When people think of football in Berlin, they think of Hertha. Though die alte dame certainly aren’t heavyweights in German football, mid-table finishes and the occasional foray into the Europa League is enough to keep them on the footballing radar. Unlike most European leagues, where capital city clubs regularly contest for the title – think Paris-Saint Germain in France, Real Madrid in Spain, or the London clubs in England – Berlin’s tumultuous history means that it never became a footballing powerhouse.
The city was split into four zones controlled by the four main wartime allies in 1945. Amid heightening tensions with the USSR, the three Western allies – the USA, UK, and France – merged their zones together in 1948 and introduced their own currency. When the Federal Republic of Germany was created in May 1949, the city was officially split into East and West, remaining separate from each other for 40 years until the Peaceful Revolution led to the reunification of the country and the city.
Despite the importance of Berlin on the Cold War battleground, where East and West constantly tried to outdo each other in order to get a leg up, the city has never been an important economic centre for the country, which explains its lack of recent footballing success. The reason why capital cities are usually so dominant in football is that they’re a hub for economic activity, attracting workers from all over their country – as well as those from abroad – and therefore creating a bigger talent pool for clubs to scout and develop players from.
This chart by the German Economic Institute is a good illustration of this. Spain without Madrid, for example, would lose 6% of its GDP (the value of goods it produces) per person. The UK would lose 11.1% of its GDP per person without London. France would lose 14.8% without Paris. All three of these cities are also football strongholds, which isn’t a coincidence.
If Germany lost Berlin, however, its GDP per person would increase by 0.2%.
In Germany, the main economic regions are Bavaria and North-Rhine Westphalia, which, unsurprisingly, are the two most successful footballing regions. Four of the top five most successful Bundesliga clubs come from either of these Bundesländer – Bayern Munich, of course, chief among them.
Probably the starkest (and most entertaining) of Berlin’s football underachievement, however, took place back in the 1965/66 Bundesliga season.
Tasmania Berlin, a team now plying their trade in the sixth-division Berlin Liga, were promoted to the top division in 1965 thanks a mix of political intrigue, luck, and optimism. They embarked on a record-breaking nightmare season that remains forever etched in German footballing history. Many of the unfortunate records they set are still yet to be broken. Though Tasmania are to most German fans just a historical footnote, there are more lessons to be learned from the club now than there were then. Then, in 1965/66, it was the Bundesliga clubs that schooled Tasmania. Now, amid racism scandals and rampant commercialism, it’s the top-level teams that could learn a thing or two from them.
The team that would go on to be the record-breaking Sport-Club Tasmania 1900 Berlin wasn’t actually founded in what was Berlin at the time. The multicultural, bohemian district of Neukölln that Tasmania would go on to represent didn’t even exist when the club first started out.
Rixdorf, where Tasmania began in 1900, was quite literally a Bohemian city: it was founded just over a hundred years before by Protestant refugees fleeing persecution from their home kingdom of Bohemia. Despite its pious beginnings, Rixdorf quickly became known as a hub for drunkenness, so the authorities changed its name to Neukölln in 1912, before it eventually was absorbed into Berlin in 1920.
Despite the poverty of the area, though, football flourished there, attracting starry-eyed dreamers as it did – and still does – everywhere. The club’s exotic name, Tasmania, reflects that. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Tasmania really stepped up. The Oberliga Berlin, made up of the best teams in that tiny capitalist enclave located deep in East German territory, was their staging ground, and they won two leagues titles on the trot in 1959 and 1960 before winning a third in 1962.
Crucially, however, they were pipped to the 1961 and 1963 titles by Hertha, their main rivals. Had Tasmania won either of these seasons too, it’s quite possible that Berlin’s footballing history would be very different. Due to a lack of a national West German football league, the Bundesliga was formed in 1962 amid much debate. The disappointment of West Germany’s quarter-final exit in that year’s World Cup, as well as ongoing arguments concerning the professionalism of German football, led the DFB to take this step.
Only one spot in the new 16-team Bundesliga was allocated to a Berlin team. Both Tasmania and Hertha applied and the latter won out thanks to its more recent successes. The first Bundesliga season would begin in 1963.
That was also the year that Ulrich, a lifelong Tasmania fan, first came to Berlin from Frankfurt: “The radio and the press often talked of the langen Kerls [tall fellows] of Berlin. Now, I could see them play.”
Despite not being picked for the Bundesliga, Tasmania still had reasons to be cheerful in the inaugural Bundesliga season. Hertha escaped relegation by only a point, while Tasmania won the new Regionalliga Berlin (basically the Oberliga with a new name). However, to get to the Bundesliga, Tasmania now needed to top a mini-league of Borussia Neuenkirchen and St. Pauli, both champions of their respective divisions, as well as Bayern Munich, who came second in their Regionalliga. It was too tricky a task for the team, so they would have to wait again.
The next season made the dream seem even further away. Tasmania finished third.
Yet the backdrop of a mass scandal ended up realising their Bundesliga dream.
The DFB, despite creating the Bundesliga, still wasn’t hot on the idea of making German football professional. They set harsh spending and wage limits, but that didn’t stop most Bundesliga teams from paying high fees under the table to secure players.
Hertha relied on this especially, as most German players didn’t want to move to the divided, isolated Berlin. During the 1964/65 season, DFB investigations found that the club had been paying players extra fees illegally, and it was decided that they would be relegated along with the bottom two teams that year, Karlsruher SC and FC Schalke 04.
In the tense Cold War atmosphere in which West Berlin played a huge role, it would be an unacceptable humiliation for the city not to have a team in the Bundesliga, let alone admit that they had a hard time attracting players while Vorwärts Berlin had just won the (admittedly dubious) East German Oberliga. Sport mattered a lot in the ideological battleground of the 20th century when open fighting was neither frequent nor wanted.
It was decided that a West Berlin team would be admitted in Hertha’s place. Tennis Borussia Berlin, the city champions, had failed in their promotion group and the second-placed team, Spandauer SV, refused to be promoted.
Tasmania were then offered the place, just a few weeks before the new season was due to start.
And they took it.
“It was redemption.” says Ulrich: “The DFB had a guilty conscience.”
Despite seemingly being outmatched, Tasmania’s optimism wasn’t unfounded. The two other teams that were supposed to be relegated, Schalke and Karlsruher, kicked off and demanded Hertha’s place, so it was decided that neither team would be relegated and that the league would be expanded to 18 teams – more of a chance for Tasmania to survive.
What’s more, the club made a few transfer coups. Goalkeeper Heinz Rohloff was signed from Hertha, while German national team player Horst Szymaniak, who had won the European Cup with Inter Milan a year earlier, was also acquired – presumably for his footballing brain rather than his mathematical brain, since he reportedly bragged about demanding a quarter of the club’s gate receipts when he was offered a third.
On 14th August 1965, Tasmania played their first Bundesliga match. “The whole of Berlin was convinced Tasmania could manage.” says Ulrich. “83,000 fans went to the first game.” At the Olympiastadion, Berliners watched Tasmania romp to a 2-0 victory thanks to two late goals from Ingo “Ringo” Usbeck. It seemed like a perfect start.
In fact, that was one of their only two wins that season, and Usbeck scored only two more during that time. A 5-0 away humbling at Borussia Mönchengladbach would soon follow and that kickstarted a winless run that lasted until the following May, setting a record that will likely never be beaten – along with several other dubious feats.
“Sadly, it was clear very quickly that Tasmania would be relegated” says Ulrich. “The players couldn’t have done any more. Many players still went to work.” The lack of professionalism in German football that had, months earlier, offered Tasmania a space in the Bundesliga was now a reason that they would go crashing out of it.
Even the players soon realised how wrong things were going. “Atze” (Big Brother) Becker, the team’s captain, surely inspired his little brothers with confidence when he said in an interview: “You can’t make a race horse of a plough horse.”
Manager Franz Linken was offloaded in November and replaced by Heinz-Ludwig Schmidt, who ended their 8-game home losses streak with a 0-0 draw at the Olympiastadion on 15 January. This “high” came much too late for the Berliners, though: at a stadium that had burst with 83,000 people a few months before, only 827 people turned up that day. Another unwanted record of having the smallest crowd ever at a first-tier match in Germany.
The Kuchen was finally taken on 26th March, when Tasmania lost 9-0 at home to Meidericher. A 2-1 home win in May against Borussia Neunkirchen on the penultimate matchday secured a second win of the season, but a loss on the final day cemented their nightmare season: two wins, four draws, and 28 losses, scoring 15 goals and conceding 108.
In the following years, Tasmania made the promotion play-off round three times, winning the Regionalliga Berlin again in 1971. Attendances rose again in hope of another Bundesliga run, says Ulrich: “In the Regionalliga Berlin, Tasmania always had 1000-5000 spectators. In the promotion rounds it was around 20,000.” But every time Tasmania fell at the final hurdle and proved hopelessly outmatched in the promotion rounds.
All of these expensive promotion campaigns proved too much for the club’s finances. “In 1973, Tasmania had to declare bankruptcy because of 800,000 Deutsche Marks of debt.” says Ulrich.
There was a cruel symmetry to the team’s bankruptcy: 10 years before, Tasmania had been snubbed from Bundesliga selection. In 1974, the 2. Bundesliga was formed, but this time Tasmania wouldn’t even be there to contest for it.
“We would have been there.” says Ulrich.
Now they had to start all over again.
Of course, Tasmania Berlin technically didn’t end there. A few months before the club’s closure, the youth teams formed Sportverein Tasmania 73 Neukölln. The club was renamed in 2011 to SV Tasmania Berlin in order to keep in touch with its old roots.
The Tasmania of today looks very different, both on the pitch and in the stands. “In terms of fans, the old ones died out and the new ones come slowly.” says Ulrich: “Now, Berliners go to Hertha or Union.”
Because of this, as well as their sixth-tier division status, Tasmania’s Werner Seelenbinder Sportpark only sees an average of 120 fans per match – and that’s in a good season, according to the club’s programme editor Hans.
The social makeup of the fans, though, is arguably the biggest change. Around 40% of Neukölln’s population is either non-German or has a non-German background, with the largest minority groups being Turks, Arabs, and Kurds. “We have a lot of people in the district who are coming from all parts of the world,” says Hans, “and in some clubs you can hear 12 different languages.” Chelsea’s Antonio Rüdiger, the son of a Sierra Leonean mother, was born here.
Then again, this is nothing new for Neukölln – it was founded as a refugee city, remember. What’s more, in the 1950s and ‘60s, when Gastarbeiter (guest workers) from all over Europe converged on West Germany to help with their Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle), foreign fans could be seen supporting Tasmania. “There were less Turkish guest workers in Berlin then” says Ulrich, but “some Italians and Yugoslavians came to matches.”
Neukölln’s multicultural nature also reflects in Tasmania’s team – look at the names of their first team players and you’ll see German names, Turkish names, Arabic names, Eastern European names. According to Hans, most of the youth team players have migrant backgrounds too.
Again, though, Tasmania’s multicultural team of today has historical roots. “In 1968, one of the first black players in Germany, Jonny Egbuono, transferred to Tasmania after one year with Hertha and stayed nearly 5 years because he felt much more at home here” says Hans, “even if that way he only played in the city championship.”
This embrace of multicultural football is heartening to see in the wake of some worrying trends in German football – not to mention German politics as a whole, with the anti-immigration für Deutschland party becoming the official opposition last year. Even Neukölln, with its newfound popularity among progressive young creative types, still has 8 AfD councilors.
Recently, third-generation Turkish-German Mesut Özil announced that he would walk away from the German national team after claiming that, in the eyes of DFB president Richard Grindel: “I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose.”
“Multicultural clubs have been important for a long time because they include people with many diverse backgrounds in one unified team, which is always an important signal to fans and other players.” says Hans. In Berlin, he says, most of the teams have become multicultural, “even the ‘migrant clubs’ like Türkiyemspor or Croatia Berlin have players with diverse backgrounds.
“Özil is one of us and a huge idol for the kids. His retirement from die Mannschaft has a bitter taste since it’s a big motivation for them. Becoming a top player allows them to overcome the everyday struggle which is partially caused by having a non-German name or a darker tan.”
Özil’s retirement clearly concerns Hans: “Özil is telling the kids that this will never stop – that there are way too many people who will see you as an Ausländer [foreigner] no matter what. This is disappointing on the one hand, but on the other hand it now leads to a wider discussion on this which is quite necessary.
“For us, it just means we will have to continue to be the positive example that inclusion is indeed possible.”
With the club having a clear identity, it’s obvious that both Ulrich and Hans are optimistic about Tasmania’s future. Injuries in the second half of last season dashed their hopes of promotion to the fourth-division Oberliga Nord, but Hans says “it seems to be consent around here that it’s about time. We have a squad of 28 players now and many of them are really good. Chances are that we’ll play for the city championship and with a little luck we can make it.”
There are hopes that attendances in non-league will rise too thanks to the declining popularity of the Bundesliga. With Bayern Munich continually dominating and more commercial clubs like Red Bull Leipzig popping up, Hans says that he finds it easier to convince Berliners to see Tasmania: “Many people are fed up with commercial football. Overall interest in lower and non-league is rising, but it’s not showing in attendances yet.”
Ulrich is of the same opinion: “Because football in the European first divisions revolves only around making money, the lower leagues are becoming more important. Maybe the media will soon realise that too.”
Though Tasmania is now a world away from that crazy season of 1965/66, hope for better times still remains. “A true away match once again would be beautiful.” says Ulrich.
“We want to make our ‘RaRaRa Tasmania’ chant known in other cities again.”