Berlin was thrust into the footballing spotlight three weekends ago, with Union travelling across the city to play Hertha at the Olympiastadion for the time ever in a competitive match. Much has been written about the birth of this Berlin rivalry, but 1.FC Union Berlin have, for a long time, had city rivals of their own. As Union were on their way to a frankly ridiculous 3-3 drawn with Osnabrück a couple of weeks ago, Union’s reserve team were meeting BFC Dynamo in arguably one of the most bitter rivalries in German football.
Everything began in the early years of the GDR. A team resembling the modern-day Berliner Fussball Club Dynamo were relatively unsuccessful second tier team during the 50s and the Ministry for State Security decided that, as the capital of the German Democratic Republic, East Berlin was in dire need of a successful football team to challenge the West Berlin teams in the fan interest stakes. Instead of building from the bottom or investing in an existing team, a successful team from Dresden (SG Dynamo Dresden), and all players involved with the club, was simply moved to Berlin. Dresden suffered badly from the sudden dearth of talent and, after having to play youth team players, were relegated to the second tier Liga, not returning until 1962. BFC went on to win ten consecutive championships between 1979 and 1988.
BFC enjoyed preferential treatment from the authorities and became one of the six clubs in the GDR able to draw on talent from across the country without needing to provide any financial remuneration (GDR football was, at least in principle, a strictly amateur sport after all). Refereeing decisions were also alleged to have been given in BFC’s favour. This influence from referees extended from actually awarding BFC with contentious decisions to referees dishing out rival players with yellow cards the week before they were due to play big matches against BFC. Dynamo Berlin’s domination was a direct cause of the hatred of other fans towards, especially due to the fact that many were of the opinion that not everything was totally fair. It didn’t matter where they played – Leipzig, Dresden, Rostock – rioting was almost a weekly occurrence. BFC fans were also given favourable treatment, however. If they travelled to away games and were then arrested for some reason, it was often the case that a Stasi agent would then go to the police and request that they let the arrested fans go. These fans would then continue on to the stadium.
1.FC Union Berlin were formed in the same year as BFC, 1966, but had existed in various forms since the early 20th century. In a very broad sense, they were the traditional team of the working class and, throughout the years of BFC’s domination, the classic ‘underdog’. Partly due to their rivalry with BFC, and the fact that they were openly supported by the Stasi, Union’s Alte Fösterei stadium often was the scene of anti-GDR chants. Fans took on an almost dissident role in relation to the state, and this made the rivalry even more intense. Political backgrounds in German football must, however, always be taken with a pinch of salt. Some traditionally right-wing clubs are simply called as such because the area where the team is based is a particularly right-wing area, but not everything is as black and white as that. Now I’ve got that disclaimer out of the way, in a broad sense the political ideals of BFC and of Union Berlin have differed since the fall of the Iron Curtain. After the reunification of Germany, the fans of BFC Dynamo moved more and more towards the right-hand side of the political spectrum, whereas the fans of 1.FC Union Berlin are seen as more of a ‘kult’ club (although this preconception of being a St. Pauli v.2 is not really taken kindly to by a great deal of Union fans) with a more left-wing support.
From a statistical point of view, BFC often had the upper hand over Union in the Oberliga. Union were almost what the Germans call a ‘Fahrstuhlmannschaft‘, an elevator club, flitting between the top tier and the second tier, whilst BFC were on their way to winning 10 successive titles (Celtic and Rangers fans, take note). Union were on the receiving end of heavy beatings on more than one occasion. BFC won 6-0 at Union in 1979 and 8-1 at home in 1987. Despite the domination, older Union fans look fondly back to the ‘double’ Union did over BFC in the 1976/77 season. Since reunification, Union and BFC have met a handful of times and, just like during the times of the GDR, the matches have never exactly passed off without incident.
Perhaps two of the most memorable derbies took place in the 2005/06 season. 1.FC Union Berlin suffered two relegations in succession and found themselves in the 4th tier NOFV Oberliga Nord/Nordost, and in the same league as BFC Dynamo. The first match, which took place in blazing August sunshine at Union’s Alte Foersterei stadium, will surely live long in the memory of all Union fans. In an incredible match, BFC were beaten 8-0. Union ultras showed their feelings towards BFC by revealing a banner reading “Thanks for your hate, we only have sympathy for you”. This highlights the different paths the two teams have taken since the fall of the Wall and the new rivalries that have since developed in Berlin. As an aside, the Union scoreboard always showed the result 8-0 when the team wasn’t playing until August of last year (keep reading for the reason). The return match at BFC’s Sportforum stadium was eagerly awaited. Three days before the match, Union had sealed promotion at the first attempt and perhaps this had incensed the BFC fans. During the match itself, BFC fans stormed the pitch and there were a significant number of battles between the two fan groups. The match was abandoned and, with Germany hosting the World Cup a mere month later, this was the last thing the authorities wanted.
A reason for the violence that has occurred in conjunction with BFC (and not just against Union) can possibly be explained by the political background of a majority of the club’s fans. This attracts violent right-wing hooligans from Germany and from eastern Europe who then wreak havoc at matches. Just type in BFC and any of Türkiyemspor/Cottbus/Jena into YouTube and the results can be seen for themselves.
Last season, Union Berlin’s II team (often called the Amateur or U23 team in Germany) won promotion from the Berlin city league and into the 5th tier NOFV Oberliga Nordost/Nord, the same league BFC are currently playing in. The first derby between the two took place in late August and the build-up was contraversial to say the least. Union decided to restrict BFC’s ticket contigent and charge higher prices than normal Oberliga matches for ‘security reasons’. The club had recently developed their away end and were perhaps a little afraid that BFC fans would undo all the hard work. These measures were also against the backdrop of Schalke’s decision to raise prices against BVB and the nation-wide campaign for more fan rights which culminated in a protest through Berlin city centre. Upon the announcement of these measures, the BFC fans decided to boycot the match completely and follow it, rather embarassingly, on a live forum ticker at their clubhouse in Hohenschoenhausen. On the pitch, a last-minute winner gave the victory to Union and, considering the timing of the goal, it was perhaps a good thing that the BFC fans were not present. The return match last week was, perhaps not entirely accidentally, scheduled to take place at the same time as Union’s match against Osnabrueck. For that reason, no Union fans were present at the match (bar relatives of the players, etc.) which relieved the police of any headaches they would have had in keeping the two sets of fans separate. Union ended up winning this match too, with Quiring scoring the winner in the 77th minute.
BFC’s demise and stagnation in the lower leagues mirrors the story of many clubs from the former East and the fact that the team has to play Union’s reserves must be galling for them. It will surely be a long time until the two first teams meet again. Meanwhile, Union have bigger, better, blue-and-white rivals to think about.