Common Enemies

This weekend will see the second highest attendance ever in the second division at the Olympiastadion for the derby between Hertha and 1.FC Union Berlin. 75,000 fans with more in common than they like to think about.

Image for Common Enemies
Photo by Platte C (Wikimedia commons)

This blog was originally published on February 2, before 1.FC Union published an open letter to their media partner – B.Z. – calling for an apology over a B.Z. headline that describes Union’s goalkeepers as Trottel (“morons”). Today the story has been changed on the B.Z. website to Patzer (“blunderers”). It’s not all hugs and kisses before the derby.

It seems trite to bring up football sometimes. Sometimes it’s not that important. Sometimes it is. The news that supporters of Al Ahly had been mobilised in the recent uprisings in Egypt was no surprise. Football fans are motivated and come straight out of the box freshly organised.

Witness the horrible stories about Red Star Belgrade Ultras under their warlord leader Arkan, the man honoured by banners at Lazio after his death, and to whom apparently Siniša Mihajlović owes his life and career. They played a large role in the Yugoslavian civil war. A ready-made militia with a terrifying reputation.

I’m not trying to equate the Al Ahly fans to the Belgrade Ultras, or even worse, to compare the struggles. I’m just labouring to make the well-known point that football fans have been and will be utilised for political ends. Even if they are not actively fighting, a football stadium is an obvious focal point for dissent, and a forum where it can be shown more freely than most. See Barcelona fans singing banned Catalan songs at the Nou Camp under Franco, or FC Start’s humiliation of occupying Nazi teams to inspire the people of Kiev in the Second World War as more obvious and palatable examples.

I am as far away from Egypt now, as it has its “Berlin moment“, as I was from Berlin when it had its own. It is impossible to comprehend a revolution, so we imagine it; we put it in context of things we understand. The easiest and clearest metaphor of the Berlin wall, for me, is the image of Hertha fans crowding to the wall near their old stadium to hear the matches taking place in another sealed off world.

It also makes it easier to understand 1.FC Union’s fans using their home as a loudspeaker against the regime of the GDR. Congregation was acceptable, and there was a common enemy, embodied by an ultra-successful club down the road. It just wasn’t Hertha – it was Dynamo, who Union fans will always hate more than anybody.

This weekend, the second highest ever attendance in the second division is expected at the Olympiastadion for the derby between Hertha and Union Berlin. Almost 75,000 will be packed into see the second ever league meeting of the clubs. It’s a derby and it’s massive, but most of the fans reserve their hate for others. They make a token gesture, but memories linger of a time when they dreamed of meeting up like this in the same city.

The police will be just as alert for the few hundred fans attending Union’s Under 23’s match with Dynamo at the Sportforum the following week as they will be on Saturday. This is not a war, there is too little shared history to make it so. The common history that builds a proper rivalry is not there yet; there’s just the usual squabbles about size and status. Union resent the patronage that Hertha seem to get from the city. Hertha fans see their neighbours as insignificant throwbacks. A single draw between the teams doesn’t really constitute a deep well of resentment, does it?

But that is not to say there is no pressure. Football is nothing without competition. Not everybody gets trophies and pats on the back. Hertha disappointed in the first derby, last year in Köpenick and will be desperate to get that first win. They are five points clear at the top of the league, and playing the nicest football the city has seen in years. Union are at the other end, the point against Hertha one of the stand-out displays of a hard season. An inability to play well away from home might not matter, with such a short trip west.

So it’s hopefully going to live up to the wildest expectations and provide a little bit of something for us all to remember (positively or otherwise – there’s always two sides) the next time it comes around, but it’s not going to be a war. Some things are more important than that.