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.