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Bayern Munich

Berlin derby between Hertha, Union once rooted in friendship, now a battle over a city’s identity

In early November 2019, Union and Hertha Berlin fans boarded a boat at the S-Bahnhof Friedrichstraße. They were to attend the first-ever Bundesliga derby between the two sides and in doing so, they were traveling into the past as much as heading into the future. There, at Friedrichstraße, in the heart of Berlin, the Berlin Wall had divided the city and families from 1961 to 1989.

It was on that street where those traveling to the East would stop first. Every day and night, you could watch those returning to the West bid goodbye to their friends and family at the Tränenpalast, or “palace of tears” — the westbound border crossing point between the two parts of the city. Metres away, the River Spree made its way along the borderline, flowing east to west, from Union Berlin’s home in Köpenick to Hertha’s on the other side of the city.

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The border crossing at Friedrichstraße, to a greater degree than the widely known “Checkpoint Charlie,” was a symbol for the divided city. It was also the starting point for the friendship between Hertha and Union, a friendship that has turned into a rivalry ahead of only the third Bundesliga derby between the two sides.

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During the post-World War II era, Hertha were a West German club and Union the team from East Germany. Hertha and Union weren’t the biggest clubs in the city; BFC Dynamo had dominated the league because of their ties with the East German Ministry for State Security (more commonly known as the Stasi). They won 10 straight titles before the Wall came tumbling down, and were helped by referees in games that could have gone the other way.

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These days, BFC Dynamo no longer are a big club — they are stuck in the regional fourth division — but Hertha and Union are big clubs. Both play in the top Bundesliga, and both are now competing for the hearts of those living in the German capital.

The rivalry dates back to April 1978 and the S-Bahnhof Friedrichstraße, the first stop after crossing over to the east. Some 380 Hertha Berlin fans had boarded a train to Dresden at the Bahnhof Zoo in the West and stopped at Friedrichstraße, looking over the River Spree. In Dresden, the West Germans were to take on Dynamo Dresden in an “international football match” — authorities in East Germany desperately wanted to avoid using the word “friendly,” not least because there was no friendship between the two countries. But that day, friendships were forged between fans on both sides of the wall.

The match was part of a German sports exchange calendar that began in 1974 as a result of long negotiations between West and East Germany, a move designed to improve relationships between people living on both sides of the Wall. The focus was on team sports like football, handball and volleyball. The calendar was planned for the entire year, and it ended only with the collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1989.

Initially, Hertha were refused entry given their status as the club from a city divided by the Cold War, but in 1978 they were finally permitted by the GDR to take part and fans were allowed to follow their team. One of them was Knut Beyer. As a teenager, he remembers watching the East German police swarm to the Union Berlin fans on the station’s platform as they tried to board trains for the journey to Saxony. Union fans and Hertha fans had been in contact before, but this was the first big match they could follow together. Union fans had been unable to cross over to the west since 1961, while Hertha had never played in the east.

“Some of those fans made it onto the train, regardless of what the police did,” Beyer said. The regime did not want to have any East Germans follow a team from the west, and those who made it took great risks. Had they been spotted by police, they would have faced severe punishment. Hertha fans sprang into action. “We wasted no time to get them dressed in our colours. Soon, you could only identify them as “Ost-Berliner” by their shoes. But we got to the stadium and we got back to Berlin. That day, friendships began.”

However, those friendships have long ended. In 2020, you either support Union or Berlin. The friendships forged that day remained intact as long as Berlin remained divided.

For the majority of the 1980s, football was forgotten in West Berlin. There were other battles to be fought in a city surrounded by the Wall. “Sometimes you could hear the barking of dogs on the pitch of the Olympiastadion,” then-Hertha captain Dirk Greiser told Berliner Morgenpost in 2014. “There were just no fans there.”

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Union Berlin, meanwhile, became a “Fahrstuhlmannschaft,” a team bouncing between two leagues, in the GDR. They reached one cup final in 1986 but remained the smaller of the two Berlin clubs in the German Democratic Republic.

After Beyer’s football friends from the East had completed their mandatory 18-month army service term with the GDR Volksarmee, a small delegation of Hertha fans continued to cross the border, filling out forms at the Friedrichstraße crossing saying they were there as tourists.

“It drove the custom officers crazy. It was a fun game to play in intimidating surroundings,” Beyer said.

After the visits to the Alte Försterei to watch Union, Beyer and his Hertha pals would sit above a store in Treptow where one of the Union fans lived, get beers from downstairs and chat until it was time to leave and cross the border back to the west before 2 in the morning. Then, in November 1989, the Wall came down as Beyer was listening to punk rock in a flat a short walk away from it. He says he realised it had happened only when he was the only person left in the building. It had happened: The Wall had fallen.

Like everyone else, football celebrated too. On Jan. 27, 1990, Beyer attended the first-ever meeting of the two sides. Tickets were 5 marks, payable in Deutsch Mark or Ost-Mark, with both currencies still in circulation for months after the destruction of the Wall. It had the feeling of a family get-together, a celebration of football and what was to come.

“I could have never imagined my first match would be against Union,” Hertha Berlin club icon Axel Kruse told ESPN. “Over 50,000 attended that match, and it was so cold out there on the pitch of the Olympiastadion. It was a great day. On the stands the fans were chanting ‘Hertha und Union — eine (one) Nation.’ I scored my first goal that day. It was a great day.”

The summer before, Kruse fled the GDR during an away trip to Copenhagen with his club at the time, Hansa Rostock. Having taken the risk of fleeing his country, the attacker joined Hertha Berlin, but he wasn’t allowed to play for them. After all, he had already played for another club that year and FIFA regulations required him to make an official transfer. With the Wall down, he got permission in the winter; as it turned out, Hertha’s match against Union would be the first he was eligible to play in.

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“Especially over the first couple of years, things were set straight. Some went from being Hertha [fans] to being Union [fans], and others went the other way,” Beyer explained. This meant that 20 years on from that meeting at the Olympiastadion when they met in 2. Bundesliga, there was no significant friendship left. The two clubs had gone their own ways in a newly unified country, and in a city finding its feet as the capital.

As the city grew to become what is now a modern European capital, football played a minor role. In the summer of 1990, Hertha won promotion to the Bundesliga, but they dropped back to the second and stayed there until 1997.

Meanwhile, Union entered the new all-German league system in the third tier in 1991, and it took them 10 turbulent years with severe financial difficulties to reach 2. Bundesliga in 2001. They were always separated until Hertha dropped to the second division in 2010, where they’d meet for the first time ever in a competitive match. At that stage, the rivalry slowly began to unfold.

The clubs were searching for their respective places in football. Hertha believed — and they still do — that the future belongs to them. Right after the Wall came down, the club did not sign players from the former East as their owners thought of the former GDR-Oberliga as an inferior league with inferior players. Forty years of being surrounded by another state, another political system, led to the club blocking possible transfers. Players like Matthias Sammer, Ulf Kirsten, Thomas Doll or Andreas Thom, all of whom would become successful German internationals, joined other clubs in the old West instead.

But there were always hopes of a golden future being just around the corner. These days, an investor, Lars Windhorst, backs the club financially, but things have not fallen into place for them so far. Having made international headlines with Jurgen Klinsmann’s ill-fated 76-day tenure at the club last year, this term they’ve picked up just two wins from their first nine league games despite investing heavily in the squad over the past three transfer windows.

Over at Union Berlin, in the eastern district of Köpenick, the club made slow progress. They earned a cult following by not only embracing their supporters, but by making them an active part of their club.

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In 2004, with the club looking to raise €1.46 million in just a month to obtain a playing license for the third league (to which they had been relegated), the fans donated blood to help raise awareness for the club’s dire situation. Every donation earned the club €10. Merchandise was sold, the media raised awareness and, finally, with time running out, Union were saved.

“This formed the club’s identity and several of those in charge of Union moved up the hierarchy back then,” Sebastian Fiebrig of Union Berlin fanzine Textilvergehen told ESPN. He especially refers to Dirk Zingler, who moved up to become the club’s president that year. He still is. Years later, the fans helped rebuild the Alte Försterei with their hands. There is a special connection between fans and club, which continues to this day.

In 2020, things could not be much better from a sporting point of view. Having survived their first Bundesliga term last year, they continued to do smart business this summer, signing former Germany international Max Kruse. At 32, he is leading the team on the pitch, and Swiss coach Urs Fischer is shouting his instructions from the sideline in the eeriness of the Geisterspiele (the games without fans). They have 16 points, doubling Hertha’s eight, and have lost just once, a 3-1 home defeat to Augsburg on the opening day of the season.

Whatever happens on Friday night, Union Berlin will stay well ahead of their bigger rivals, a club promoting the idea of being a Big City Club a year ago.

Knut Beyer and his fan club — the Axel Kruse Youth, named after the club icon — acted quickly when the pandemic spread throughout the world. “They contacted me, asked me if they could use my name,” Kruse said. “I felt honoured. They are good people.”

The people at the Axel Kruse Youth reached out to the community in need. When play was suspended in March amid the first coronavirus lockdown, thoughts immediately turned to those places where they would meet to have their beers before a game or watch their team away from home.

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“We had to do something,” Beyer said.

They started the Aktion Herthakneipe (a Kneipe is a place resembling an English pub) and helped 10 landlords through the pandemic with steady donations from the community. This also meant giving the fans a virtual Kneipe to meet in when football returned without fans.

With Germany in a second lockdown, the Aktion Herthakneipe was brought back and on Friday, Hertha will make it visible for the entire world to see when wearing it on the jersey. Hertha are slowly learning the lesson of appealing to people’s hearts, rather than to their dreams. This weekend, 30 years after meeting for the first time, the two teams will meet, knowing the city is big enough for both of them. That said, they will still fight for it.

“Most of my family members are Union fans. There is always banter when we play each other,” Kruse said. “It’s great there are two Bundesliga teams in Berlin. Back in the days we always said: ‘Hertha und Union — eine (one) Nation.’”

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