This time last year 1. FC Union Berlin hosted SV Austria Salzburg in a ‘charity match’ friendly with proceeds going to everyone’s favourite fan-owned club in the Mozart-Stadt. We were there for the game in the away end with the Salzbürger for what was a momentous occasion and a rowdy atmosphere during the customary January Bundesliga hiatus that makes every German Football loon twitchy. Some, so fed up of the lack of live sport, have even been known to make the trip to English league games just to get their fix (oh the horror!). But the others often jump on a chance for a civil Testspiel their club throws up.
SV Babelsberg invited Union Berlin for such a friendly at the beginning of January, a game we penciled in our shiny new calendars gifted from aunts and uncles for Christmas, only for it to be cancelled thanks to the frost. But a couple weeks later Dukla Prague were guests down at the Stadium an der Alten Försterei. Having seen the level of atmosphere at the previous year’s January friendly in Köpenick, we caught a train and got back down there.
In Central and Eastern Europe, Dukla Praha are well known for their sporting prowess during communist times, being one of Czechoslovakia’s strongest teams through the 60s, 70s and 80s. The team once associated (as all Communist teams were associated with one of the nationalised trades) with the Czechoslovak army, the prefix ‘Dukla’ makes reference to the Dukla Pass, the location of one of Czechoslovakia’s bloodiest battles in history. In West Europe, or to be more specific, in the UK, Dukla Prague is known quite specifically for being the part subject of Merseyside outfit Half Man Half Biscuit’s droning ditty “All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit”. I don’t know if this is something the good people of Prague like or not. Personally I always think their club badge looks a bit like a glorified knuckle duster, but that’s none of my business.
Hopped off the train with 15 minutes to kick-off and already there were signs of it being something of a shadow of last year’s friendly. The crowd was sparse at the train station, this close to kick-off. We skated our way through the frozen forest to get to the legendary stadium (part built by actual Union fans when the Bundesliga demanded better facilities but the club itself admitted it didn’t have the necessary funds to employ the workmen), to find that only 2 stands were in use. There were perhaps 2,000 people in the entire ground, and what’s more disappointing, is that there were no away supporters. Not a single one.
It resulted in a rather strange phenomenon at a German Football game; kick-off began without any home fan chanting. The Ultras were absent, probably because they had anticipated the lack of Dukla fans to oppose them, thus kids were the ones occupying the raised platforms for Capos. I suppose it verifies the notion that many people enjoy Football for the antagonism between home and visiting fans. I know I do. The lack of opposition and the given timing of the fixture meant that many folks around me seemed to spend a good amount of time simply greeting one another post-Christmas.
The game itself finished 2-2. The sporting quality of Dukla Praha was surprisingly strong. The first goal came under rather humorous circumstances. The referee signaled for an indirect free-kick inside the box thanks to an Union player’s handball (why this shouldn’t result in a penalty is unclear – especially as Union were rewarded a penalty shortly thereafter), to which Union Berlin simply lined up around 7 men plus the keeper directly on the line, which still failed to prevent an opener for the Czech visitors.
Whatever the game, the atmosphere was well below what everyone knows the good folk dressed in black and red at the Stadion an der Alten Försterei are capable of. That Mecca down in the East Berlin forests has long been a cult-haven for oldschool Ossi nostalgists, whiny British club polygamists and leftist groundhopping photographers. There were no flags, no drums, no bouncing up and down in unison, no singing, no coloured smoke. But with two entire blocks closed off and absolutely empty, it gave you a rare opportunity to enjoy the stadium for the beauty that it is. Unquestionably it was a strange but romantic sight to see half the ground underpopulated during a game of a team that week-in week-out draws thousands to its gates. To your right, the large and anonymous all-seater stand with corporate boxes and warmth. Otherwise all around you is a continuous bank of stepped concrete, with a hollowed concourse housed under a thick stooping roof. 2000 years from now, archaeologists digging in an overgrown Brandenburg forest will uncover a temple occupying a huge role in contemporary society as magnificent and peculiar as any ancient structure uncovered in our times. Today, however, was not its finest day.
Nevermind. Bundesliga is back now.