After ten years of a united Berlin, Markus Hesselmann discovers that in football terms, Berlin still has an East and West feel

A pale young man with a strange haircut – short in front, very long at the back – and another in a hilarious star-spangled jersey made history with a handshake. On January 27, 1990, Olaf Seier, captain of 1FC Union from the GDR’s Oberliga, greeted Dirk Greiser, his counterpart at Hertha BSC, who were then playing in the Bundesliga’s second division. Two months after the Wall came down, 52,000 fans in the Olympic Stad­ium watched the first friendly between the two most popular Berlin teams. 

At the time Hertha were in the running for promotion, while their eastern opponents were hoping to overcome the curse that the Communist leadership had cast over them for decades. In a system in which play­ers were delegated to privileged clubs by a central board and referees reminded of their duty to further the reputation of those clubs, Union, a focus for people who opposed the regime, had no chance of getting anywhere. Particularly not against hated local rivals BFC Dynamo. The club, champions ten times in a row, were the favourites of Erich Mielke, chief of the Stasi, the secret police. In a democratic society, the days of Dynamo would be numbered. For Union, the future looked bright.

Nearly ten years later, Olaf Seier still dreams of the Bundesliga – as do the players and fans of Union. Seier coaches the fourth division club Köpenick and shares the fate of most East German ex-players, who are hardly ever employed as coaches by Bundesliga clubs. Union at least have a good chance of being promoted to the second division this season, but Dynamo tend to make headlines almost exclusively for their violent fans.

One of them, the notorious hooligan Christopher Rauch, has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison for his part in the near-fatal assault on a French policeman during the 1998 World Cup. To get rid of the Stasi image, Dynamo changed their name to FC Ber­lin, only to revert back in order not to lose what was left of their crude “identity”. Now the club is trying hard to qualify at least for the new two-zone third division.

Hertha fared a bit better, winning promotion at the time of unification in 1990. Still, the high-profile players from the east left Berlin for greener pastures. Dyn­amo’s Andreas Thom was the first to go west. He play­ed for Bayer Leverkusen and later Celtic. Frank Rohde, Thom’s captain at Dynamo, went to Hamburg, as did his team-mate Thomas Doll. Even in West Ber­lin the young players didn’t trust Hertha. Christian Ziege was among many who went elsewhere, as Pierre Littbarski and Thomas Hässler had done years before. And Hertha went down again after a Bund­esliga season in which even their own coach laughed at the performance of his players.

In the years that followed, the “new ­­Berlin” was famous for being the biggest build­ing site in Europe, but infamous for its lack of a first division football team. Another traditional West Berlin club, Tennis Borussia, a Bundesliga team in the Seventies, were playing in the regional third division in the early Nine­ties. The upstarts of Blau-Weiss 90, who had played elite football for one year in 1986-87, went bust and had to start again in the lowest league.

Berlin may be the capital of Germany again, but it is not an economic centre. Most companies turned their back on the city when it was divided after the war and that has changed surprisingly little since unification. Unem­ployment in the western part of the city is now even worse than in East Berlin.

You will look in vain for an Alan Sugar in Berlin. It took sponsors from other regions to help the most pop­ular clubs back on their feet. Hertha BSC were taken over by Ufa, a subsidiary of Bertelsmann, one of the largest media companies in the world. The old club officials, ardent Hertha fans but failures as ad­min­istrators, were pushed out.

The new owners res­ponded to critics of their methods by pointing out that their millions are only a loan and that without their goodwill the club would probably be in the third division. So overbearing was their influence that even the the German FA, the DFB, became alarmed, particularly when Ufa began to spon­sor other clubs, such as Hamburg.

What would happen, wondered the DFB bureaucrats in Frank­furt, if the last game of the season were played between Hertha and Hamburg and one of them could still qualify for the Champions League? The association ruled wisely that company representatives could no longer sit on club boards. That didn’t bother the sponsors too much, since they can still bring in people that they control informally. And who would complain, since Hertha got promoted, avoided relegation and even qualified, via fourth place in the Bundes­liga, for the Champions League this year?

Meanwhile the only East Berlin club with potential has caught up a bit – with a little help from a friend in the west. The Bavarian film distributor Kinowelt put an end to the agony at Union, who had suffered numerous financial scandals. But not only there. Kinowelt owner Michael Kölmel, a long-haired hippie turned businessman, is on a football shopping tour through Germany. Besides Union, he also helped Dy­namo Dresden and Sachsen (formerly Chemie) Leip­zig out of their slumps. Further west, Kölmel acquired traditional clubs such as Alemannia Aachen and Rot-Weiß Essen. Manipulation? See above.

However, the most interesting experiment in cor­porate football is going on in one of the smarter ­quarters of Berlin, Charlottenburg. Tennis Borussia, Her­tha’s old rivals, have lost their independence as a club to a dubious insurance and financial consultancy company. The Göttinger Gruppe, named after its base in a small university town, has invested millions into the club and issues club shares even though consumer groups have warned people against investing in any of the company’s funds.

For big games, bus­loads of professional fans arrive from Göttingen. A bunch of second-rate comedians, local musicians and some rather Teutonic “Braz­il­ian” drummers create “atmosphere” in the Mo­m­msen Stadium, close to the posh Grunewald area. Even as a regional league club, TeBe maintained a fully professional squad. Now, in the second division, they can afford players that some first division teams can only dream of, such as Uwe Rösler.

Alas, the club’s crowds rarely rise as high as 10,000. Now they are trying again, with the aim of establishing a team with an image distinct from that of proletarian Hertha. For many east­ern fans, particularly those of Union, TeBe is the enemy from the capitalist west. Union fans cannot for­­get that when their club was kicked out of the ­­play-offs for the second division be­cause of their chronic financial problems, it was Tennis Borussia who took their place.

But there is also a lot of right-wing resentment in­volved. Before the war, Tennis Borussia was the club of the Jewish community. Now they are trying to create an international image, with play­ers from all over the world. TeBe fans are by reputation bespectacled stud­ents and the club has been dub­bed the “Charlottenburg artists colony”. But the sceptics usually add that image is not enough to make it to the top.

From WSC 155 January 2000. What was happening this month

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