Berlin football by Titus Chalk : Confessions of a Hertha virgin

It's six months since Titus Chalk switched London for Berlin. Time to get involved with Hertha - as part one in a new series about football culture in Berlin.

Ohne Worte.
Ohne Worte.Foto: dpa

You can tell I am a Hertha virgin. I have mistakenly bought tickets in the family block, where eight-year-old tyros wearing too much hair gel gingerly hold their scarves aloft and sing the club anthem, before getting stuck into an ice-cream and/or picking their noses. The little blighters out for a day trip with their dads are actually adorable young tykes – but this is not quite the fan experience I was after. I can’t help feeling this would never have happened if I had equipped myself in Kaiser's, who I trust implicitly to provide me with top-class fruit, vegetables, and er… tickets to major sporting events.

“Schatz,” asks my girlfriend as the clock ticks past the half-hour mark. “Where are Paderborn in the league?” “Thirteenth darling,” I reply.“Then why haven’t Hertha scored yet?” she asks. “Ooooofff,” I reply with a long exhalation. “The vagaries of the beautiful game are myriad”, I prepare to announce. But before I can launch into some rambling explanation of the heady brew of tactics, psychological factors and divine whimsy that makes football the unpredictable mistress she is, Hertha finally stick one in the back of the net and save me from a nonsensical tirade that would have only fouled up a lovely sunny afternoon.

My girlfriend has been to see Hertha more often than me, but might nonetheless be derided by some as a fair-weather fan for binning her blue and white scarves when the West-Berlin giant staggered into the second division. Her fit of pique born of thwarted ambition though, represents one facet of a Hertha identity that seems as muddled as anything else in this schizophrenic city. One fan throws away her scarves in disgust, others flock for the first time to a club previously shunned as dull, conservative and very much the Alte Dame.

Olympiastadion: Olympia, WM und Zweite Liga.
Olympiastadion: Olympia, WM und Zweite Liga.Foto: dpa

Hertha have been rejuvenated by their loser status and finally found something in common with the city they represent, Europe’s slacker capital. Will the club’s new fans stick around next season when Hertha is no longer the plucky second-division underdog? Who knows? But the hardcore in the Ostkurve will be there for sure. They are a glorious sight, the afternoon’s main attraction by far, and in vociferous form despite the sweltering heat. They bounce beneath the blue sky, raising the roof with their voices and sticking their middle fingers defiantly in the air as the Paderborn squad are announced.

All I can do is shoot a longing gaze at them from the family block and wish I could get involved in a little boozy singing myself. Some of the chants’ lyrics surpass my limited German, but “Sha la la la” and “Scheiss Union”, even I can cope with. Watching the resplendent Ostkurve is captivating and the actual football (distant as it is beyond the running track) fades into the background. Hertha quickly score a decisive second goal anyway against a very limited Paderborn side. The game is up and by half-time simply a pleasant distraction, like a particularly nice water feature in a garden which has been invaded by 70,000 revellers. The mood is high and the stadium is full of smiles as collectively it squints at the blazing yellow blob in the sky which for six months it had forgotten existed.

Drin: Hertha 2, Paderborn 0.
Drin: Hertha 2, Paderborn 0.Photo: dpa

The half-time break itself is hot-dog filled. I know by rights I should be tucking into a bratwurst, but for whatever reason a poached rather than fried sausage catches my imagination. I think it might be to do with the little tubs of goodies attached to the side of the cart with which a hungry man can adorn his steaming pork sword. Mustard and ketchup: check. Roast onions, gherkins, sauerkraut and chilli: Check, check, check and check! The key to an exciting fast food is whether or not it is a good vehicle for condiments, the bit we all secretly enjoy eating the most. The hot dog is just such a sturdy sauce platform and I gobble my fully loaded Wiener with glee.

The crowds spilling out into the sunshine at the break are a delightfully motley crew: burley blokes in leather waistcoats, teenage herberts sporting mullets that look like road kill, and giggling girls flaunting their curves in fitted blue and white jerseys. How can you spot a real fan though? After a little deliberation, I deduce the following: the truest fans wear at least three scarves simultaneously. One around the neck, one tied around the wrist and one shoved in the waistband. For extra points, a scarf should also be incorporated into another garment – a fetching all-scarf ‘skirt’ for example, or as the tasselled fringe to a denim jacket. All in all, it is a level of scarfs-manship currently beyond me.

Mission Wiederaufstieg. Hertha ist auf dem besten Weg zurück in die Bundesliga.
Mission Wiederaufstieg. Hertha ist auf dem besten Weg zurück in die Bundesliga.Photo: dpa

I am not really a football fan, you see. Rather to paraphrase Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch, I am someone who loves football. The thought of zealously subsuming my identity to a larger group perturbs me, even if sometimes I wish I could: don X scarves, belong X times more. Perhaps it is something I can work on in this city where mass chanting, flag-waving and saluting in a venue as storied as the Olympiastadion also requires a leap of faith, a rock-solid belief in the positive powers of exultation.

Perhaps more simply, fandom is another taste one can acquire in Berlin, like Waldmeister, Eisbein or Currywurst. Six months since switching London for the Hauptstadt, I have gladly mastered those. A second-half sneak to the Ostkurve only confirms how seductive fandom is; how glorious a feeling it is to achieve a unity of purpose rarely found in other social spheres. Though that purpose here is ostensibly only to cheer Hertha back to the top of the table, it cements a community for 90 minutes whose remembered embrace sustains its members until the next match. The thronging Kurve are a secular mass in a sporting shrine, and their prosaic hymns are as edifying as any sung elsewhere on a Sunday. Until the whistle blows, it is pleasure to worship with them.

On our way home, despite the astonishing warmth, my girlfriend and I can’t help but admire the scarves being hawked outside. A couple of new ones might prove useful. We will almost certainly be back.

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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