17 September ~ Today, Germany's second level Zweite Liga stages what is regarded as the first ever Berlin derby between Union and Hertha. (Strictly speaking there were fixtures in 1949-50 with one of Union's previous incarnations, called Oberschöneweide.) "Hertha were talking about being German champions a year ago," says Union spokesman Christian Arbeit, "and now they are with us in the second division". It's 21 years since the Wall came down, but Union have been forging their own bit of history out to the east of the city in Köpenick.
After achieving promotion to the brand new third division three seasons ago the German FA pronounced the run-down Stadion An Der Alten Försterei not fit for football. The city wouldn't provide any funds and the club had no money itself. They did, however, have concrete and steel from their benefactors and hundreds of fans prepared to work on it. The completely rebuilt, 20,000-capacity Alten Försterei opened before the start of last season.
It's strange to have a game like this without the history to back it up. The resentments that build over years are lodged in the memories of famous wins or losses, like those against the hated Dynamo, the favoured team of the secret police in the GDR. The Hertha game feels different. It is Berlin history writ large on the pitch, according to Arbeit: "The reunification of the city in football... The first part of our history was in East Berlin so there we had that special arch rival, but with Hertha at that time there was more like a brotherhood. We would be singing songs about Union and Hertha together, a provocation to the regime because they were a West Berlin team and we weren't supposed to support them. Then everything changed and we've finally got them."
All this talk of brotherhood doesn't quite ring true any more. Union certainly are guilty of casting green-eyed glances across to the west. To Arbeit: "It's still David against Goliath. Our budget is €13 million (£10m), and they've got three times that. Their stadium was built with hundreds of millions. You've got the city pumping public money into that club and we had to do everything with our own hands. Whatever, we finally made it to the same division." Left-back Patrick Kohlmann takes up the story: "We are proud to be in the same league as Hertha. It's the first game against them so it's huge – but I don't think it's as special as a game against Dynamo."
There was a cloud on the horizon when Union let information filter out that they were considering changing the venue to the very same Olympiastadion that is the cause of so much resentment. Arbeit, however, says it was never an actual possibility. "Whatever it meant economically, I asked the club president to keep it here in Köpenick, and he said, 'In all honesty the moment they got relegated, I knew then we would have them here'."
According to Kohlmann: "I think it's very important. Our supporters built the stadium and it wouldn't be fair to them not to play it at the Alten Försterei." The inferiority complex is still there when the affable defender says: "We are the small club and they are the big club, nobody expects us to win." Arbeit makes the same point with a story about Markus Babbel, the Hertha coach. "We did an interview with him and Uwe Neuhaus (his opposite number at Union) when Babbel said 'My whole career, I hated derbies, because I was always at the so-called big club and you cannot win'." Hearing the Hertha fans singing "Scheiss Union" on the way to their third straight win of the season last weekend, I'm not sure that it's going to be as friendly as they say. A derby is a derby and the Union faithful will be desperate to start this new one with a victory on an otherwise blank page. Jacob Sweetman