As the game got underway on Saturday afternoon, there was a growing sense that German football might well be on the brink of something seismic. A new beginning appeared to be on the horizon, as Union Berlin met their cross-city rivals Hertha BSC, in a first Bundesliga meeting between the two clubs.
Berlin football was the talk of the terraces once more, and with RB Leipzig on the right end of an 8-0 thrashing over Mainz, the balance of power within the German game, appeared to be shifting slightly. For a moment, the shackles of history, that for so long hung over East-German football like a dark cloud, were now seemingly a thing of the past.
However, events before, during and after the game, reminded observers that history wasn’t going to be shaken off all too easily. Before a ball was even kicked, a disagreement over the date of the match threatened the previously jovial build-up. Hertha were keen for the game to be played on the 9th November, what would have been the 30th anniversary since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But such sentiments were not shared by Union, who were reluctant to stage a game on a date of such cultural significance.
It’s important to note, that the Berlin derby is not especially conventional, as animosity between the two clubs has historically been rather more muted than you might expect. The reasoning for this is multi-varied, but it largely boils down to the sides first meeting in 1990.
In the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, both clubs were keen to play their part in rekindling East-West relations. For the first time in a generation, Germans from both sides of the divide were free integrate, and live side by side as simply “German” citizens.
In the spirit of this atmosphere, Union Berlin travelled to Hertha’s home, the iconic Olympiastadion, for a friendly match, where the hosts were victorious in front of over 52,000 spectators. The Goodwill on view that day would extend beyond German unification, as the first competitive tie between the clubs wouldn’t occur for another two decades.
The history of both clubs differs drastically. As many will know, Union’s rise to the Bundesliga hasn’t been an especially smooth journey. As an East Berlin outfit, they were unable to play in Germany’s premier division until 1990. The club subsequently endured years of financial turmoil throughout the 2000’s, leading to the infamous “bleed for Union” campaign, as well as a group of fans volunteering to build the clubs new stadium.
Hertha by contrast, as an original member of the Bundesliga, are viewed as German football royalty. The West Berlin outfit had their most successful spell in the 1970s, finishing as runners up in the Bundesliga in 1975, while also reaching a UEFA Cup semi-final the following year.
The success wouldn’t last, with the past two decades having seen Hertha yo-yo between the first and the second tier – inconsistent form that would eventually see the two foremost Berlin sides meet competitively for the first time.
That first competitive meeting eventually arrived in the 2010/11 season, and saw Union escape with the bragging rights, drawing with Hertha at home, before sealing a famous win at the Olympiastadion. While the two clubs would continue to face each other in the following years, ultimately, all of their meetings were in 2. Bundesliga – never in German football’s elite division. That was, until Saturday’s landmark clash. Long overdue, the match itself represents many things – from the historic connotations that continue to plague East German football, to what the future may hold for the game in Berlin. In a place known for its thriving artistic scene, football has always had to fight hard to be a part of the city’s cultural DNA.
It was ultimately a game short on goals, and perhaps quality, but in terms of talking points, it left plenty for a gleeful watching media to dissect. As we’ve seen so far this season, whatever shortcomings Union may have on the pitch, they more than make up for it with a cauldron like atmosphere – as Dortmund found out to their detriment.
The same dichotomy was evident on Saturday afternoon, where a talented and skilled Hertha side, boasting talents like Javairo Dilrosun, Dodi Lukabadio and Marko Grujic, was countered by fervent home support, and fired up Union players.
This derby may have begun life in the spirit of good will, but on Saturday, the quintessential spice that accompanies most rivalries around the world, was on display for all to see. This was epitomised on a number of occasions, as a pitch invasion by a set of masked home fans disrupted the game. It was then halted once more, as flares from the away section littered the pitch just after the half time break. It began to feel like this tie was going to be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
That was, until a vital turning point. With just three minutes of regular time to play, Union were awarded a vital penalty. Up stepped substitute Sebastian Polter, who converted – setting the stage for a famous victory. The consequences of the win could be far reaching.
For Union, its three vital points towards Bundesliga survival, while for Hertha, it’s a reminder that they are no longer the only show in town. For, as frustrating as their noisy neighbours may be, this derby has captured the imagination of football fans everywhere. Two very different clubs, with two very different journeys, playing in two very different countries just 30 years ago.
Union’s triumph could well have a far-reaching impact on German football. Alternatively, however, they could easily crash and burn, falling out of the Bundesliga at the end of the campaign, with Saturday’s victory standing as their season highpoint. For now, that question will remain unanswered.
What does seem to have already changed however, is fan interaction. The tie was plagued by off-field disruption, and to some fans – on both sides of the city divide, Saturday afternoon altered previously held perceptions.
As Hertha supporter Anna Dragičević states: “Some people forget we had a friendship just after the wall fell. Young people, fools, have created a fraudulent hatred. And it’s gotten everyone else involved sadly. Before the Derby I didn’t care much for Union, but after it, I hope Hertha tear them apart at the Olympiastadion in March.”
Whether the feeling will be mutual in that regard, remains to be seen. But judging by some of the behaviour in the home section on the weekend, it’s certainly a possibility. You may say that Union’s recent success was always likely to conjure up a rivalry between the two sides.
Afterall, this was little old Union coming into Hertha’s territory. And yet, some of the visceral responses witnessed over the past week, perhaps point to unhealed scars of the past, rising to prominence once more. West vs East, Bundesliga royalty vs The Workers club – resentment was bound to brew eventually.
What started life as a warm, post-Cold War friendship, now has the potential to become one of Germany’s biggest and most fiercely contested derbies. This may prove to be a false start for the game in Berlin, a rare moment in time where the nation gazed Eastwards, rather than Westward for their footballing fix. And yet, if Union can build on their great start, and if Hertha can return to the glory days of the 1970s, we could be in for a special few years to come.
The attention that Berlin football continues to receive, has the potential to reignite a previously thriving football culture in the capital. But the newfound rivalry should also serve as a cautionary tale, as in Berlin, reminders of historical divisions linger around every corner.
By Tom Fenton.