Ich bin ein Berliner
In the words of J.F. Kennedy, “I am a Berliner”. We now know to an extent what it meant to be living in Berlin, both East and West. We need to understand the footballing situation in Berlin, back then and today. When looking at big European capitals, all have big European clubs, and usually more than one. Think of Chelsea – Arsenal – West Ham in London, Real and Atletico Madrid, Lazio and AS Roma… The rare capital city in Western Europe to have a single big club is Paris Saint-Germain, which is a whole other debate. However, while there are a multitude of clubs in Berlin, none are big in Europe. Union are currently breaking barriers by playing Europe Conference League, but there is a very small chance to see them or Hertha anywhere near the latter stages of the Champions League anytime soon. This begs the question of whether Berlin is actually a football city. Many Berliners argue that yes, but in a different way to Madrid, Rome or London.
At times, Berlin had no clubs in the elite of reunified German football, and haven’t competed for a title in forever. However, football culture goes beyond that, where each club doesn’t fight for titles and cups but to represent its own personal community. And Berlin has a plurality of them. The Turkish, the Bosnians, the Serbs, the Jews, the far right and the far left, and everything in between. Each club celebrates a culture and a fragment of the Berlin jigsaw. The communities are represented but also political views; just like St Pauli in Hamburg, Berlin has its Karl Marx supporters’ club, but also clubs started by the Stasi, created rivalries which could certainly electrify a derby. As we will see later, this is not so simple.
Berlin celebrates culture, history but also chaos. The fragments don’t perfectly match, the city isn’t perfectly run – think of the unfinished airport – but Berlin embraces chaos. The clubs lack infrastructures, Hertha don’t have their own stadium, many clubs went bankrupt but were saved by their communities. Berlin is “poor but sexy” as the locals say, and this translates exactly into it their football culture.
We see this in the story of big East German clubs, notably BFC Dynamo. Originally named Dynamo Dresden, based in the far East of the country, was moved to Berlin by one of the father figures of East German football, Erich Mielke. His aim was to create the biggest club in the East, creating heroes with his players playing in the capital, eventually becoming key figures of the socialist regime. As the Head of the Ministry for State Security, known as the Stasi, Mielke had the financial backing and the power to create a superteam like Qatar did in Paris. The club stuttered to start with relegation to the second division in its early stages, before bouncing straight back up and eventually winning the cup in 1959. While it was the Stasi club, many supporters flocked to encourage them, notably because the methods used at youth level. As mentioned before, socialist countries celebrate their own heroes, the local people, and having a strong youth setup was crucial to this. Now, this is not to say all players were from Dresden or Berlin, but developing the top youngsters from the entire country through Dynamo’s academy enabled them to create a national superpower. Unsurprisingly, this led them to European competitions, the only Berlin club to ever be involved in continental cups, eventually getting to a Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final in 1972. The East celebrated Dynamo as their club, but they have unfortunately dived back into the depth of German football, with the likes of Union Berlin or Leipzig becoming the central figures of the East these days.
To look at the Berlin microcosm, the Union and Hertha rivalry perfectly shows the special relationship between Ossis and Wessis. Like much of Berlin before the Wall, and even after the Wall was built, the strong bond between Berliners existed even in this football rivalry. Many fans of Hertha ended up stranded in the East and continued their support for them, even without seeing them play. In return, much of the West, who were allowed to cross the divide, came to support Union Berlin and BFC Dynamo throughout the time of separated Berlin. A friendly rivalry which led to the creation of an association uniting 2000 supporters from two very different clubs. Hertha represented a large part of the international communities and districts present in the West, celebrating a proud heritage of social diversity and multiculturalism. It was however Hitler’s club, playing in the Olympic stadium where the leader paraded numerous times during his reign at the head of the third Reich. A strong political message, while representing a capitalist and strong West, Hertha was never immensely successful but its image was smoothed out and had popular and political support. On the other hand, the strong hard-working men and women who built Union felt very different about their club. Dynamo was the Stasi club, so Union survived with its fanbase and its investment. Celebrating its history in iron, Eisern Union had a strong communist heritage, and the involvement of their fans was present at every stage of the club. Their supporters rebuilt the stadium for free in a now notorious location, right in the middle of Köpenick forest. A very different setting to the modern looking Olympic Stadium. When the Wall fell, 35.000 fans from the East went to the first Hertha game, two days after the events, marking a special landmark on 11th November 1989. A few weeks later, a game was organised to celebrate this friendship, with over 50.000 people coming together to watch a derby in January 1990. While this all seems like fun, a good football city needs a good rivalry and this came progressively with the new generation, growing post-1989.
The Derby was not a regular occurrence as Union were scrambling in the depth of German football. Hertha did however join them in the second division at the start of the 2010s, which is when the tensions really kickstarted. This notably started with provocations from players when Union won in Hertha’s home stadium, before the supporters from the latter brought the fight to Union’s stadium. Flares, flags, chants and confrontation, tensions were slowly rising, while the older generation watched in dismay a lifelong friendship tearing up in front of their eyes. The new generation were looking for an enemy; as society as slowly moved towards more anger and violence, hating the neighbour was a logical choice. Not fully grasping the extent of the friendship during the Cold War, they are wiping decades of alliance with an engrained rivalry which is bound to develop in years to come.
How successful was reunification
When looking at post-1989 Germany, the cultural differences are inherently still there between both sides of Berlin and Germany as a whole. The reunification was certainly not viewed as a union by the East, but more as the capitalist West taking over their territory. If you looking from the football lens, all 18 West German teams stayed in the top division of the German football, with the addition of 2 from the East. 6 more from the East were put in second division and the last 6 in the third tier, leaving very big clubs very far from the top of the pyramid. This pushed back by ten years the development of certain clubs. With a new capitalist rather than state economy, the East really struggled financially to survive and compete. While they could rely on their youth, they started scrambling for the first come West German investors and managers, with little success. Many investors were caught for embezzlement, others just came and went, with little regard to the damage done when leaving. They were mainly there to take over cheap investment offers, before looking at housing and other companies they could profit from as the East sold itself off to whoever wanted to put a bit of money on the table. Sponsors were not coming, neither was state money, so clubs started slimming down, particularly their academies, and slowly started disappearing. BFC Dynamo for example, once Eastern champion, is stuck in the fourth division today.
How present is East German football today then? Toni Kroos is the only representative from the East at national level, doing most of his academy training in Munich, in the West. Before him, the rare faces of Marcel Schmelzer, Michael Ballack and Matthias Sammer were the rare emblems of a dying side of Germany. Das Reboot helped to an extent but the representation still is not there. 15% of the global German population is from the East, and this is not represented within the game, not in the least. Following the disappointment of losing the 2002 World Cup final to Brazil, Germany started a big revolution: Das Reboot (as per Raphael Honingstein’s book). Massive investment from the united government saw youth systems getting a full revamp, with better facilities and coaches, leading to a German football revolution, throughout the country. This also meant all Bundesliga clubs was pushed to create new academies in 2002. The talent scouting was improved, leading to thousands more children from the age of 8 to 14 from both sides of the country to join highly developed academies and culminated to the all-German 2013 Champions League Final, which had a combined 26 homegrown players in both Bayern Munich and Dortmund’s squads. More coaches and scouts are one thing, but understanding that a new approach needs to be implemented was also crucial to the success of the reboot. As shown by the interview of a coach at Freiburg academy in the Guardian, he tells explicitly that approaching youth players as if they will all become professionals is wrong, and should rather follow the Freiburg approach of getting the youth players ready for life in case they do not make it into the elite level of football, which is more often than not the case.
For decades, the East followed that model and were proud to take care of their youth, but the lack of investment coming led them to shut down most of their academy empire. The East is truly struggle to state its claim nowadays. Now yes, Union Berlin is making strides and growing tremendously, representing Berlin proudly in Europe. While they are restarting extremist politics in their stands, with the appearance of right- wing chants as of late, they are still very proud of their heritage of their people. Not so much can be said about RB Leipzig, an extremely corporate and capitalist style of club in a communist side of Germany. Purchased by Red Bull many years ago, they are for some the pride of the East but for most, they antagonise modern and disgusting capitalist football. Traditional Western clubs and supporters are saying they don’t respect the 50+1 rule of governance, but in reality, Red Bull will always find a way around regulations to continue striving and developing, in order to gain national and eventually continental supremacy.
The Wall divided Berlin and its community for decades, separating friends and families from each other. The cultures changed, the economy changed and the football changed. Today, the federal states of Germany are united under own banner but many still argue the divide is still there and will be there for a long time. The new generation is perpetuating this through a new wave of hatred which was far less the case when the Wall was still up. There are few signs showing that perfect union is on the cards anytime soon. There are also few signs of East Germany getting back on track to catch up with their West counterparts. This does not take away from their heritage, of which they are very proud of, but their footballing role in the country will certainly be limited for many years. In the meantime, Union will continue making their side of Germany and Berlin proud and maybe one day, help Berlin become a footballing powerhouse. Even if they don’t, there is a feeling that Berliners are okay with the suffering, that the Wall and multiple wars have engrained in them this resistance to pain, so the glory of European glory might not be so much of a goal, but rather a distant dream. Either way, Berlin is a fantastic city of culture, arts and history, and for that, Berliners can certainly be very proud and continue celebrating their proud heritage, even away from football.