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May 31, 2013

Berlin takes your breath away

When I was in London last week, I was asked about the venue for the Champions League final quite often. The reason was that the old Wembley had a special place in our football history - from 1966 and all that to 1996's golden goal and then all the way to the last-ever game under the Twin Towers, which was decided by a Dietmar Hamann long-range shot.

• Maxim on final showdown

A few times, people also asked me whether we had something like Wembley in Germany. Well, no. And yes.

Quite a few European countries besides England have a national stadium - France immediately comes to mind, but there's also Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Poland, Bulgaria and so on.

We never had one because of the federalism, Germany's political system since the war but that has been our sports system all along. The German FA (DFB) is in effect not a monolithic governing body but a coalition of various regional federations, some of them very powerful, all of them jealous of the others.

The mighty Southern German and Western German federations, for example, would have never agreed to giving the national team a permanent home in a region that wasn't their own. So the national side became a roving team from the get-go. True, in the 105 years since the first game, Berlin has hosted the most matches (44), but Hamburg or Stuttgart are not that far behind (32 and 30 internationals, respectively).

The other big games in our football calendar - the finals that decided the national championship before the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963 and of course the German FA Cup finals - also moved from city to city for the largest part of our football history. And for a brief period under the Nazis, Berlin's Olympic Stadium became the default ground for both finals.

Quite often, the Cup final would be staged in a city which was easy to reach for both sets of supporters. Düsseldorf, for instance, was the logical choice when Cologne and Mönchengladbach met in 1973, while Gelsenkirchen was given the game twice in three years because Cologne and Düsseldorf played each other in 1978 and then again in 1980. And in 1983, when two teams from the same city - Fortuna Cologne and Cologne FC - reached the final for the first and so far only time, the match was of course played in their home town.

Did I say "of course"? Well, if Fortuna and FC had reached the final only two years later, their fans would have had to spend some four hours on a motorway, cross a border, drive another 120 miles through a foreign, even hostile country and then cross a second border just to play a game of football.

That's because the DFB decided in late 1984 to stage the next five Cup finals in West-Berlin. It was a political decision. At the height of the Cold War (the controversial deployment of American middle-range missiles in Germany and other countries had begun a year earlier), there were many efforts in West Germany to underline the fact that West-Berlin was a part of the country. The problem was that it wasn't.

Under the so-called Four Power Agreement on Berlin, the Western Sectors of the city were technically not constituent parts of West Germany. This fine distinction was by and large meaningless in the West, but the Eastern Bloc countries attached great importance to it. And this is where the European Championship came into play.

At the time, the DFB was preparing a bid to host Euro '88. Hermann Neuberger, then the president of the DFB, knew very well that half of the people on UEFA's six-man organising committee, the body that would decide on the matter, came from Eastern Bloc countries, namely from the Soviet Union, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and Bulgaria. They wouldn't even grant the West German bid a glance if West-Berlin was to be a host city.

It must have been an awful dilemma for Neuberger and the other high-ranking DFB officials. It seems likely that they knew very well how deafening the outcry from most political corners was going to be if they would sacrifice West-Berlin on the altar of the Euros. So they probably decided to soften the blow by awarding the city a few consecutive Cup finals. And a few months later, in February 1985, when the DFB indeed won the bid and faced stern criticism for bypassing West-Berlin, it put Neuberger in a position where he could say "we have always done everything for Berlin" and keep a straight face.

So, that's how we got the German Wembley.

Because now, as "the next five finals" have stretched into almost three decades, Berlin's Olympic Stadium has, with some qualifications, become just that. When Germans sing "We're going to Berlin", they don't mean playing Hertha, they mean the Cup final, just as "We're going to Wembley" evokes the thrill of finals or play-offs for English fans.

The atmosphere, too, rivals Wembley these days. There will be Bayern fans for whom Saturday's game against VfB Stuttgart is the 12th final they have seen at the Olympic Stadium. But they don't tire of it, because Berlin is always "worth a visit", as an old city marketing slogan from the 1950s has it, and there are so many memories of mild but electric May nights that even the jaded get all misty-eyed.

Yes, the importance of the Cup has declined over the years, as in most other countries. But on the day of the final, the glamour and the mystique always come back. Which makes it particularly lamentable that the DFB itself blundered big time when setting the day for the final of the biggest competition it organises. It clashes with the preparations for the Confederations Cup, which means that Dante and Luiz Gustavo, who have been called up to the Brazil squad, won't be playing for Bayern. The same fate could have befallen Javier Martinez and Stuttgart's Japanese players Shinji Okazaki and Gotoku Sakai.

The club say the two Brazilians left Germany with tears in their eyes, and that doesn't seem to be an exaggeration. Bayern can make history by becoming the first German club to win the treble and both players would've certainly loved to be a part of that.

And the chances are excellent that the Munich giants will pull off this unprecedented feat. It's not just that they are in terrific form, brimming with confidence after the game at the other Wembley and have beaten Stuttgart eight times on the trot.

It's also that for all its emotionality and grandeur, there haven't been too many true upsets in the Cup finals staged in Berlin. Only one lower league team has lifted the trophy here and that was a long time ago. In 1992, to be precise, when Hannover 96 defeated Gladbach on penalties.

You could say that the Olympic Stadium has never witnessed a true underdog victory in the more than two decades that have passed since Hannover's goalkeeper Jörg Sievers saved two penalties in the shoot-out to give his side the win.

The Olympic Stadium will have some work to do in that regard before it really becomes the German Wembley. But it's unlikely it'll start this weekend.

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