When in a strange city, ich spreche Fußball

Hunter Davies' "The Fan" column.

New Statesman
Berlin's skyline. Photograph: Getty Images

I find that when I am abroad the quickest way not to be feel abroad in a strange land is to go to a football match. Failing that, find a football shop. Failing that, talk football – to anyone willing to talk football.

So when I arrived at Berlin’s amazing main railway station – which was completed in time for the World Cup in Germany in 2006 and is about the size of King’s Cross and Euston combined and drove Berliners mad, as it was trillions over budget – I was delighted to see that among the rows of gleaming shops was the club shop of Hertha Berlin.

I have heard of Hertha Berlin, like most football fans round the world, for are they not one of Germany’s oldest, most famous clubs and the leading side of its capital city?

I chose some postcards, which showed their home, the Olympic Stadium, capacity 74,500, and a programme for their last game, against Dynamo Dresden, which also included the Saisonmagazin. I took that to be the season’s magazine, being incredibly fluent in German after only 24 hours. It was a handsome, glossy production of 130 pages with a fold-out poster – price €2. In England, even at Carlisle United, the programme is £3 these days.

The smell was the same as any club shop anywhere and I have been to loads. The crap clothes in the club colours, the silly toys and corny souvenirs. Hertha play in blue and white vertical stripes, so the overall effect was at least quite pleasing.

When I was paying, I asked the girl on the till where Hertha was in the Bundesliga. “They’re not,” she said, turning away, as if I had asked a deliberately horrible question.

It turns out Hertha are currently languishing in the second division, which is obviously a matter for deep shame. Don’t know how I missed their fall, having boasted to myself how knowledgeable I am. In fact, there is no Berlin club in the top division – the other local team, FC Union Berlin, is even further down the second division.

Strange, that – when you realise that Berlin, with a population of 3.5 million, is by far Germany’s biggest city, almost three times the size of Munich. I can’t think of another capital or biggest city without a team in its nation’s top division.

Later that day, talking to a woman from the distinguished German publishing firm Piper, based in Munich, she suggested the reason was probably to do with the flight of wealth from Berlin when the Wall went up. Long-established rich Berliner firms and families moved to the south of Germany, especially around Munich. This could help explain the success of Bayern Munich.

However, several Berliners told me that Munich, despite its famous football team, was seen by most Germans as boring and lumpen, if economically successful; whereas Berlin, though practically bankrupt, is exciting, with its clubs, theatres, art and music.

When I reached Hamburg, I got talking to the director of the Literaturhaus, which I guessed right away means “Literature House”. (God, German is so easy, especially now they’ve stopped using that funny old gothic script.) The house is a large, handsome mansion with a library, study centre and restaurant, and it puts on loads of high-class literary and artistic events.

Funnel vision

I was giving a talk, though not about football. Afterwards, over supper, I turned the conversation round and found to my surprise that the director, Rainer Moritz, had written a book about football. And on a subject I had never ever seen a whole book about before. He kindly gave me a copy and I will give you the full title, as I know you will immediately work it out: Abseits: das letzte Geheimnis des Fußballs.

Yes, it is a history of the offside rule. How on earth did he manage to get away with such an arcane subject? I have tried for years to get a publisher interested in a history of football strips – and totally failed.

Rainer explained that he wrote it in 2006, when, because of the World Cup, there was a lot of interest in Germany in football books. It’s a learned volume with a bibliography of about 100 titles, one of which I noticed was by Desmond Morris.

Even someone as knowledgeable as me can always learn something about football. Hertha, by the way, is not a suburb of Berlin. The name, which dates back to 1892, was taken from the name of a ship that had a blue and white funnel. Thank you.