It might pre-date his Berlin stay by two years, but David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel is the perfect song to be listening to whilst writing about Tennis Borussia Berlin. Because if anything sums up the experience of watching Charlottenburg’s sleeping giant on a chilly November weekend, it is the soul-warming thrill of defiance – against the creeping cold, against the bills piling up at the door, and against the merciless tides of progress, fashion and affection.
Since their heyday in the 1950s, when they were Berlin’s biggest club, TeBe have been plagued by financial difficulties that have caused them to oscillate violently between the highs of occasional second division involvement to the lows of their current berth in the sixth tier of German football. From what I saw during the visit of BSV Hürriyet-Burgund, they like to flirt with calamity on the pitch, too, and seem conditioned to do everything the hard way. They are not just an underdog, but a flea-bitten under-mongrel.
It is impossible not to sympathise with them, though. Surviving Berlin at this time of year is a battle for anyone. Scant sun breaks through the murk, the city looks like a pile of stones shrouded in sadness and people in the street refuse to share even a fleeting smile. When it gets that bad, fighting back is the only solution. For me, that meant pulling on some Lycra and cycling 16km to watch TeBe’s most recent home game, through the almost unending austerity of Berlin’s cold concrete.
TeBe’s Mommenstadion lies on the city’s industrial fringe, next to the defunct AVUS racetrack and a joyless sprawl of trade fair hangars. It is not promising terrain for a football club to flourish in and it is perhaps no surprise that I saw a sign for the Olympiastadion before even a hint of anything TeBe. A spurt up the motorway is a literal shortcut for those seeking sporting glory. But for those willing to follow the snaking cycle path to its conclusion there is an undeniably herzlich club to discover, teetering on the edge of oblivion, in the armpit of Berlin, in the shadow of the wrong TV tower for anyone to care.
The club’s supporters have become humble over the years, as their number has dwindled and their status diminished. By rights, with a wing dedicated entirely to ping-pong, TeBe should be the hippest club in the capital. Instead, mostly middle-aged fans shuffle on to the terrace wearing purple hats and scarves almost apologetically, as if they are too vivid for the surroundings or too ostentatious a symbol of hope.
“The one thing about TeBe is, you can always guarantee there will be goals,” explains a chap next me, with a self-deprecating chuckle. The club’s defenders he warns me are, “almost as bad as Per Mertesacker”. And a frantic first half proves him right, especially when the left-back hobbles off with a nasty-looking groin strain and another defender picks up a red card for a conceding a penalty. TeBe’s response is to chuck everything forward, including sturdy substitute striker Seyed Dejagah, who appears built for comfort rather than speed. His strike on the stroke of half-time though gives the home side an unlikely 3-2 lead – and suddenly those scarves in the stands are being worn more light-heartedly. And despite the cold, shoulders straighten, and hands emerge from pockets for a rousing round of applause.
The second half is even more remarkable: TeBe, despite being a man down, defend brilliantly. They are compact, goalkeeper Dennis Rahden performs heroics and Dejagah, playing up front alone, batters the Bergund defence. No-one can quite believe what they are seeing – a spark in the gathering dark that won’t go out.
Soon, it is 4-2. The Tannoy announcer, who has braved embarrassment all afternoon with the customary German call and response for every home goal, is rewarded for his courage with as good a roar as the sparse crowd can muster. In an echoing stand, when properly roused, it is impressive how loud 212 people can be.
Then, in the 88th minute, Tom Kirstein, who has defended doggedly all game, somehow latches on to a corner with a wildly improvised bicycle kick that sails into the back of the net, illuminating the Berlin night. It is a final triumphant moment of contrariness, kicking against what should be expected from ten men in the dying moments of a in the sixth-division football match. Much hand-shaking and back-slapping follows amongst the fans, who can’t quite believe their luck. Like all good fans however, they will tell themselves no luck was involved, that their team simply played as they should. And that as fans they were there to witness it as they should.
You had to be there. You really did. Because the TV cameras were not. This was a moment for a tiny group of believers to share, an eloquent, ephemeral plea with a flying boot for a club’s very existence. TeBe refuse to be victims to fortune and so do their fans – even if a road sign to the stadium might help their cause.
It would be infinitely sad for Berlin football if the club were to melt away in obscurity and the Mommenstadion were to languish like the AVUS grandstand a few hundred metres away. TeBe have too much heart to know when they are down and out and that is something delightfully infectious. It is enough to keep you warm on a long bike ride home, even when lost in Wilmersdorf. It is enough to splash a little colour on drab November Berlin. And it is enough to prompt a smile when you pull a crumpled ticket out of your pocket the next day, which reads: “Fussball, Freunde, Rock n Roll”. Rebel, rebel indeed.