Berlin: Galatasaray will be the away team at Schalke 04 in Tuesday’s Champions League last 16 second leg but Fatih Terim’s side can still expect plenty of support from Gelsenkirchen’s sizeable Turkish community.
The joke going around the west German city’s sports bars is that Schalke are the only Champions League team expected to play two away games in the last 16 and many Galatasaray fans will not have to travel far to the Veltins Arena.
Gelsenkirchen has around 18,000 Turks out of 250,000 inhabitants and the former industrial area of the Ruhr valley is home to a Turkish population of around 235,000.
After World War II, Germany encouraged foreign workers to come and settle, with many Turks who flocked to work in the Ruhr’s industry in the 1960s ending up staying, and a second generation was born on German soil.
When Schalke drew Istanbul’s Galatasaray in December for the Champions League’s first knock-out phase, many Turkish immigrants in the Ruhr rushed to snap up tickets with the match long-since sold out.
While many of Schalke’s Turkish community passionately support their local club in the Bundesliga, many still have an allegiance to Turkey and will be cheering on Gala on Tuesday after the first leg in Istanbul finished in a 1-1 draw.
One of the west German city’s favourite sons, Germany midfielder Mesut Ozil, was born and raised in Gelsenkirchen to Turkish parents and now plays for Real Madrid.
For five of the Galatasaray squad, the second leg will be a return to the country of their birth, including Turkey midfielder Hamit Altintop, who spent four seasons with Schalke.
“In the Ruhr, as a Turk, you do not necessarily need to know German,” admitted the 30-year-old Altintop.
“The driving school is in Turkish, the baker, the insurance salesman, the grocer all speak Turkish. Pretty much everyone in the neighbourhood does.”
Altintop left Schalke in 2007, spending four years at Bayern Munich and then a season with Real Madrid before joining Galatasaray last July.
Former Gelsenkirchen mayor Gerd Rehberg, who was Schalke’s president for 13 years before becoming honorary president, could be forgiven for split loyalties on Tuesday.
Having been approached by a club official nine years ago while on holiday in Turkey to help Gala try and buy Altintop from Schalke, Rehberg kept in touch and forged contacts with the Turkish league giants.
As a result, during the club’s centenary celebrations in 2005, he became the first foreigner to be made an honorary Galatasaray member.
“It’s hard to believe, but I’m damn popular in Istanbul,” the 77-year-old told German daily Die Welt.
He is still a prominent figure amongst Gelsenkirchen’s Turkish community, having helped immigrants to find flats and settle in the city, and says football can play a key role in helping foreigners join German society.
“Sport, especially football, can do much to help integration,” he said.