11Freunde recently referenced a game in 1992 between Esgrima and Estudiantes- the La Plata derby- where the celebrations of Jose Perdomo’s winning free kick set off such raptures that nearby seismologists registered it as a small earthquake. That’s a proper derby, one that can make the tectonic plates feel like they are shifting under your very feet. Equally in Brazil, Eduardo Galeano described the legendary rivalry between Flamengo and Fluminense thus: “Flamengo had been born not long before, when Fluminense split in two after much sabre-rattling and many labour pains. Soon the father was sorry he hadn’t strangled this smart alec son in his crib, but it was too late…” Admittedly the great Uruguayan writer could make a council meeting’s minutes sound like a titanic struggle between good and evil, but the story remains familiar; be it in Montivideo or Manchester, Glasgow or Gelsenkirchen.
It’s good against evil, father against son, wolves against rabbits against bears- and which does the devouring and which one the cowering just depends on whose side you are on.
In Berlin all things are almost wilfully, contrarily different. At the moment it is the largest city in Europe not to have a representative in their countries’ top league, but even this crappy situation is sated by the first league derby between 1.FC Union and Hertha. “Those guys were talking about being German champions a year ago and now they are with us in the second division”. says Christian Arbeit, Unions spokesman. I take an equally perverse pleasure in seeing Schadenfreude in its own, real, context pouring out of the people that invented the word (if not the concept). He continued: “Of course you don’t want to wish people bad luck or anything. I mean, until it [Hertha’s relegation] finally happened we didn’t think it could be possible for them to come down, you just think… but it’s Hertha”. This was countered by his fond reminiscences of Unioners singing about the clubs coming together before the wall came down, a statement about the regime that kept them apart for so long, and a belief that a city could be united on the pitch.
The reasons are myriad for them having not met, but the simple (and most obvious one) is that Hertha have been “Up there” while Union haven’t. It’s been 21 years since the wall came down, but Union have been forging their own bit of history way out to the east of the city in Köpenick, working away slowly like the Schlosserjungs the fans pronounce themselves as- taking an extended lunch and a couple more tea breaks than they should in true worker style, whilst saying, “don’t worry love, it’ll all be done in good time”.
It remains strange to me to have a game like this without the history to back it up. Without the resentments that build over years lodged in the memories of famous wins or losses like those against Dynamo. It almost becomes a philosophical question. What is the sound of one hand clapping? How can you have a derby against someone you’ve never met? The old scoreboard in the corner of the stadium remains untouched, a nod to Unions past, and before every game had been reset to 8-0, the largest victory recorded against Dynamo. That finally changed this year and now it records the 2-1 victory that their under 23’s got a couple of months ago, illustrating the different paths the two clubs have undertaken since the fall of the regime that they accuse of having gifted Dynamo so much favour. Would they change that again to record a win against the new elephant in the footballing room of Berlin? Can a rivalry really exist in such a vacuum, or will the Eisern faithful always regard the Weinrot as their natural enemies? On the UBahn on the way to the Olympiastadion for Hertha’s alarmingly easy win against Bielefeld on Sunday it seemed almost as though Hertha’s fans were the ones ratcheting up the rivalry, the inverse to Bill Withers’ words that maybe we all need someone to lean on. Football is no fun when the best man wins, when we all go home, happy that everyone tried their hardest and that they played up, played up, and played the game. It thrives when there is an enemy. We all need somebody to beat on.
Of course the teams met last year at the opening of the Alte Forsterei. Patrick Kohlmann, Unions left back, remembers it well and recognises the significance of hosting the game in Kopenick. “It was a great game, especially because of the circumstances- the first game in the stadium that the supporters built- but I hope this time it will be a better result for us”. When I mention the fans, and especially the surreal beauty of the Christmas trees celebrating the old grounds 90th birthday last week, his voice grows more animated. “Yeah, every game is new. It’s always a surprise for us and every time they have new ideas the players all love it. They are great supporters.”
I spoke to Christian and Patrick before last Fridays game in Paderborn, with hopes still high of getting a first win of the season under their belts there. It didn’t happen. The pressure is mounting in Kopenick, but that shouldn’t affect Neuhaus too much. He’s seen the big West German derby first hand, and knows how to keep the players grounded on a huge occasion. They will need all of that to deal with Adrian Ramos and Raffael, who seem to be enjoying this 2nd division lark, but is the derby a place for serenity? Arbeit thinks so, “No one can win a match if we come out and get three red cards in fifteen minutes”, but I would be inclined to use the tactical advice of Kevin Keegan to Paul Scholes and “go out there and lay some hand grenades” Try and get up them. This of course doesn’t work. England lost that game and eloquently shows why I just write all this shit down, and have no part in management. Either way come Friday night there will be a new chapter in the clubs stories’, one that will become old and hoary as the relationship changes and the memories of it take on a greater import.