On the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall falling, COPA90 travelled to Germany’s capital to discover what makes Berlin football tick. The city has seen limited on-field success but, as we discover, Berlin’s football culture runs much deeper…
Sitting on a crooked wooden stool next to the pilsner and schnapps-stained bartop, a burly German man sporting bootcut jeans and a tight leather jacket leans across us before breaking into a soft chuckle.
His amusement stems from seeing his friend – a far burlier gentleman – frantically scratch away at a sticker on the bar’s steamy windowpane. The sticker, which is being so avidly defaced, bares the crest of Union Berlin. The text beneath it reads: ‘cunts’.
We find ourselves in the heart of old East Berlin, discussing the city’s football scene with fans of BFC Dynamo. The club was founded in 1966 under Soviet Communist ruling and was the favoured team of the German Democratic Republic’s secret police force: the Stasi.
The derogatory Union logo, now little more than a scruffy mess smeared across the face of the window, is not a one-off. The stickers are sold at Dynamo’s stadium on match days and act as a symbol of the entrenched hatred between the two clubs.
Union are known as the workers’ team, represented by a fanbase who opposed State ruling. Dynamo, on the other hand, are often portrayed by the media as the team of the Stasi. A team of Communists, that handpicked players at will from Frankfurt and Dresden in the mid-60s to build the best side East Germany has ever seen; one which won 10 consecutive league titles between 1979 and ‘88.
“Everything you see in Berlin today happens as a consequence of centuries of war, migration, politics and art.”
Jacob Sweetman, Founder of No Dice Magazine
Today, this perception of Dynamo is little more than a lazy stereotype. “Union were seen as the working-class team, with all the fans against the system, whereas Dynamo, in official meaning, were the team of the Stasi,” One Dynamo fan tells COPA90. “But some of the Dynamo supporters were even bigger enemies of the State than Union. They would chant against the Stasi, against the GDR, and would go to prison.”
Many Dynamo supporters were fervent fascists during the 1970s and ‘80s. Trapped under Soviet ruling, they rebelled by way of their Nazi ideology. These days, neo-Nazism only accounts for a tiny pocket of spectators who attend games, but it’s a stigma that has stained the club to its core.
“It’s a difficult situation,” the fan continues. “We know there were mistakes in the past, and a few things the media say about us are true, but it’s not true in recent years and they only focus on the bad things.”
The club is awash with contradictions. In this afternoon’s game alone we’ve witnessed far-right and leftist ultras standing and chanting together, banners of Family Guy’s Stewie Griffin – a cartoon you’d never have seen broadcast under Communist rule – and a welcoming atmosphere, worlds away from the club’s external image.
As we tuck into a bratwurst and some Glühwein, Dynamo double their lead. The scorer’s name? Lewandowski.
What’s immediately apparent is that nothing in Berlin is black and white. The city has been moulded and reformed more than any other in modern history and today mirrors the vast spectrum of German society better than anywhere else.
“Everything you see in Berlin today happens as a consequence of centuries of war, migration, politics and art,” Jacob Sweetman, Union fan and co-founder of German football publication, No Dice Magazine, explains to COPA90.
Arriving in Berlin, you’re instantly hit with a wave of culture. It’s a bit like New York’s cooler, younger brother: not as glamorous or clean, but carries a far more bohemian and urban vibe.
Everything reflects a strand of the city’s identity: the unapologetic architecture accompanied by its occupants’ discordant tone of voice; the leafy decor within bars that pays homage to the city’s forest; the Kuttes that fans don on match days which were originally inspired by Berlin’s biker scene.
They all tell stories from Berlin’s history. The popularity of veganism, for example, can be traced back to when meat was sent to frontline soldiers during the war, forcing families left back home to develop new recipes.
Berlin’s vibrant arts scene developed as a consequence of the 18th century Prussian Empire, when King Fredrick II built the city’s opera house. He was a talented composer and flautist who believed the arts should be accessible to all, not just the rich.
The city’s reputation as a European nightlife destination finds its roots in the Golden ‘20s, when citizens used to party until long after sunrise. Even the rise of techno music evolved in Berlin after the Wall fell, as East German squatters commandeered derelict buildings to form a new counterculture.
Berlin’s football is no different. The city’s two biggest teams may be Bundesliga sides, Hertha and Union, however, suggest to locals there’s an intense rivalry between the pair and you’ll be greeted with sighs and shrugs. That may well change over time but, for now, the fixture can’t hold a candle to the old Union-Dynamo clashes.
“It’s not a real rivalry. They’ve hardly ever met,” rants another Dynamo fan. “The real rivalry is Dynamo vs. Union. We have a history of 50-plus games against each other. Every time there was conflict in East Berlin, this was the game.”
Contests between Dynamo and Union in the years of the Berlin Wall were as embittered and heated as anywhere in Europe. If Union were awarded a free-kick, fans would wait until Dynamo had constructed their wall before symbolically chanting: “Die Mauer muss weg!” – “The Wall must come down!”
As for Hertha and Union, the clubs struck up a strong friendship during the years of the Wall, referring to each other as ‘Freunde hinter Stacheldraht’ – ‘friends behind barbed wire’. Many Hertha fans who found themselves trapped in East Berlin on the morning of the 13th August 1961 even turned their support towards Union.
But of course, it’s impossible to talk about Berlin’s football rivalries without mentioning Tennis Borussia Berlin, or TeBe for short. The West Berliners have enjoyed a period of animosity with all three clubs, starting with Hertha in the ‘70s, when both sides competed in the Bundesliga.
“We were incredibly hated in the late 1980s and ‘90s,” TeBe fan, Martin Endemann, tells COPA90. “Our leftist fanbase was particularly hated. Other clubs in Berlin were not so inclusive at the time.”
TeBe found themselves leading the charge for left-wing activism in Berlin football before the turn of the millennium. With the prevalence of so many hateful beliefs, TeBe decided to take a stand against discrimination of any kind.
“Many people from the emerging punk-rock scene went to TeBe games in the ‘70s. When you hear racist and anti-Semitic abuse at every game you start to realise there’s something wrong.”
TeBe eventually fell down the leagues in the noughties after a dodgy investment group who owned the club went bust and dragged the club down with it, forcing TeBe to file for insolvency. The club later regained their footing and found new, lower league rivals in the form of Union.
The rivalry between the pair was born from the East vs. West conflict. Union perceived TeBe to be pretentious West Berliners, while TeBe fans viewed Union supporters as violent and ill-mannered. Recent years have seen tense clashes between TeBe and Dynamo, as a result of the juxtaposing political views held by the two sets of fans.
Of all Berlin’s clubs, Hertha are the only ones to have competed regularly in the Bundesliga. The team won back-to-back league titles in the 1930s before Hitler’s seizure of power but have achieved little since – something that can be explained by both the state of post-war Berlin and Hertha’s over-eagerness to recapture fans.
“We might be poor, but we’re sexy nonetheless.”
Klaus Wowereit, former Mayor of Berlin
With Berlin separated from the rest of West Germany pre-unification, Hertha struggled to attract players. The city was some 100 miles from the Inner Germany border, making relocation a hard sell to players outside of the capital. To counteract this, Hertha entered into a series of underhand dealings, to the point where the word Hertha itself became a byword for ‘shady deals’ throughout the rest of Germany.
Renowned football journalist, Uli Hesse, even recounted stories of Hertha’s club treasurer – who also worked as an undertaker at the time – evading tax by hiding ostensibly sold tickets in his coffins.
Mad Ozark-style techniques aside, Hertha were eventually penalised for their part in a match-fixing scandal. The fallout from it left a stain on their reputation – something which was damaged further when an ill-advised PR campaign ran to encourage more fans to the imperious Olympiastadion.
Today, Hertha look to position themselves as a ‘team for all Berliners’. It’s a tricky task to accomplish; from the eastern working-class fringes of Kӧpernick, to the western affluence of Charlottenburg, modern Berlin is so diverse and regionalised. That said, the recent cash injection of €125m coupled with a new generation of Berliners growing up without the scarred memory of a divided city should help ambitions.
Berlin is not famous for footballing success, but you’re missing the point if that’s your definition of football culture. Berlin is football mad, with around 14 semi-professional and professional sides competing in the German football pyramid.
There are numerous Turkish and Balkan teams, a club called Tasmania Berlin – who, as the myth goes, were founded by poor Neuköllners locals who’d heard tales of the Australian island from sailors – and even a Jewish club, named Makkabi Berlin.
Each team represents a different dimension of Berlin society. There is no club that speaks for all of Berlin because each region has its own club, showcasing its own unique subculture.
“Hertha should be a football powerhouse. They are the flagship team in Germany’s largest city, in Europe’s richest country,” admits Sweetman. “But Berlin is a provincial town. There will never be one team that represents the city.”
Former Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, once famously proclaimed: “we might be poor, but we’re sexy nonetheless.” Through the lens of football, his words could not be more apparent.
Berlin does not have a Bayern or Dortmund, its trophy cabinets are not laden with silverware from years past, but success has never defined Berlin. It’s a city built on troubled history, regional identity and cultural significance, with a melting pot of football culture that wields the power to make any fan weak at the knees.