Enraged Schalke supporters who gathered outside the players’ entrance before Sunday’s match against Bayern Munich were in for a shock.
The blue-and-white clad army arrived early to let their former hero Manuel Neuer, now of Bayern, know exactly what they thought of him — but were instead diverted by a procession of Star Wars characters promoting a new DVD.
Their presence dampened a decidedly nasty atmosphere (a photo op with Darth Vader can do wonders for crowd control). And it helps that from the outside, the Veltins Arena looks more like an unappealing shopping mall than a football stadium.
But once inside, there was no holding back the pure hatred directed at the player Bayern bought from Schalke for €18m last summer: come kick off, there was only one star in the wars.
This was Neuer’s first visit to Gelsenkirchen as a Bayern player.
Deafening whistles and chants greeted his every touch and an original array of banners left even the most seasoned hacks a little uncomfortable in their press seats.
”Betray your origins for titles and gold. Even Judas had more honour,” blasted out one.
Had Neuer gazed up at the stands, that must have hurt.
”We regret the passing of M. Neuer, 2005-2011, resurrected as a characterless puppet,” read another.
Intelligent use of the language of Goethe, but coming two years after the suicide of the man Neuer replaced as German national keeper, a little insensitive. A selection of imagery saw the Bayern keeper depicted as streetwalker, farm animal or worse.
Players should expect a hard time when they return to former clubs, but not since Luis Figo had a pig’s head thrown at him at the Nou Camp have matters gone so far.
Schalke fans were baying for blood. And praying for a mistake that never came, as Bayern ran out easy 2-0 winners.
Neuer had nothing of note to do for the entire match. He may be a football Darth Vader for Schalke supporters, but had Princess Leia turned out between the sticks, her perfect doughnut hairstyle would have remained entirely intact.
Indeed, the real story to come out of this weekend wasn’t Neuer, but the outstanding display of his back four. In 10 matches this season, Bayern have conceded only once, a freak goal on the opening day of the Bundesliga campaign.
Neuer has gone 748 minutes since conceding, but has only had to save seven shots in the Bundesliga. The €19 million splashed out on defenders Jerome Boateng and Rafinha looks like money well spent.
Neuer did well to keep his cool before and after the match.
“Schalke supporters are very emotional,” he said. ”I knew that. I had got myself prepared for this. Winning the match was of the utmost importance to me. I don’t care if some people are feeling offended because of that.”
But Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes was appalled at the Schalke fans.
”Manuel did not deserve to get treated in that way. Several of those protests were crude and were blue. They went too far.”
Heynckes should not have been surprised.
Neuer was, after all, born and bred in Gelsenkirchen. He had his first training session at the club aged four and after a stint as a match day ball boy, joined the youth team at the age of 11. Neuer played more than 150 times for Schalke, still a member of one of the very fan clubs that now vilify him.
His love for Schalke ran deep and the tears he shed at the news conference announcing the departing from his boyhood club were not of the crocodile kind.
True, Neuer should have chosen his words better on arriving in Munich. Calling Bayern, known as FC Hollywood in Germany, the ”best club in the country” bristled with Schalke’s fiercely loyal, working-class fan base, even if it is patently true.
But despite Manchester United’s interest, there was only ever going to be one destination for the monoglot keeper: Munich.
Schalke fans have long regarded Bayern as the Dark Side of the Bundesliga and Neuer has now become their very own Darth Vader. But as Heynckes’ impressive team showed on Sunday, the Bayern Empire has a nasty habit of striking back.
The Bundesliga is back on Eurosport 2 on Friday. To kick off the weekend, Hamburg who this week fired coach Michael Oenning visit Stuttgart on Friday (20:30). On Saturday it’s Mainz v Dortmund(15h30) and Bayern Munich v Leverkusen(1830). We round off the action on Sunday with Cologne v Hoffenheim and Bremen v HerthaBerlin. Coverage in north and east Europe.