Jack Kerr takes you inside the capital city”s unexpected football culture ahead Saturday”s Champions League clash
BERLIN — Germany is the well-run, football-mad, economic powerhouse of Europe. But as they say here in the capital, Berlin is not Germany.
Sure, Berlin does the big events well: the final of the 2006 World Cup; the opening of the 2011 Women”s World Cup; the annual final of the German Cup. This weekend, the city will add the UEFA Champions League Final to that list.
But outside of these major occasions, Berlin does not have the feel of a football city. Hertha Berlin, the city”s only major team, were in the relegation battle until the very last second of this season. Had they gone down again, it would have left Berlin as Europe”s only capital without a team in its own national league—for the third time this decade.
Although the Tagesspiegel newspaper claimed relegation would have left Berlin “even more unfinished, dirtier, [and] poorer,” you got the distinct impression that very few people in the city actually would have cared. Let alone noticed.
Berlin is easily the biggest city in Germany, but go watch Hertha Berlin play at the Olympia Stadium and you end up asking ask yourself where everyone is. Section after section of the stadium is regularly vacant. In percentage terms, the team easily has the worst attendance record in the top flight. In fact, it”s the only stadium in the Bundesliga where you see empty seats. Berlin”s recent failed bid to host the 2024 Olympics was accused of the same half-heartedness.
Dortmund, by comparison, lives and breathes Borussia. The city of just over half a million residents is also home to the best attended ground in Europe – their numbers are better than even Barcelona”s. Getting a ticket for a Borussia home match is virtually impossible, and yellow and black everywhere in the city.
Hamburg, which has had yet another shocking season, sold more tickets than Hertha his season. Down in Kaiserslautern, there is a stadium big enough to seat all of the menfolk of the town.
Berlin produces the occasional noteworthy football talent. Both Bayern Munich”s Jerome Boateng and his brother Kevin-Prince progressed through the casino Hertha ranks before leaving for bigger opportunities.
American defender John Anthony Brooks followed the same path, as did up-and-coming USMNT midfielder Alfredo Morales. In fact, when the United States plays a friendly in Cologne later in the month, they will field twice as many players raised in the German capital as the Germans will.
Perhaps that helps explains Berlin”s relationship with football: it”s an itinerant city. People who move here from elsewhere in Germany or from abroad already have a club. The streets were humming when Bayern Munich played Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final a few weeks back. Maybe it would have been the same if Hertha were playing for a spot in club football”s biggest game, but this feels almost cruelly speculative (although they did actually make the Champions League last decade.)
Then, of course, there”s the history of the city itself. After decades of war and division, Berlin is really only just getting itself back together. The same goes for the reunited country. The east tails the west in almost every field, including football. Since 2000, the Bundesliga has featured only two teams from the east, Hansa Rostock and Energie Cottbus, and neither has featured in the league since late last decade.
That divide is getting worse, with teams from the east struggling to even make the second division. The exceptions are Red Bull”s new Leipzig brand and the “anti-Stasi” team from the east side of the capital, Union Berlin.
In its own way, Union is a success. It never looks like making the first division, though that means it won”t spend itself broke trying to stay up there. Their Stadion An der Alten Försterei (the fittingly named Stadium by the Old Forester”s) holds little more than 20,000 spectators, but they are so passionate about their club that they once helped rebuild the the terraces with their own labor and their own money. Unlike Hertha, Union owns its own ground, which solidifies its finances. It also means it can do things like show the World Cup on its big screen and let people set up couches on the pitch.
It”s a great story, but it doesn”t compare to having an Arsenal, an Ajax, a Real, a PSG, a Sporting or even a Roma in your capital city. “If you look at London, if you look at Madrid, if you look at Paris, they have unbelievable teams, they have some of the best teams in the world,” says American midfielder Morales. “Here in Germany, everybody is proud because they are world champions, and (Hertha) Berlin, actually, it”s supposed to be a good team.
“It”s an unbelievable city, you have everything, but I don”t know why they are so bad. I have no clue actually. Is it because of money? Because of management? I don”t know why. I wish they were doing better the last season or in the past, but maybe they are not ready for it right now.”