Friday 5 June 2020

A Whistle Stop Tour of Football in Berlin

Obviously, due to COVID-19 football is currently being played behind closed doors. But hopefully, things will soon get back to normal, travel restrictions will be removed, and supporters will be able to attend to matches again - at home and abroad. Whether it be in Berlin, as detailed in this piece, or anywhere else I'm sure we will all flock back the stadiums as soon as we are allowed. Think towards the future and think positive.

With a salient history, very few cities can rival, Berlin is a fascinating metropolis for a zillion and one reasons. Fascinating for not just the obvious but for so much more. You can very much include football in that too. The city's current two major clubs met recently in what because of Berlin's complicated history has been over the years a pretty rare derby matchup. After all, the two clubs once existed each in different countries and separated by a giant wall. The tale of these two sides and their missing rivalry is in itself a compelling story, but Berlin also has many other interesting footballing stories across what feels like an almost unlimited number of teams. Here is a whistle stop tour of some of the city's notable sides, including those two main rivals, and the intriguing tales they have to tell. This also includes three sides you've possibly never heard of who have all actually played Bundesliga football, one as recently as 1985.

Berlin is a city full of famous landmarks and one of them is the city's Olympiastadion (Olympic Stadium) which has been home of Hertha Berliner Sport-Club since 1963. This large full of character with a touch of modernisation athletics stadium has hosted various major events over the years, including Champions League and World Cup finals, but it was originally built by the Nazi regime for the 1936 summer Olympics. A stadium tour is a must for anyone visiting the city and it can honestly be said that the stadium has a very rich history that makes it arguably more famous than the club that plays there. Strangely, though, when I visited my English language tour guide had a very striking resemblance to Angela Merkel. Maybe she gives stadium tours as a welcome rest from running the country?

Named after a steamship one of the club's founders had once ridden with his dad, Hertha BSC, who play in the steamships colours of blue and white, are the number one club in what is one of Europe's major capital cities and have been regulars in the top flight for most of their life. Despite this fact, however, they have had a rather uneventful history. Two pre Bundesliga era German championships are the only major title successes the club has had with two DFB-Pokal final defeats in the 1970s the closest they've come to adding to that tally. There was a third cup final loss in 1993 but unbelievably this actually involved their reserve team. 

Reserve sides are no longer permitted in the DFB-Pokal but once upon a time they could qualify for the competition and some of the countries major clubs would see their reserve teams enter and play alongside their first team. This was still the case in 1992-93 where although Hertha's first team were knocked out in the round of 16, their reserve team were only halfway through their cup run. Hertha BSC Amateure, as they were then known, lost to top flight side Bayer 04 Leverkusen in the final having beaten another Bundesliga side in 1. FC Nürnberg along the way. Hertha BSC Amateure were the first and last reserve side to reach the cup final.

Despite having been regulars in the Bundesliga, Hertha have also had two short spells in the second tier in recent years and that is where they have come face to face with currently Berlin's second biggest club.

In 1989 the Berlin wall was opened for the first time since it was originally built in 1961 and those in the East were all of a sudden able to travel freely to the West of the city. These were surreal times and although, perhaps, not everyone realised immediately but communism in the East was beginning to collapse. Within a few years, the two sides of the city would be completely united as East and West Germany reunified as one nation again. Amongst this backdrop of change and new beginnings, Hertha BSC and 1. FC Union Berlin in 1990 met in a match that only a few years earlier would have been unthinkable. But as a city and indeed a country were coming back together so was their football. Although only a friendly match over 50,000 attended in what were largely joyous scenes.

Unfortunately, post reunification most East German clubs struggled and Union were no different. East German clubs were assimilated into the West German league structure but only two were granted a spot in the top flight with the rest given positions in the leagues below. East German clubs such as Union found the transformation from communism to capitalism rather tough. In this new world a lot of clubs struggled financially and in many cases saw their star players head west with dollar signs in their eyes, or should I say Deutschmarks.

After years in the wilderness, promotion to the 2. Bundesliga in 2009 saw Union become regulars in the second tier where in 2010 they eventually met Hertha for the first time in competative football post reuninication after the West Berliners had been relegated from the top flight. A 1-1 home draw was followed by a historic 2-1 win for Union at the Olympiastadion in front of a 74.000+ crowd that included around 20,000 away supporters from the East of the city. It was Hertha, however, who would be promoted come the end of the season although they would soon be back in the second tier and the pair met twice more two seasons later.

Situated in the Köpenick district of the city, Union Berlin's Stadion an der Alten Försterei really is, as the name suggests, the stadium in the forest. Situated a little off the beaten track you actually have to walk down cycle paths and woodland to get there. If heading for a nose around on a non match day without the hustle and bustle of thousands of supporters you will find yourself wondering where on earth you are a going because it's hard to believe that there could be a football ground here. When the club returned to the 2. Bundesliga in 2009 an army of fans helped redevelop the stadium to get it up to standard. Supporters even bled for the stadium by donating blood for which in Germany you receive payment and using that money to help cover rebuilding costs.

After nearly 30 years of plying their trade outside the top flight Union were finally promoted to the highest level in 2019. Later that year they defeated Hertha 1-0 at home thanks to a late goal in what was the first ever Bundesliga derby between the two sides. A DFB-Pokalfinale defeat in 2001 and the brief UEFA Cup campaign that followed aside, the club's post reunification history has been, as I've said, very unremarkable and very much overshadowed by their crosstown rivals. Having said that, albeit Hertha spent most of that same period in the top flight they never themselves actually reached any major heights.

Being overshadowed by city rivals is nothing new for Union, however. In the former league system of East Germany, there was another team from Berlin who dominated. Between 1979 and 1988 Berliner FC Dynamo, the team of the hated Stasi (secret police), won ten top flight DDR-Oberliga titles in a row whilst Union mostly struggled at the other end of the table and even spent periods in the second tier.

BFC Dynamo are a team that came about in the 1950s when East Germany's star side of that time Dynamo Dresden were moved to the capital East Berlin at the behest of the regime who felt the capital should have a winning team. But it wasn't till many years later, however, that they had large scale success with a side called Vorwärts Berlin, now based in Frankfurt (Oder), initially having the glory BFC Dynamo were supposed to secure for the city.

Dynamo Dresden recovered and were the country's star side for much of the 1970s before their counterparts from East Berlin went on their mammoth title winning streak with, as some claimed, arguably a little help from friendly referees and the support of the communist regime - something that made the club despised by many. But BFC Dynamo's dominance had seemingly come to an end by the time reunification came about and like their East Berlin neighbours 1. FC Union, and indeed most other East German clubs, they struggled in the new world that they had entered. Unlike Union, however, BFC Dynamo never have made it to the Bundesliga and currently sit in the fourth tier Regionalliga Nordost surviving on crowds of barely more than 1500 with a support that is nowadays interestingly renowned for their far right views. The club's Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark home which sits in the north east of the city does not look like it's changed much since the days of the Stasi. Alongside BFC Dynamo in the fourth tier are four fellow Berlin sides, five if you include Hertha's second team. 

VSG Altglienicke who currently groundshare with their ex Stasi neighbours were sat at the top of the division before the inforced COVID-19 lockdown. The club are currently on a high enjoying arguably the most successful period in their history having gone unnoticed for most of their past, even in their East German days. During the GDR era fellow East Berliners SV Lichtenberg 47, then known as Sportgruppe Lichtenberg-Nord, were for a long time one of the last private clubs that existed in East Berlin. The club's current name comes from the day in January 1990 when GDR citizens stormed the nearby Stasi headquarters across from Lichtenberg 47. Today those headquarter form what is now the Stasi museum which showcases a fascinating detailed history of East Germany's secret police. The club have always been minnows in German football both pre and post reunification. 

Formed in 2013 thanks to a merger between Lichterfelder FC and BFC Viktoria 1889, FC Viktoria 1889 Berlin have played in the fourth tier ever since. The club won the Berliner Landespokal (Berlin regional cup), which is open to lower league sides, in 2014 and again in 2018 to qualify for the main DFB-Pokal (German Cup) where on both occasions they lost in the first round to Eintracht Frankfurt and Arminia Bielefeld 2-0 and 1-0 respectively. BFC Dynamo have in recent years also had several Landespokal triumphs to their name and like Viktoria have fallen at the first hurdle in all their recent DFB-Pokal appearances. Viktoria are based in the west of the city near Charité which is one of Europe's largest university hospitals and dates back to the 1700s. There is a German Netflix drama series based around life at the hospital in the year 1888. Predecessors BFC Viktoria were actually twice German national champions in 1908 and 1911. 

Berliner Athletic Klub 07, usually shortened to Berliner AK 07, or sometimes BAK 07 or even just BAK, play at the Poststadion which is a 10,000 capacity athletics stadium in Moabit, West Berlin. The stadium can be accessed by walking through a charming park complete with family picnics and sets of tennis on nearby courts. Unfortunately, I remember the venue most for its heavy handed stewards on a visit a few years back where full pats downs, searched bags, and confiscated items were the order of the day for all home supporters. This seemed a bit over the top, especially as so many families and children were in attendance.

BAK's most famous moment of recent times came in 2012 when they defeated top flight side 1899 Hoffenheim 4-0 at home in the DFB-Pokal though the club were unable to make it past the second round. The club supposedly has a bit of a following amongst the Turkish community and a Turkish president though, aside from a few Turkish looking names on the teamsheet, this was not overly evident when I visited. Crowds at the stadium are low with this season's average attendance before the league came to a halt just 492. Having said that, this is also the case with most of the Berlin based clubs in the Regionalliga who themselves hardly fare any better with only BFC making it into quadruple figures.

Below those aforementioned Regionalliga sides that many might consider nobodies of German football, Berlin does boast three clubs who have actually played top flight Bundesliga football.

Tennis Borussia Berlin just missed out on promotion to the Bundesliga when it was created in 1963 and in the years after before they eventually did reach the top flight in 1974 only once finished outside the top three in the Regionalliga Berlin (fourth place). They only lasted one season in the Bundesliga before relegation to the newly created 2. Bundesliga Nord but were promoted back to the top flight at the first attempt. Again, the club only lasted one lone season at the top table and have sadly for themselves never made it back to the Bundesliga since. 

Based in Westend, West Berlin, and just a couple of miles from the Olympiastadion, which they used as a temporary home when in the top tier, the team were founded in 1902 as the delightfully named Berliner Tennis und Ping-Pong Gesellschaft Borussia. After their Bundesliga exploits, they drifted between the second and third tiers before dropping out of the 2. Bundesliga for the last time in 2000. A second straight relegation followed and the club have spent the years since moving between the fourth, fifth, and sixth tiers of the German league system.

The other two Berlin based clubs to have appeared in the Bundesliga are Tasmania Berlin and Blau-Weiß Berlin. The pair play in the south west of the city about 3 miles apart at rather small venues so like Tennis Borussia have both had to use the Olympiastadion as a temporary home at times. The two sides lasted only one season each in the top flight with one of them holding an unfortunate record.

When in 1965, Berlin's only Bundesliga side, Hertha BSC, had their license revoked and were forcibly relegated for breaking the league's player salary rules, the DFB, for cold war related political reasons, were uncomfortable about the idea of not having a Bundesliga team in the city. To resolve this issue SC Tasmania 1900 Berlin who had failed to gain promotion through the play-offs were given Hertha's place in the top flight and so began the worst season in Bundesliga history. Tasmania would win just two of their 34 league games losing 28 and ending the season with just eight points, some 14 behind the team directly above them.

In 1973 SC Tasmania 1900 Berlin went bankrupt and were reformed as SV Tasmania Berlin. Under their new guise, Tasmania's most successful period started in 1981 when promotion saw ten straight seasons in the third tier. More recently, seven straight seasons in sixth tier Berlin-Liga ended with promotion to the fifth tier NOFV-Oberliga Nord last season.

It is believed that the club's name comes from the fact the founders of the original club had been planning to move to Australia with Tasmania their preferred destination. The teams Werner-Seelenbinder-Sportpark home is situated barely five minutes from the iconic former Berlin Tempelhof Airport which closed in 2008. The place is now known as Tempelhofer Feld and used a recreational space it is, including the surrounding land, the largest inner city open space in the world.

This brings us nicely to Blau-Weiß 1890 Berlin, the only other club from Germany's capital to have played in the Bundesliga. After bouncing between the third and fourth tiers the club were in 1984 promoted to the 2. Bundesliga and two seasons later a second placed finish saw them move up to the top flight. Although the club managed to more than double Tasmania's points tally by finishing the season with 18 points they still finished bottom of the league and headed straight back to from where they had come. Mirroring Tasmania the club also went bankrupt a few years later and reformed as SpVg Blau-Weiß 90 Berlin. Since reformation, the club have moved back to their old Sportplatz an der Rathausstraße home which they had left in 1966 and back at this venue have mostly played in the lower echelons of Berlin football currently finding themselves in the Berlin Liga.

As for the rest, the list of football clubs in Berlin is seemingly endless. FC Spandau 06 who play in Berlin's seventh tier Landesliga Staffel 2 bear no relation to the 1980s new wave group Spandau Ballet whilst BFC Germania 1888 in the tenth tier Kreisliga B Staffel 5 are the oldest still active football club in the country. The city also boasts numerous ethnic clubs including Türkiyemspor, Türkspor 1965, Hilalspor, and BSV Al-Dersimspor. All four play in the Berlin-Liga and even more so than BAK 07 all four hail from within Berlin's large Turkish community. Another ethnic side, Croatian club SD Croatia Berlin play at the same level. Türkiyemspor's Willy Kressmann Stadion home sits just outside the Schöneberg district where rock star David Bowie for a time famously lived along with Iggy Pop whilst the Lilli-Henoch-Sportplatz home of Al-Dersimspor is barely a ten minute walk from the Hansa Studios where Bowie recorded his famous Heroes album. Also in the Berlin Liga are Jewish club TuS Makkabi Berlin. Under the rule of the Nazi's all Jewish clubs were dissolved, but Makkabi, with links to a much earlier club from before the Nazi era, were formed in 1970 well after Hitler's reign of terror had come to an end.

No doubt there will be people in the know screaming that I've missed out team x or team y, but with its own league system within the main German football pyramid Berlin has more teams than I care to know and it would take many more paragraphs to go through them all in detail so I won't delve any further. Besides, most of these unmentioned clubs have all played a very insignificant role within the history of German football and are probably of little interest to the reader anyway.

Finally, though, I must give a shout-out to a club who call themselves Reinickendorfer Füchse, at least that's what it says on my scarf, the internet refers to them as Füchse Berlin which translates as Berlin Foxes. When last in Berlin they were my only option for a Friday night football fix but an out of date club website lead me to the wrong ground. Thankfully there were two others who had made the same mistake and after introducing themselves we found our way to the correct venue via a delayed train that saw us miss the first half. The football team form part of a sports club known as Füchse Berlin Reinickendorf that includes a far more famous handball team who are the city's sole representatives in the country's Handball-Bundesliga. Their mostly unheard of football side currently play in the Berlin Liga, just not at the ground they tell you!

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