Schalke’s Bundesliga return revives Revierderby, arguably the biggest and most genuine rivalry in Germany

In this edition of his column, ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae dissects the organic attraction of the Revierderby, which returns on Saturday (9 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+ and ESPN2) after an absence of 18 months. Why Borussia Dortmund vs. Schalke 04 speaks for itself.

Railway stations are part of the living, breathing ritual of attending German football matches. As you wait to pack on to crowded local trains of interesting shapes and sizes, you’re exposed to the passion and sometimes over-the-top humour that accompanies the game at its most authentic.

It was standing at the Dortmund Hbf (“Hauptbahnhof” means “main station”) after a Germany-Scotland Euro qualifier in Dortmund in 2003 that I experienced one of the funniest such episodes. I got talking to a couple of Germany fans, and aware I was Scottish, they began intensely reflecting on the game with me, which Germany had won 2-1. But quickly and not very subtly, the conversation changed to the environment we were in, the bustling Ruhrpott or Revier — at one time the undisputed centre of European heavy industry — and its associated football culture.

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It emerged that one was a Borussia Dortmund fan while the other had devoted his life to his local team in nearby Gelsenkirchen, Schalke 04. Forget unity for one national team night. The rest of our chat was exclusively about the pair exchanging mutual insults delivered with only the merest hint of a smile.

There is a code name for the Revierderby and that is “Ludenscheid Nord versus Herne West.” Dortmund is north of Ludenscheid, while Gelsenkirchen is west of Herne. It’s a different way of saying: Don’t mention that team in my presence! There is no love for the other.

This derby has a magic all its own, and although some supporters might disagree, I’ve always felt since standing on the terraces at my first one, that it’s down to the ties that bind as much as the football traditions that separate the two sets of fans.

There is no religious or political divide between the two clubs or communities, merely a sporting quarrel stretching back to the 1920s, albeit a hotly disputed one. As the fixture grew and grew in stature through the decades, the one constant was that there was nothing artificial or contrived about Dortmund-Schalke, and workers in steel plants or who went down the coals mines together for a living could still vehemently disagree about football loyalties.

Unlike the large English cities with their multiple big clubs, their German equivalents mostly tend to revolve around one large football entity within a city. Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen are a mere 25 miles apart and there is little evidence of leaving one and arriving in the other, whether by train or car, given the heavily populated nature of the entire Ruhrgebiet. Yes, this is shared community, but with a decided edge.

The fixture has had its fair share of epic and memorable moments. One of them in 1969, featured a Schalke player, Friedel Rausch being bitten in the buttocks by a dog, a German shepherd called Rex.

When Hans Pirkner gave the royal blues the lead at Dortmund’s old Rote Erde Stadion, it sparked a crowd surge. Unsure of what to do, security staff literally let the dogs out and poor Rausch paid the ultimate price, suffering as he said “pain like hell.” However, after receiving a tetanus injection, he somehow completed the 90 minutes in a 1-1 draw — although he had to sleep on his stomach for several days afterwards.

Through the ’70s and ’80s and even into the ’90s, each club found itself in the wrong division for a spell, and the absence of the Revierderby certainly made the heart grow fonder. In 1991, after Schalke had been down for three years, they stunned a superior-on-paper Dortmund 5-2 at the Parkstadion. Always expect the unexpected in these tussles.

We must talk about the end of the 2006-07 season, when Schalke were finally in position to win their first league title since 1958. Of course it had to be Dortmund, despite little else to play for, who stopped them on the penultimate matchday, beating them 2-0 and ultimately allowing VfB Stuttgart to claim the Meisterschale. Needless to say, a generation of Dortmund supporters revelled in the occasion for a long time.

Then there have been comebacks, too, such as in Jurgen Klopp’s first Revierderby in 2008-09 when Dortmund erased a 3-0 deficit to level the game at the death thanks to an Alexander Frei penalty. But you can’t discuss Dortmund-Schalke history without referencing the November 2017 meeting.

Steffen Freund, who played for both clubs, was my co-commentator for the DFL world feed in Dortmund that day, and we could hardly believe it as BVB raced away to a 4-0 lead after just 25 minutes. A rout without precedent appeared on the cards, but Schalke stabilised and gradually began eating into the Schwarzgelben and their advantage.

A 4-1 scoreline through Guido Burgstaller became 4-2 thanks to Amine Harit. They couldn’t, could they? The atmosphere was shifting, and when Daniel Caligiuri reduced the arrears to 4-3 in the 86th minute and with Dortmund visibly nervous, the mood felt ripe for another Schalke goal. And it arrived four minutes into stoppage time, a Naldo header forever burned into Ruhrpott folklore.

As a commentator, you just try to feel these special moments. I intuitively shouted, “Naldo! This is why they call it the mother of all derbies.”

Come Saturday, 564 days will have passed since the last Revierderby, a function of Schalke’s first relegation in more than three decades. The past three meetings have all been Geisterspiele (“ghost games”) with no fans, or in one case with only 300 allowed due to the pandemic backdrop.

So if you’re ready to lose yourself in the frenzied atmosphere generated by 81,000 — including 7,000 in the away section — join us on ESPN2 or ESPN+, should you be in the USA. At the end of a week dominated by talk of incongruous, artificial creations such as all-star games, there’s nothing quite like meaningful football that’s real and raw and shaped by fans and communities themselves.