For American soccer fans beginning their soccer journey, choosing a European club for which to root can be tough. Some pick based on family heritage, some on the players, and some based on a book on which the club is the subject of a writer’s neuroses. Some, however, choose a club because of a favorite city or vacation spot. Or, as we are in travel season, you may want to see some local soccer as you travel overseas. Our Guide to a City’s Soccer Clubs series is aimed at helping you get a snapshot of professional soccer in major tourist or destination cities, in case you want to catch a match or follow a team. The first city in our series is Berlin.
Berlin is Germany’s most famous city, once a symbol of an ideological battle but now a symbol of unity. It is also Europe’s fifth fastest growing city by international overnight visitors, and is expanding cultural offerings like its arts scene. Sufficient to say, Berlin is a major destination for meetings and travel, and is quickly reaching the popularity of places like Paris or Rome for tourism.
Its soccer scene, however, is slightly different. Unlike the United Kingdom and France, clubs from Munich and Dortmund dominate the Bundesliga in recent years. In this way, German soccer is very similar to Italy but the reason is quite different. After World War II and the division of the city, many Berlin clubs had to divide players and management between the East and West, which disadvantaged them in league play for years. That said, soccer fans visiting Berlin have a number of options for clubs to support/visit and soccer culture to take in.
International soccer in Berlin
The first stop for a soccer pilgrim in Berlin is the Olympiastadion. The multi-purpose facility is familiar to fans of international sports, as it was built for the 1936 Olympics. It was the site of Jesse Owen’s gold medal races. It was renovated in the 1970s to host 1974 World Cup matches (three matches were played there) but it was not until the 1990s that another renovation was undertaken. At the time, there was intense debate whether the stadium should be completely rebuilt or refurbished, but its historical status meant the latter won out. Since the most recent renovation, Olympiastadion has hosted six matches including the Italy/France World Cup final. More recently, it was the site of the 2015 Champions League final.
The stadium is located in east Berlin surrounded by an Olympic Park. Today, it is the home venue for Hertha (see below) but can be visited and self-toured for €7 (see here for more information). The DFB Cup (German FA Cup) final is located there annually.
Hertha has existed as a professional soccer club for over 120 years. Founded in 1892, it was one of the founding members of the German Football Association in 1900. Its name comes from a rather unique place – one of the club’s founders had taken a day trip on a steamship that day and named the club after the ship.
Hertha had its greatest success in the interwar years, when it reached six consecutive German championship finals between 1926 and 1931, winning the title twice. However, WWII was the beginning of the end of its run of success. Nazi party officials took over club management – although the club was not formally run by the party – and the club was disbanded in 1945. Hertha retook its identity in 1949 but the division of Berlin literally divided the club’s fans.
As a founding member of the Bundesliga, Hertha was something of a yo-yo club, mixing successful seasons in the top flight with financial issues and some scandals. Their recent high point was a run in the 1999-2000 Champions League where they defeated AC Milan and Chelsea, and drew to Barcelona in Nebelschlacht. After a failed spending binge in the aughts, they fell into 2. Bundesliga but were promoted in 2013.
For U.S. fans the name that stands out in the squad is U.S. international John Brooks, who has played for the Hertha senior squad since 2012. EPL fans will also recognize Ivorian forward Salomon Kalou, who has been a member of the club since 2014. The club’s manager, Pal Dardai, played for Hertha for 14 years until retiring and becoming the manager in 2015. Last season, the club finished 7th in the Bundesliga.
The club’s nicknames include Die Alte Dame (The Old Lady) and Die Blau-Weiβen (The Blue-Whites). As I mentioned previously, the lack of success despite being from a major city is puzzling, with theories for the lack of support including the Cold War divisions, poor management, and even the stadium itself. However, you have to hand it to the club for getting creative to build a better stadium atmosphere – last season before a critical game to try and land a European spot, the club announced attendees would receive free beer!
Other Professional Clubs
FC Union Berlin
It may not be a 100% accurate comparison, but you could say that Union is the East Berlin version of Hertha. Founded in 1906, the club saw success in the 1920s including finishing second in 1923. After the post-WWII dissolution and reforming of German club soccer, the team split when the city was divided, with the majority of the club’s management and players fleeing west. The remainder formed what is today the club we know as FC Union Berlin, although it did not adopt the name until the 1960s.
The club is not known for its success on the field; it has bounced up and down the professional divisions throughout its history. Despite this, the club is famous for its intense fan support. Part of the reason for that may be the club’s identity as the main rival for the Stasi’s preferred club during the Cold War. In 2004, the club lacked a license to participate in the fourth division, so the club supporters started a “Bleed for Union” campaign (Iron Union being the club’s nickname). Supporters went to local blood banks, donated blood, and donated the money earned to the club. The admiration goes both ways. In 2014, the club invited fans to sit on the stadium pitch to watch World Cup matches. But they invited them to not only sit, but to bring their couches and sit. More than 800 sofas were placed on the pitch to participate.
Speaking of the stadium, some teams claim their club is built on the backs of their supporters. In Union’s case, this is quite accurate. Stadion An der Alten Forsterei is the largest single-purpose soccer stadium in Berlin. It was built in 1920 but in 2008 the club decided the stadium needed long overdue repairs. To save money, more than 2,000 fans donated time and energy to help rebuild the stadium.
Berliner FC Dynamo
The end of the Cold War has not been kind to “The Wine Reds”. Formed as a merger between two East Berlin clubs, Dynamo and subsequent iterations were favorites of the Stasi and, as a result, favorites of referees. The club won ten consecutive East German championships between 1979 and 1988, a record. Because of their success, they have an impressive history of matches in European competitions, including losing to to clubs like Liverpool and Roma. They are also held in contempt by many fans of other Berlin clubs.
After reunification, the club re-branded as FC Berlin to distance itself from its Communist past. When success did not come, the club took back its previous brand in 1999. Currently they play in the fourth division of German soccer and bounce between the fringe of the professional leagues and the regional leagues.
The club plays its soccer at Dynamo-Stadion im Sportforum, part of a larger sports complex located in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen.
FC Viktoria 1889 Berlin
What could have been. Die Himmelblauen was founded in 1889 as BFC Viktoria 89 Berlin and was a founding member of the DFB in 1900. The club found success in the early years of the DFB including capturing titles but struggled after World War I. When the Bundesliga was formed, it was Hertha and not them who were chosen as the Bundesliga’s Berlin representative. Despite regional success in the 1950s, the club suffered financially by not being chosen for the top flight. In 2013, they merged with another local club to form FC Viktoria 1889. They currently play in the Regionalliga Nordost.