Mauerpark of course looks different now. On a Sunday it is filled with the slowly ambling detritus of a hip experiment, an ironic apocalypse of people old enough to know better and young enough to dress better, but that is fine. It is not the Sportsdesk’s job to comment on the fineries of our more beautiful and youthful neighbours. There are few things worse than people complaining because music and haircuts aren’t what they were in the old days. Even if they aren’t.
But that is on Sundays. During the week, without the godforsaken karaoke, without the stalls and the noise and the endlessly swelling ranks of people with nothing better to do with their time on a day off, the gaps on the grass show off its history. For many years the land where the Jahn-Sportpark now stands was just the Exerzierplatz. The Exer. It was a bastion of the Prussian army’s devotion to walking quickly in straight lines as one. A place where organised pointing determined the strength of the nation.
That piece of land next to Mauerpark where the Jahn-Sportpark now stands is now rarely called the Exer, and hasn’t hosted the tournament that it gave its name to for almost 15 years. The Exer-Pokal takes place now on the undulating Kunstrasen of the Tesch-Sportplatz that rises in the middle and flattens out towards the wings. The cup for the amateur football sides of greater Pankow has been gleefully filling the drearily regular summer football void since the 1950s, and in its ramshackle nature, in the unbalance between the sides, in its very amateurness (in the sense that these guys are not paid), it is often glorious.
The unloved and unrecognised meet each other with the chance to reach a final against the winners of the Lichtenberg summer tournament. They will have a chance to really call themselves the champions of east Berlin. Red faces huff and puff their way through games, gasping down a fag before kick-off, clinging on to water bottles for life in the glorious late evening sunshine. I saw an SG Nordring fullback skinned by a flighty SV Buchholz winger, and on hearing the dismayed cries of his teammates, he turned and shouted simply “What am I supposed to do? He’s about 18”.
He had stopped running long before that though, in the first minute he had found himself unnaturally far up the pitch and tried to stop the guy to whom he had just lost the ball by clinging on to his shorts for dear life. It didn’t work and they went a goal down almost immediately.
Still, they had done better than SV Karow, who have so far conceded 21 goals in four games. Their cup runneth over with goals conceded.
But it would be unfair to focus on the negatives. The Exer-Pokal, like all the regional tournaments that dot the sporting landscape of the netherland that is the endless summer break, is about meeting old friends and foes. It is a celebration of the sport that brings us together. It is a chance for a cold beer and a cheap ticket. A flash of skill on a poorly laid astroturf illuminates the warm evenings like the arrival of the first swallows. The hangdog expressions of the losers and the rapturous cheers of the victors show what this really means. Football is never meaningless, even at this level. It is about community, about life in the parts of Berlin that rarely get talked about and all of those faceless folk who don’t wear strangely coloured sunglasses and who don’t judge each other by the haircuts they wear. The Exer may no longer be at the Exer but it is still the beating heart of Pankow and beyond.
And as the football season rolls ever closer – this week sees the beginning of the most fascinating Regionalliga NordOst season in years – it is an opportunity to kick back and enjoy this unfashionable end of Berlin in the company of good friends and old acquaintances. When clubs such as VFB Einheit zu Pankow who have been going for over 120 years take the Exer-Pokal seriously you know that this is more than about a kickabout in the evening air. The Exer may no longer be at the Exer any more but it is still the beating heart of Pankow and beyond.