Hertha and Union Berlin meet as two clubs on seemingly opposite paths

Hertha have long been considered the biggest club in the city but their struggles have coincided with Union’s surprise surge from the lower leagues to second place in the Bundesliga

There was a time, of course, when this was not really a rivalry at all. For most of the last century Hertha Berlin and Union Berlin existed in separate worlds: divided by geography and history, by the 23 kilometres from the Olympiastadion in Charlottenburg to the Alte Försterei in Köpenick, by several league divisions and – famously – a large wall. To this day there are Union fans who say their biggest adversaries are not Hertha but their east Berlin neighbours Dynamo, and heartily continue to sing anti-Dynamo songs on their way to games.

Indeed, during the cold war a curious solidarity existed between the two clubs. Hertha fans from the west would cross into east Berlin to watch Union games. Union fans would make trips to Prague and Plovdiv to watch Hertha in European competition. In January 1990, a couple of months after the fall of the Wall, the clubs played an emotional friendly in front of 50,000 fans at the Olympiastadion. There were tears in the stands and embraces on the pitch. Briefly, Hertha and Union seemed to capture the indomitable spirit of the reunified city.

The journey from there to here has been long, bumpy and frequently astonishing. On Saturday the Olympiastadion will host only the 13th competitive meeting between the two sides. This is a proper rivalry now and yet, unlike many city derbies, it is not defined by simple faultlines. Hertha, for so long Berlin’s pre-eminent club, are 17th in the Bundesliga and still struggling to shake off a series of bad decisions going back years. Union, the perennial underdog club, a club for whom winning was never part of their central mission, are second behind Bayern Munich and have won the past four derbies.

In a sense, then, these are clubs still grappling with a sense of self, still a little concussed at the pace of change that has taken their fortunes in opposing directions. “Die Zukunft gehört Berlin!” read a pitchside banner at the Olympiastadion during the ignominious 5-0 defeat to Wolfsburg in midweek. [The future belongs to Berlin!] And yet for Hertha, the future has long felt like a threat as much as an opportunity.

Sandro Schwarz is the eighth Hertha coach in the three years since their takeover by the businessman Lars Windhorst. His vision was for Hertha to become what he called a “Big City Klub”: a global giant, Berlin’s equivalent of Paris Saint-Germain, almost a kind of sporting brand ambassador for the city. Instead, Windhorst’s tenure has seen hundreds of millions squandered on ineffective players, off-pitch chaos and a slow decline in results. While the deeply unpopular Windhorst dreamed of turning Hertha into one of the biggest clubs in Europe, they were about to be usurped as the biggest club in their own town.

Hertha Berlin and Union Berlin players in action during a friendly in January 1990
Hertha Berlin and Union Berlin players in action during a friendly in January 1990 shortly after the Berlin Wall came down. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

Union’s remarkable rise from the backwaters of German football to its very top echelons has been well documented; so, too, its unique fan culture, one that prioritises community and social conscience, that sets itself squarely against the prevailing capitalist winds of modern football. Long before winning promotion to the Bundesliga in 2019, Union had attracted a sizeable cult following of day trippers and expats who began to descend on the Alte Försterei, putting Union’s name on the map but also constricting the already feverish demand for tickets.

Success, then, has been something of a culture shock for Union fans. It has provided them with priceless memories, European trips and some of the finest football they have seen. There are plans to increase the capacity of the Alte Försterei from 22,000 to 37,500. But when you have based your entire ethos on being a small working-class club fiercely tied to its locality, that identifies as much with Köpenick as Berlin, perhaps the future holds equal amounts of trepidation and thrill. “Why would we want to be a club for the whole of Berlin?” asks the Union president, Dirk Zingler, in Scheisse! We’re Going Up!, Kit Holden’s book on the rise of the club. “There are clubs who do that and they end up without any clear identity at all.”

This, perhaps, was a barely veiled reference to Hertha, who over the years have sought to market themselves as Berlin’s only club. “Berlin v Köpenick,” was how the club president and former ultra, Kay Bernstein, characterised the derby this week. Yet among regular fans there remains a certain unease at the club’s sprawling ambition, borne out by the protests against the proposed takeover of the club by American investment firm 777 Partners. “Hertha is our club – identity, not marketing for every dollar bill,” read a banner at the Wolfsburg game.

How much growth is too much growth? How much can something change before it starts being something else? To what extent does a city even exist beyond a transit system and a rack of postcards? In a way these are questions that strike at the identity of Berlin itself, a city that has always maintained a certain creative tension between the global and the local, insiders and outsiders, the past and the future, the whole and its constituent parts. Travel the 23km from Westend to Köpenick and you will cross not one city but several: the well-heeled townhouses of Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf, the rapidly gentrifying districts of Neukölln and Kreuzberg, the old industrial ruins of east Berlin now sprouting with new apartment blocks.

This, perhaps, is what makes Hertha v Union such a unique city derby: one characterised by hostility but also a certain ambivalence. To pursue the rivalry, after all, is in part to acknowledge the other as a rival, to recognise the city as its own distinct entity, a turf worth fighting for. Perhaps the future really does belong to Berlin. The problem is that nobody really seems to know what it will look like, or who gets to shape it.


Jonathan Liew in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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