aloisius, patron saint of the youth, equipped with a blue and white football. The pilgrimage route of 14.7 kilometres starts into its “first half”: It leads along the “Schalker Meile”, which is illuminated in blue and white when the sun goes down, the "Walk of Legends", the former tobacco shop of Ernst Kuzorra and "Nobody can get past God" Stan Libuda, to the Glückauf-Kampfbahn, the former home ground of FC Schalke 04. The “second half” starts after the Veltins-Arena, offering plenty of nature in its northern part.
Land of 1,000 derbies
Schalke fans usually give a wide berth to the neighbouring city of Dortmund, where black and yellow is the “one true love” and nearly one third of the fans in the stadium will crowd in the south stand to form the “Yellow Wall”, providing an outstanding atmosphere at BVB’s home matches. When the greatest of the Ruhr derbies takes place in Dortmund, however, the “Knappen” are highly motivated, and the entire region is electrified. The situation in Cologne and Mönchengladbach is similar. We will get to that later, though. Great sport is not limited to Germany’s largest stadium, which can fit 80,000 spectators, but also shown in the museum. The Deutsches Fußballmuseum right at Dortmund’s main railway station has a “players’ tunnel” that leads right to where the action is. Now Rahn is just about to shoot, now Ballack’s calf is acting up, and Mario Götze is lifting the 2014 World Cup trophy.
The loyalty of people in Essen is to “red and white”. History is also being written here. “Mythos und Moderne. Fußball im Ruhrgebiet” (myth and modernity: football in the Ruhr area) is the title of a major exhibition that is going to run in the coal washing plant at Zeche Zollverein until 20 may 2024. It showcases more than 450 photos, some of which have never been shown before, from times when the “workers’ sport” from England became established around the mines of the Ruhr area.
While those mines have long since disappeared, football has prevailed. People like Olivier Kruschinski can be found in every city, rather than merely “at Schalke” and at Borussia Dortmund. Bochum and Bielefeld have them, and so do Leverkusen and Cologne. The cathedral and the 1. FC Köln, two central hubs in the Rhine metropolis, even come together at the start of every season: Thousands of FC fans have celebrated a church service before the first home game for several years now. Scarves and jerseys are explicitly part of the dress code in the cathedral on that day, and the club anthem being sung to organ accompaniment is a fixed item on the agenda. Many a prayer may centre around the next derby against Borussia Mönchengladbach then. That is when even cheerful Rhenish characters will become serious for a moment. Fans are loyal to their club in Düsseldorf, too, where Fortuna is struggling with promotion or relegation from season to season. They will not budge, be it in the regional or national league, and even though they are used to suffering for it. Even the bitterest defeat is almost forgotten at the latest when sharing a mug of beer at the pub or in the brewery.
Football in the pub
Football in NRW means playing, cheering, and tears not only in the big arenas, but on every street corner. More than 100 football stadiums can be found in the Ruhr area alone, from the district league to the regional league to the 1st and 2nd Bundesliga, from E-youth to the women’s national team. Countless of football pitches and gravel pits can be found here. The most important thing is that they have four corners and a goal on them. Some sport miniature format, as table football is the undisputed centre of attention in many a pub. A cold beer is the best way to discuss the latest football results and predictions in an expert atmosphere, be it in a pub, kiosk, or brewery. Even casual guests can experience a tangible feeling of very special belonging here. The Ruhr Fußball project can point to where the leather ball’s world can be experienced intensively, inviting to many different places and experiences around the ball, with stadiums and stand-up beer halls, graffiti, and street art, on foot or by bike.
Many more of such moments may be ahead in the summer of 2024, with Europe once again invited to visit friends here. At EURO 2024 ... in Dortmund, Gelsenkirchen, Düsseldorf, and Cologne. Other derby opponents will also be sitting, standing, and celebrating side by side and cheering on their team, the German national team, together then. They will flock to the pubs and bars, watch at home or at public viewings. After all, football is a bit like carnival: Anyone and everyone can join in, celebrate, and have a great time, no matter their prior expertise. Enthusiasm and passion are far more relevant than knowledge on the subject. That is how football works in NRW.
The ball never stays still here even after the final whistle - when it comes to football, NRW has many experience offerings in store at all times. The museums are making it possible to experience sports, games, and tradition up close, and stadiums are offering a glimpse behind the scenes on guided tours.