BERLIN – Berlin is divided again – by soccer – with two rival clubs in the Bundesliga.
Hertha Berlin’s ambitious plans have almost gone unnoticed in the excitement over Union Berlin’s promotion to Germany’s top tier.
While Hertha wants to build a new stadium in the west of the city, Union has already outgrown its 22,102-capacity stadium in the east. The Stadion An der Alten Forsterei (Stadium at the Old Forester’s House) in the borough of Kopenick is sold out for Union’s opener against Leipzig on Sunday, and the club is conducting a lottery for members hoping to catch Borussia Dortmund’s visit in two weeks’ time.
Union, which clinched promotion via a playoff in May, is the first Bundesliga team to have played in East Germany’s Oberliga since Energie Cottbus was relegated in 2009. The Oberliga was disbanded in 1991 following German reunification the year before.
Hertha, starting its seventh season since returning as second-division champion in 2013, has a new coach, a new investor, and hopes of European qualification after years of steady but unspectacular progress.
Union’s ascent has re-energized an old rivalry and led to an outbreak of sticker wars in the capital, with rival fans adorning lampposts and road signs in their respective club colors.
“On every rain-pipe there are at least five Union and five Hertha stickers on it, sometimes all over each other. It’s about supremacy,” Hertha fan Gerhard Jungfer told the local Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.
Berlin’s interest in the Bundesliga, which began on Friday with Hertha drawing 2-2 at defending champion Bayern Munich, has never been greater.
“We’re now the only German city with a derby in the Bundesliga. Munich can’t do that,” Jungfer said.
The first top-flight derby between the sides, slated for the weekend of Nov. 2 at Union’s stadium, has already been marked as a highlight.
Hertha coach Ante Covic says he wants to “win both derbies. It’s about showing that Hertha is the capital club, the No. 1 in Berlin.”
Covic has been charged with building on the work by Pal Dardai, who established Hertha as a first-division team free of relegation worries. Hertha would have done much better last season if it wasn’t for a bad patch of six defeats in seven games. The side finished 11th in the end when Dardai’s departure after 4 1/2 years was already set.
Hertha announced in June that investor Lars Windhorst bought a 37.5% stake in the club for 125 million euros ($140 million), with possibly more to come.
New (and old) faces
While many Hertha fans might have expected a subsequent assault on the transfer market, the club has been relatively frugal. It paid a club-record 20 million euros ($22.2 million) to Watford for Belgian forward Dodi Lukebakio, who impressed on loan at Fortuna Dusseldorf last season, while Marko Grujic is back on loan from Liverpool, and Belgian defender Dedryck Boyata a free transfer from Celtic.
Union has made a host of signings, including experienced defenders Neven Subotic, Marvin Friedrich, and Christian Gentner, while midfielder Julius Kade’s decision to join on a free transfer from Hertha has further stoked the rivalry between the sides.
“I’m very proud to put on the red and white jersey,” Kade said.
Union coach Urs Fischer has built his success on a stubborn defense. Union drew 14 times on its way to third place in the second division last season.
The Bundesliga is a huge step up but Union is more than used to adversity. The club prided itself on its resistance to the East German regime – in contrast to hated rival Dynamo Berlin, Stasi chief Erich Mielke’s club. Dynamo won 10 successive East German titles from 1979-88 amid allegations of match-fixing and politically influenced favors.
Union weathered financial difficulties and a spell at fourth-tier level to become Berlin’s fifth team to play in the Bundesliga after Hertha, Tasmania Berlin, Tennis Borussia Berlin, and Blau-Weis 90 Berlin – all based in what was West Berlin and so part of the West German league system.
On Sunday, some 450 Union fans will hold pictures of deceased supporters – friends and relatives – so they can be there too.
“Union is everything,” Norbert Schwarz told Der Tagesspiegel.
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