Football rivalries are often believed to be rooted in fundamental differences- ethnic, social, geographical or political- between two clubs. However, no rivalry in Europe better encapsulates the threat of an adversary so similar to oneself than the Revierderby.
‘Revierderby’ was initially a name given to a football match between any two clubs in the Ruhr district of Germany but is now a term that only refers to the passionate contest between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke. Such is the intensity of the rivalry between the two North Rhine-Westphalian giants that a local derby between other Ruhr-based teams is now called a ‘kleines Revierderby’, which translates to a ‘minor’ Revierderby.
The origin of the Revierderby
The rivalry between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, whose cities of Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen are separated by only about 32 kilometres, arose long before the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963.
Unlike most football rivalries, whose roots lay in aggressively different principles, the identities of the two Ruhr powerhouses were bound together with the same values. Both clubs were forged with the intention of becoming a true sporting representation of the working class that occupied the industrial heartland at the time. They shared the same blue-collar ideals and their fans travelled to each others’ cities for work, forming a kind of unity that is unusual for traditional adversaries.
The Rivierderby, therefore, began as a simple game between the steelworkers of Dortmund and the coal miners of Gelsenkirchen. The first recorded derby between the two sides took place in 1925 and saw Schalke register a 4-2 victory over BVB, thereby setting the tone for their 18-year-long dominance of the fixture.
The Royal Blues went on to win all their games against their Dortmund rivals in the years between 1925 and 1927, with the next encounter between the two teams coming only after the establishment of the Gauliga in 1936. They continued their domination in the 1930s and 1940s, winning 14 of their 16 games against the Black and Yellows, including a record 10-0 victory.
Schalke lifted six German league titles between 1934 and 1942 before Dortmund finally registered their first-ever victory over them in November 1943. However, the known catalyst of the famed Revierderby is BVB’s second win over Schalke, which was an engrossing clash in 1947, during which they established a 3-2 victory courtesy of a late comeback.
The victory sparked a series of derby wins for Dortmund, who were now announcing themselves as a club worthy of the bragging rights in the Ruhr valley. They went on to win three domestic titles between 1947 to 1963 as Schalke slowly became known as the underperforming side, having only won the league title in 1958- which is their last league crown to date.
The creation of the Bundesliga and the impact of the recession
The initial years of the Bundesliga, which was created in 1963, marked a dark period for both Borussia Dortmund and Schalke. The steel and coal industries in the Ruhr district suffered a gigantic collapse in the mid-1960s, leading to mass unemployment and economic ruin which impacted several aspects of society, including professional football.
It wasn’t long before the two dominant clubs of the region began finding themselves in more relegation dogfights than title races. Die Knappen, who were enduring varied struggles amid the crisis, were lucky to escape relegation in the 1964-65 season as the league was expanded to include 18 teams. Meanwhile, BVB may have won eight of their first ten derbies in the German top flight but the financial and social chaos affected them enough to get relegated in 1972.
Their frustrations on the pitch and the general predicament of the time facilitated the formation of a series of violent groups by fanatical supporters of the two Ruhr powerhouses. Schalke hooligans formed the Gelsenszene, one of the most violent groups in Germany, in 1979 before Dortmund’s own ruffians formed the fascist ‘Borussenfront’ in 1982 to combat their threat.
While Schalke enjoyed a brief period of success when Dortmund returned to the Bundesliga four years after their relegation, a difficult run saw the Gelsenkirchen club also get dropped to the second tier of German football in 1987.
Many believe that it was this prevailing atmosphere of despair, coupled with the burgeoning hooliganism, that transformed their good-natured rivalry into a more intensely-fought and hostile competition.
While the tension between both clubs has now moved away from extremist ideologies, their rivalry is still rooted in similar contempt and antipathy. To this day, the most loyal fans still refuse to utter the name of the other club and instead refer to them by their location from nearby towns. While Schalke are labelled ‘Herne-West’, Dortmund are called ‘Ludenscheid-Nord’ (Northern Ludenscheid).
The 1990s and Ruhr glory
The 1990s saw Borussia Dortmund overturn their fortunes and assert their dominance not only in the Ruhr valley but also in the country as a whole. The club won back-to-back Bundesliga titles in the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons before winning their only Champions League trophy in the 1996-97 edition of the competition with a 3-1 win over Juventus in the final.
Meanwhile, Schalke lifted the UEFA Cup in the same year after beating Inter Milan in the final, giving their own fans something to cheer about while also making sure that European glory made its way to both sides of the Revierderby divide.
BVB’s rise in German football and the emergence of other dominant forces like Bayern Munich and Borussia Monchengladbach, however, meant that the Dortmund giants stopped taking the Revierderby seriously. This is evident in the fact that they lost 15 consecutive derbies from May 1999 to May 2005, despite witnessing immense financial and technical growth in the same period.
The mother of derbies
Borussia Dortmund’s dominance was short-lived as they were driven to the brink of bankruptcy in 2005- a crisis that forced them to offload many players just to keep the club anchored. This plight coincided with one of the most gripping stages of their duel with Schalke, which resulted in the Revierderby even being broadcasted on free-to-air television.
During this time, Schalke emerged as the only Ruhr club who were capable of big achievements in the Bundesliga. In 2007, the Gelsenkirchen titans were positioned at the summit of the German top flight, a point clear of second-placed VfB Stuttgart, going into the final two games of the campaign. Everybody believed that history awaited them as they appeared destined to win their first Bundesliga title ever.
Die Knappen were scheduled to face Dortmund in the penultimate fixture of the season and a victory against their local adversaries was meant to be a poetic feather in the cap of a scintillating campaign.
The match is now considered the greatest modern derby for the BVB faithful as it saw the Black and Yellows, who were languishing in ninth place with nothing to play for in the Bundesliga, defeat their arch-rivals 2-0 to deny them their first league title since 1958. The fixture came to be known as ‘the mother of derbies’ and has been the subject of never-ending jibes against the Royal Blues.
On the final day of the season, Dortmund supporters famously hired aeroplanes to fly over Gelsenkirchen with banners that taunted Schalke with the words, “A whole life with no shield [league title] in your hands”. In addition, the fans sold merchandise to immortalise the title collapse and even held celebrations in 2008 to mark the fiftieth anniversary since their neighbours had won a league title.
A rivalry for the ages
There are very few rivalries in the world that can boast of having the rare blend of history, organic conflict and socio-geographical similarities that Dortmund and Schalke share. While some football rivalries in Germany are somewhat contrived, others- like the famed Der Klassiker- are highly entertaining but lack the historical and geographic significance that takes a rivalry to the next level.
What makes the Revierderby even more alluring is how unbelievably tight the fixture’s head-to-head record is. While the Black and Yellows have won 34 games against their neighbours, the Royal Blues have claimed 32 victories, with 30 fixtures ending in a draw.
All these qualities, coupled with the underlying respect for football and the level of fanaticism in the Ruhr district, make the Dortmund-Schalke feud the biggest and most impassioned rivalry in the German game, with feverish drama never too far from view.