Small town in Germany ready for final countdown

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The Independent Online

The roll-call of recent European Cup final host cities is an impressive one, either in footballing or wider cultural terms. A look at the last four alone - Manchester, Glasgow, Milan and Paris - is a parade of evocative locations that is half fashion week and half football lore.

The roll-call of recent European Cup final host cities is an impressive one, either in footballing or wider cultural terms. A look at the last four alone - Manchester, Glasgow, Milan and Paris - is a parade of evocative locations that is half fashion week and half football lore.

Tonight a new venue will be added to that élite list, albeit one that has to struggle slightly harder to grab the attention. However, dig a little deeper and you find that Gelsenkirchen, population 270,000 and in the midst of what was north Germany's mining community, has earned its right to host European football's biggest club night.

The city is the home of Schalke 04, who are not the best football side in the Ruhr valley, let alone Germany, and yet with their three-year-old Arena AufSchalke they have a stadium, and not to mention fans, who will do justice to the grand occasion tonight.

Arguably not since the 1991 European Cup final was held in Bari has Uefa's showpiece club match taken place in such an apparently inauspicious location, but their San Nicola stadium had impressed people during the previous year's World Cup.

This time around, the AufSchalke has won the opportunity to stage this clash on the back of the 60,000 capacity attendance at every home game. Present are some of Germany's most dedicated fans who enjoy their football under a retractable roof that can open or close in 30 minutes and if they get there early they can see the pitch being moved into place as well, a process that takes six hours.

Those supporters from the coal mining district can trace their line right back to the birth of the club exactly 100 years ago, although what the founding chairman Heinrich Hilgert, a weighman at the local colliery, would have made of the centenary celebrations two weeks ago is anyone's guess. Inside the €180m (£120m) stadium, built for hosting concerts as much as football, the "eccentric" British pop band Right Said Fred were asked to provide the entertainment.

Yet not everyone has been so impressed with the place. Given its reputation as a city not blessed with stunning architecture or sights, the club's latest signing, the Brazilian, Ailton criticised it even before officially becoming a Schalke player. The striker said: "Everything I've heard about Gelsenkirchen up until now is a disaster. It's not supposed to be particularly nice and young people apparently have few opportunities to have fun." Ailton finished this season by winning the championship with Werder Bremen but agreed to join Schalke last autumn on a free transfer. Wages about two-and-a-half times better than those he was on with Bremen should at least ease the drop from Champions' League football to the InterToto Cup, which Schalke have entered.

Ailton later issued a climbdown, saying he, "did not want to offend anyone," although his reception next season should be interesting from fans of a club that once had a pub as its headquarters.

Yet Schalke's older supporters are used to scandal. At the club that is one of Germany's most respected if not most successful, seven players were found to have taken bribes of DM2,300 to lose a league match in 1971, leading to bans that lasted for three years. At least these days money is not a problem for fans, as tickets are among the lowest in the country, costing £10 on average for a view that is perfect from anywhere within the stadium.

Seeing the European Cup handed over tonight will rekindle memories of Schalke's own glory in continental competition. While they have not won the league title since 1958, they at least savoured victory in the Uefa Cup seven years ago. Underdogs against Internazionale, they beat the Italians on penalties in San Siro to cap a remarkable fortnight that also saw their local rivals Borussia Dortmund beat Juventus in the Champions' League.

Such are the tight links between club and fans that they have got together and even organised a car pool to alleviate traffic around the ground. Uefa may soon beat a path back to the AufSchalke.

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