The derby with no history?
In a weeks time European Football Weekends will join 75,000 fans in the Olympiastadion to watch Hertha take on Union in the Berlin derby. David Tunnicliffe, an Englishman living in Germany, gives us the heads up on the history, or lack of it, between these two great teams.....
As Die Welt put it in September last year in the run up to the first ever competitive meeting between Union Berlin and Hertha Berlin, this is a “derby with no history”. To wrap it up in a sentence, it's all to do with where the two clubs are from: Union Berlin are based in the district of Köpenick which was formerly a part of East Berlin, capital city of the German Democratic Republic whilst Hertha originate from Charlottenburg in the north-west of the city and were a part of West Berlin and therefore West Germany.
When you think of city derbies you immediately think of pure hatred, passion, constant oneupmanship, but in Berlin everything was different. During the times of a divided Germany, East Germans were, of course, not permitted to travel to the West unless under special circumstances. The same did not apply the other way round, however, and it was often the case that Hertha BSC fans would make the journey over to Köpenick to watch Union Berlin matches or they would travel to away games elsewhere in the GDR together. Union fans would also accompany their Hertha counterparts if Hertha played a European match somewhere where the dear old SED ruling party actually them allowed to travel (in other words, anywhere east of the Iron Curtain). When Germany was reunited in 1990, the teams even played a friendly in the Olympiastadion which attracted over 50,000 spectators. The fans stood together, drank together and sung together. Further friendlies followed through the 90s, followed by regular matches for Union against Hertha's amateur team throughout the 2000s as the former meandered their way through the 3rd, 4th and even 5th tiers trying to avoid going bust. Perhaps Union Berlin's most famous and memorable match at the Olympiastadion did not even involve Hertha: On 26th May 2001, they contested the final of the DFB-Pokal as a third tier team against Schalke 04, losing 2-0.
As the respective country's leagues developed in the late 50s and 60s, the Bundesliga in the West and the Oberliga in the East, rivalries obviously developed at the same time. Ask 99% of Union Berlin fans who they believe their arch-rivals are and they'll say BFC Dynamo, or Dynamo Berlin as they are more commonly known. This rivalry developed from the fact that Erich Mielke, the then Minister for State Security (or Head of the Stasi) happened to be a BFC fan and 'helped' them along the way to 10 GDR Oberliga titles in row between 1979-1988, which was a record. BFC are now in the 5th tier and this season are enjoying a couple of 'derbies' against Union's reserve team. As for Hertha's rivals, being 200km from the rest of the country was certainly not conducive to the development of any territorial rivalries during the GDR/FRG times. There is a strong dislike of Schalke 04 dating back to the 70s, although no-one really knows why. Some say it's because Hertha were forcibly relegated from the Bundesliga in 1964/65 for cash payments and illegal bonuses whereas Schalke were allowed to remain in the division after committing the same crime in 1971. They do have a fan friendship (something which is kind of difficult for an English football fan to understand, I must admit) with Karlsruher SC resulting in games between the two being some kind of mass singalong love-in.
In more recent times, the Union and Hertha had not really considered the thought of playing seeing as Hertha had been Bundesliga stalwarts since the mid-90s with a succession of top-ten finishes whilst Union flirted between the 2. Bundesliga, the third-tier and the fourth tier during the same period. Even when Hertha had financial troubles (something they have still not shaken off) in the early 90s and went down, Union were nowhere to be seen and as Union took home the inaugural 3. Liga title in 2008/09, that was the season Hertha were battling for the title and only missed out on Champions League qualification on the final day of the season. For Hertha, the following season was a nightmare. They quickly sank to the bottom of the Bundesliga and stayed there for the rest of the season. Once Union secured their 2. Bundesliga status with a 3:0 victory over Arminia Bielefeld with a couple of games to spare, the fans could really start looking forward to “the derby with no history”.
In June the fixtures were released and the matchday was set for the first 'true' Berlin derby in 60 years and the first competitive fixture between the two in a national league. The game would take place on the weekend of 18th /19th September and Union advertised season tickets with the slogan “The only way to guarantee a ticket for the derby”. In fact, I know of Hertha BSC fans who bought season tickets at Union Berlin just to be sure of a ticket for this match. It was surely going to be a sell-out and the Union board knew this. There were rumours of the game being switched to the Olympiastadion, something which would have netted Union an estimated additional € 1m in gate receipts. Fans were understandably not happy. The first reason was purely that they would be sacrificing home advantage for the sake of business and the second was that it was the fans themselves who had voluntarily devoted over 16,000 working hours during the 2008/2009 season to completely redevelop the aging Alte Försterei stadium in order to make it fit for a second division side. Sure enough, during a pre-season friendly, it was announced that the game would take place in Köpenick.
The build up to the match was intense to say the least. It was almost as if the first three games of the season didn't count – this was the big one. Indeed Union probably wished the first three indeed hadn't counted, as they lost 2 and drew 1. Hertha had won all 3 and were joint top but, despite the form coming into the match, a cracking match finished honours even. The Ultras of both groups of fans both put on impressive displays, with the Hertha fans unveiling a banner echoing the words of Ernst Reuter, mayor of Berlin at the time of the Soviet blockade after the Second World War, roughly translated as “People of the world, look at this city”. Union fans played on the reputation of there being a rather large “prawn sandwich brigade” in the Olympiastadion on match days with an impressive choreography showing a man trying to make a decision about which S-Bahn train to get on as two of them arrived at a station, one towards Köpernick and one towards Charlottenburg . The banner read “Football culture shall take its course. What train do you get on?”. On the Hertha train, the fans were portrayed as corporate 'customers' (e.g. with vuvuzuelas) whereas the fans on the Union train were portrayed as true football supporters.
“Football culture shall take its course. What train do you get on?”
“People of the world, look at this city”
Since the first meeting between the two, Union have improved slightly. They won their first away game for more than a year away at probably-already-relegated Arminia Bielefeld (a result which cost former Tottenham 'legend' Christian Ziege his job at Bielefeld) and picked up points at home against teams like Aachen and Karlsruhe. They lie 12th in the 18-team 2. Bundesliga and are only 5 points above the relegation playoff place. Hertha, on the other hand, have remained at the top of the league, despite four defeats in five in November and early December. Promotion this season is key for them. They were almost denied a licence to play in the 2. Bundesliga at the start of the season due to their financial situation. The city senate decided to defer the payment of stadium rent for a season, something which has also heated up the atmosphere between them and Union, with the latter believing that the taxpayer has granted Hertha an unfair advantage. With this being the derby with no history, you can't help but think it's being created right now.
Fans of FC Union are meeting three hours before kick off at the Alexanderplatz.
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