Raffael’s shot, struck low and hard, completed yet another impressive Borussia Mönchengladbach counter attack, the Brazilian’s ball wriggling under Bayern Munich goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to seal the March win.
The Bundesliga champion-elect was still 10 points clear at the top of the table, yet the vast majority of English-language articles overlooked Gladbach’s feat, instead focusing on Bayern: Neuer’s error for the first goal, the effect Arjen Robben’s early-game injury would have on the team, even pondering whether Gladbach coach Lucien Favre would be the one to take over from Pep Guardiola, 14 months down the line.
It’s a practice that was set in place long ago. Gladbach finds itself overshadowed, even deep in the heart of industrial Germany. Schalke 04 is on the side of history, the legendary club that defined the country back in the 1930s. Rival Borussia Dortmund is one of the few teams in recent years that’s managed to challenge the hegemony of Bayern, the 25-time champion. The two northwest German powers seem to feed off one another, their narratives interweaving, whether success is in sight or failure is imminent. They’re second fiddle to Bayern’s first chair, but their harmony is heard.
And so neighbor Borussia Mönchengladbach, perhaps Germany’s most successful club in the 1970s, is often forgotten.
Perhaps that made sense in the past. Since last appearing in the European Cup in 1978, Die Fohlen have been in a near-steady decline. But this is a team that’s been reviving itself over the past five years, a coach that utilized smart tactics to get his squad into third place, a club that’s wisely stockpiling youngsters to prepare for a future at the top of the league – all narratives soccer writers love. Yet Gladbach still finds itself overlooked by the majority of the world. There’s simply not space for another team from North Rhine-Westphalia to insert itself into the story.
The two stars on the Foals’ kits speak to the club’s five Bundesliga titles, second only to Bayern. Yet it’s that other Borussia, Dortmund, also with five titles, that’s more commonly recognized as a potential rival to the Bundesliga’s overlords. Schalke 04, holders of exactly zero Bundesliga titles, is also more commonly regarded as one of the country’s strongest clubs.
Compared to its neighbors slightly to the north, Gladbach lives a life in the shadows. The club is one of the best-supported in Germany. No one sneers at Gladbach or writes them off as a plastic club, as they do with Bayer Leverkusen, another neighbor and challenger. But in this era of modern soccer, that’s not enough. Teams need to shine in a global spotlight, but based on the attention given to Die Fohlen, they might as well not even exist.
Meanwhile, Schalke hasn’t won a first-division championship since 1958 – five years before the Bundesliga formed. It hasn’t lifted a German Cup in the past decade, it’s been nearly 20 years since it hoisted the UEFA Cup, and its 2011 semifinal appearance marks Schalke’s best Champions League run. Yet Schalke continues to be a club of legend. Its famous Schalker Kreisel (spinning top) style of play that bamboozled teams in the 1920s, its six titles earned from 1934-1942, its 11 seasons without a home defeat – all these mark Schalke as dominant, even when the side finishes sixth in the league.
The trouble with Schalke is that the rut it’s in is starting to look more like a pit, appropriate for its old mining region. The Royal Blues may have history, and they may even have money, but they’ve still failed to grasp what it takes to be a competitive professional club. Schalke almost seems to take for granted that a spectacular cock-up is in the making, but rather than learning from its Champions League meltdowns or its failures to find a coach that will make good use of individual quality (of course the conservative Roberto Di Matteo didn’t use the young-yet-talented Max Meyer), the club prefers to find scapegoats. As long as Schalke sticks with its stubborn sporting director, it won’t be a credible threat.
While the majority of media attention lands on Bayern Munich, everyone knows Schalke is supposed to be a top team. So when the squad team slips out of the Champion League places, it’s talked about. So, too, with Dortmund. BVB has been the only team to truly challenge Bayern in recent years, winning back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012, and following those up with second-place finishes the following two years. Its success may have come later than Schalke’s, but Dortmund has established itself as one of Germany’s most important clubs. So when it falls, as it did last season, it draws plenty of attention.
It’s likely life will return to normal for Dortmund. Despite the anticipated fire sale meant to happen this summer, the likes of İlkay Gündoğan, Mats Hummels and Marco Reus are all still with the club. New head coach Thomas Tuchel’s ability to quickly adapt his tactical approach should mean he’s able to get the most out of his talented players, players that often didn’t shine last season under Jürgen Klopp. It’s not to say BVB will instantly challenge Bayern, but it’s not hard to imagine it will wind up in the Champions League spots.
So that’s a spot to Bayern Munich, a spot to Dortmund, and – assuming the squad doesn’t fall off a cliff or lose Kevin De Bruyne, which would pretty much be the same thing – a spot for Wolfsburg, whose astute acquisitions and new financial strength leave it well positioned to consolidate the place it earned this spring. Schalke? Not so much. But there’s also Leverkusen, the club that asserted itself to the tune of five titles in the past two decades and a team that’s bound to look better in its second season under Roger Schmidt.
With such strong competition, Gladbach’s return to the top of the Bundesliga, to the Champions League, might be just a blip. But Die Fohlen cannot afford to let another 38 years pass before it gets another chance in Europe’s premier tournament.
Last season, this team was defined by its defense, one of the meanest in the league. While Gladbach’s defenders are undoubtedly consistently talented, their jobs will be made much more difficult now that young German international Christoph Kramer’s loan has ended and he’s heading back to Leverkusen. Though blessed with strong backups and an intelligent tactician in head coach Lucien Favre, the Champions League is likely to still have an impact on the Foals’ league play.
But with the way Gladbach has held on to the majority of its top players, and the assertiveness it’s shown in recruiting young talent and filling holes in its squad, fans shouldn’t worry too much about whether it’ll remain a top-four side. The real question is, if Borussia Mönchengladbach consolidates its Champions League position, will anyone outside the 55,000 packing the stadium each week notice? Or will the headlines be filled with Bayern’s title chase, Dortmund’s resurgence, and Schalke’s sinking ship?