The curious case of football in Berlin

Later this year, the Champions League final will be hosted in Berlin – one of the largest European cities not to produce a winner of a major European club competition.

In fact, clubs from the German capital have not only failed to make an impact on the continent, but have continued the trend domestically.

The city contributed 24 of the 86 founders of the DFB – the German football league – in Leipzig, 1900. However, quantity has not resulted in quality with only one team from Berlin competing in the Bundesliga today; Hertha. A closer look at the history of the city highlights the lack of success.

When the Berlin wall was erected in 1961, it divided a city, families and created an intriguing scenario in the footballing landscape. In the eastern part of the city, BFC Dynamo proved to be quite the force winning 10 successive Oberliga titles from 1979 – 88. But their success was tainted.

As the name of the club may suggest, Dynamo were a product of the Stasi – the secret police agency of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The club was effectively controlled by Stasi Minister and ‘Honorary Chairman’ Erich Mielke, who moved the players from Dynamo Dresden to Berlin in order to have a more dominant team representing the capital.

Following re-unification, BFC Dynamo attempted to distance itself from the past and was renamed FC Berlin before reverting back to their original title in 1999. A few seasons later the club went bankrupt and have continued to play their football in the lower leagues  of German football since the turn of the century.

While unification has been unpleasant for many teams from the the former GDR, 1. FC Union Berlin have overcame many obstacles. Although the club is  enjoying a healthy league position in the second Bundlesliga, it has became more famous for their fanbase which invested over 140,000 hours of unpaid work to rebuild their home ground, Stadion An der Alten Försterei.

Such events are not uncommon and in 2004 a campaign was launched titled ‘Bleed for Union’ which their fans donated blood in order to clear their debts. Needless to say it proved successful and the club has continued to grow. While Union have never played in the Bundesliga, a strong fanbase, balanced books and community support suggests it may not be beyond them.

A shadow is cast over Union from the west of the city,  in the shape of Berlin’s most famous club, Hertha BSC. Despite the fact,  Hertha have not won a German championship since 1931 and have been relegated as recently as 2012.

Upon returning to the Bundesliga in 1997 – following years of mediocrity in the lower divisions during the Cold War – Hertha supporters had reason to be optimistic as they became the first (and last) side from Berlin to reach the Champions League group stages in 1999-00.

As the many vacant grey seats in Olympiastadion on match day suggest, the interest may be dwindling as they struggle to gain support in a city with a population of 3.5 million. On average, only 65.8% of the ground is full when Hertha play, which is the lowest in the Bundesliga by some way.

Realistically decades could pass by without Berliners seeing their side win a league title but like the city itself, the tale will always remains intriguing.

Author Details

Darren Holland

Can be found travelling anywhere between Dalymount Park and the San Siro.

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