HERTHA BERLIN 0, 0. FREIBURG
DARK CITY BLUES
On the perimeter, away from the glare of the Olympic Stadium, the weathered statues of two male athletes stare eerily into the night. Cast from the light and frozen in time, they parade alone in a vast empty space that spans the arena and the entrance. Embracing the shadows they are almost forgotten, a somewhat fitting testament to the twisted and evil ideology they once represented.
At half time, four Hertha Berlin fans gradually fade into the black, the only evidence of their unofficial trek being the orange glow of a cigarette and bouts of giggling and raucous laughter. Inebriated, they stagger ever closer to the two grotesque stone giants and eagerly relieve themselves as they approach the base.
This is not in any way a symbolic act, merely four men utilising their surroundings to answer natures call. Berlin due to it's recent traumatic past is still widely peppered with such historical curios, especially those that span the cities notorious pre and post war period.
The Olympiastadion itself was constructed in 1936 for the Olympics of that year. Influenced heavily by the Romans, like most Nazi architecture it was designed to overawe and intimidate onlookers as well as provide the perfect backdrop for Hitler's propaganda purposes.
Built on the site that was to hold the aborted 1916 Olympics, designer Werner March created for what at the time was a colossal Art Deco master piece.
Originally holding up to 110,000 spectators, this has been gradually scaled down to the present maximum capacity of 74,000.
Strangely due to the stadium emerging from the war relatively unscathed most of the original 1930s structure still survives. The pre war Romanesque facade remains largely intact with the inclusion of a series of innovative multi million Euro upgrades that includes an impressive ' floating ' roof extension.
Hertha, named after a steam ship were established in 1892 and were founding members of the German football league 8 years later. Like the city they represent, they have suffered a constant roller coaster ride throughout their 122 year history.
Winning the German Championship in 1930 and 1931 it wasn't until the 70s that they again achieved any notable success with two cup final appearances, finishing second in the Bundesliga in 1974 and reaching the semi finals of the 1979 UEFA Cup. This golden decade for the club was also intertwined with an infamous match fixing scandal and long periods of financial instability.
German reunification brought Hertha a considerable increase in it's fan-base from the East although again the club again suffered further financial woes in the early 90s, resulting in eventual relegation back to the second Bundesliga. Only the sale of real estate , major restructuring and new sponsorship allowed Hertha to consolidate and again become a fairly respectable force in German football once again.
By the beginning of the millennium Hertha had already participated in both the early rounds of the UEFA Cup and Champions League although again the club found it difficult to sustain any kind of consistency in the top flight. Relegation again blighted the clubs ambitions after a disastrous campaign in 2010 but this was thankfully counteracted with promotion back to the Budesliga the following season.
German football in the modern era proudly boasts the highest attendances in the world, yet Hertha still struggle to fill the huge Olympiastadion. Incentives are given to tourists for reduced admission and the clubs cause is somewhat hampered from the East by an emerging ' fans' club Union and more surprisingly a resurrected Dynamo ( East German club with strong connections to the hated former totalitarian regime ).
After a series of major upgrades the transformation has not been enough to shake off its previous image and purpose. For many older Germans the Olympiastadion still conjures up memories of a time they would rather forget. After the war considerable pressure was put on the West German authorities to construct a new stadium or simply to let the venue slowly crumble to dust. Even with the ground hosting the 2006 World Cup Final it's continued existence for some will always be a direct link to an unspeakable history.
Berlin to its credit, rightly or wrongly has taken full responsibility for it's dark past. It has spent millions on monuments to the victims of Nazism and the Holocaust. Nothing demonstrates this more than the controversial ' Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe ' that was completed at a huge cost of 25 million Euros in 2005.
The somewhat puzzling design of row upon row of concrete blocks has drawn severe criticism from German Jews and Berliners alike who see the high profile site as resembling nothing but a giant featureless graveyard. The lack of description has taken away any symbolic meaning and both children and adults enter the maze like construction to utilise as an urban playground or summer picnic area.
The city apart from accepting it's gruesome past has managed to also capitalise upon a high global profile and cleverly embrace other key moments of it's turbulent history to promote tourism and trade. Always a centre of the arts, Berlin over the years has attracted a rich and talented gathering of highly educated and creative individuals to it's vibrant suburbs.
Berlin either as a backdrop or as an inspiration has influenced a series of classic films since the 1920s. Austrian/German film maker Fritz Lang began the tradition with his 1927 prophetic science fiction movie, Metropolis, which depicts a city of the future controlled by machines via rich industrialists. Apart from the obvious connection to New York, it is seen as a reflection of Berlin's decadence of the booming 20s and possibly a criticism of the then rapid rise of Nazism.
Throughout the 30s both the Nazis and Communists used the city in a series of critically acclaimed propaganda films and it was the Olympiastadion that took centre stage in Leni Riefenstahl's 1938 documentary, Olympia. The new techniques used for what was essentially a promotion of Nazism, was to revolutionise the way film makers and broadcasters were to produce such movies in the future.
Popular culture too has taken advantage of Berlin's dark heritage. When electro pioneers and German popsters, Kraftwerk were rolling across the continent in the song ' Trans-Euro Express, it was naturally Berlin where they stopped off for a late night coffee with David Bowie and Iggy Pop ( who along with Lou Reed were all residents of Berlin at the time ).
In the world of music, film and art, Berlin has continued successfully to be an inspiration to the present day. The capitals football scene has until now lagged far behind it's respected host, struggling nationally and internationally to achieve anywhere near the same kind of high profile. Slowly and surely there are signs that this is about to change.
Tonight a mid table Hertha face a struggling SC Freiburg from the far south west of the country. As with most German football games it is the strong smell of sizzling sausages that both welcomes and entices hungry fans. For a few moments at least everything else pales into significance.
The carnival atmosphere is further enhanced by the usual over the top razzmatazz of Bundesliga football. Beer, food stalls, sausages, beer, side show entertainments, club merchandise stalls, beer and of course more sausages. The converted Nazi Colosseum for an hour or two before the match resembles more the annual pilgrimage to Mecca as Hertha worshippers go aimlessly around and around in giant circles.
Where as German rebels St Pauli and Union Berlin tend to distance themselves from the commercialism of modern football, Hertha lap it up in bucketfuls. The no cash policy deployed is a blatant attempt at forcing both the home fans, away supporters and neutrals into obtaining Hertha ' Identive ' cards. Unfortunately such schemes are becoming increasingly common across Europe.
In one swoop Berlin's uber cool image is completely shattered as the Hertha fans passionately erupt into a club anthem unashamedly ripped from Rod Stewarts ' I am sailing ' Had Iggy and Mr Bowie had the foresight to witness such an embarrassing spectacle they would of packed their bags long before they did.
With a decent crowd of nearly 38,000, the fans noble efforts to generate a lively atmosphere are disappointingly diluted by the gigantic structure. Another criticism would obviously have to be the running track that separates the spectators and the field of play by a fair margin. Not only are such stadiums frustrating for the fans but equally the players are unable to respond to their supporters visual and vocal support as it is seemingly severed by the distance.
Tonight there can be no excuses. Hertha with little or nothing to play for are content to contain a desperate Freiburg. Supporters from both camps witness little more than a training session that was always destined to be a gruelling goalless draw. Freiburg have brought a decent contingent considering the vast distance and their sacrifices are repaid not on the pitch but disappointingly only with the experience of being at such a historical venue. A long way to go for what is essentially an open museum visit.
Thankfully the show comes to an end. Before packing up, the last few sausages are consumed by shell shocked supporters eager to escape and make their way home. Many have already left and those brave and dedicated enough to endure the full 90 minutes should rightfully receive a full refund.
As the subdued crowd heads for the grand Olympic entrance they once again unknowingly pass the dejected stone figures in the dark. Once they represented the supreme Aryan athlete, but now they are simply archaic props, unwanted and forgotten. On their way back to the train station there is a sense of irony as the exiting fans spill out onto the main road, Jesse Owen Alle.
Backs stubbornly turned, the statues slowly fade into the night as the Olympic Stadium lights are finally dimmed.
Cost of admission: 19.50 Euro, upper side area of the stadium ( with tourist concession from Berlin Welcome Card )
In theory such a historic venue should get a 10 out of 10 but for watching football it is handicapped by both an athletics track and it's immense size. Therefore the Olympiastadion receives 7 out of 10.
Programme: For 2 Euro a good valued glossy publication with a good balance of adverts and relevant articles and photos. 8 out of 10
Typical modern stadia floodlights: 5 out of 10
Bad Food Guide: Already mentioned in a previous Balti article, Berlin's most famous contribution ( apart from the Donner Kebab ) to the fast food world is Currywurst. Simply chopped German sausage in a tomato/Worcester sauce and sprinkled with curry powder.
Usually served with chips and accompanied with a pint of beer, it is an ideal half time football snack. To the British or continental pallet it may seem bland considering the inclusion of curry powder but this is as spicy as it gets in Germany. The quality will vary from place to place but a recommended outlet is Curry 66.
Curry 66 is at Grünberger Strasse 66 in Friedrichshain. Currywurst with Chips costs €3.40 and a small beer (the best drink to accompany Currywurst) is €1.60. 8 out of 10
Further recommended reading on Berlin football:
No Dice magazine ( http://www.nodicemagazine.com/ ) is a superb bi-monthly publication in English that specialises in reporting on all levels of Berlin football. Good detailed, interesting articles especially on Berlin's lower level clubs coupled with some wonderful photography.
Compiled lovingly by a dedicated, talented and enthusiastic group, it is a must read if you are interested in German football.
Local Union Berlin fanatic Felix and an ex contributor of the above magazine, has a web page ( http://groundhoppingetc.com/ ) that is more universal in content but again is a combination of excellent in-depth articles and some great photography. Plenty to satisfy Union Berlin fans or the purely lower level German football specialist too.
His facebook group page can be reached by following the link ( https://www.facebook.com/GroundhoppingEtc?fref=ts )