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The Berlin derby showcases a rich football culture in the German capital

As the eyes of the German football world focus on Berlin, as its two top tier clubs play this Saturday evening, we should take a moment to pay homage to the vibrant array of football clubs that populate the city.

Berlin is teeming with football, and some of my happiest moments in football have been in this city. I'm not talking about trips to its impressive Olympic Stadium, although I’ve been there a few times. As a non-league fan, Deutschephile and a lover of German beer, I have found football paradise when visiting clubs like Tennis Borussia, Tasmania Berlin, Turkyemspor and SD Croatia. The latter being the most profound as it introduced me to Cevapcici.

Placed underneath the Oberliga Nord, the Berlin-Liga is the sixth tier of the German football pyramid. It consists of 19 clubs who play, usually every Sunday, in municipal stadiums around the city. Some clubs, such as the aforementioned SD Croatia and Turkyemspor identify the city’s immigrant population. Former Bundesliga clubs from the city, Tennis and Tasmania have spent time in this league.

However, as rich and diverse as these clubs are, the proposition remains the same as any non-league club. You pay for entry, buy a beer, find a good spot and watch a competitive football match played to a decent standard. What could be finer?

The Berlin-Liga is one of the foundation stones of a proper football city. At the top sit the two giants of the city: Hertha BSC and FC Union Berlin. Although for different reasons the term “giant” doesn’t sit too well.

With Covid-19 cases deemed to be sufficiently under control, all the turnstiles will be open and the Olymipiastadion this Saturday for the Berlin Derby in the Bundesliga. Both Hertha and Union enjoy a somewhat unusual rivalry. To begin with, it is relatively recent. For years, these two clubs competed in two different national leagues. Hertha, being a club of West Berlin and therefore West Germany, played in the Bundesliga and Union, although located in the same city were part of East Germany and played in DDR Oberliga.

As a result of the years of partition for Germany and Berlin, the two clubs developed a friendship that would continue after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Germany.

During the city’s partition, Hertha were seen as an ally to east Berliners who opposed the Communist regime and for many football fans were their second team. Union meanwhile came to be known as the East Berlin club that opposed its regime. This put them in a delicate position, to say the least. They would often be a poor relation to East Berlin’s most prominent club Dynamo, which enjoyed the patronage of the head of the hated DDR security service: the Stasi.

After reunification, Union did not join the new Bundesliga. Indeed, the years that followed were not kind to Union and they nearly closed altogether. But thanks to some imaginative crowd funding from their fans {including a blood donor campaign in which the fans passed on their donation fees directly to the club) they rebuilt the stadium and forged a new identity. Where Hertha see themselves as a club for all of Berlin, Union see themselves as a local club that serves only Köpenick: a working class district of the city, where the club is based.

Stadion An der Alten Försterei

By 2009, Union had recovered themselves and were promoted back into the national league structure in the Bundesliga 2. Their first ever competitive fixture with Hertha was in that division: a 1-1 draw at home followed by a 2-1 win at the Olympiastadion in the 2010/11 season.

With patient squad building Union were finally promoted to the Bundesliga in 2019. With a tiny budget and belligerent playing style, the Eisern Union were not expected to stay long in the top flight. But the club had other ideas.

They not only survived but developed their football into the vibrant counter-attacking unit they are today. In their second season they qualified for the UEFA Conference League, thanks in part to a masterstroke in the transfer market by signing the former German international striker and poker playing maverick, Max Kruse, who scored 16 goals. While the pandemic put a hole in their finances, Union may well achieve a similar feat, this season. Kruse may be gone but Nigerian international Taiwo Awoniy has already found the back of the net twelve times.

From regional league also rans to Berlin’s undisputed top club, Union Berlin have been on quite the journey. As have Hertha, in fact, only theirs has been of an entirely different character.

While the big city clubs in West Germany thrived in the decades after the Second World War, Hertha struggled. West Berlin was a half city landlocked by a hostile neighbour and getting good players to come to the club was hard work. Admitted entry into the new Bundesliga when it launched in 1963 they were expelled after breaking salary cap rules. After unification the hope was (and still is) that Hertha would rise to become a force in Germany and Europe, as befitting their status as the biggest club in the capital.

This is something that has spectacularly failed to happen and, at this rate, Hertha will be a second division club come May.

The Old Lady has benefitted from significant investment in recent years. Most recently from German entrepreneur, Lars Windhorst. According to Transfermarkt, Hertha have spent just under €170 million on in-coming transfers in the last three seasons and brought some genuine quality to the club in the shape of Matheus Cunher, Luca Tousart and Alexander Schwolow, among others.

But some of the coaching and management choices have been poor. Most notably the disastrous recruitment of Jurgen Klinsmann in 2019 set the tone for what has been an extremely disappointing time for the club.

Right now they are reduced to relying on the old school methods of veteran coach Felix Magath to keep them away from the relegation zone. Contrast this with Union’s measured recruitment of young and experienced professionals and it looks embarrassing for the self-styled Big City Club. In fairness, Hertha could benefit from a stadium to call their own. The Olympistadion is vast and even with their vast support the club struggle to sell all the tickets. What’s worse is that during Union’s short lived European campaign they used the Olympiastadion for their home fixture because their own Stadion An der Alten Försterei does not meet UEFA requirements.

The indignity of your smaller neighbour, not just outperforming you on the pitch but using your home to play European fixtures, that they would have envisaged themselves playing in, cannot be lost on them.

There are signs of better times ahead for Hertha. The hiring of Fredi Bobic as Sporting director is wise. He did a great job at Frankfurt but it will take him a while to unpick the tangled ball of string that has grown over the years. For now, however, they need to take their medicine: accept their reduced circumstances and play like the underdogs they are against a superior Union side. Who knows, perhaps they can cause an upset.

Hertha and Union represent two different facets of the city of Berlin. Hertha are the outward looking, big thinking wannabe mega city that takes its place among the great metropolises of the world. Union are more identifiable with the city that is made up of 12 districts, each with their own identities and striving in the face of the city’s modernisation and gentrification. In that respect they are spiritually closer to the network of clubs that make up the Berlin-Liga.

But their local outlook and small stadium should not be mistaken for parochialism or a lack of ambition. For as long as they keep making the right choices it will be a while before they are unseated as Berlin’s top club.

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