German football is often held up as a model of how the spectator experience should be. From the vast, swaying yellow wall of terracing at Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion to the self-styled anarchy of St. Pauli, the Bundesliga and beyond reflects the football many in England wish they could remember.
Happily, the same spirit can be found lower down the system. Undiluted by fan-tourists on a day-trip to check out the authentic fussball experience (ironically decrying the stilted atmosphere of Old Trafford or Anfield as tourist-infested), teams like Babelsberg 03 also fly the flag for what the locals call ‘fussball unplugged’.
Babelsberg is a Berlin suburb these days, on the way out to Potsdam. But once it was a Cold War flashpoint. The Potsdam bridge was a famous exchange point for spies, a crossover between East and West. Babelsberg itself, with its Karl Liebknecht Stadium endorsing an old communist revolutionary, is firmly rooted in the GDR.
Revolutionary ideas are deeply rooted here: the Babelsberg Studio was the pre-eminent German film centre prior to WW2, and went on to become the central studio for the GDR in communist times. The great names of interwar German movie-making – Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl – all have links here. ‘The Triumph of the Will’, Riefenstahl’s 1936 Olympic documentary, part sports journalism, part paean to fascism, was pieced together here. Fans at the Liebknecht Stadium still tote ‘filmstadt’ banners in reference to the town’s movie history.
Football wasn’t such a big deal here. Whether the team was known as Sportverein Babelsberg or Karl-Marx Babelsberg, it rarely made much of an impact on the honours board. The compact Liebknecht Stadium, which holds 10,500 (9,000 standing on the terraces that snake around three sides), dates from 1976 and was rebuilt in 2002. As a stadium it is typical of the kind of community sports facilities that popped up all over the Communist bloc. The most striking features are its floodlights: the pylons bend double to keep the lights close to ground level when not in use – presumably making maintainence easier and appeasing nimby neighbours who dislike traditional floodlights looming over the back garden. Its greatest days involved the GDR: East Germany’s Olympic team came for the opening ceremony and the biggest attendance here was for an international against Malta in October 1977. Fifteen thousand turned out to see a 9-0 win for the home team.
Today there’s greater interest in Turbine Potsdam, regular contenders in UEFA’s Women’s Champions League. 03 play in the Regionalliga Nordost, some way down the pyramid. In lieu of a proud sporting pedigree, the club persuades locals to part with their 10 Euros by promising a grassroots football experience. Light-years away from the slick presentation of Hertha Berlin at the Olympic Stadium, the idea is to get a lively atmosphere on the terraces without the pretention and commercialism of the Bundesliga. Instead there’s a lot of the outwardly left-wing politics familiar to anyone who’s been to Union Berlin, and loud trumpeting of ties with other fan-movement clubs, including FC United of Manchester who played a friendly here in 2013 shortly before my own visit.
Bread-and-butter league action against FC Zwickau in Germany’s fourth tier isn’t the same kind of draw as a Euro friendly. Although the crowd of 2,676 was more than respectable, it wasn’t the ultras party that FC United attracted. Nor was there the same range of pre-game music and memorabilia on offer. That’s partly because the home ultras take up their spot roughly on the halfway line on the uncovered terrace opposite the main stand. It’s good for sunbathing, but the covered area behind the goal would likely amplify the noise. With banners reading ‘fussball raus!’ (Wake up, football!) and posters of Karl Liebknecht himself, they presented a colourful, if somewhat distant spectacle. Behind the far goal Zwickau’s ‘Red Kaos’ group strutted its stuff and produced the bigger pyro display – sufficient, just about, to prompt a break in play while the smoke dispersed.
But behind the goal, in what was notionally the ‘home end’, the atmosphere was friendly rather than fervent; the game similarly low-key. Babelsburg won it 2-1, coming from behind to do so. Unlike some of the better-known fan movements, this one doesn’t create a barrier that unwittingly excludes people who merely want to watch a game of football without making a grand political or philosophical statement. At the same time, compared with most lower-league football in Europe, it generates bigger crowds and a better atmosphere. More than a few teams – in Britain and beyond – might do well to look more closely.
Karl Liebknecht Stadion, Babelsburg, Berlin, Germany
Aug. 18, 2013. Regionalliga Nordost
SV Babelsberg 03 2 (Becker, Mihm) FC Zwickau 1 (Frick)
For more photos of the game (one including Groundhoppers’ reporter in the crowd behind the goal), click here