Now, while I offer no apology for it, in order to help contextualise my perspective like any self-aware sports writer, I will pretext this report with a confession: I love Germany as a country, Berlin as a city, and German football on the whole. Now that’s out of the way, I can get on with my eulogy!
Berlin is a wonderful, cosmopolitan city of some 3.5 million people; yet can also lay claim to one of football’s least desirable statistics, being the only European capital currently without a team in its domestic top-flight. The Hertha Berlin SC’s supporters’ motto is “eine stadt. Ein team. Ein ziel” (“one city. One team. One aim”), which has proved distinctly epithetic since their dispiriting relegation last season. Indeed, their somewhat ignominious present standing in the German hierarchy is made even more stark by their on-field surroundings, with the side playing its home games in the vast, imposing surroundings of the Olympiastadion. Dating back (in its outer structure, if not the interior) to the infamous 1936 Olympic Games, the Stadium is steeped in historical revery; the names of all gold-medal winners from the so-termed ‘Nazi Games’ being commemorated on chiselled limestone boards on the sides of the Marathontor, overlooked by the Bell Tower and Mayfield parade arena that was the platform for Hitler’s shadow to be cast over that Olympiad. However, it seems almost inevitable now that will change in the very near future, with 1.Bundesliga action getting set to grace the most suitable of settings once more, as the Club marches relentlessly towards the 2.Bundesliga title. Hertha sit top of the division, with 59 points, two clear of FC Augsburg 1907 in second.
And so it was to this magnificent venue that I headed on Sunday 3rd April, to take my seat for the tie with SC Paderborn 07. For the record, Paderborn began the day in 13th, and had won the reverse fixture 1-0 back in November. However, the games itself proved to be a fairly rudimentary affair for the home side, with goals in the 39th and 46th minutes proving the deciding factors in a largely one-sided encounter. The first Tor was converted expertly by the outside of under-21 German international Pierre-Michel Lasogga’s left boot, after a drilled shot from Christian Lell. The second, a towering Andre Mijatovic header from a left wing corner from the returning Patrick Ebert. While Paderborn were decked out in colours reminiscent of Borussia Dortmund, the comparisons ended there, with the visitors finding themselves largely restricted to counter-attacking bursts, reliant on the pace of 20-year old Columbian Jorge Mosquera. Indeed, such was the dominance enjoyed by the home team that only once – in the 78th minute, when Markus Krösche saw a drilled shot from 22 yards glance Maikel Aerts’ left-hand upright – did Markus Babbel determine to leave his seat.
The debonair, be-suited former Liverpool defender took charge at Hertha in the close season, and his genial, ebullient approach to the game was evident throughout proceedings. The two Torschutzen (goalscorers) typify the overall approach of Babbel’s well-balanced side; with Lasogga embodying their attacking intent and youthfulness, and Mijatovic offering the very model upon which their erstwhile solid 4-2-3-1 en vogue formation is built.
For the statisticians amongst us, Hertha dominated the game, with 55% possession (61% in the first half), and 11 shots to eight. And for the lifestyle interested – it was the couple from Berlin that won out in the half-time battle of the betrothed couples for a trip to New York, courtesy of Air Berlin!
Berlin’s recent history is predicated by its division, but the auspices of Hertha offer a clear, tangible medium through which people from all quarters of the city come together in unison. The glorious passion of the city is mirrored in the fervour that is so overtly shown by the fans of its foremost footballing side. Clearly not embittered by the demotion of the previous year, Hertha boast an average home attendance this season of 43,068. To put that in perspective; only Man. United, Arsenal, Man. City and Newcastle United currently have higher figures than this in England. For the game with SC Paderborn 07, I was joined in the stadium by some 70,620 others, and only two fixtures across the entire continent of Europe could offer greater attendance over that weekend – at Borussia Dortmund (v Hannover 96), and for the Milan derby.
Although experience has taught me that a large crowd does not necessarily mean a rousing atmosphere of any note, the effervescence of the Hertha hardcore mean that I will most certainly have to revise any predispositions I may hold. Occupying the entire east end of the ground, the Ostkurve fans (so named in homage to the challenging banking of the Hockenheim ring race track) were in situ some two hours before kick-off, and ramped the atmosphere up to a crescendo that I certainly have never witnessed previously. Alongside this, and notably in-keeping with the all-embracing nature of German football, runs the Club’s anti-racism campaign, which thoroughly eschews the echoes of their historical setting. Orchestrating the chanting and singing throughout the game, they then remained – resolutely to a man – until well after the final whistle, determined to enjoy both the success of the day, as well as the mid-afternoon sunlight streaming through the Marathontor at the opposite end of the stadium.
The entire stadium was, almost literally, bouncing for the duration of the match. Even the vastly outnumbered Paderborn fans played their part within the desegregated crowd. And there is a clear warmth and affinity between players and fans, with many of the former waving directly to individuals in amongst the masses during their post-match tour of the ground. One point of note that may of special interest to West Ham United fans less than enamoured with their prospective move to the London 2012 Olympic Stadium – the running track need only be a hindrance if you let it; a strong enough atmosphere will easily transcend the physical space, and can actually offer a good means for players and fans to interact.
All-in-all – flights, hotel, etc – my weekend in Berlin (Saturday to Monday) set me back around £200, with the actual match ticket costing just €22 (~£18; top price is €35, ~£30), and giving me a spot roughly in line with the six-yard box at the west end of the ground. Again, to put that in context, an average category C Premier League game will set you back around £35-£40, with the overall average being some £20 further north of that, at around £55-£60. The match day programme was just €2, and the match ticket includes travel from within the city (and back) on match day. Transport to the stadium is first-rate and straightforward, with additional StraßenBahn being enlisted to cope with a capacity crowd. The opportunity to arrive early (which you will need to do to collect your ticket if you pre-book via the internet) is one not to be missed, offering the chance to take in the equally sobering and yet inspiring Olympic complex. The stadium sits at the heart of a venue that includes hockey and tennis stadia, as well as the open-air Olympic pool that once held 15,000 fans. There are also information boards tracked around the stadium, offering details on most aspects of sporting Nazism, alongside tangible statues of history that have stood the respective tests of time and war.
And so I end in a similar vein to how I began: unapologetic and effusive in promoting the Berlin experience. With the vast majority of the city’s iconic histography open to free access – the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, Jewish Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie, Tiergarten – not to mention the all-encompassing shopping areas of the Kurfürstendamm, it offers something for everyone, and is a city so warmly welcoming to all. In that respect, the football element was merely the icing on the cake. But, could quite easily be your primary – even sole – reason for travelling, given the cheap nature of the journey. If still in doubt, my advice is simple: just go! And the visit of FC Augsburg 1907 on the last day of the season, in what is likely to prove to be a title-decider between promoted sides, has to be the pick of the bunch!