Union Berlin dispatched Hertha earlier this season in the capital's first top-flight derby since reunification. Hayoung Jeon/EPA. 

For a place with such a rich soccer history, Berlin isn’t the most obvious of soccer cities. While regions like Bavaria and the Ruhr have produced countless illustrious clubs, Germany’s capital has long struggled for success in the sport. And for a defining rivalry, with this Friday’s Berlin derby between Hertha Berlin and Union Berlin only the second ever in Bundesliga history.

While Hertha have been a near permanent fixture in the Bundesliga since the mid-1990s, Union won promotion to the German top flight for the first time since the country’s reunification last season. A first-ever Bundesliga meeting between the two rivals back in November produced a Union Berlin home win. This time it’s Hertha Berlin’s turn to have the neighbours over.

‘Neighbours’ might be a better way to describe the relationship between the two Berlin clubs. The natural temptation is to label Hertha and Union rivals, but in truth no real rivalry exists between them. Before reunification, it was even the case that Hertha Berlin fans would visit the Alten Forsterei, while Union Berlin supporters would attend Hertha Berlin games when they were in the Eastern bloc. “Hertha und Union - eine Nation” was a commonly used slogan at the time, with both fanbases united through the far greater societal divide in the city at the time.

Fall of the wall

The fall of the Berlin Wall initially only added to the sense of unity between Hertha and Union. “Spectators were basically holding each other in their arms and celebrating,” former Hertha Berlin forward Sven Kretschmer recalled about the first meeting between the two clubs in 28 years. The two teams even went to dinner together afterwards. This match was not a derby, but a celebration of Berlin as a city.

As socio-economic issues subsided in the lives of fans, the relationship between Hertha Berlin and Union Berlin gained an edge, with the two teams now competing in the same league pyramid if not the same league. More recently, there have been incidents of clashes between the two sets of supporters. Last November’s derby even saw Union Berlin ultras attempt to confront Hertha Berlin players on the pitch at full time.

Berlin has produced more Bundesliga clubs (five) than any other city in the country and yet has so far failed to produce a true giant of the German game. The joke was uttered more than once after Union Berlin’s promotion to the top division last year that Berlin would finally have a club, prodding Hertha Berlin for lack of support from within the city itself.

Just one point separates the two teams in the Bundesliga table ahead of Friday’s derby. Both teams entered the season with different aims and objectives, as Hertha targeted a top half finish and Union Berlin merely hoped to avoid relegation back to the second tier. Now they are very much fighting for the same territory.

An ever-changing dynamic

If one of Berlin’s clubs could be considered a sleeping giant, it is Hertha. They play in the grand surroundings of the city’s Olympiastadion and finished as high as sixth in the Bundesliga as recently as 2017. Recent investment in Hertha Berlin has raised hope that they could finally become challengers for titles and honours, with plans for a new soccer-specific stadium also in the pipeline.

But despite Hertha Berlin being undoubtedly the more successful of the two teams on the pitch, they can’t escape accusations of soullessness. In a country where fan culture means more than anywhere else, Hertha feel like mere squatters in the cavernous Olympiastadion. It’s reflective of the question mark of their whole identity as a club. Who are they? What do they stand for?

Union Berlin have no such identity crisis. This is a club forged in the punk movement of decades ago. A club that has such a close connection with its fans that they quite literally helped build their redeveloped home ground brick by brick. A club that opens the stadium for supporters to sing carols and drink Gluhwein at Christmas time. They embody Berlin’s vibrant alternative scene.

Indeed, the cultural contrast between the two clubs is stark. Hertha Berlin and Union Berlin sit at the extreme ends of the city’s soccer landscape. While they might have, not so long ago in the grand scheme of things, been united in their societal strife, there is now more that divides them. Perhaps even more than when there was a wall between them.