Taken from the latest edition of the Box To Box magazine – Issue 3: The Rivalries

Germany does not do rivalries on the scale of its European counterparts. There are exceptions, of course, the Rhine-Ruhr region is home to a couple of huge derbies while in international football, games against Holland and Italy come loaded with historical significance. However, outside of those clashes, there aren’t many that can be considered among the game’s best.

It is a discrepancy highlighted by the nation’s capital, Berlin. Most of the continent’s major cities are divided between at least two major clubs, such as in Rome, Milan and Madrid. Almost every major city in Britain is similarly divided with the Old Firm and Manchester derby being a couple of the game’s biggest, while in London a litany of clubs compete over their corner of the capital.

Yet while the grey city doesn’t have the intensity of the Derby della Madonnina or the footballing pedigree of el Clásico, it does possess some fascinating footballing stories. Not least the relationship between its two biggest sides; Hertha BSC, located in the Western suburb of Charlottenburg, and Union Berlin, who play in the district of Köpenick in the city’s South-East.

For a long time, these two sides weren’t rivals at all. Even now that doesn’t feel like the right way to characterise it, given they have only met four times in league competition. In fact, during the Cold War, they managed to forge an unlikely friendship despite the wall that scythed the city in two.

During that era the Stasi were able to monitor much that the East German public could consume, carefully ensuring it fitted the party ideology. While the borders could be heavily policed, the airwaves could not. In the 1970s the advent of television meant that many in the DDR could receive West German television and therefore tune into Bundesliga clashes, as a result, many in the East adopted a favourite side on the other side of the wall. It was around this time that Union fans established a link with Berlin’s only Bundesliga representative, Hertha.

Union were far from the stereotypical Soviet era side, that honour belonged to crosstown rivals Dynamo Berlin. Who claimed ten straight league titles between 1979-88 thanks largely to the backing of Stasi chief Erich Mielke, who employed all sorts of shady tricks to ensure their dominance was not tested. Union fans detested what the club represented, and they still draw plenty of ire, despite their stint of lower league obscurity.

Union’s friendship with Hertha stemmed from being ‘the other Berlin club’, they were the club of the people, not the party. The Stadion An der Alten Försterei (Stadium by the Old Forester’s Lodge) provided a platform for people to express discontent, the mass of spectators providing a rare moment of anonymity from the Stasi’s pervasive presence. Here fans chanted anti-regime songs with just enough ambiguity to avoid prosecution, perhaps the best of which being ‘the wall must fall’, sang as a Union player lined up a direct free-kick. So strong was their reputation that it was joked that ‘not every Union fan is an enemy of the state, but every enemy of the state is a Union fan’.

Their friendship with Hertha fitted that ethos nicely. Fans of Union aired their unhappiness with the system by cladding themselves in the blue of West Berlin’s leading side, much to the chagrin of the party elite. One song, in particular, sent a powerful message – ‘there are only two teams on the Spree – Union and Hertha BSC’ – directly snubbing the Stasi-backed Dynamo in favour of a Western rival.

Even today an element of that counter-culture persists and it remains one of Europe’s more unique clubs. They have a passionate group of ultras, possess an anti-establishment history and have a homemade stadium in the middle of a forest, rebuilt by fans of the club who volunteered to bring it up to standard following promotion from the third division in 2008, putting in 140,000 accumulative hours. They remain the antithesis of modern football.

Meanwhile, Hertha who existed as an isolated speck of blue in a sea of red at the time, separated from the rest of the Federal Republic by over 150 kilometres of communist territory, were happy to reciprocate the friendship. Flying banners and Union flags in solidarity with their neighbours and on occasion even travelling across the border to cheer them on in person.

It looked like the friendship would be sustained into the modern day. Not long after the wall fell, fans from the Eastern section of the city flooded across the increasingly redundant border to support Hertha. The two sides also met in a historically significant friendly match on the 27th of January 1990. The wall had fallen at this point, but the future of the two countries was still in flux. Yet while Germany remained politically divided, over 50,000 fans from either side of the wall (symbolically tickets could be purchased in both East and West German currency) mingled freely together in the Olympiastadion and enjoyed the spectacle of two sides from either side of the Iron Curtain facing off, something that would have seemed unimaginable only a few years before.

However, after the initial euphoria of reunification had worn off it became clear that a united Germany faced a struggle to establish stability and relative equality. The DDR lagged behind their Western counterparts economically. The Federal Republic was reinvigorated post-war thanks to American backing, The Marshall Plan provided the platform for Wirtschaftswunder (the ‘economic miracle’) of the 1950s, which established the country as a European economic powerhouse. Meanwhile, the Kremlin took a different approach to their segment of Germany, seizing the region’s heavy industry as ‘reparations’, and the East failed to recover substantially in the stunted Soviet system. Therefore, post-reunification the East was beset by issues, plagued by political unrest and mass unemployment. Even now the East is supported by ‘solidarity’ payments from the West.

The economic imbalance quickly filtered into the footballing world. Huge clubs that had dominated the East German footballing landscape for the past century tumbled down the leagues following the merger of the Oberliga and the Bundesliga in 1991. The likes of Dynamo Berlin, Dynamo Dresden and Lokomotive Leipzig were unable to compete financially with the Bundesliga elite and quickly faded. In recent years only Energine Cottbus and RB Leipzig have reached the top tier from the East, the former with a moneyball-esque strategy and the latter thanks to Red Bull pumping money into the club. While in international terms Toni Kroos was the only member of Germany’s 2014 World Cup winning squad, underlining the disparity between the two regions.

This has had an impact on the Berlin derby as well. By the time the two sides met for the first time in a league fixture in 2010 the brotherly love that existed twenty years previously had almost entirely subsided. It was a decent game; Peter Niemeyer gave Hertha an early lead before Santi Kolk scored late to secure Union a credible point. Yet perhaps the game’s highlight was provided by the Union ultras who produced an incredible display before the game. Unveiling a banner with the line – ‘Football culture takes its course. What train do you get on?’ complete with an image of a man confusedly trying to decide which S-Bahn train to get on, one of which is full of Hertha fans travelling towards Charlottenburg and the other featuring Union supports heading to Köpenick. Contrasting the legions of tourists who gravitate towards Hertha’s famous Olympiastadion with Union’s more authentic and traditional fanbase.

The second meeting that season provided the derby’s most dramatic moment. Union’s diehard support again impressed, meeting in Alexanderplatz pre-game to travel en masse. Oddly, what was most striking was the ultras’ choice of headwear, matching red Union hats which made for an impressive image. A mass of red gathered below the iconic TV Tower.

On paper, it looked like a comfortable victory for the Old Lady. Hertha were cantering towards an immediate return towards the Bundesliga while Union were struggling to get any kind of momentum going. However, it was the 25,000 or so Union fans who made the trip across the city that ended up celebrating. Roman Hubnik gave Hertha an early lead but Union winger John Jairo Mosquera lashed in an equaliser soon after. It was a Union cult hero, Torsten Mattuschka, who produced the winner with an impressive free-kick that bounced into the bottom corner. It was fitting that the likeable Mattuschka was the one to deliver such a momentous moment for the club. A mercurial, but not exactly svelte, playmaker who trained as a painter and decorator before making it as a footballer. He had been at Union since 2005 and helped them gain promotions from the third and fourth tiers, and now he was responsible for perhaps the club’s greatest win.

Another surprise relegation for Hertha in 2012 meant there have been two more fiery fixtures since. First, Hertha broke their derby duck with victory in Köpenick. It was an impressively and expensively assembled Hertha side, and their quality showed. The electric pace of Änis Ben-Hatira facilitated Sandro Wagner’s opening goal, and while Christopher Quiring equalised for the home side, Ronny, Hertha’s own portly playmaker, extinguished any hopes for a comeback with an impressive free-kick a few minutes later.

The second game at a snowcapped Olympiastadion again served up plenty of excitement. With Union looking likely to recreate their heroics of two years previous, taking a 2-0 lead with goals from Simon Terodde and Adam Nemec. Again Mattuschka produced a mesmerising performance, dictating the flow of the game and assisting for the side’s second goal. However, Adrián Ramos pulled a goal back with around 15 minutes remaining and an equaliser seemed inevitable with Union looking nervous. Ironically, for the third time in this fixture, the decisive moment came from a wall failing to do its job. As Ronny, on his way to an 18-goal season, curled another wonderful free-kick into the bottom corner.

The rivalry has cooled since that glut of fixtures. Hertha were promoted in 2013, which restored their division cushion over their crosstown rivals. They are currently in the midst of an impressive season, sitting third in the table at the time of writing, their stint in Bundesliga 2 a distant memory. However, this fixture could recur as early as next season, with Union sitting in fourth in the second tier and firmly in the promotion picture. Even if it doesn’t happen this term it seems only a matter of time as Union increase membership and revenue from year to year, allowing them to compete with the financially stronger teams from the West. If Union were to get promoted, it is not unthinkable, given the size of the city, that this could become one of the Bundesliga’s biggest occasions. Maybe those dramatic meetings a few years back, and the incredible performances of Mattuschka and Ronny, will become folklore for future generations, as this derby finally catches up with those history-laden games played across Europe’s capitals.