Football in Berlin is complicated. But you’d probably expect that from a city that has been the capital of two countries and indeed was divided between two countries itself. Not many cities can claim that.
Earlier this month I went there on a city break, keen to experience one of Europe’s most iconic cities for myself. In between touring round museums and historic monuments, photographing the Brandenburg Gate at sunset, a day trip to Potsdam and lots of currywurst, I managed to take a look at two clubs which represent the duality of football in Berlin. The Wall had a major impact on the development of football in the city and even almost 30 years after it fell, its influence is still felt.
The West: Hertha and the Olympiastadion
First up, I visited the Olympiastadion, home of Berlin’s most popular club, Hertha BSC. In its original incarnation, it was the centrepiece of the 1936 Olympics, which the Nazi regime attempted to hijack for propaganda purposes, only to end up looking embarrassed as the African-American athlete Jesse Owens won four Golds and emerged as the undisputed star of the games. Years later the stadium was rebuilt as part of Germany’s hosting of the 2006 World Cup and was the scene of yet more controversy as Zinedine Zidane’s final act of his illustrious playing career was to leave an imprint of his forehead on Marco Materazzi’s chest in a dramatic final, eventually won by Italy on penalties.
Hertha have long been Berlin’s biggest team, but throughout the Cold War, their location left them in a difficult position. Based in the western part of the city, they were sealed off from East Germany by the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and equally, a large proportion of their fanbase ended up on the wrong side of the wall. Belonging to a Hertha Supporters Club in East Berlin was against the law and anyone who did could expect to find themselves under observation by the secret police, the notorious Stasi. This obvious disadvantage, combined with a long history of financial mismanagement and off the pitch controversies, meant Hertha never quite managed to rise to the top of German football, with only a couple of victories in the now-discontinued League Cup to add to their two championships won in the 1930’s.
Sadly, the Bundesliga season hadn’t got underway when I visited, but I was able to take a walk round the stadium, imagining the noise that would be generated when it is full, and explore the Olympic Park.
It’s impossible to come to the Olympiastadion and not feel awed by the history of it all. The road up to the iconic gates bearing the Olympic Rings was quiet, bar a couple of other tourists taking pictures, but I could picture it as a hive of activity on match day, filled with merchandise stalls, beer tents, food vendors and thousands of blue and white-bedecked Hertha fans, ready to roar their team on to victory.
The open end of the stadium retains the original Olympic cauldron, where the flame burned throughout the 1936 games, as well as plaques recording the victors of those games, which serves as a reminder of how small the Olympics were back then (featuring 129 events in 19 sports, compared to 308 in 28 sports last summer in Rio) and in particular, the low levels of female participation in those days.
The East: BFC Dynamo
So with Hertha not in action, I had to head east for some action in Berlin. Looking through online fixture lists, I found a lot of lower league games scheduled for that week, but one name instantly stood out, that of BFC Dynamo.
Dynamo were the old East Germany’s most successful side and consequently, its most hated. Now when a team is successful, it’s not uncommon for opposing fans to cry foul play, that the big clubs get more help from the government or FA and that they benefit from favourable referees. Well, in Dynamo’s case this was exactly what happened…being run by the head of the Stasi will certainly open doors for you.
Top players from rivals were coerced into moving to Dynamo, including one bizarre occasion when the entire squad of rivals Dynamo Dresden was moved to the capital, and Dynamo won ten Oberliga titles in a row between 1979 and 1988, but not without controversy. Reports from the time talk of games being won thanks to contentious late penalties, blatantly offside goals, or opponents weakened by having key players sent off or suspended the week before they were due to face Dynamo. Their glory days were already fading by the time the Wall came down and spelt the end of both communist rule and East Germany as a separate entity.
Since reunification, they’ve floated around the third, fourth and fifth tiers of German football, changed their name to FC Berlin and then back to BFC Dynamo and flirted with bankruptcy.
Dynamo’s current home ground, the Friedrich Ludwig Jahn Sportpark, like the Olympiastadion, is the centre of a busy multi-sport complex. On my way towards the stadium, I walked past hockey pitches, tennis and beach volleyball courts and numerous joggers making their way round the grounds.
That’s where the comparison ends really, the main stadium lacking the grandeur of its Western counterpart with a sparse facade, featuring no mention of the club name or logo, and looking more like a council office.
Once inside, it’s much more pleasant, although the 1,468 supporters were vastly outnumbered by swathes of empty red, yellow and green seats. They did announce during the game that 12,000 tickets had been sold for the forthcoming visit of Schalke 04 in the DFB Pokal, but there was no such glamour for me, I was there to see them take on rather less well-known opposition in the shape of Wacker Nordhausen in a fourth division match.
With plenty of time to spare before kick-off, I was able to explore what was going on around the ground, chiefly the extremely large merchandise tent and the numerous barbecues, roasting sausages (of course), burgers, lumps of steak and more besides. Even though I’d eaten before getting the U-Bahn to the ground, the smell made it impossible to resist and at €2,50, I considered it money well spent and definitely a step up from the food available at most big Spanish grounds.
The ground itself was fairly pleasant, although the presence of an athletics track meant I always felt miles away from action on the far side. The lack of cover was fine on a balmy August evening, but certainly wouldn’t be as agreeable on a wet and windy winter night.
Amongst the home fans there were plenty of old East German flags, banners bearing the club’s Communist era logo (including one which bizarrely featured the slogan “Eating Babies” in English) and reminding everyone present of those 10 consecutive Oberliga titles. Unfortunately one of the constants of Dynamo’s existence since reunification has been that their hardcore support has attracted an unpleasant far-right element, somewhat ironic for the former Communist Secret Police side. But fortunately this element wasn’t really in evidence when I visited.
Singing was largely limited to rousing chants of “Dy-na-mo!” when the home side went on the attack or won a corner. Which they did quite frequently to no avail. Although the first half had seen some reasonably bright attacking play from both sides, the second half was a long slog towards an inevitable 0-0. Oh well, at least the sausages were good!
Where now for Fußall in Berlin?
Football in Berlin these days is definitely a tale of the haves and have-nots. Hertha, after a period of yo-yoing between the top two tiers, are now established as a top fight side again. Alas in Berlin’s myriad tourist shops, their merchandise is often swamped by that of Borussia Dortmund and particularly, Bayern Munich, the two modern-day powerhouses of the Bundesliga.
As impressive as the Olympiastadion is, Hertha rarely fill it and the club have announced plans to build a smaller, football-specific stadium in the Olympic Park by 2025, when their lease on the old stadium runs out.
The decline of Dynamo is parallel to the decline in East German football in general. After reunification, East German clubs simply couldn’t compete with the money on offer from western clubs and the constant drain of talent compromised their competitiveness. Even talented young players, most notably Michael Ballack and Toni Kroos, moved west at a young age to continue their footballing education.
These days RB Leipzig, the only eastern club in the Bundesliga, is one which didn’t even exist when the wall came down, and is reviled across Germany as a symbol of the increasing commercialisation of the sport.
Another East Berlin side, Union Berlin have established themselves in the second tier in recent years (they would eventually earn promotion to the Bundesliga in 2019) but with the majority of the city’s clubs competing way down the German football pyramid, it looks like Hertha will remain Berlin’s standard bearers for the foreseeable future.
(BFC Dynamo v Wacker Nordhausen – A Season in Pictures can be found here.)