Football in Berlin is a microcosm of the ethnic, social, political, and historical dystopia that was Germany’s 20th century. This became abundantly clear to me on a particularly “affected” Saturday morning during a backpacking holiday in Berlin in May 2011. A lower-tier football match on the day after a pub crawl seemed like a great idea at the time – especially after my travelling companion Michael pointed out that we would be watching “the Stasi team”. DDR legends Dynamo Berlin (now playing under the name Berliner FC Dynamo after a couple of post-unification re-brandings) was appearing in a derby game in what we worked out was the German 5th tier (the NOFV-Oberliga Nord). We weren’t quite sure what to expect from the supporter base of the DDR (East German) Powerhouse and personal play-thing of Stasi boss Erich Mielke. Nostalgic East Berliners? Hipsters who had gentrified Prenzlauer Berg? And what of the experience served up by home club, the obliquely named West Berliner club Tennis Borussia Berlin?

Our train journey from the east toward the Mommsenstadion (just outside Charlottenberg, and what I later learned is the largest stadium in the 5th tier) started poorly. Michael had no memory of the Fanta and Kebab he consumed after the pub crawl notably ended, and was looking for clues to the origin of the orange colouring in the toilet bowl. Coffee helped, and after a couple of stops we started to perk up for what presented as a good contest. Michael had played football at a reasonably high level in Melbourne, and we figured the German 5th tier would be something akin to the state level back home. It was around then that we started noticing the swelling numbers of skinheads boarding our train in maroon Dynamo Berlin shirts.

Surely this was an aberration, we theorised. How could the darling of the communist East be followed by the far right? It was too much antithetical ideology to compute on no sleep and a virulent hangover. But sure enough our enthusiasm dampened as the train approached the Mommsenstadion full of skinheads in maroon. There were no Tennis Berlin fans in sight – an observation complicated by having no idea what a Tennis Berlin fan would look like.

As we alighted the train it was clear that we had accidentally stepped on a cultural landmine. What we thought would be a leisurely hit out between two semi-pro teams was actually a fierce contest over identity politics. The scores of riot police that met us and the swarm of Dynamo skinheads provided a cocktail of comfort and deep terror. We entered the away supporters section and were aggressively frisked at the gate, which triggered a typically Australian way of coping with awkward situations; with a joke. My remark “this is the closest thing to sex I’ve experienced on this trip” received a typically German response: bone chilling silence. Once inside we quickly separated ourselves from the skinhead throng and sat behind the goals and as close to the riot police that we could. 

Safely nestled in our iron embrace we sat back and observed. To our amazement the home club, Tennis Borussia Berlin, or “TeBe” as they are affectionately called, seemed to be a beacon for the LGBTI community. Their name also suggested a rapport with the Tennis community, but that connection wasn’t as overt inside the Mommenstadion. Research conducted since also highlights the need for riot police, but at the time we just figured that skinheads wouldn’t be so open-minded to supporters of an LGBTI club as, say, Schalke and Nürnberg supporters are with each other.

The DJ at the Mommsenstadion seemed to be alive to the conflict, spinning before the match “The KKK Took My Baby Away” by the Ramones and Camper Van Beethoven’s “Take the Skinheads Bowling” over the PA. After a while it was clear that the subtle digs at the Dynamo fans weren’t really bothering them, so I plucked up the courage to walk through the Dynamo fans for some hair of the dog.

Getting up close and personal exposed two fascinating insights into the Berlin (or at least Dynamo) variety of skinhead. Firstly I’m pretty sure the concession stand was only being bothered for those shandy beer-hybrids that Germans seem to like. I say “pretty sure” as my German is non-existent, and this particular concession stand employee wasn’t interested in meeting me half way. She default mixed me my shandies and took my Euros. I walked back with my hands full, disappointed that my beer was tempered with lemonade, and thoroughly confused why this alcoholic abomination was being embraced by skinheads. These Dynamo fans were definitely dispelling the image of the hard drinking skinhead we have in Australia. The other odd feature to these skinheads was the predominance of what we call “bumbags” (or “fanny packs” as they’re called in the US). Nearly every skinhead was wearing one – indeed the standard uniform was: Dynamo jersey, cut-off jeans (it was a warm day) and black bumbag. It’s an image that still scars. If these really were skinheads in the alt-right ideological sense, they certainly had a more sensible and practical bent to their style.

Sadly for western ideology the skinhead team beat the gay and lesbian team 2-0, with both Dynamo goals coming in the second half from some muscular forward play by Dynamo’s number 9. It was basic football, but effective. We left the stadium with a couple of regrets: consuming the shandy (which basically does not exist in Australia), and not walking around to the home section and the grandstand with fans we might have wanted to mix with.

That experience was a symbolic introduction to football in Berlin: there was a bit of everything, and although it wasn’t an elite standard, it was a lot of fun. Since the formation of the (West German) Bundesliga in 1963 no Berlin team has won the league, and the most successful club – Hertha BSC – has yo-yoed between Champions League qualifying (they finished 3rd in 98-99) and relegation to 2. Bundesliga and nearly broke.

Other West Berlin teams have also struggled to make inroads in the Bundesliga. When they have been promoted they have had pretty inglorious times in the top flight. 3 of the 5 worst performed Bundesliga clubs of all time (by winning percentage) come from West Berlin – including TeBe who despite their current ignominious position in the 5th tier, had 2 seasons in the Bundlesliga in the 70s, but won only 16% of their matches and were relegated after each season. Another Berlin club, Blau-Weiß 90 Berlin, had one terrible season in ‘86-87, winning only 9%, and went bankrupt 5 years later. Hertha’s relatively low 36% seems herculean in comparison.

The worst Bundesliga record is held by the now defunct SC Tasmania 1990 Berlin (although there is an incarnation of the club in the Berlin-liga, the 6th tier). From the eye-catching name (to Australian eyes at least) to their famously poor only season in the Bundesliga (in 1965-66), Tasmania Berlin have become synonymous in Germany for failure. Their 5.88% winning percentage and 10 points from 34 games is now invoked by opposing fans facing the Bundesliga season’s worst team.

Berlin’s genesis as a football city wasn’t quite as humble as their latter record suggests. Hertha were a powerhouse of the early German Championships – which was a sort-of representative “champions league” of the winners of each regional league – winning it in 1930 and 1931 after 4 consecutive runners-up positions. Viktoria Berlin, now known as “FC Viktoria 1889 Berlin” and competing in the 4th tier, were also active players in the early German championships competing in 4 finals between 1907 and 1911. Berlin was an active player in pre-war German football, but the momentum and investment into football was interrupted savagely by the rise to power of the NSDA (the Nazis), who radically disrupted both the structure and nature of football in Germany – most notably for clubs like TeBe.

TeBe’s story is emblematic of the idealism, interruption and destruction in Berlin in the 20th century. But before we get into that, let’s clear up the matter of the name. The club was the coming-together of “Berliner Tennis-und ping-pong-Gesellschaft” (a tennis club) and “Kameradschaftliche Vereinigung Borussia”; a union which then quickly decided to get into football. And indeed it was fortuitous for German football, as TeBe can lay claim to have produced the first two German National team managers, including the exhalted Sepp Herberger; the mastermind of the 1954 World Cup victory over the Hungarian Mighty Magyars. Whether the influence of Tennis Borussia Berlin was direct and purposeful or a coincidence (depending on the historian), TeBe’s role in the formative years of football in Germany seems to have been lost in time for those outside of the club itself. 

From the outset the club played by its own rules. In 1924 they were the first German club to tour France in what was seen by many as an act of reconciliation after the Great War (but was also an ingenious earner for the club struggling in the shambolic economy of the Weimar Republic) . TeBe’s earliest benefactor was a Jewish businessman, architect and early football evangelist Alfred Lesser. He was the club’s first president and personal investor, and represents the early “coffeehouse philosopher” figure that drove the game forward in central Europe and formed the moral and intellectual basis for teams like the Austrian “Wunderteam” of the 1930s.

While the Viennese blend of football strategist has been idealised in football lore, in particular in Jonathon Wilson’s “Inverting the Pyramid”, Lesser seems to have slipped largely under the radar. Lesser and other club patrons were able to help subsidise players and coaches through day-job employment in their various business concerns. According to the club’s online museum, Lesser is believed to have personally funded the signing of Otto Nerz, who managed TeBe for 5 years before taking the German National team out of the relative wilderness to victory over the Austrians in the 1934 World Cup to secure third place. TeBe replaced Nerz with former player Sepp Herberger, who managed TeBe for 2 years before joining Nerz with the national team and, ultimately, taking the job fulltime after the Berlin Olympics. Herberger’s latter day World Cup win with West Germany, over Hungary, was a stunning victory, memorialised in Germany as a victory for German intellect as much as on-field ability. And the roots of the victory stretch back to TeBe and the finances of Alfred Lesser. (There is a lovely story written here by the descendants of Alfred Lesser).  

Indeed, the role of the club in fostering Nerz and Herberger’s innovativeness – and the foundations for future German success – may have been more than just financial. “Inverting the Pyramid” does a compelling job of differentiating early football tactics in the 1920s and 30s into the muscular hit and run “English” style with 5 forwards charging up the field, and the more erudite “Danubian” short passing game popularised by the Austrians and Hungarians but was pioneered by the disaffected Englishman Jimmy Hogan and embraced by coffee house philosophers. Herberger in particular was a Danubian, but Nerz also liked to tinker, being (as Wilson puts it) an “early advocate of the W-M”. This spirit of innovation was a core part of TeBe’s philosophy – described by the club as a product of needing to draw crowds and members after the market crashes of the Wiemar Republic in the early 20s. At a time where disposable income was hard to come by for fans, TeBe wanted to be seen as football aesthetes, the “place to be” rather than a slog between two “English style” long ball teams – i.e. football as an entertainment business.

Indeed, it would seem by embracing aesthetic football that TeBe (through Lesser’s investment) helped jump-start the sport in Germany, opening up access to the important early thinkers in the game to both TeBe and ultimately the National team, which inspired a tradition of success and innovation. And they had success – albeit during a time when Hertha were so dominant. TeBe made the Brandenburg championship (the Berlin-centric region) match 4 times from 1928-1931, losing to Hertha each time, before finally breaking through under Herberger in 1932.

But all of that meant little on April 11th, 1933 when, in an Extraordinary Member’s Meeting, Alfred Lesser along with multiple other members were forced, by new anti-semitic NSDA laws to leave the club. In the meeting minutes, the club secretary notes that he “regrets this because there are some very meritorious members among (the banished)”. Lesser had speculated heavily on the sport he loved, and sponsored other deep thinkers to catch up to the most modern of trends – but all of that was ignored and forgotten in the murderous centres of Berlin power. Indeed, the fact that Nerz and Herberger were very early members of the Nazi party (and their deeply held anti-Semitism) didn’t deter the Jewish Lesser from putting football above earthly pursuits like politics. TeBe was truly an early revolutionary club, spurred by the ethos that football was a noble, almost transcendental pursuit worthy of the investment of great minds. And, in truth, it is that spirit that has kept football alive in Berlin, even while the city was falling part.

TeBe’s recent history is chequered at best. Outside of their two Bundesliga seasons in the ‘70s, their biggest recent claim to fame was incubating Die Mannschaft and Bayern Munich stalwart Jérôme Boateng in their youth set-up until he turned 14 and joined Hertha. Australian readers will be interested to note A-League legend Besart Berisha also features in list of youth products. Berisha actually had his senior debut with TeBe and played 4 games, scoring once, when he was 18.

David Rowley is one of two Australians to ever represent TeBe, playing 16 games in 2016/17. Rowley was born in Brisbane but has spent his adult life travelling the globe with his football skills, most recently in Malaysia where he represents Negeri Sembilan FA. In Germany he spent a season with Inter Leipzig before moving to TeBe, and after TeBe spent six months with another Berlin club BSC Rehberge (competing in 8th tier of the pyramid). Rowley, as a player and global statesman, has been immersed in a lot of both club and regional cultures in his time in the game.

His reflections on TeBe illustrate the uniqueness of the club as a cornerstone of its unique community. “What makes Tebe truly unique are the fans who symbolize the culture that is alive in Berlin. All the fans have a huge heart and love for the game and as a result are extremely passionate.”

Football throughout history survived in Berlin despite a near continuous apocalyptic threat. Rowley sees this deep ideological commitment to the game as the source of the inclusive, community feel of the club. “Despite being a very traditional club it has evolved over the last few years as the fans are very progressive. This is evident in their banners promoting homosexuality, equality and anti-discrimination. You cannot find a similar club in the whole of Germany. I don’t know either any other club that offers vegan sausages as well as your typical pork bratwurst.”

In contrast, his experiences at Dynamo games (and their supporters) reflect the spirit of destruction that enticed skinheads to the club in the 80s. “I have been to a few Dynamo Berlin games before and I also have played against them. Some people use the word assi to describe the Dynamo Berlin Fans. The German word Assi means “asocial”. I have found some of the fans to be quite rude and poorly behaved. (Rowley commemorated his time at TeBe with this touching video tribute to his former club; available here on YouTube)

In any other city the Dynamo fans may face a firmer hand, but in Berlin they are the product of a city that has taken extreme ideologies and forced together in a blender and mixed at speed for 100 years. Berlin was the heart of the Kaiser’s Prussia, when most modern day Berlin clubs were established. It was also the seat of the Nazi party. Hitler famously only ever attended one match and was roped into it by advisors, and one was enough for him; the German national team were embarrassed 2-0 by Norway in that match at the 1936 Olympics. Despite the sport not capturing the imagination of the Reich’s elite, the Nazis perceived an ideological “threat” from of clubs with “outsider” personalities – like TeBe – and gutted them, expelled Jews turned the game more a more regional affair.

The Cold War condemned Berlin to become a living billboard for propaganda from both the East and West. In West Berlin football stagnation had set-in by the time the Bundesliga was formed. The wall increasingly isolated the western enclave of capitalists and Tasmania’s infamous ‘65-66 Bundesliga season was mostly inflicted on it by Cold War political logic. The Deutscher Fußballbund (DFB) was determined to have a Berlin club feature in the embryonic Bundesliga in an act of ideological brinksmanship, which ignored the Berlin clubs’ ability to compete in an open market.

After a couple of mediocre years, Hertha was booted out of the Bundesliga after a player payment scandal, leaving the Berlin spot vacant. TeBe finished top of the West Berlin League that season, but had bombed badly in the direct promotion round against other regions. This very same play-off round included Bayern Munich who got-through and debuted in the Bundesliga in 1965-66 (and have dominated since). TeBe’s losses left their mark on the DFB who shafted the boys in violet and offered Hertha’s abandoned spot to Spandauer SV, who finished second. Spandauer’s response was a portent for what was to come for Tasmania (who had finished 3rd). Spandauer declined, considering themselves unready, and Tasmania was in. Alas, as results will show, Tasmania Berlin was a regional-team quality in an elite league, and drowned in the pool of talent that would form a national team that was a Geoff Hurst hat-trick away from a World Cup win at the end of that season. Tasmania’s name, invoking the southern Australian island, would prove analogous with their experience in the Bundesliga: freezing cold and right at the bottom.

Mergers between Berlin clubs have occurred, Hertha themselves being the product of a merger in 1920, and there is a footnote on the Hertha website about a failed mid-80s super-merger between Hertha, TeBe, Blau-Weiß and SC Charlottenburg (now known as SCC Berlin, a 7th tier club that shares the Mommsenstadion with TeBe). The proposed name for that club is peak Berlin: “FC Utopia”. Only the post-modern Berlin of today, with its bullet-scarred historical pursuit of utopia still in the memory, would reject utopia in favour of 4 low-tier clubs on a knife’s edge.

On the other side of the wall, no former DDR club from Berlin has qualified for the Bundesliga since the unification of leagues in 1991-92: with FC Union Berlin (the workers club and Dynamo’s bitter DDR rival) coming closest with some regular appearances in 2. Bundesliga. Dynamo Berlin themselves immediately dropped the “Dynamo” part of their name after unification to distance themselves from their Stasi past (former overlord Erich Mielke was arrested and sentenced for historical crimes in 1993). They were immediately entered into the 3rd tier of German football and quickly plunged deeper.

The DDR-Oberliga (the East German first division) had descended into farce by the time the wall came down, and state-sanctioned cheating to benefit Dynamo was rife. Interest in football started slowing in the DDR, but by the 70s the party had clued on to its propaganda power. The players were well paid, and the Party wanted a European Champion and were willing to pull any string to achieve it. The “Penalty of Shame” in 1986 (immortalised here on YouTube) represents an American Pie moment for East German football, and entrenched Dynamo as enemy of the football purist. It was actually around this time that skinheads started getting behind them. As genuine fans turned off the club, “outsider” young men started to jump on the bandwagon, enjoying the support of the state to kick opposing fans up and down Alexanderplatz.

It’s not clear if the skinhead look – which admittedly was fairly popular among Ultras everywhere in the 80s – was political or ideologically motivated, but it is hard to argue that in 2011 (or 2018) latter day Dynamo fans embrace the look for purely nostalgic reasons. Post-unification controversies suggest that the shaved heads aren’t ironic. In 2009 Dynamo changed their logo to alter “Fußball” to “Fussball”, in what many interpreted as an intentional homage to the “SS”. For a country so determined to move on from the mistakes of the past, Dynamo Berlin and their fans exist as a perverse amalgam of them all.

Today the city’s architectural diversity, bullet-ridden landmarks and museums on every block are a theme park for bad politics. Where once modernist mad-men once sought to turn Berlin into their utopia, today locals (besides Dynamo fans) generally embrace diversity of style, thought and experience. In Berlin the historical significance of things can be dialled up and down, with reverence or irony, depending on the situation, which means the authentic Berlin experience can be anything or nothing. The diversity of historical experience of different communities – including the rich ethnic communities – means there is no real “middle Berliner”. You can be an outsider in Berlin and not be out of place. That’s why sanitised skinheads can drink shandies at the football, and why football teams can be named “Tennis” and “Tasmania” and not seem like too much nominal dissonance. And it’s why long term success and dynasties – like Bayern Munich’s – would be almost out of place. Since the end of the Second World War Berlin (both east and west) has been an outsider city, represented by passionate, culturally (and ideologically) diverse outsider clubs. A single omnipresent legacy just wouldn’t fit in postmodern Berlin.

Indeed, in the immediate years after World War 2, while the seeds of the cold war were being planted, the (west) Oberliga-Berlin rose from the ashes of the Gauliga Berlin-Brandenburg, the local competition set up by the Nazis (they preferred a regional model). For the first handful of seasons East Berlin clubs competed with Western clubs like TeBe (Hertha re-started in the amateur league, which they won in 1948-49). An early incarnation of FC Union Berlin – SG Union 06 Oberschöneweide – actually won this “western” title in 1947-48, which must have added to tensions. In 1950 all the East-based clubs were yanked away by the DDR and plonked in their new Oberliga. SC Union 06 Berlin (now competing in the 8th tier) was formed in the West by defectors from Union Oberschöneweide in 1950. SC entered the now East-free Oberliga-Berlin in 1950-51 and finished second behind TeBe, but ultimately won the league in 1952-53. Meanwhile their brothers in the East struggled in the relegation zone in their first DDR Oberliga season, but were allowed to remain in the top flight to appease Berlin-centric Party leaders.

As tensions escalated between East and West, leading to the erection of the Wall in 1961, it wasn’t just Union Oberschöneweide who was ripped apart. The story of Helmut Klopfleisch, dissident Hertha Berlin supporter in the East, is a case study in how arbitrary the division was for Berliners. Klopfleisch’s efforts to support his childhood club lead to his inclusion near the top of Stasi watch lists.

Internationals between the DDR and the West were rare, and the only “professional” level match between the two nations occurred in the 1974 World Cup in Hamburg. The DDR famously won that match – a win mired in suspicion around the West’s motivation – and Dynamo Dresden met Bayern Munich in a European Cup quarter-final tie the season before that World Cup (a tie that ended 7-6 on aggregate in Bayern’s favour). On some level Stasi boss Mielke would have been itching for his hand-picked team (Dynamo Berlin) to get another shot at a West powerhouse like Bayern, and in 1988-89 Dynamo opened their account in the European Cup with a 3-0 home win against the Bundesliga’s Werder Bremen. Alas the return leg in Bremen was a portent for what was about come in East Berlin. Bremen won 5-0 at home, and the Berliners lost their grip on top-spot in the Oberliga that year. By the next calendar year the wall had started to come down, and so too had the social experiment of Dynamo Berlin.

There were a few footballing defectors from the East to the West – such as Lutz Eigendorf, Frank Lippman, Jörg Berger and Marco Köller – who wriggled away from their teams during Dynamo or National team away games in sympathetic nations. Eigendorf’s story underlines just how serious the game was in the DDR as a pawn in the Cold War. Eigendorf walked off from his Dynamo team mates after a rare away “friendly” against 1 FC Kaiserslautern, later joining the West Germany team for 53 games from 1980-82 after a season-long suspension. He was killed in a car crash in 1983 (aged 26), in an incident long theorised to have been orchestrated by the Stasi.

Generally, defectors were wise to keep the hell out of Berlin after leaving the East, but there were examples of defectors playing in the West of the city. In a fabulous piece of good timing, striker Horst Assmy played 12 games for the DDR National team before stepping over the pre-wall boundary into the west, not too long before the Wall went up. He wore his 14 month ban to then step-out for a season with TeBe in 1960-61. He too ultimately skipped town and joined Schalke, but also died young of kidney failure at 38. Though his death isn’t as heavily inspected as Eigendorf’s, it would have been fortuitous for the East who saw defectors as a slight to their nationhood.

Seven years since my trip into the heart of Berlin football folklore and there have been some changes and some constants. Hertha won the 2. Bundesliga title in 2011, but have yo-yo-ed since. The 2018-19 incarnation features Aussie Mathew Leckie and has started this Bundesliga season well and sit mid-table. Maybe Hertha has found a way to defy gravity to keep the constant yo-yo sleeping in the “up” position.

TeBe was actually relegated from the Oberliga-Nord in the season we visited, the loss to Dynamo not helping things. They toiled away in the Berlin-Liga (6th tier) for 4 seasons before winning that League and jumping back into the Oberliga-Nord. They finished 4th in their two seasons in the 5th tier, and are (at the time of writing) in a playoff position.

Dynamo have since been promoted into the Regionalliga Nordost (the 4th tier), and did fairly well last season finishing 4th. They are mid table-ish now and face a series of local derbies against the largely “Turkish” club Berliner AK 07, Viktoria Berlin (a conglomerate of 2 old West Berlin-Liga clubs) and the Hertha reserves.

If TeBe continue their strong league form, and Dynamo their mid-tier output, we could see a repeat of that game at the Mommsenstadion in the ‘19-20 season. This time, I hope that history doesn’t repeat – and that I remember to approach the stadium from the Home side clad in violet, with not a bumbag in sight.