Besuch der alten dame.
The indignity is over for Hertha BSC. Their return to the Bundesliga after a one year stay in second division exile, where nasty away days to the uninspiring arenas that house the likes of Paderborn, Aue and Fürth had to be endured, albeit with minimum fuss. The title was won at a canter and with the exception of a couple of minor hiccups, no lasting scars were left. Meanwhile twenty two stops on the S-Bahn eastwards to the old eastern suburb of Köpenick, the red shirted ugly sister of the illustrious westerners, Union Berlin, finished eleventh; a sterling effort for one of the smaller teams in the league.
However, despite an otherwise unremarkable season, a mild peculiarity occurred; since reforming under their current name 1. FC Union Berlin in 1966 behind the iron curtain, the pair had never met in a competitive match; a record only eclipsed by FSV and Eintracht Frankfurt's forty-eight year itch finally being scratched earlier this month. The difference between the two Berlin clubs is vast in every sense. Hertha are traditionally richer in terms of both the paying public and the team itself, have an beautiful, famous stadium and regularly attract thirty to forty thousand fans albeit only half filling the arena. Based in the affluent, West Berlin district of Charlottenberg but with a fan base spreading far into the former east, it would be fair to say that their blue and white stripes have dominated the perception of Berlin sport
In comparison, Union are small fry. Potless and having never played in the Bundesliga, despite a UEFA Cup appearance in 2001, until recently the red and white Eisernen had languished quietly in the regionalised fourth tier of German football. The fates of the two clubs are oddly fitting to the political backgrounds that are inextricably linked to the pair, and comparisons of east and west will always be made: The former prosperity of West Berlin built upon apparently shaky foundations, threatened after long exile by the vibrant up and comers of the east.
Their stadium however, Stadion an der Alten Försterei, is an absolute joy to behold for any enthusiasts of standing, drinking and smoking on the terraces – a mutual interest group that encapsulates the majority of the German football public. Built rather bizarrely in the middle of a forest, the history of the place is a heartwarming tale. Renovated in 2008 - brick by brick - by fans who gave their time and effort to wheel sand, mix cement and attach plastic seats. It was upon such acts of community that East Berlin was built, and it represented a truly wonderful gesture in a footballing age of £100 tickets, boutique clubs and corporate boxes. Twenty miles to the west and seventy five years previously, the Olympiastadion was built by the Nazis for an Olympiad designed to promote the superiority of the Aryan race. While obviously no one is drawing comparisons between Hertha BSC and the third Reich (beside maybe the most die-hard of Union fans) it is understandably difficult to replicate the deep feeling of pride that resonates from the woods in Köpenick. The size and layout don't help matters. As seen in the 2006 World Cup final, the curious gate at one end of the ground, atop which Hitler observed the genius of Jesse Owens, breaks up the atmosphere and the running track distances fans from the players. However, an advantage of the running track is the creation of the Ostkurve, a showpiece of traditional European fan culture at its loudest and most colourful. Admission costs just 9€, and while the view is poor, the inhabitants care little; their exuberance a welcome distraction to the empty seats and gloomy malcontent in other areas of the stadium.
Whilst the number of differences between the two clubs grows the deeper one delves into the history books, at the beginning of last season they both had one thing in common: a place in the 2. Bundesliga. This made Berlin, with over three million inhabitants, the largest city in Europe without a top flight football team; another quirk adding spice to the encounters to follow. The home game finished in a tense 1-1 draw at the packed Alte Försterei towards the beginning of the season was shortly followed by the prompt sell-out of all tickets to the away game which was still five months away: a full twenty thousand in the away allocation either side of the marathon gate behind the goal.
So it came to pass then, that on 5 February 2011, Union Berlin made their first competitive visit to play their cross-city rivals at the Olympiastadion, on a cold, dry winter's day. For the first time in the season, the stadium was close to capacity: Seventy four thousand people, including twenty thousand visiting supporters prepared for local bragging rights to be put on the line. While it would appear that Union had nothing to lose, the tag of plucky underdogs was rejected by fans and management alike. At these sorts of games there will always be ramifications for defeat and every fan present had crossed fingers that they could walk into their office, school or in-laws sitting room without fear of ridicule. Derby day is always a special type of emotion, split between the aforementioned fear of failure and the desperate hope and daringness to dream of the euphoria that victory would bring.
It was a wonderful day for Union, but also for Berlin as a whole. The game was won 2-1 by the away side with two delightful goals, putting the Eisernen firmly into the public view for the first time in a long while. There was no fan violence and the police presence (surprisingly for Germany) was distinctly low key. It remains a fantastic advert for football in a city that isn't always synonymous with sport.
Union aren't everyone's cup of tea, or not everyone's beer, to translate directly from German, but nonetheless attract an interesting crowd; groundhoppers from all over Europe visit the truly unique stadium and stand among the ultras, whose stances against the pyrotechnic ban and overly aggressive policing are vocal and strongly supported. The support is strongly politicised, but polarised in its opinion. Like many German clubs there is a small faction (smaller than most others) to right-leaning tendencies, however the supporters pride themselves on their tolerant and liberal values.
Across the city, more unconventional methods are being employed to attract fans to the Olympiastadion, whose empty grey seats reflect the general apathy of the Berlin public; the “Hertha Facebook Fan Club” was an interesting step from the club, giving away free tickets and t-shirts through the social media giant, much to the ridicule of the Union fans. However the best way to attract fans to a club is through successes on the field, and since the re-birth in the Bundesliga, the crowds have come flooding back through the turnstiles.
The 2010-2011 2. Bundesliga season was extraordinary in many ways, and from a Berlin perspective, the entire derby experience was a one-off event. The omens appear, from the early season exchanges at least, that Hertha will flourish again the top tier, whereas Union appear more likely to teeter around the trap door to footballing obscurity than to mount a serious promotion charge. Failing a meeting in a cup competition, the chances of them playing each other in the near future seem slim. However, both appear to be content with their current place in the football world and the city's potential to become a major European football base may well yet be fulfilled.
Until then, particularly if you are a Unioner....Savour the memories.
Tommy George is a writer from Medway. He works for idealo and lives in Berlin, Germany, where he gives his analysis on both German and English lower league football. His hobbies include drinking, smoking and shouting at football players in English and of course auf Deutsch.