Then & Now – The Wild Times of Tasmania Berlin

When people think of football in Berlin, they think of Hertha. Although die alte dame certainly aren’t heavyweights in German football, mid-table finishes and the occasional foray into the Europa League is enough to keep them on the footballing radar. Unlike most European leagues where capital city clubs regularly contest the title – think Paris-Saint Germain, Real Madrid or the London clubs – Berlin’s tumultuous history means that it never became a footballing powerhouse.

The city was split into four zones controlled by the four main wartime allies at the end of the war in 1945. Amid heightening tensions with the USSR, the three Western allies – the USA, UK and France – merged their zones together in 1948 and introduced their own currency. When the Federal Republic of Germany was created in May 1949, the city was officially split into East and West and remained separated for 40 years until the 1989 peaceful revolution led to reunification of the country and the city.

Despite the importance of Berlin on the Cold War battleground, where East and West constantly tried to outdo each other in order to get a leg up; the city has never been an important economic centre for the country which partly explains its lack of recent footballing success. The reason why capital cities are usually so dominant in football is that they’re a hub for economic activity, attracting workers from all over their country – as well as those from abroad – and therefore creating a bigger talent pool for clubs to scout and develop players from.

A study by the German Economic Institute is a good illustration of this. Spain without Madrid, for example, would lose 6% of its GDP (the value of goods it produces) per person. The UK would lose 11.1% of its GDP per person without London. France would lose 14.8% without Paris. It isn’t a coincidence that all three of these cities are also football strongholds. If Germany lost Berlin however, its GDP per person would actually increase by 0.2%. The main economic regions in Germany are Bavaria and North-Rhine Westphalia, which unsurprisingly are also the two most successful footballing regions. Four of the top five most successful Bundesliga clubs come from one of these Bundesländer – Bayern Munich chief amongst them.

Probably the starkest (and most entertaining) example of Berlin’s football underachievement took place back in the mid-1960s. Tasmania Berlin, a club now plying its trade in the sixth-division Berlin Liga, was promoted to the top flight in 1965 because of a mix of political intrigue, luck, and optimism. It duly embarked on a record-breaking nightmare season that remains forever etched in German footballing history. Many of the unfortunate records set by Tasmania stand to this day.

Although Tasmania represents to most German fans just a historical footnote, there are more lessons to be learned from the club now than there were then. Then, in 1965/66, it was the Bundesliga clubs that schooled Tasmania. Now, amid racism scandals and rampant commercialism, it’s the top-level teams that could learn a thing or two from them.

THEN

The team that would go on to be the record-breaking Sport-Club Tasmania 1900 Berlin wasn’t actually founded in what was Berlin at the time. The multicultural, bohemian district of Neukölln that Tasmania would go on to represent didn’t even exist when the club first started out.

Rixdorf, where Tasmania was inaugurated in 1900, was quite literally a Bohemian city: it was founded just over a hundred years earlier by Protestant refugees fleeing persecution from their home kingdom of Bohemia. Despite its pious beginnings, Rixdorf quickly became known as a hub for drunkenness, so the authorities changed its name to Neukölln in 1912 before it eventually was absorbed into Berlin in 1920.

Despite or maybe even because of the poverty of the area, football flourished. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Tasmania really stepped up their game. The Oberliga Berlin, made up of the best teams in that tiny capitalist enclave located deep in East German territory, was the staging ground which they won three times in four seasons between 1959 and 1962.

Crucially however, Tasmania was pipped to the 1961 and 1963 titles by their main rivals Hertha. Had Tasmania added either of these titles to their haul, it’s quite possible that Berlin’s footballing history would be very different. A glaring lack of a national West German football league led to the formation of the Bundesliga in 1962. The disappointment of West Germany’s quarter-final exit in that year’s World Cup, as well as ongoing arguments concerning the professionalism of the German game led the DFB to take this step.

Only one place in the new 16-team Bundesliga set to kick off in 1963 was allocated to a Berlin team. Both Tasmania and Hertha applied and the latter won out thanks to its more recent successes. That was also the year that Ulrich, a lifelong Tasmania fan, first came to Berlin from Frankfurt: “The radio and the press often talked of the langen Kerls [tall fellows] of Berlin. Now, I could see them play.”

Despite not being picked for Bundesliga entry, Tasmania still had reasons to be cheerful in that inaugural season. Hertha escaped relegation by just a point, while Tasmania won the new Regionalliga Berlin (a renamed Oberliga). To get to the Bundesliga, Tasmania now needed to top a mini-league of Borussia Neuenkirchen and St. Pauli, both champions of their respective divisions, as well as Bayern Munich, who came second in their Regionalliga. It was too tricky a task for Tasmania, so the wait would go on. The following season made the dream seem even further away as Tasmania finished third.

Yet the backdrop of a mass scandal brought Tasmania’s Bundesliga dream into a sudden, sharp focus. Despite creating the Bundesliga, the DFB still wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea of making German football professional. It set harsh spending and wage limits, but these didn’t stop most Bundesliga teams from paying fees under the table to secure players.

Hertha especially relied on this approach as most German players didn’t want to move to divided, isolated Berlin. During the 1964/65 season, DFB investigations found that the club had been paying players extra fees illegally and as punishment, it was decided that they would be relegated along with the bottom two teams that year, Karlsruher SC and Schalke 04.

West Berlin was a vital Cold War hub and it would be an unacceptable humiliation for the city not to have a team in the Bundesliga while across the Wall Vorwärts Berlin had just won the (admittedly dubious) East German Oberliga. Sport mattered a lot in the ideological battleground of the 20th century when open fighting was neither frequent nor wanted.

It was decided that a West Berlin team would be admitted in Hertha’s place. Tennis Borussia Berlin, the city champions, had failed in their promotion group and the second-placed team, Spandauer SV, refused to accept the promotion, so eventually and just a few weeks before the new season was due to start, the place was offered to Tasmania. And they took it. “It was redemption.” says Ulrich: “The DFB had a guilty conscience.”

Despite seemingly being outmatched, Tasmania’s optimism wasn’t unfounded. The two other teams relegated because of their on-field failings, Schalke and Karlsruher, demanded Hertha’s place and an awkward compromise saw both stay up and the Bundesliga expanded to 18 teams – thus offering a greater chance for Tasmania to survive.

What’s more, the club made a few transfer coups. Goalkeeper Heinz Rohloff was signed from Hertha, while German national team player Horst Szymaniak, who had won the European Cup with Inter Milan a year earlier, was also brought in – presumably for his footballing rather than his mathematical brain since he reportedly bragged about demanding a quarter of the club’s gate receipts when he was actually offered a third.

Horst Szymaniak

So on the 14th August 1965, Tasmania played its first Bundesliga match. “The whole of Berlin was convinced Tasmania could manage.” says Ulrich. “83,000 fans went to the first game.” At the Olympiastadion fans watched Tasmania romp to a 2-0 victory over Karlsruher thanks to two late goals from Ingo “Ringo” Usbeck. It seemed like a perfect start.

In fact, that was one of only two wins all season and Usbeck scored only two more goals over the rest of the campaign. A 5-0 away humbling at Borussia Mönchengladbach followed to kickstart a winless run that lasted until the following May, setting a record that will likely never be beaten – along with several other dubious feats.

“Sadly, it was clear very quickly that Tasmania would be relegated,” says Ulrich. “The players couldn’t have done any more. Many players still went to work.” The lack of professionalism in German football that had, months earlier, offered Tasmania a space in the Bundesliga was now a reason that they would go crashing out of it. The players quickly realised how badly things were going. Atze (Big Brother) Becker, the team’s captain, surely failed to instil much confidence in his teammates when he said in an interview: “You can’t make a racehorse of a plough horse.”

Manager Franz Linken was offloaded in November and replaced by Heinz-Ludwig Schmidt, who ended their eight-game home losing streak with a 0-0 draw at the Olympiastadion against Mönchengladbach in mid-January. From a near-full stadium with  83,000 people a few months before, only 827 people turned up that day to set another unwanted record of hosting the smallest crowd at a first-tier match in Germany.

The Kuchen was finally taken on 26th March when Tasmania lost 9-0 at home to Meidericher. A 2-1 home win in May against Borussia Neunkirchen on the penultimate matchday secured a second win of the season, but a loss on the final day compounded the hard facts of this nightmare season: two wins, four draws and 28 losses; 15 goals scored and 108 conceded.

Tasmania Berlin v Bayern Munich

In the following years Tasmania made the promotion play-off round three times, winning the Regionalliga Berlin again in 1971. Attendances rose again in hope of another Bundesliga run, says Ulrich: “In the Regionalliga Berlin, Tasmania always had anything up to 5,000 spectators. In the promotion rounds it was around 20,000.” But every time Tasmania fell at the final hurdle and proved hopelessly outmatched in the play-off rounds.

All of these expensive promotion campaigns proved too much for the club’s finances. “In 1973, Tasmania had to declare bankruptcy with a debt of 800,000 Deutsche Marks,” says Ulrich. There was a cruel symmetry to the team’s bankruptcy: 10 years before, Tasmania had been snubbed from Bundesliga selection. In 1974, the 2. Bundesliga was formed, but this time Tasmania wouldn’t even be there to contest for it. “We would have been there.” says Ulrich. Now they had to start all over again.

NOW

Of course, Tasmania Berlin technically didn’t end there. A few months before the club’s closure, the youth teams formed Sportverein Tasmania 73 Neukölln and that club was renamed in 2011 to SV Tasmania Berlin in order to keep in touch with its old roots. The Tasmania of today looks very different, both on the pitch and in the stands. “In terms of fans, the old ones died out and the new ones come slowly.” says Ulrich: “Now, Berliners go to Hertha or Union.”

Because of this, as well as their sixth-tier division status, Tasmania’s Werner Seelenbinder Sportpark only sees an average of 120 fans per match – and that’s in a good season according to the club’s programme editor Hans.

The social makeup of the fans is arguably the biggest change though. Around 40% of Neukölln’s population is either non-German or has a non-German background, with the largest minority groups being Turks, Arabs and Kurds. “We have a lot of people in the district who are coming from all parts of the world,” says Hans, “and in some clubs you can hear twelve different languages.” Chelsea’s Antonio Rüdiger, the son of a Sierra Leonean mother, was born here.

Then again, this is nothing new for Neukölln – it was founded as a refugee city after all. What’s more, in the 1950s and ‘60s, when Gastarbeiter (guest workers) from all over Europe converged on West Germany to help with their Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle), foreign fans could be seen supporting Tasmania. “There were less Turkish guest workers in Berlin then” says Ulrich, but “some Italians and Yugoslavians came to matches.”

Neukölln’s multicultural nature also reflects in Tasmania’s team – look at the names of their first team players and you’ll see German names, Turkish names, Arabic names, Eastern European names. According to Hans, most of the youth team players have migrant backgrounds too. Again, though, Tasmania’s multicultural team of today has historical roots. “In 1968, one of the first black players in Germany, Jonny Egbuono, transferred to Tasmania after one year with Hertha and stayed nearly five years because he felt much more at home here” says Hans, “even if that way he only played in the city championship.”

This embrace of multicultural football is heartening to see in the wake of some worrying trends in German football – not to mention German politics as a whole, with the anti-immigration Für Deutschland party becoming the official opposition last year. Even Neukölln, with its newfound popularity among progressive young creative types, still has eight AfD councilors.

Recently, third-generation Turkish-German Mesut Özil announced that he would walk away from the German national team after claiming that, in the eyes of DFB president Richard Grindel: “I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose.”

“Multicultural clubs have been important for a long time because they include people with many diverse backgrounds in one unified team, which is always an important signal to fans and other players.” says Hans. In Berlin, he says, most of the teams have become multicultural, “even the ‘migrant clubs’ like Türkiyemspor or Croatia Berlin have players with diverse backgrounds.

“Özil is one of us and a huge idol for the kids. His retirement from die Mannschaft has a bitter taste since it’s a big motivation for them. Becoming a top player allows them to overcome the everyday struggle which is partially caused by having a non-German name or a darker skin.”

Özil’s retirement clearly concerns Hans: “Özil is telling the kids that this will never stop – that there are way too many people who will see you as an Ausländer [foreigner] no matter what. This is disappointing on the one hand, but on the other it leads to a wider discussion on this which is quite necessary. For us, it just means we will have to continue to be a positive example that inclusion is indeed possible.”

With the club having a clear identity it’s obvious that both Ulrich and Hans are optimistic about Tasmania’s future. Injuries in the second half of last season dashed their hopes of promotion to the fourth-division Oberliga Nord, but Hans says “it seems to be consent around here that it’s about time. We have a squad of 28 players now and many of them are really good. Chances are that we’ll play for the city championship and with a little luck we can make it.”

There are hopes that attendances in non-league will rise too thanks to the declining popularity of the Bundesliga. With Bayern Munich continually dominating and more commercial clubs like Red Bull Leipzig popping up, Hans says that he finds it easier to convince Berliners to see Tasmania: “Many people are fed up with commercial football. Overall interest in lower and non-league is rising, but it’s not showing in attendances yet.”

Ulrich is of the same opinion: “Because football in the European first divisions revolves only around making money, the lower leagues are becoming more important. Maybe the media will soon realise that too.”

Though Tasmania is now a world away from that crazy season of 1965/66, hope for better times still remains. “A true away match once again would be beautiful,” says Ulrich. “We want to make our ‘RaRaRa Tasmania’ chant known in other cities again.”

SAM BROOKE

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