“Schalke 04 are the club in the west. They put the Ruhr region on the footballing map.” – Ralph Piorr
Ever since the earliest days of the game, football and tactics were intertwined as a single entity. Football was fast becoming a battle of wits where the players were only the pawns and the pitch, the tessellated chess board. Tactics like 2-3-2-3 (Metodo), 3-2-2-3 (WM) and 2-3-5 (Pyramid) came to existence to support the metaphor. Austria was one of the countries in Europe where a number of tacticians put forth their stratagem to help the game evolve further.
It was Austrian Hugo Meisl who tweaked the 2-3-5 into a dynamic 2-3-1-4 with short and flat passing, which helped Austria earn continental recognition during the ‘30s. Their Wunderteam was tipped to win the World Cup of 1934 influenced by Meisl’s Danubian Whirl. Fellow Austrian Karl Rappan’s brainchild Verrou or Schweizer Riegel, helped Switzerland gain popularity with their limited resources, when the Swiss brigade defeated England in a friendly and later knocked Germany out of ‘38’s edition of the World Cup.
Enter Gustav Wieser, another Austrian on the block and a believer in Meisl’s vision of Danubian School of football. It was he who laid out the outlines of a brand of football with which Schalke became the bellwether of a nouvelle vague in Germany and German football savored its first taste of tactical idyll. The baroque playing style was known as Kreisel or Spinning Top.
Schalke appointed Wieser as the head coach in 1926-27 season where he stayed for three seasons, working on the blue print of his version of football where the verisimilitude with Meisl’s Schieberl was evident. In plane words, Kreisel is a cross between Danubian whirl and Scottish flat passing. The only difference remained that Austria embraced the embryonic tactical nous but Germany did not entertain Schalke’s tactical éclat on international front.
Kreisel could be described as the rudimentary form of tiki-taka, a one-touch, very quick, short and ground passing game. In this system, the team-mates used to maneuver into spaces all over the pitch when in possession and it is these favourable positions taken by the team-mates that determine where the next pass will be directed to, not the other way around where the player with the ball in his feet decides where to direct the next pass to.
This way there appeared to be a telepathic communication between the passer and the intended receiver, a communication the oppositions were never able to intercept, making them dizzy in their labyrinth; thus the name – Spinning Top. Schalke’s game was all about passing, movement off the ball to find an unmarked position to receive possession and to have the eye for a better placed team-mate. In the words of their then defender Hans Bornemann, “It was only when there was absolutely nobody left you could pass the ball to, that we finally put it into the net.”
To implement the concept, Wieser needed a pack of hard-working young talents who could run their hearts throughout to keep moving into pockets of spaces. And fortunately for Schalke, Wieser was able to conjure a team with a number of jeunesse dorée namely Ernst Kuzorra, Friedrich Szepan, Rudi Gellesch, Valentin Przybylski et al, who formed the core of a revolution that lasted more than a decade and only got stronger under the tutelage of Hans Schmidt at first and later under Otto Faist.
During the heydays of the Royal Blues, another interesting aspect was the reorganization of the league system under the authority of the Reich. At that time, in an attempt to regulate football in a more systematic way Gauligen was formed, where the top flight was divided into 16 regions known as Gaue. The representatives of the 16 Gaue were divided into four groups and the winner of each group would meet in the semifinal, and then to the final.
Schalke reached their first-ever national championship final in 1933 but lost 3-0 to Fortuna Düsseldorf. Düsseldorf had never won the championship again, but for Schalke it was just the beginning of the blue revolution. The team reached the final nine times since then, before the end of the war, winning it on six occasions.
The following year Schalke defeated Nürnberg in an epic final where Schalke’s talismanic duo Szepan and Kuzorra both scored to help them win their first-ever national championship. That was the start of a legacy and between ’34 and ’40 they’d won the championship five times with the exceptions in ’36 and ’38 when they were beaten by Nürnberg in semifinal and Hannover in final, respectively. In ’37, Schalke avenged the previous year’s semifinal defeat by beating Nürnberg in the final of the national championship. That year they also went on to win DFB-Pokal (then Tschammerpokal) which was introduced in ’35. By doing so, Schalke officially became the first ever double winners of Germany.
Their biggest ever triumph in terms of victory margin in the national championships came in the last final before war broke out, in ’39. Schalke thumped SK Admira Wien by 9-0 in a match where all their stars scored. Szepan, Kuzorra, Otto Tibulski and Adolf Urban scored once each and Ersnt Kalwitzki found the back of the net five times.
Schalke also won the Gauliga Westfalen (league of the district of Westphalia) 11 times between ’34 and ’44. The last of Schalke’s barn-burning success in the national championships came in ’42 when they rallied First Vienna FC 2-0 in the final. They also reached the final of the DFB-Pokal in that season, losing the final by 1-2 against Dresdner SC.
Just as Matthias Sindelar was the iris of Meisl’s tactical eye, iridule Fritz Szepan and Ernst Kuzorra were the rudiments fruit vert in Schalke’s Kreisel. Szepan, the leader of the pack was a versatile player who could feature as a center-half, box-to-box midfielder, as an inside-right as well as an inside-left. He had scored 234 goals for Schalke in 342 competitive games.
Szepan has been nominated in Schalke’s team of the century and was the creative force in the legendary Breslau Elf. His leadership skills and command over his team-mates made him earn respect even after he retired from the game as he was referred to as ‘Beckenbauer before the war’. In the words of former German captain Helmut Schön,
One from the gallery of great play-makers, not markedly pacy, but talented to make the game pacy. He knew how to play directly but also capable of great solos – all that while being strong enough defensively to have played as a stopper. A commander.
Szepan’s brother-in-law, Ernst Kuzorra, was termed as the best player ever to have donned the Blue shirt. The forward was most menacing in the inside-left position and was famous for his dribbling skills. Kuzorra had scored 265 goals for Schalke in 350 games officially. If unofficial games and friendlies are considered, legend has it that he had scored more than a 1000 goals in his career including scoring 14 goals in a single game. For Schalke fans, the most memorable moment came when Kuzorra scored the winning goal in Schalke’s historic national triumph in ‘34 against Nürnberg.
Kuzorra played the final match through the pain barrier of hernia. Once Szepan equalized for Schalke in the proverbial nick of time, the match was dragged to extra time. With few minutes from time, Kuzorra dribbled past a couple of defenders as if they were slalom poles and then slotted in at the far corner. Rumor has it that he lost consciousness soon afterwards, and by the time he woke up, Schalke had won their first national championship.
A decade-long success at the club level was enough for the national side coach to take note of Schalke’s system and emulate it to make German football a success in 1934’s edition. Unfortunately, Otto Nerz had his own ideas. An avid admirer of the WM formation, Nerz was not impressed with Schalke’s brand of football and was seemingly displeased with the attitude of Kuzorra and the apparent slowness of Szepan’s movement. Though he could not do away with Szepan’s versatility, experience and leadership qualities, he soon overlooked mercurial forward Kuzorra in the side at the expense of Otto Siffling (Waldhof Mannheim) and Edmund Conen (Saarbrücken).
Germany, however, with such a strong line-up did manage to put up its own style of football amidst the storm of Kreisel that shook the regional championships by its roots. In 1934’s World Cup, Germany, the dark horses, won big against Belgium in first round and Sweden in the quarter-final but in the semifinal was eliminated by the eventual runners-up, Czechoslovakia by a margin of 3-1. Germany finished third by beating the Wünderteam by 3-2. In fact, in the entire tournament, the third-place tie was the only game in the tournament where Nerz played Szepan in his preferred inside-left position. In other games, he restricted Szepan’s territory in the other half of the pitch as a stopper.
Nerz’s initial success soon glissaded as Germany was ousted in the second round of Berlin Summer Olympics in ’36 at the hands of Norway and as a consequence Nerz was asked to step down. It is debatable if Nerz’s decisions to overlook Schalke’s system and undermine their star players were good for Germany or not. However, today when you look back in retrospect at the sepia-tinted reels of yore, you can’t help but feel German football might have been richer with the assimilation of the Schalker Kreisel.