Every time they go to school or to work, whether they are out on the town or playing themselves on a concrete pitch they will have been reminded of the lie of the land. There will always have been a neighbour, or a colleague, or even worse, maybe a friend, a lover or a family member who still wants to wind them up, sorry, remind them, about the game. There will always have been someone who simply cannot stop going on about John-Jairo Mosquera’s volley and Torsten Mattuschka’s free kick.
The Hertha fan argues, of course, that Mosquera’s goal was a handball, that the free kick should never have been given in the first place, but he or she will never win this argument. Not until their side earn the unofficial title that the Union fans have been barking at them about these two long, long years. He or she will never be able to retort to the smug red hoards from the East. He or she need Hertha to win on Monday evening, just so that they can have the opportunity to sing back at their tormentors for once – for the first time: “Stadtmeister!” Stadtmeister! Berlin’s nummer Eins.”
Hertha may have more fans, a bigger stadium, a Bundesliga history, but the simple fact is they are yet to beat Union in the league. They beat them in the friendly at home in January 1990 in the wake of the Wall coming down. Yeah, they beat them then, 2-1, in front of 51,000 hugging and backslapping fans, astonished that they were able to play against each other at all. It was a beautiful day, but it was still just a friendly.
Then there was the grand reopening of the Stadion an der Alten Försterei, of course. Yeah, they beat them then too, in fact they spanked them, 5-3 in front of a delirious crowd suffering from a kind of self imposed glaucoma – the tears running fresh from all of those who had been building the stadium together mixed with the booze – lots of booze – that the result didn’t really matter. It was a beautiful night, but it was still just a friendly.
It is hard to say who needs this one more. The interminable, miserable decline of last season has sucked much of the joy away from the old dame. Jos Luhukay is a canny manager, but he doesn’t yet have the air of invincibility that Markus Babbel carried in the 2. Bundesliga. Hertha’s loss in the Pokal to Worms stung, but not as much as the 3-1 away at FSV Frankfurt. Still (and this conversation will be being argued out all over the city), at least, they will point out, they have won a game in the league this year. Union haven’t.
Union were appalling in the loss last week away at the newly promoted Sandhausen, they had a stinker at the back and were limp up front. The fact that they made it through the Pokal, just about scraping a win in Essen, was cause for a celebration (especially when Hertha lost), but to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, “It ain’t worth a hill of beans if we can’t win in the league.”
Union vs. Hertha doesn’t quite feel like a real derby yet. It is close, and the atmosphere on Monday (as it was at both matches two years ago) will be intimidating, raucous and touched with all of the passion and excitement that one loves football for, but they still need to work on the mutual dislike for it to get that extra edge.
Union don’t really hate Hertha, they barely know them and just see them as another arrogant Bundesliga failure. They've got other enemies in the city. Hertha don’t really hate Union, they always pitied them really. Just another poor Ossie team. They've got other enemies across in the Ruhrpott.
Sadly, in many ways, it will become like a real derby, but in the same way a stalagmite develops. It will take the drip, drip, dripping of enmity and antagonism, of points scored over each other and of those contentious goals. It will take the little crystals of irritation at ones colleagues and friends as they goad, harass and belittle every day about the last result. It will take the amount of time that in geological terms is minuscule, but seems like a lifetime when one is being reminded of a score in a football match every day, when all one hears across the city from all of your friends in red: “Stadtmeister, Stadtmeister, Berlin’s nummer eins”.