Renewal is at long last in the Berlin air and spring’s first crocuses are breaking through the soil. There can be no doubt, that much died this winter as it must do every year in this most punishing of cities. But for every dream, or love, or football club that freezes in the dark months, fresh tendrils stir elsewhere.
In between Moabit’s poplars and prisons for example, a particularly promising bud is burgeoning: Berlin Athletik Klub 07, whose Regionalliga Nord match against VfB Lübeck I watched on Sunday. While the game itself finished 0-0 thanks to some truly woeful finishing, the few hundred fans, swelled by curious passers by out to soak up the pale sunlight, can only be content with the club’s trajectory.
This is after all, behind Hertha, Union and Babelsberg, the highest placed football club in Berlin, a fact not lost on those inside the Poststadion, a handsome ground whose main stand is confected from brick ribs and green cement like some giant Mint Aero. Word is spreading about this beacon in the peculiar nowheresville of Moabit and many in the stands confessed to watching the club in action for the first time.
Amongst them were a far broader mixture of people than I had expected, having heard that BAK 07 was the club catering to the city’s Turkish fans following the demise of Turkiyemspor. That is partly true – but since an abortive tie-in with Turkish club Ankaraspor five years ago, when BAK briefly changed its name to Berlin Ankaraspor Kulübü, the club has become a broader church.
The sausages may still be pork-free (I think mine may once have been related to a cow but only in the broadest possible sense), but those slurping them down in the stands are a diverse bunch of families and fans from the surrounding area. Is this integration in action? Perhaps not quite yet, as cliques do not dissolve instantly inside a football stadium just because. But it is proximity, and that is an important and educative first step.
Compare that to the Olympiastadion for example, a place largely devoid of Turkish fans. As Frank Toebs, a 51-year-old Berlin football devotee in the crowd points out, it was not that long ago that banana throwing and monkey calls were perpetrated by a visible minority there, alienating many potential fans. And while he stops short of calling BAK 07 a multi-cultural Utopia, he does say phlegmatically, “This is just how is has to be.”
With at least 10,000 empty seats at Berlin’s biggest club every weekend it seems daft, even in a cold hard commercial sense, that there is little out-reach to the football-loving communities outside of Hertha’s core support. But tradition – something Berlin’s more famous clubs have in spades – can be a multiplier of inertia.
The club’s signature piece of merchandise is a T-Shirt
BAK 07 is in that sense gloriously free of the kind of history fans normally sing about (a flirtation with the big time in 2010 when the club hosted Mainz 05 in the DFB Pokal notwithstanding) and watching from the stands, it is thrilling to imagine what this club might yet become if it could sweep up the city’s ‘floating voters’.
Because there is almost certainly room in Berlin for a club which unites the many home-sick ex-patriot fans crowding smoky clubs, pubs and betting shops to pine for the teams they have left behind them. That doesn’t mean simply the die-hard Trabzonspor or Borac Banja Luka fans on my street in Neukölln – but also the English and Spanish who are streaming football on their laptops every weekend, as well as Berlin’s second generationers, who are yet to find an alternative anchor for their identity in the nation of their birth. Together, these many fans form a stateless nation of supporters – all they need is a flag around which to rally.
Someone in BAK 07’s marketing department implicitly realises this, even if they don’t realise that they realise it: The club’s signature piece of merchandise is a hip-hop knock-off, a T-Shirt that reads “RUN BAK”, in the style of Hollis legends Run-DMC. It is a nod to the way in which Afro-American rap culture spread to minorities around the world because in it they sensed some common thread of experience. It is precisely this common thread, as much as any love of football, which could unite Berlin’s 21st-century diaspora populations around BAK 07. A club for fans who take their cues from melting-pot hip-hop culture, rather than side-burn-wearing pub-rock culture. A sort of Ex-pats United if you will, with pies, pipas and pints on sale alongside those halal Würstchen.
Perhaps then, the club’s location in Moabit will end up being a virtue. Instead of being the strange nothing place it is now, Berlin’s very own Timbuktu, Moabit could be transformed by BAK 07 into a sort of “everything place”: neutral ground where all communities can tread. Inside the Poststadion, broken German sprinkled with football terminology would be the lingua franca. And slowly, some of the divides in this city might be bridged. Just a little. Just enough.
These are not simply the deranged ramblings of a tree-hugging hippy. It is worth remembering that there is money to be made here, too – the kind of money which could have sustained a club as undeniably virtuous as Turkiyemspor for example. It will be intriguing to see whether BAK 07 can nurture the green shoots of their emerging status in Berlin football and avoid the pitfalls of their Kreuzberg forerunners. If they are savvy enough to make the coolest T-Shirts in Berlin football, then they are hopefully ambitious enough to market themselves to the demographic that would dig those T-Shirts, too.
Should they do so, they will find that there is always room at the top in this city, room which Hertha are about to make all the more abundant by plunging head first into the burning fires of the second division. The opportunity is BAK’s to seize. The first thing they need to do is score some goals. The second thing they need to do is to get a facebook page. Because something tells me, they stand to make a lot of new friends in future.
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!