Every good smoker will tell you that the best part of a fag is that last wheeze, that final desperate tug on a yellowing and crushed filter, when a golden flicker finally just tips over the edge and there is a final hit of paper and cotton and plastic. A wincing blast of carcinogens inhaled to the very pit of your stained and swollen lungs. In the wonderful words of Millie Jackson, It hurts so good.
It is that last drag – at its best taken in whist the final plumes of the previous one are coming out of the nose with a well-practised billow – which draws us back. It is that last drag which is always the reason for starting the next fag. The next will be all the tastier and this time – this time! – you may finally look as cool as Humphrey Bogart.
And the fans of SV Babelsberg 03 are almost at the end of their pack, their bronze tinted fingers are scrabbling through their pockets for the comforting feel of a dog end that has been tucked away safely for times of emergency. And this is a time of emergency.
After last years’ relegation from the 3. Liga (when they slunk out of the league only in the last two weeks having conceded eight goals against Preußen Munster and Wacker Burghausen) the Regionalliga was supposed to be a doddle. Naturally, things haven’t worked out quite according to plan.
They are used to the abuse from ugly skinheads travelling to Brandenburg to earn their stripes as the first one to boorishly chant sickening (illegal) songs or to raise their clunking, half-coordinated wrists in (illegal) Hitler salutes, as they are used to the years of under-performance on the pitch. But this time, this Saturday, things are going right to the wire for 03. The bottom of the Regionalliga is set to explode on its final day this weekend as four teams who could all end up filling the final relegation place play against each other.
Yes, this is the real fag-end of the season, two games that could deliver a thrillingly poised denouement that could dictate the moods of thousands for the following summer. In a league of 16 teams, 15th placed Lokomotiv Leipzig play 12th placed Hertha BSC II in a battle between two sides who have both had to issue desperate apologies for the actions of their “fans” for their aforementioned behaviour in the Kaiser’s backyard. Meanwhile Babelsberg travel to Meuselwitz, 13th vs. 14th.
Avoiding relegation could mean survival for all of these clubs (apart from Hertha, for whom pride should surely be enough to fight for with tooth and nail). Avoiding relegation will mean that the best players may stay and that better ones may join. And, gleefully, avoiding relegation will be at the expense of one of the others.
And what is football if it isn’t about this spectacularly, implausibly, set-up final round of fixtures. These will be games so tense that a pre-match Temazepam would barely touch the sides. They will feature mistakes and moments of heart-wrenching, gutting, failure. They will require every last drop of sweat from the players, they will require every single sinew in every single limb on every single player on every single pitch to strain like never before. They will require luck and the blessed fortune of the unknown Fußballgott, as well as cool heads and a trust in the inherent abilities of the footballer.
They will also require a lot of smoking. And as that pack finally reaches its end, as that final gasper is pulled out and sparked away, these two games between 44 men and a handful of subs, between rival towns and rival fans who will see this as a battle between good and evil, there will only be left a lingering feeling. Despite the unbridled joy of survival or the stultifying numbness and hate of failure the fans know that they will be back. They will start next season peeling off the plastic wrapping and getting that first whiff of that fresh new packet of cigarettes.
And, once again, they will smoke them down to the very end, to the end of next season, and the one after that and the one after that. And maybe, one day, they really will end up winning. And maybe it will be whilst looking as cool as Humphrey Bogart.