With Issue 18 ‘Hotbeds Vol. 1’ out soon, here’s ALEX JACKSON with his experience of one of Germany’s footballing hotbeds – Berlin – where beer, ultras and political statements seem as important as the action on the pitch.
‘Berlin is all about volatility. Its identity is based not on stability but on change.” – Rory MacLean
Germany, and especially Berlin, is no stranger to change. Its borders have changed drastically and repeatedly over the last century, and the governments within have been no exception to this rise-and-fall pattern.
In many ways the only constant in Germany over the course of the 20th century was football. The Nazi Gauligas ran almost unhindered from 1933 to 1945, and only ceased due to Allied forces occupying most of Germany by that point. Following the fall of the Third Reich it only took until 1948 for the East to start playing again, with the West following a year later by turning semi-pro. The continuity of football was so strong it even outlasted the dissolution of its parent country, with East Germany’s Oberliga continuing as normal for two years after the Berlin Wall fell, and survived the actual reunification of Germany until the Spring of 1991.
Fast-forward 26 years and, unsurprisingly, much has changed in Germany and Berlin, but football continues, and arguably has peaked. Germany won their first World Cup as an officially unified team in 2014; German football culture is revered across Europe as one of the best, perfectly balancing commercial productivity with fan-friendliness; and Berlin’s teams have begun to hit their stride. This was the only excuse I needed to hop on a plane and see for myself what’s going on in the German football scene.
Thinking of football in Berlin usually conjures up two names: Hertha and Union. Both aren’t doing too shabbily at this moment in time: Hertha are contesting their second consecutive European campaign, while Union are knocking on the door of a first spell in the Bundesliga. However, Berlin’s footballing renaissance extends beyond the two juggernauts of the city. Drop down to the 4th tier Regionalliga and you’ll find no less than five Berlin teams (six if you count the border-straddling Babelsberg), none of whom occupy a relegation spot currently and whose top contender sits second. In the fifth tier NOFV Oberliga, two Berlin clubs – Tennis Borussia Berlin and Lichtenberg – are currently in the chase for promotion.
My fixture list for the weekend ahead first took me to the former of those Oberliga teams. Tennis Borussia Berlin are one of the few teams down at this level who were part of the old West Berlin. While much is made of East German football’s fall from grace following reunification, Tennis were also victims of this time. In the club’s heyday they spent two seasons in West Germany’s Bundesliga, and many more in the nation’s second tier. However, the team stagnated in the 80s, spending the years before and after reunification locked in the new nation’s third tier. A brief spell in the 2. Bundesliga under a new sponsor at the turn of the millennium showed promise, but things swiftly went downhill. The sponsorship fell through, financial problems took hold, and two consecutive relegations took ‘TeBe’ to the fourth tier. Yet more problems in the 2010s then took them down to the sixth tier, their lowest ever position.
However, four rough years in the Berlin-Liga finally ended with a title win in 2015, and TeBe have spent their time since their return to the fifth tier knocking on the door of promotion. 2017-18 looks to be no exception, with the Violets sitting in fourth going into their game with Malchower SV.
The club’s Mommsenstadion home sits snugly between the mighty Olympiastadion and West Berlin’s old Radio Tower, the main stand giving an excellent view of its lights. It was also here I discovered German football fans’ love of forest walks: stepping out of Messe Sud station you are immediately hit by darkness, leaving me to follow the noise and camera phone lights of supporters down an unpaved path to the stadium. One dreads to think what it must be like to walk this path at night on a non-matchday.
Mommsenstadion does not exactly scream ‘once a top tier venue’, rather it is a more familiar sight to people like myself who prop up the stands at non-league games. The venue is composed of one solid concrete stand with seating for about 1,000, nestling above concrete terraces that encircle the venue on three sides. The obligatory metal fences separate the fans from the pitch, and also home fans from away fans. Any chance of aggro tonight seemed minimal, however: I failed to spot a single Malchower fan anywhere in the stadium, and indeed there wasn’t a peep from anyone when they scored.
The game was an entertaining 4-1 win for the hosts, with plenty of drama along the way. Disallowed goals, dodgy defending, missed penalties, shocking officiating, all topped off with a beautiful chip of the keeper late on to seal the victory for TeBe. For all of this though, the atmosphere seemed somewhat lacking. That is not to say the atmosphere was bad, but different. TeBe’s fanbase exudes passion, but the singing side of it is arguably less important than the political side of things. TeBe is like St. Pauli in that its fans are strongly progressive, proudly presenting as anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobia; the team follows suit, including a substantial Turkish or German-Turk element in their squad and being managed by a Turk, and has maintained a women’s team which has shared their Mommsenstadion home since 1969. One can only assume they have many enemies in the politically-charged world of German football, but tonight the main target of their ire was, unsurprisingly, Alternative für Deutschland – the right-wing party who recently made huge gains in the German election. A single banner reading ‘FCK AFD’ got the message across loud and clear.
This politicking seems to make up the bulk of atmosphere at TeBe. What it lacks in songs you’ll find in statements: the aforementioned banner; a gentleman selling memorabilia from other ‘left-wing’ clubs such as Celtic, Liverpool and St. Pauli. In the club’s official shop, you’re out of luck if you want a club crest pin badge, but you can lay your hands on an antifascist symbol in club colours and (perhaps surprisingly for a ‘left wing’ club) a pro-Israel pin. What chanting there was seemed impersonal, only really coming out after TeBe goals, with minimal reaction to on-pitch events. This would become a theme across my trip.
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The next day took me across the Berlin Wall to the Stadium by the Old Forester’s Lodge. Deep in the Eastern suburb of Kopenick, it’s a bit of a hike on the S-Bahn to get there, which gave me opportunity to examine the Berlin custom of drinking on public transport. The drinking culture in the city of Berlin evidently looked at Britain’s and found its confinement within the walls of pubs and restaurants to be too restrictive. Though a few futile ‘no food and drink’ stickers are located in the carriages, no one seems to care. Beer bottles are a common litter on them, and on my journey to Kopenick most of-age passengers had one in their hands. This pervasive drinking culture has also spawned a secondary industry of collecting the beer bottles: once you’ve finished your pre-match bottle, you’ll find a trolley or man-with-a-bag to dispose of it to in no time, who’ll then take it to the nearest bottle bank to make a tidy profit. Whether or not this constitutes a living for these men is questionable, but based on the sizeable collections they make it’s safe to say they go home with heavy pockets.
Union Berlin have had limited success for most of their existence. A few notable victories in the 30s and 40s were quickly lost under the Nazi defeat and subsequent partitioning of Berlin that destroyed the club. Resurrected initially as Union Oberschoneweide, they took their current name in 1966. The club struggled during the East German years – while claiming a Cup title in 1968, it would take twenty years for them to come close again, and were passengers in the East’s league setup. During this time, they were most notable for being a symbol of East Germany’s resistance: they developed a bitter hatred of the Stasi-sponsored Dynamo Berlin, and songs from the era were said to include subtle jabs at the Stasi in their lyrics. Indeed, Kopenick doesn’t feel like East Berlin. It is green, leafy, suburban. Only when you see tramlines, Ampelmannchen (East Berlin’s unique road crossing symbols) and Aeroflot adverts do you remember that this was once a communist heartland.
Since unification, however, Union are sailing. Struggles in the 90s eventually turned into a 2nd division stint, a DFB-Pokal final and a first European campaign, and while more troubles followed in the mid-2000s they have given way to a prolonged stretch in the second division that is edging ever closer to the promised land of the Bundesliga. Going into the day’s fixture against struggling Greuther Furth, a win would put them into the single play-off spot, and with Dusseldorf and Kiel barrelling ahead at the top this may well be Union’s best chance of a first ever Bundesliga appearance.
Union’s Stadion An der Alten Forsterei embodies both the idea of German Football Culture, and the dream of the ‘Against Modern Football’ crowd here in the UK. It is both beautiful and functional: located along the side of a canal (marking my second nature walk to a stadium during this trip) and built around an ornate all-seater main stand, while the remaining three sides are plain concrete terraces with red railings at regular intervals. Tickets for these areas are dirt cheap, a mere 15 Euro, though in terms of facilities you get what you pay for. Unlike in the UK beer flows freely at games. Men with beer barrels strapped to their backs patrol the stands throughout the game. Smoking is also permitted at stadiums in Germany, and more than once I’m hit in the face by someone’s cigarette cloud.
The centrepiece of it all is the stadium’s Wald Side, located behind a goal and home to the team’s ultras, and during the game they don’t disappoint. The noise is constant and overwhelming, but what makes it truly special is that it spills over into the rest of the crowd. Songs quickly became ‘call-and-response’ tunes, with the ultras singing one line and the rest of the stadium repeating it. Even in the last ten minutes the seating section is on their feet and joining in. When the club’s trademark ‘Eisern Union’ (Iron Union) chant rings out, the stadium shakes under the weight of 20,000 people screaming it at the top of their lungs.
The team repays their loyalty with a convincing 3-1 win over their opponents, including two excellent far-corner goals, yet this all seems to take a back foot once again to fan antics. Though each player’s name is completed by the fans during the team announcement with a proud ‘Fussballgott!’ (Football God), it quickly becomes clear the fans want to leave the game to the masters. The noise is constant and powerful, and yet impersonal. Reactions to on-field events are muted and sometimes non-existent, and goals aren’t met with the same jubilation I have experienced in the UK. At times it feels like the noise, while impressive, is for the sake of it. Not so much the roar of fans unified in song, but something forced by a man with a drum and a megaphone.
Also, perhaps oddly for a team of Union’s name and strong fan culture, their songs are apolitical. There are no political flags, no Marx or Lenin or SPD emblems, being waved in the ultras end, and while they hold up a banner, it’s only a joke directed at the stadium announcer. There isn’t even any vitriol directed at AFD. Union are not exactly a fairweather fanbase: in the past fans have literally bled for the club, donating blood and giving the money earned from it to the club to fund a licence, and of course are known for their communal Christmas festivals and their ‘Stadium Living Room’ during the 2014 World Cup, where the club allowed fans to bring their sofas onto the pitch and watch games on the big screen. It makes me wonder if Union’s history as a refuge for people under the heel of the Stasi has made the club less about party politics and more about unity and brotherhood.
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Day three takes me out of Berlin and over the border into the West German province of Lower Saxony. What was once a heavily fortified border fitted with heavy-duty fencing to match is now a routine intercity train ride of just over an hour. Signs of how things have changed are visible even before you step on the train: it departs from Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, completed only in 2006. Hauptbahnhof translates into Central Station in English. A Central Station for one city.
After an hour sitting on the floor of an Intercity Express, it spat me out into a dreary Wolfsburg night. To the world, Wolfsburg means Volkswagen, and Volkswagen are quick to reinforce this by being the first thing you see when you step off the train. The Volkswagen factory is enormous, at least as large as Wolfsburg’s city centre, and decorated on the outside by a huge, brightly-lit Volkswagen logo. In Wolfsburg, the moon is not silvery-coloured, but blue and white with the letter V perched atop a W.
Because of this, there’s something oddly dystopian about Wolfsburg. The Autostadt visitor complex adjoining the factory is a beautiful network of ornately-designed, futuristic buildings and gardens, as are the various structures connecting the rest of the city to it. On the walls you’ll see huge LED screens showing Volkswagen adverts, and 9 out of 10 cars on the road are Volkswagen or its subsidiaries. Wolfsburg doesn’t feel like Wolfsburg, but Volkswagen City. Designed for, built by and paid for by Volkswagen to be the most beautiful, cutting-edge place in the world. It makes me think of the old East German government building the iconic Fernsehturm, or TV Tower, to flaunt the success and power of their system.
The route from the station to the night’s game was a little less rustic than my previous two walks. Under a spacey concrete parking garage, up an LED-lit escalator onto a bridge, down past the Autostadt, then a walk through a maze of woods and underpasses until finally you reach the Volkswagen Arena, home of VFL Wolfsburg. As the name suggests, Volkswagen have a strong influence on the local team. They are shirt sponsor, stadium sponsor, and owner of the team. Their influence manifests itself even beyond the omnipresent VW logos. An X motif is common to the team, appearing on the club shirts and the stadium exterior. At first this is confusing given the lack of an X in anything team-related, until you take the Volkswagen logo and cover up the outside lines of the W.
Tonight’s visitors were high-flying Hoffenheim, sitting fourth going into the game and hunting for another Champions League spot after this year’s near miss against Liverpool. Hoffenheim are largely reviled in Germany for being the plaything of technology mogul Dietmar Hopp. Before his involvement Hoffenheim were a fifth division team like TeBe, but with his investment they climbed to the Bundesliga and moved into a new, custom-built 30,000-seater home, an oddly hilarious development given Hoffenheim is a village of 3,000 people in a metro area of 35,000 people. Before RB Leipzig entered the fray, they had a legitimate claim to being Germany’s most hated team, a spit in the face to the fan and culture-centric history of the game. Indeed, a meeting between the two teams last year saw Hoffenheim fans display a banner proclaiming that they were the one true plastic team in Germany.
Seeing Wolfsburg, however, I can’t help but feel there’s a massive hypocrisy at play. Wolfsburg owes all its success to Volkswagen – the town only exists because of them, and the company have bankrolled them all the way. Similarly, Bayer Leverkusen’s corporate involvement is plain for all to see, while VFB Stuttgart and Mercedes-Benz are joined at the hip. Yet, whenever these names are brought up, German fans are quick to dismiss them as different to the cases of Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig. It makes me feel like their biggest ‘crimes’ are to be corporately bankrolled now instead of a century ago.
Volkswagen Arena is everything you’d expect from a modern top-flight venue. Unsurprisingly, corporate seats are in abundance, no doubt for Volkswagen employees, though they struggle to fill, as does the rest of the stadium. It’s been a swift and hard fall from grace for Wolfsburg in recent years. Just a few years ago they terrorised the Bundesliga with the front three of Andre Schurrle, Kevin de Bruyne and Bas Dost, winning the DFB Pokal and denied the Bundesliga only by a mercurial Bayern team. Now, however, all three are gone, and after narrowly avoiding relegation in 2016-17 similar struggles seem to lie ahead. Going into the game they were 14th, and had recently sacked their manager. Today would be Martin Schmidt’s first game at the helm.
Volkswagen Arena was also my first encounter with the much-heralded rail seat, an invention that has made its way to Celtic Park and is drooled over by English fans as the key to the return of standing in England. Ironically, however, many of the people occupying the section were sitting in them, perched atop pillows brought from home to protect their backsides from the hard metal stool. This, coupled with the ubiquitous corporate sponsorship, half-empty stands and hefty 50 Euro ticket price I’d paid to get in, had me feeling like I’d been spoon fed a lie about the football culture here in Germany.
The game is an exciting affair. Wolfsburg win an early penalty, only to spurn it, and while playing better football, they struggle to break down a misfiring Hoffenheim side. Beneath me Wolfsburg’s ultras break out the drums and chants, but it doesn’t compare to Union. The empty seats don’t help, but there isn’t the same pan-stadium unity that Union had here. What I do get, however, is fan emotion.
The second half brings Hoffenheim’s turn to receive a penalty, and unlike their hosts they put it away. The small Hoffenheim contingent finally make some audible noise. Up until this point they’d banged their drums, but they only truly become heard when they break out their voices. And, as Wolfsburg struggle to get forward and put their visitors under pressure, the locals get similarly vocal. The chants get louder, but they come at a price of fracturing support. Roars of encouragement turn to roars of anger and discontent when more chances are spurned. The atmosphere gets hotter the more restless the locals get, and to the relief of everyone it gets through to the team. In the dying seconds of the game they push forward and win a corner, and Ohis Uduokhai jumps highest to nod home and send the crowd into raptures. It’s a deserved point for the hosts against a high-flying opponent, though it could have been more, and on the way out of the stadium at full time you can sense the optimism among the Wolfsburg faithful that maybe now their season will finally spring to life.
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One of the more interesting sights of my trip was a protest at Brandenburg Gate. At first nothing more than a handful of confused tourists like myself, but quickly grew into a sizeable rally, aimed at sending a message to Alternative für Deutschland that hate would not be tolerated in Germany and especially Berlin.
Or so they think. Berlin’s voting intention is markedly more left-wing than in other places, with the Greens and Die Linke (The Left) polling some of their higher numbers, and yet 8 states gave AFD fewer votes than Berlin did. A cursory glance at AFD’s results elsewhere makes it clear where in Germany those votes came from: Saxony, Thuringia, Brandenburg. All former East German areas.
How does this all link into football? Well, the same divisions are visible across Berlin’s clubs. The AFD-hating TeBe sit in Berlin’s western reaches, as do Hertha Berlin, who recently ‘took a knee’ to protest against hate. Berliner AK, a team with proud Turkish roots, also hails from the West. In the East? Aside from the surprisingly apolitical Union Berlin, there’s VSG Altglienicke, who in 2006 had a match abandoned due to anti-semitic comments by both players and fans during a game versus Makkabi Berlin. And, of course, Dynamo Berlin. Whereas once the club was the darling of the communist regime, the club is now known for its far-right hooligan element. It’s a bizarre change of face given their roots, but whatever the reason it seems the rest of their Eastern brethren have followed suit.
As I packed up to leave Germany I reflected on all that I’d seen, not just the football matches but the divide across Berlin that is still apparent. As the country grows divided once more it feels that football is still the great unifier, bringing people together in bright and boisterous displays proclaiming love for their team. Part of me wonders if this is rooted in the identity crisis Germans have faced for so long. Following the fall of the Third Reich national pride was all but outlawed in Germany, and to this day Germans rank among the least patriotic people in Europe. Even over the Berlin Wall, Germany pre-1948 was considered persona non grata and pride was limited to regime-approved occasions. Amidst all this, football was the one outlet where people could get together in large groups and express themselves without having the Allies or Stasi on their case, so it really isn’t a surprise that politics and the game got intertwined. I feel football is how Germans rebel against the status quo, a place to let out a message, no matter the ideology, you’ve had pent up inside. What starts as beating a drum and waving a flag for your team with hundreds of others steadily grows your confidence, until you’re telling refugees they’re welcome or, conversely, that Germany is full.
As for what to make of German football: the droolers are right, there are things that can be imported from there. Union has a club culture that I envied from the moment I saw it. The supporters are as much the workings of the club as the suits in corporate, and for what it’s worth there seems to be mutual respect between the two. The fans turn out, make noise and invest in the club, and the board repays them with cheap tickets and community events. It’s not a matter of ‘soulless corporate vs. real fans’, but the Iron Union of supporters, no matter their walk of life. That to me is what football should be about, and here in England it feels like we’re too busy fighting over who are the real fans of a club to realise we all share a common goal.
Furthermore, standing definitely still has a place in the game. Union Berlin operate traditional terrace-and-railings as opposed to the rail seat, and for what it’s worth I was never caught in a surge or crushed at any point, but the rail seat removes all risk of that. The rail seat proves standing can be done safely, and hopefully our authorities will realise that eventually.
However, I’m not sold on ‘ultras culture’. It looks nice, hence why so many here keenly ape it (and make excuses for its worst components, but that’s another article…), but at times it can devolve into noise for the sake of noise. It can become less about supporting the club and more about the ultras themselves, hence occasionally nondescript songs playing throughout but silence during a counter attack or an opposition mistake. In the same way clubs become the plaything of millionaires, clubs can become the playthings of ideologies. What are Dulwich Hamlet other than the megaphone of a gang of 20somethings with a fondness for Marx? What good is making a cauldron of noise to intimidate the opposition if you stop it halfway through to tell UEFA where they can shove their piggy banks? When you can buy a pin of a political statement but not of the team itself I feel like the point of supporting a club has been missed.
There is much we can learn from Germany in terms of fan expression and devotion that rarely exists here, but that doesn’t mean we have to throw everything of our own out. For all of the flags and banners and flares, what impressed on me most was the sound of an entire arena united in song, the one thing least alien to us. Put it this way, I think there’s a reason many of the chants I heard had English lyrics. Stale, soulless football nation indeed.
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