Berlin football by Titus Chalk : A different game in a land apart

Woman’s football at Turbine Potsdam is a whole new ball game for Titus Chalk. But it is not just gender that makes the club very different indeed.

Lira Bajramaj (Turbine Potsdam).
Lira Bajramaj (Turbine Potsdam).Foto: dapd

The gentle jangle of a tambourine in the Gästblock gives it away. This is no ordinary football match. Rather, it is a crunching all-German Champions League semi-final and the ladies of 1. FFC Turbine Potsdam and FCR Duisburg deliver a compelling 90 minutes worthy of the competition’s name. With the tie finally balanced at 2-2 after the first leg, they give no quarter, ask none in return, and Duisburg in particular, snap into their tackles, pass the ball sharply and bully the brittle Potsdam midfield. Though Yuki Nagasato settles the tie for the home side with a strike before half-time, it is a close-run affair, that has the 4,600 crowd on the edge of their seats. Or on the edge of the picnic blankets they have sensibly laid out on the concrete terracing. Or squealing with the shrillness only a pre-pubescent voice can muster.

The crowd, you see, are a diverse bunch, unlike any I have ever really experienced. They arrived in dribs and drabs, walking up from the S-Bahn discreetly, almost apologetically, and without the raucous singing you might expect from fans arriving at, for example, the semi-finals of the men’s Champions League. They arrived discretely too, in ones and twos, evidently not the close-knit Kurve of the Olympiastadion.

That is not to say that they are not frightfully lovely. My first sight at the Karl-Liebknecht Stadion’s entrance was that of a smiling middle-aged mum touting tickets. Beyond the gates, a jolly caterer patiently explained to the disbelieving throng at the refreshment stand that if they popped round the corner, there were no queues. Smiles over steaming sausages abounded. If Hertha BSC on a sunny day at the Olmypiastadion felt like a rock festival, this felt distinctly like a village fete. With my Nachenstück in hand, I was almost tempted to seek out the tombola and cake competition at what must be the Germany’s most genteel football experience.

So far, so Potsdam, I told myself, venturing to the main stand, which was so gleaming you could eat off the floor. By the time I had dispatched my food though, had a chat to my terrace neighbour and taken in the crowd properly, I could not help but notice that Turbine Potsdam’s fans represent a more complex community than just a sterile suburbia.

This was once a different country – and it remains a land apart. The border checkpoints may be rotting by the side of the motorway now, but some barriers have taken longer to erode while others are being erected afresh. You cannot for example buy a ticket for Turbine Potsdam anywhere in Berlin, which seems perverse to me. But Potsdam is grappling an identity crisis, faced with rapid colonisation by well-heeled refugees from urban Berlin. That must be an unsettling experience for locals and their football club is a bulwark against it.

“I’m writing about football culture in Berlin,” I tell the chap next me. “You mean, in Berlin and Brandenburg,” he corrects me. And with that, sums up what Turbine Potsdam means to many. The word ‘Turbine’ alone conjures up faded memories of an industrial age in Brandenburg, when the region was more than just verdant commuter belt. Call it Ostalgie if you will, but it is a proud past ignored by many – not least up the road in Berlin.

I suspect it is fans who remember the club’s pre-Wende days that make up the triple-, quadruple- and even quintuple-scarfers in the crowd. A spattering of men even wear Turbine Potsdam replica kits stretched over their bulging tums, something I did not expect to see. They sport the names of their female idols on their backs with complete insouciance, which for football fans, is as liberated as dressing up in your mum’s tights and shoes. The most touching thing I see all day is a father and daughter in matching kits emblazoned with the name of Turbine’s star number 10, Lira Bajramaj. Others have plumped for ‘Peter’ though (Babette Peter, Turbine’s stalwart centre-half) which adds a dash of the surreal to the already muddled crowd. 

Just as the streets of Potsdam are a strange mixture of concrete Plattenbauten and renovated-to-within-an-inch-of-their-life altbauten, so the stands at the Karl-Liebknecht Stadion juxtapose silver-haired pensioners in sunglasses and anoraks with upwardly mobile 30-somethings who have come out to the lakeside to breed. There is a dichotomy here between the club’s new middle-class fans who have been educated in a liberal tradition to respect the idea of women’s football, and the traditional Turbine fans who simply accept women’s football as fact. While the former attitude might be called affected, the latter is deeply authentic and the product of a socialisation that as a foreign visitor, I can only imagine.

At the final whistle, the triumphant players salute all their fans equally, with the gratitude that is a hallmark of football in this country. To them, it matters not a jot who is cheering from the stands and their healthy indifference unifies in a glorious moment the many factions of supporters. All are overjoyed at their local side’s success and a fault line in an intriguing community is bridged however briefly. If there is a solution to the puzzling conundrum of Potsdam’s shifting identity, it is here in the Karl-Liebknecht Stadion past and present rub shoulders in an atmosphere of civility, and the knee-high kids who represent the city’s future gambol in the stands, gloriously unaware of class and gender divides. For them there is only football – for young and old, for rich and poor, for heroes and heroines to share on a sunny afternoon. One day, all Germany will see through their eyes and the imaginary borders and lines on old maps one crosses to reach Potsdam from Berlin will recede finally into oblivion.

Titus Chalk is a freelance football journalist who has been living in Berlin since August 2010. For "11Freunde" he writes a column about the English Premier League. For Tagesspiegel.de he writes about football culture in Berlin. Titus loves his Kiez in deepest Neukölln (apart from the dog mess) and is marginally addicted to kebabs. He plans to learn about Berlin through its fan culture and will one day communicate with you entirely in German (with added Schnauze). Allet Jut!

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