But they have a football club that lives and breathes the city it is in and is a testament, in changing times, to the enduring power of its fans.
The club motto is Wir Leben Dich - "We Live You."
Schalke is probably Germany's most popular club for the simple fact that while Bayern Munich is larger, everybody who isn't a Bayern fan in Germany invariably hates Bayern. About Schalke it is easier to be neutral - though befitting its unique status in the scheme of German football history (and many things about Schalke are unique) they are one of the two clubs at the centre of the Bundesliga's most bitter rivalry; the Revierderby with Borussia Dortmund. Recently, it was said that Schalke cares more about beating Borussia Dortmund than winning the league.
That's good, because they haven't recently - won the Bundesliga, that is. In fact, they've never won it. Germany is unique for its outstanding achievement of winning the World Cup in 1954 without a professional league. Schalke was once banned, in fact, for paying its players more than the pittance the strictly amateur league allowed. The Bundesliga was formed in 1963. Schalke last won the championship in 1958.
But they did win the last Revierderby in November - beware of asking any Schalke fan to recount the glorious triumph after a few beers. And don't ask about the one they lost last season, which was such a pity when you consider the effort the fans put in. A group of them had poured 11 litres of pigs' blood (the figure was, in typical German fashion, very precisely reported in the press) over the away-entrance in an elaborate voodoo ritual before the game - sadly, to no avail!
Schalke's fans are famous. They are famous for being fully paid up members of their club - 100,000 of them. They also own the club and have considerable influence over the way it is run and the way in which it caters to them, the owners. The fans even have board representatives with the power to veto any transfer over 300,000 Euros. Attempts to remove the power of these representatives, or sack the fan-liaison officer, have generally ended badly for the man responsible. Shortly before their epic Champions League quarter-final against holders Inter Milan in 2011 (featuring Real Madrid legend Raúl, and which they won, in rather flamboyant fashion) the man who go them to that stage of the Champions League was sacked for falling afoul of the support. Felix Magath never quite understood what he was up against.
7000 away fans regularly travel on game-day in large, boisterous and generally good-humoured fashion. The club's preoccupation with the complete fan-experience is legendary, even by Bundesliga standards. In a league of family-friendly stadiums, relatively cheap ticketing - with safe-terracing, cheap food, and nice beer - Schalke still stands out. Your average season ticket costs 300 Euros. It also includes (again, common practice) the price of train fare to the ground - just show your ticket to the train conductor. Tickets are also easily got on the day. Schalke, like all Bundesliga clubs, reserves a large number for those dropping in. Expect to pay about 15 Euros for a Bundesliga game.
When Galatasaray's fans were caught tunneling into the Veltins Arena last year it was bizarrely appropriate somehow. As though two insanely loyal and committed fan-cultures had collided in one place. If there's one set of fans that understands the impulse to grab a shovel and start digging to be nearer their idols, it would be Schalke's.
But that's hardly necessary. Want to spend additional time near the players outside game-time? Just collect the schedule for training at the club shop. Fans are invited and encouraged to drop in. It's one way the club feels it can remain connected to the support and feel the love of the community it is in.
The stadium is the Veltins Arena - appropriately enough for a club like Schalke, the sponsors are a local beer company. The team is further sponsored by Gazprom, the multinational who are also Champions League sponsors. This highlights that although the club has many traditional values and an old-fashioned preoccupation with the actual fans in the actual stadium, it has made the transition from local club to massive international corporation very smoothly. Schalke is usually in the top 15 of Forbes' list of richest clubs in the world.
More on Schalke 04
More on Schalke 04
And while they haven't won the Bundesliga ever, and no championship since 1958, they have lately been the perennial bridesmaids. The club's glory days were in the 1930s, when the team went 5 years unbeaten and won a series of titles over the course of that decade. In the early years of this century (2001, 2002, 2011) the team has won the Bundesliga Pokal several times, has played regular Champions League football (2004-05, 2005-06, 2007-08, 2010-11, 2012-13) and has often placed second in the Bundesliga to another team they have a rivalry with - Bayern Munich.
The Arena itself is odd, but in a strangely appropriate way when one considers the community in which it is built. It faces in the wrong direction - northeast to southwest. That's because the old coal-mines run under the foundations. If the stadium were to face the traditional north-south the foundations would be unstable and the pitch would shift. That would never do for a club that prides itself on the high quality of its facilities.
Unsurprisingly, the club has no difficulty filling its stadium. Even in a now-depressed area (unemployment at 20%) the affection the club is held in and the deliberately cheap tickets mean that fans come on game-day and the place is a regular sell-out.
Real Madrid's Raúl enjoyed his two years at Schalke - once famously leaping into the crowd to sing chants (Schalke fans have many, many chants) and join in fan-rituals after the quarter-final second leg in 2011 against Inter Milan. He found the fans very non-judgmental - a crowd happy to applaud effort as much as wins. They loved him as devotedly as their home-grown players - referring to him on the street as "Señor Raúl."
Real Madrid are likely to enjoy themselves in a happy and boisterous stadium on Wednesday.
110 years of Schalke History - In Brief
- Schalke's full name is FC Schalke 04. The team was formed in 1904 as a football club. Like many early footballers, the players struggled to gain membership within their local club of gymnasts. When they were finally allowed to join, they changed the name from Westfalia Schalke to Gelsenkirchen-Schalke. In 1924 they split from the gymnasts again, absconded with the chairman, and changed the name once more: to FC Schalke 04, a nod to their history.
- The team was once fined for paying the players too much in Germany's strictly amateur system before 1963.
- All the team's championship wins were before the creation of the Bundesliga. They won the league in 1934, 1935, 1937, 1939, 1940, 1942 and 1958. They went 5 years unbeaten in the 1930s.
- For many years, the players were coal-miners or came from families earning a livelihood working in the coalmines.
- The club nickname is "The Royal Blues" and the club strip is blue and white. The club adopted the colours after reforming in 1924.
- Schalke's biggest European moment was in 1997. They won the UEFA Cup against Inter Milan. Borussia Dortmund won the Champions League the same year, but only cruelly tactless people ever bring this up.
- The team once broke the Bundesliga Pokal in 2002 during the victory celebrations. The manager, Rudi Assauer, was the original Sergio Ramos. He dropped it from the top of the bus.
- For reasons nobody is clear on, Schalke fans and Nuremberg fans get along really well. The fans are friendly, enjoy travelling to each other's stadiums, and celebrate together no matter which team wins.
- If you care to sing along with the fans here's a YouTube clip of their official club song: