History weighs heavily on Berlin’s football clubs
Germany’s clubs are among the favorites for the Champions League
but the country’s capital remains a barren wasteland for football
at the highest level.
For the second time in three years, Berlin is the only major
European capital without a top-flight team, although its malaise
goes further back in history, with Cold War politics, the Berlin
Wall and upheaval all playing their part.
Hertha Berlin, the city’s best supported club, was relegated
again last year after a single season in the Bundesliga, and though
it looks assured of bouncing straight back into the top flight
again, few in the capital expect it to challenge for the title or
play in the Champions League again anytime soon.
It seems the city’s division into East and West after the Second
World War has had a lasting effect.
No team from the German capital has won the Bundesliga since it
was formed 50 years ago and united Germany has not had a
Berlin-based champion since 1931, when Hertha defended its first
East Germany’s Oberliga, which ran from 1949 to 1991, did
produce winners from the divided capital – Dynamo Berlin and
Vorwaerts Berlin – but Dynamo’s record of 10 successive titles
between 1979-88 is tarnished due to its association with the
state’s secret police and allegations of match-fixing, while
Vorwaerts – the army team – was moved from Leipzig to fulfill a
political agenda in 1953.
Vorwaerts claimed six Oberliga titles between 1958-69, two years
before the club was moved again to Frankfurt (Oder) near the Polish
”They certainly are tainted, but more so in the case of Dynamo
because the link to (Stasi chief Erich) Mielke adds a more
insidious side to it when looking back,” Jacob Sweetman of the
Berlin-based football magazine No Dice told The Associated
But Sweetman added it would be disingenuous to say Dynamo’s
titles are entirely synonymous with Mielke’s benefaction.
”In fact one could say that Dynamo’s relative lack of success
in Europe was as much down to the political decision to not allow
foreign players into the leagues, so this influence wasn’t actually
always for the best,” he said.
East German sides’ fortunes have dipped following reunification.
Dynamo now plays at fifth-tier level, while Vorwaerts merged with
another local side and plays at a level below.
Interest in football has always been high in the German capital.
The country’s oldest active club is Berliner FC Germania, founded
in 1888. Now it languishes at 10th-tier level.
Berlin clubs did taste success at national level after Germany’s
first official championship was played in 1903, with Union 92
Berlin claiming the city’s first title two years later, and
Viktoria Berlin emerging victorious in 1908 and 1911.
Hertha ended its run of four straight German championship final
defeats with back-to-back titles in 1930-31.
When the Bundesliga was formed in 1963, Hertha was one of its
inaugural members, but the club was demoted after two seasons for
attempting to bribe players to move to West Berlin, which had been
isolated following the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
The German football federation was keen to have a side from the
divided city in West Germany’s top league and so Tasmania Berlin
was promoted through a complicated process. Tasmania quickly found
itself out of its depth, however, and completed the worst
Bundesliga season in history in 1966, with just two wins from 34
Tennis Borussia Berlin, Hertha’s main city rival, could only
manage two Bundesliga seasons in the 1970s before dropping to the
lower leagues. Financial problems took their toll as they did with
so many of the city’s clubs.
Blau-Weiss 90 Berlin, the successor to Union 92 Berlin following
its merger with another local side, folded in 1992. It had managed
one Bundesliga season in 1986-87.
Both Borussia and the successor to Tasmania, which was declared
bankrupt in 1973, currently play in the sixth-tier Berlin-Liga.
Hertha was once described as a ”sleeping giant” by former
Germany great Franz Beckenbauer. But it has found it difficult to
draw fans from across the East-West divide.
Arguably, the club’s greatest success was its Champions League
appearance in 1999, when it drew 1-1 with Barcelona in the second
group stage. But promise has given way to despair in recent
Hertha fan Johannes Kellner blamed poor management over
successive years for wasting transfer fees, not giving young
players enough time to develop and failing to keep players’ egos
grounded. He also blamed the media for stoking unrealistic
expectations and increasing the pressure at the club.
”If Hertha are promoted and start doing well (in the
Bundesliga), by November they will be talking about reaching
Europe,” Kellner told the AP.
Not all football fans in the city would welcome Hertha’s
promotion back to the top flight. One benefit of demotion was
giving Berlin a real derby, thanks to the emergence in recent years
of former East German side Union Berlin, not to be confused with
the 1905 German championship winner.
Union had little success in the Oberliga but has emerged from
hated city rival Dynamo’s shadow, highlighting its working class
roots, overcoming financial difficulties and a spell at fourth-tier
level to become the German capital’s second-best supported
Fans gave blood under the slogan ”Bleed for Union” to raise
almost ?1.5 million for the club in 2004 and hundreds volunteered
to rebuild the stadium five years later.
The Bundesliga would likely be a step too far for the
financially prudent club and Union’s fans are happy to cheer their
side on in in the grittier and less glamorous second division.
Indeed, football in the lower leagues is thriving, with the
Berlin Football Federation counting over 400 clubs including more
than 3,000 teams among its members.
Only Hertha’s fans retain notions and hopes of grandeur. After
all, not many second division sides boast stadiums with the
Olympiastadion’s capacity of 74,220.