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Babelsberg is still fighting in Germanys 3rd division.

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Drowning in Berlin: How to stop worrying and love a relegation fight

Life at the bottom of the third division cannot be much fun. But, as Titus Chalk discovers on a sunny day with Babelsberg 03’s fans, you would never guess it

As the Mobiles once sang, you can drown all too easily in Berlin. Perhaps not in a frenzied panicked thrash to the death like in a raging sea. But in a slow and inexorable slither into quicksand with no footholds, no low-hanging branches for rescue, only gravity pulling you steadily and slowly into the mire.

It is a predicament Berlin’s football clubs know only too well – not only is the Alte Dame struggling against relegation, but but Babelsberg 03 are battling that sinking feeling, too. The sometimes-successful suburbanites, known to have bothered the Zweite Liga, are currently at the wrong end of the third division and as I shuffled off on a sunny Saturday to see them take on VfR Aalen had not won at home for a miserable four months.

Given such a dire record since the winter break, I was unsure whether to expect empty stands at Potsdam’s Karl Liebknecht Stadion or massed ranks of mutinous fans baying for blood. Either would seem reasonable to the non-football fan: rational reactions to a stretch of stinking “entertainment”, like slipping out of an appalling film or heckling a lousy band. But stood in amongst the youthful ultras in the east stand behind the goal, under the watchful gaze of a Leon Trotsky banner, I was soon reminded that football fans do not limit themselves to such reasoned actions.

Author Rita Mae Brown wrote that, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results,” and though it would be cruel to say having a screw loose is the only reason to follow a team battling the drop, fans must possess an irrational streak to do what they do. The word “fan” itself derives from the word “fanatic”, which comes from the Latin “fanaticus” meaning “insanely but divinely inspired.” Certainly, one thing required of Babelsberg fans at the weekend was an unflinching belief in miracles and literally, blind faith.

Blind, because before kick-off, the club’s genteel brand of ultra (one sensitive young lad with his fringe in his eyes is proudly displaying his first love bites whilst waving a “Let’s fight white pride” flag) hang banners on the fences behind the goal, obscuring the view for others. The same slightly awkward ultras then need reminding to stop waving their flags when the home team attack our end. “Schwachsinn!” shout out the exasperated terrace elders, like curmudgeonly uncles, even if you suspect they will be just as proud to watch Babelsberg’s extra-good flag-waving later on Sportschau. The whole scene is reminiscent of a day out with a dysfunctional family all trying hard to get on amidst particularly trying circumstances.

90 minutes in the company of the Babelsberg fans is a reminder that this game is not just entertainment

Just how hard is it though, to keep coming back given those circumstances, when weekend after weekend is tarnished with defeat? One fan Susanna, 24, says that nothing could deter her. When I ask her if she feels a special obligation to support her team precisely because they are in a relegation battle, she is perplexed: “The question is false,” she says. “I am always here and always will be.”

In fact, she says, if anyone should feel an obligation right now, it is the club: “One year ago, the fans scraped together every last cent they had to save the club after we lost sponsorship money. We showed our commitment – now it’s up to the team to show theirs.”

There is something utterly authentic and emotional about Susanna’s support. The club matter to her greatly. She is living on her nerves today and it is perhaps no wonder that fellow fan Patric, also 24, says the players have been struggling with the home fans’ expectations. “Without a doubt, they’ve been feeling the pressure in the home games,” he says. “But the fans just want to see the same desire from the players that there is in the stands.”

As it turns out, neither Patric or Susanna should have worried: Somehow, Babelsberg turn the form book upside down and dominate third-placed Aalen in a gloriously defiant performance. Suddenly, the players are fighting for every ball and resisting Berlin’s special gravity. Deservedly, they take the lead with an 11th-minute penalty from Dominik Stroh-Engel. And ultimately, they run out deserved 2-0 victors after the striker’s second, an outrageous solo goal in the 53rd minute, that sees him tear into the opposition box from the left before nutmegging the Aalen goalkeeper. The celebrations at the final whistle are euphoric, hugs and high fives abound and beer rains down from the terrace. Babelsberg 03 do not want to drown.

However joyous the result, 90 minutes in the company of the Babelsberg fans is a reminder that this game is not just entertainment that you walk away from when it stops being, well, entertaining. A football club is a pyramid of interests of which the eleven players on the pitch are simply the most visible part. Even if the fans, slightly crazed as they are, may be back to watch their side when they go down, they must not be taken for granted, nor their devotion abused. Because, just maybe, their daft flags, vociferous swearing and out-of-tune singing help. Because maybe the letters of concern written to the club during its darkest moments, the exhortations when players are encountered in the street, and the polyester shirts pulled on over sagging bellies are an intangible factor in deciding what happens when the whistle blows for kick-off on a Saturday afternoon. Because, to some people, believing in that matters immensely.

“Why is this all so important to you?” I ask Susanna finally as the Ska playing on the PA system fades and the post-match dancing in the stands abates: “It might sound stupid,” she says before gesturing humbly at the dozen or so tipsy, lumpen fans larking about in front of her, “But these are the people I grew up with. Being with them, every day, every weekend, is more important to me than anything.

“This,” she says simply, “is my community.”

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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