On Saturday, amid the ceaseless Berlin rain, I went to Africa and back to see a German Cup game. That might sound a long way, but I had been wending my way up-river, like Marlowe in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for several days prior, ever since an explorative cycle ride up Landsberger Allee in search of tickets. Deep in a foreign part of town, tarmac stretching out beneath my tires like an oily black waterway, the Plattenbauten had closed in like dense, oppressive mangroves. From there, I had ventured onwards towards a mysterious and threatening unknown, obscured in myth and hearsay - to BFC Dynamo, as it is known to most Berliners.
Like Africa, Dynamo is as much an idea, as a physical truth. And, in the same way the 'Dark Continent' once confronted 'civilised' European man with an otherness so extreme it left him sweating, breathless and giddy, BFC Dynamo challenges Berlin's cosy assumptions. It is somewhere, I had heard, where the natives are restless.
It would be lying then to say that I did not take a few preconceptions with me to the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark. Journalists, like most of you good people, are prejudiced, you see, even if our job is to confront those prejudices and to tell a story from a view-point beyond them. Unfortunately some - including associates and friends - have fallen into the trap of seeing things in the same Manichean terms as fans. Ask them about Berlin's pariah club and one word slips quickly from their lips, pens or computer keyboards: "They're Nazis," they say.
"Look around you," says Thomas, a fan in his mid-forties, stood next to me along with 9,000 others, sheltering like survivors of an apocalyptic storm in an upturned ark. "Are these fans all right-wing extremists?" This might be Africa, but I hear no monkey calls, nor see any bananas. There are families in amongst the bellowing crowd, small groups of students, bearded old boys, a few raucous women and some ordinary Joes. I can only answer, "No".
"The thing is," says Thomas, "In East Berlin, this was the only place to watch European football - I saw clubs like Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa play against Dynamo. Forget the Stasi link then - I was here for the football, and I'm here for the football today as well."
He is then understandably dejected to be watching Kaiserslautern comprehensively out-play a nervy Dynamo side. Their superior movement and touch is too much for the Berliners on a slippery pitch and they lead 2-0 by the 22nd minute, having penned the home side almost exclusively into their own half. An inflatable sex doll, which optimistic Dynamo fans have fixed to the fence at the front of the stand starts to look soggy and absurd. It has been tied up in rope and collared, presumably to symbolise the subjugation and shafting the fans wish their side to inflict on Kaiserslautern - in every sense, a wet dream.
But represented by that shabby sex doll (lovingly reclaimed at the final whistle by a sensible owner not wanting it to go to waste) are the same wholly legitimate aspirations shared by fans all over the city. As Dynamo slip to a 3-0 deficit, the club's supporters urge their team onwards, pleading for "Wenigstens ein Tor…" - "Just one goal…". They chant defiantly and inject more than a little electricity into the endless rainstorm that has lashed Berlin for the last 36 hours.
Most of the chanting is above board as far as I can tell, although there are some words I can't catch. A lone drunk briefly strikes up a chant of "Amy Winehouse, Amy Winehouse!" but it is impossible to tell whether he is a raging anti-Semite, or simply a pissed-up joker with a morbid sense of humour.
The crowd's din is thunderous, pulsating and primal (not least a heart-felt chorus of "Ost, Ost, Ost Berlin!") and feels somewhat like the throbbing drums that haunted Marlowe in the jungle of the Belgian Congo: "Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough," recounted Conrad's protagonist. "But if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise".
By the 78th minute, flares have been set off in the stand, forcing the referee to briefly suspend play. Acrid grey smoke mingles with the odour of frying sausages in the dank concourse to create a pungent funk and when booming bangers are thrown on to the running track, the atmosphere momentarily turns more Apocalypse Now than Heart of Darkness. Dynamo's Captain and coach have to appeal to the crowd for better behaviour before the game can conclude.
When it does, I sidle out, chatting to a friend about the rousing atmosphere and strange band of fans we have just encountered, whilst singing and explosions resonate behind us. We saw plenty of giant men with shaven pates, who don't pump the iron they do not to cultivate an intimidating image. Many bristle with menace and walk as erect as a middle finger stuck up defiantly at the world around them. But does that make them Nazis?
That word is dangerously over-used in this city. Landlords, politicians, football fans…all are quickly demonised in a way that threatens to undermine its real and terrible meaning. It is lazy shorthand from Berlin's leftist majority for anyone they don't like, and reduces discourse to unsophisticated caricature.
It is a word so loaded, polarising and derogatory, that it is naturally adopted as a pride-term by those subjected to it. German hooligans adopt it because, in this society, Nazism is the ultimate taboo and it is that they are searching for. In other societies, simply attacking people based upon what football team they support is taboo enough. Here, not quite: another order of anti-social behaviour is attainable and the anti-social embrace it, whether or not they boast a real political ideology. They have in any case been cut-off: irresponsible language severs lines of communication, which would be far more useful to the advancement of the liberal society its users want to see. Africans have been labelled with an "N- word" before and Berlin would do well to avoid the same mistake.
By the time I got home and started writing, a journalist friend had posted on facebook a link to an article stating that around 100 Dynamo hooligans stormed the away block following the game. Minutes later, another journalist commented on it with the words, "Drecks-Nazis…". Although it appears Lech Poznan and Frankfurt firms were also involved in the violence, minds had been made up and stereotypes reassuringly confirmed to some who should know better the power of words.