Berlin clubs fail to make their presence felt in Bundesliga
The Hertha-Union derby takes place on Friday, but compared to other European capital clubs, neither side has made any impact in European football
Back in November, when the capital of Germany hosted its first ever Union Berlin versus Hertha Berlin derby in the Bundesliga’s top division, the atmosphere overheated.
From the section of Union’s modest stadium reserved for away supporters, flares were propelled towards home fans.
There was also a pitch invasion before full-time, the trespassers thwarted by Rafal Gikiewicz, the Union goalkeeper.
Those incidents led to a discussion about whether the next derby, between clubs with a long tradition of friendship but, more recently, signs of real enmity, might be best played behind-closed-doors.
So it will be on Friday, although for reasons other than the threat of unrest. All football in Germany is being played without supporters in the grounds because of the coronavirus crisis.
Yet somehow his fixture, in the grand, vast Olympiastadion that is Hertha’s unloved, rented home will feel especially eerie.
There are seats for almost 75,000. There is history in every metre of the athletics track around the pitch. This is where Jesse Owens triumphed in the 1936 Olympic Games – and in every blade of grass: the 2006 World Cup final – Italy’s victory, Zinedine Zidane’s red card – was held there.
All of which can seem oppressive to Hertha, who can only plan on three of their fixtures each year filling all those seats – when Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund come to the capital – and now that Union’s arrival in the top division means there is a proper local derby on the calendar.
For most other games, the empty places remind Hertha that they are rather lightweight representatives of a major European capital.
Madrid has two superpowers, Real and Atletico strong enough that they have faced each another in two of the last six Champions League finals.
London has five Premier League clubs and three of them took part in the finals of the main Uefa club tournaments last season.
Rome may not have as long a list of scudetti, Serie A titles, as the cities of Milan or Turin, but Lazio and Roma are almost always top-four contenders, their derby as fierce as any.
Lisbon’s two grand stadiums reflect the vast support bases of Benfica and Sporting, and though Paris might feel more a football capital if it had a second club in France’s Ligue 1, Paris Saint-Germain are hardly shy of flexing their muscles on the world stage.
But in the capital of Europe’s biggest economy, the two leading clubs have in the last decade battled out most of their derbies in the second division, from where Hertha were promoted in 2013 and from where Union came up last May.
Ought Berlin to pack more of a punch in Germany’s most popular sport? Certainly.
At Hertha there is now wealth available to stir the sleeping giant. Last June the German entrepreneur Lars Windhorst bought a 37.5 per cent stake in the club for €125 million (Dh504.8m), and five months later increased his shareholding to 49 per cent.
Hertha signalled their elevated ambitions – to be regularly challenging for European Cups within a decade – by hiring Jurgen Klinsmann as their manager in November, though by February he was gone and replaced by Bruno Labbadia.
Klinsmann had overseen some bold recruitment. In the last transfer window, Hertha spent more on new signings than any club in Europe, and in Matheus Cunha, signed from RB Leipzig for €15m, they seem to have captured a jewel.
The Brazilian Cunha, a striker, is 20. His first five games as a Berliner have yielded three goals.
He scored the third in last weekend’s 3-0 win at Hoffenheim, a result that lifted Hertha above Union Berlin in the table, although the gap is small enough for this derby to carry absolute bragging rights. Hertha, 11th, are just one point above Union, 12th.
Geographically, their homes are around 30 kilometres apart. Culturally, they are separated by what used to be a national border.
Until 1990, Union were part of East Germany and their major derby was against Dynamo Berlin, the club most strongly associated with the East German state.
Back in those pre-unification days, Union’s fans would sometimes gesture their affection for Hertha, who were from the other side of the Berlin Wall.
A generation on, those ties have worn away, although both Hertha and Union would still share one belief: That their great city really ought to have a bigger presence in Germany’s top division.
Updated: May 22, 2020 02:00 PM