Berlin derby between Union and Hertha set to get even more bizarre

The Berlin derby between Union and Hertha erupted back into life amid smoke and fireworks in November… but now Europe’s most unique city rivalry will get even more bizarre in front of 74,000 empty seats

  • November’s Berlin derby saw smoke on the terraces and fireworks on the pitch
  • Union Berlin claimed the bragging rights over Hertha with a last-gasp penalty
  • Now the return game will be played behind closed doors on Friday evening
  • 74,000 empty seats at the Olympiastadion will provide a surreal backdrop
  • But the players will still be pumped up as Berlin’s cross-city rivalry continues 

It was the night a long dormant rivalry erupted in smoke and fire.

November’s maiden top-flight Berlin derby between Union and Hertha featured the red mist of flares on the terraces, pyrotechnics hurled onto the pitch and a wall of passion and noise.

After so many years separated – physically by the Berlin Wall but also by league standing – it appeared these two clubs would finally offer us a local feud befitting of Germany’s capital city.

Union Berlin fans light red smoke flares during their derby with Hertha back in November

Hertha’s travelling fans create their own pyrotechnics as a long-dormant rivalry erupted 

On the pitch, the bragging rights went to Union, who won 1-0 thanks to Sebastian Polter goal

But Friday night’s return match at an empty Olympiastadion will be a rather different occasion

But just as things were starting to get lively, the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences have put a dampener on proceedings.

It’s fair to say Friday night’s return fixture, in the vast bowl of Hertha’s Olympiastadion, will be somewhat more sedate than the one back in November.

Supporters will, of course, be completely absent, with no more than about 300 people inside this 74,000-capacity arena. Social distancing will not be a problem.

The Bundesliga has proved that football’s show can still go on, even amid a pandemic that has forced most of the world into lockdown.

And the surreal context of the match certainly won’t diminish Hertha’s burning desire to exact revenge for their 1-0 defeat – courtesy of an 87th-minute penalty by the ice-blooded Sebastian Polter – last time out.

‘We all remember the match in November. It was a black, black day. Now we’ve got the chance to put it behind us just a bit,’ Hertha general manager Michael Preetz said this week.

The game was interrupted in the second-half when fans threw fireworks onto the pitch

Hertha Ultras set fire to netting behind one of the goals at Union’s Alte Forsterei stadium 

It was a night of stirred passions as the clubs met in the top-flight for the first time ever

Watching brief 

HERTHA BERLIN vs UNION BERLIN

Friday, 7.30pm kick-off UK time

Live on BT Sport 1 

In terms of league position, very little is at stake here. Hertha are 11th, one point ahead of Union in 12th. Between most other teams, this would be a mid-table jostle.

It’s the kind of position Hertha anticipated to find themselves in at the beginning of the season, but it’s considerably above expectations for Union.

Promoted into the top-flight for the first time in their long history at the end of last season, they were widely tipped to suffer a miserable relegation.

But such thoughts haven’t even been entertained as they sit fairly comfortably above the drop zone. Another win or two will make survival absolutely certain.

So it’s city bragging rights predominantly at stake even if the occasion will lack so much in being played out in front of endless rows of empty grey seats.

‘Even though the conditions are unusual, I’m looking forward to Friday,’ said Union coach Urs Fischer, who missed last Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Bayern Munich after breaking team quarantine following a family bereavement.

Sebastian Polter keeps cool to stroke home an 87th-minute penalty to win November’s clash

It was a massive result for Union, who have defied relegation worries to sit in mid-table

Masked Union Ultras tried to invade the pitch at the final whistle but were pushed back

‘In the end, it’s a derby. It’s a special game with lots of emotions. I’m sure I don’t need to do much to get the players up for Friday.

‘We want to stay in the league with all our might, a victory against Hertha would help us a lot to reach this goal.’

Not that the fans have been entirely absent from the debate in the lead-up to the game.

Many of Germany’s hardcore fans, the Ultras, are upset about football returning in empty stadiums, something that has exacerbated their fears that the game is becoming a TV construct rather than belonging to the people.

Hertha Ultras have urged fans not to go and hang banners in the empty stands ahead of Friday’s derby.

‘Football has detached itself from its roots,’ read a statement they put out. ‘That’s the only reason why the game as premium TV product could be more important than the stadium experience.

Fan passions won’t run quite as high when the rematch is played behind closed doors on Friday

It will be the players who have to adapt to the surreal surroundings of a vast empty stadium

‘We who go to games will not support his negative development by dignifying ghost games.’

They found solidarity from those over in the East of the city, with Union making a similar decision not to decorate the empty terraces at their Stadion An der Alten Forsterei ahead of the Bayern game.

‘We don’t want to simulate normality where there is no normality,’ said club spokesman Christian Arbeit.

One of the features of the Bundesliga’s first weekend back was that fans did stay away from stadiums as instructed, though it remains to be seen whether that is the case in Berlin on Friday.

Borussia Dortmund players in an empty Westfalenstadion after last Saturday’s win over Schalke in what has become the ‘new normal’ for football games

Hertha players pictured in training this week as they try to avenge November’s defeat to Union

Stickers of both clubs are seen on a street sign in Berlin ahead of their second top-flight derby

Bundesliga fixtures  this weekend 

FRIDAY

Hertha Berlin vs Union Berlin (7.30pm)

SATURDAY (2.30pm unless stated)

Borussia Monchengladbach vs Bayer Leverkusen

Freiburg vs Werder Bremen

Paderborn vs Hoffenheim

Wolfsburg vs Borussia Dortmund

Bayern Munich vs Eintracht Frankfurt (5.30pm)

SUNDAY

Schalke vs Augsburg (12.30pm)

Mainz vs RB Leipzig (2.30pm)

Cologne vs Fortuna Dusseldorf (5pm)

With Germany slowly re-opening after lockdown, Berlin’s bars have sprayed themselves with disinfectant and thrown open their doors again, but most fans will still watch the game at home.

While the only stadium noise will be the shouts of the players and the thud of the bouncing ball on the Olympiastadion turf, the fact remains that Berlin does finally have a meaningful derby to get excited about.

A distance of 26km separates the Olympiastadion, in the Charlottenburg district, and Union’s far more modest 22,000-capacity stadium in the south-eastern suburb of Kopenick.

But during the Cold War, when communist East Germany was split from capitalist West Germany, the two clubs existed on opposite sides of the Wall.

Despite this, a fraternity developed between Hertha and Union. The citizens of West Berlin would pass through the checkpoints to attend Union games, a flow of support that, of course, couldn’t be reciprocated.

But whenever Hertha played European fixtures in Eastern Europe, the travelling fanbase consisted of many Union supporters as well.

Football became a unifying force during the tumult of 1989 as the Berlin Wall came down

East Berliners are helped over the Wall to the West during the protests of November 1989

When they played a UEFA Cup quarter-final against Dukla Prague in 1979, it was recorded that 15,000 had travelled from Berlin with supporters of Union mingling with the Hertha masses.

Finally, in November 1989 when the Wall came down, fans of Union could finally cross into the West to watch Hertha in action.

One second division match between Hertha and Wattenscheid, just two days after the Wall came down, saw the usual crowd of 10,000 swollen to 44,000 after tickets were distributed to East Berliners as a gesture of solidarity.

A far more symbolic occasion came on January 27, 1990 – 79 days after the heady moment of the Wall’s collapse – when Hertha hosted Union in a friendly at the Olympiastadion. It was their first meeting in 28 years.

A crowd of 51,270 paid either five Deutsche Mark (West Germany) or five East German Mark to get in and the day was a celebration of a freshly-reunited city.

The two teams met at the Olympiastadion in a symbolic friendly match after the Wall fell

Over 50,000 spectators from both sides of the divide watched the January 1990 friendly 

Hertha defeated Union 2-1 that day but the result was really of secondary importance 

‘Spectators were basically holding each other in their arms and celebrating,’ recalled the Hertha forward Sven Kretschmer.

One of the songs born that day went ‘we hold together like the wind and sea, the blue-white Hertha and FC Union’ as many new friendships were forged. The result, a 2-1 win for Hertha, was of secondary importance.

But the two clubs would spend much of the following decade far apart. While Hertha established themselves in the Bundesliga, becoming the first Berlin side to compete in the Champions League in 1999-2000, Union struggled financially and in the lower leagues.

It wasn’t until the 2010-11 season, with both clubs in the second division, that a league meeting finally occurred. 

After recording a 1-1 draw on their own ground, Union sprung a surprise by defeating league leaders Hertha 2-1 at the Olympiastadion.

Hertha Berlin supports at a 2009 friendly to mark the re-opening of Union’s home ground

The red and white of Union and the blue and white of Hertha were seen together in the stands

Union fans put on a display ahead of the meeting of the two teams back in September 2010

These two clubs came together in solidarity following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989

When Hertha came down again in 2012-13, they gained revenge with a 2-1 win away to Union before a 2-2 tie at the Olympiastadion.

Then the rivalry went quiet again until this season when Union’s surprise promotion to the Bundesliga re-ignited things.

November’s fireworks suggested that a younger generation of support had chosen to disregard the cross-city camaraderie of old.

But, for now at least, this simmering animosity will be put on hold in the latest surreal instalment of one of football’s most extraordinary stories.

Union players celebrate their victory over Hertha at the Olympiastadion during 2010-11

Sandro Wagner scores for Hertha in their Bundesliga 2 fixture in September 2012




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