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We're going to....Berlin?

A little over two years ago I published a column describing why the German FA (DFB) Cup used to have its ups and downs in terms of popularity and why it never acquired the mystique (once?) attributed to its English counterpart.

In a nutshell, our cup competition was a latecomer and initially intended to fill the boring summer months with some half-hearted action. What's more, until the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963, our national championship was based on the concept of knock-out rounds between teams that normally don't play each other. That made the Cup a lot less special.

Like in so many other European countries, the floundering competition was only saved by UEFA's decision to introduce the Cup Winners' Cup. Suddenly, the prize was that much more enticing, since it brought Europe competition. All that was missing now, at least in Germany, was that little bit extra - that Wembley feeling.

'It was a masterstroke to give the Cup final a permanent home in Berlin,' says Bayern's business manager Uli Hoeness, whose team will make yet another trip up north for the annual extravaganza on Saturday. 'That's what really turned the game into a cult event.'

Only a representative of Bayern, who have reached the final six times in the last nine years, could have added: 'This year, the final comes early because of the World Cup, but normally it's also a wonderful end-of-the-season party for our fans.'

It is Bayern who take on Eintracht Frankfurt in the showpiece on Saturday.

Still, Hoeness is definitely right when he says staging the final in Berlin was a defining moment in the history of the German Cup. However, what may seem like a logical and normal move to people from countries that have a national stadium, such as Wembley, actually triggered a heated debate in Germany.

Until 1985, the Cup final was some kind of travelling circus, pitching up its tent in a new place almost every year. While the German FA did have favourite host cities - Hanover was given five finals between 1970 and 1984 - the showpiece could also grace unsuspecting towns such as Kassel (1959) or Ludwigshafen (1968). The one place where it never went after the war was Berlin. Or, more precisely, West Berlin.

Part of the reason was that the divided city was constantly causing headaches in the muddled world of sports politics. When West Germany were awarded the 1974 World Cup, the Eastern Bloc countries at first even demanded none of their teams would have to play in (West) Berlin, since they refused to recognise it as a West German city. But it wasn't only politics that forced the shun, it was primarily logistics.

'In 1985, many people asked us why the clubs and their fans should be forced to accept an arduous journey, often garnished by harassment at the GDR border, and the stiff hotel prices in Berlin,' remembered Egidius Braun, the former DFB president and the association's treasurer in the mid-1980s. 'They said the old solution, choosing a geographically suitable city, was much more pragmatic.'

If you don't know or can't remember what Germany was like during this era, let me tell you that going to West Berlin was indeed a surreal adventure, at least for people who couldn't afford to reach their destination by plane. The journey included traversing well over a hundred miles of East German territory, and that was as much fun as it sounds like.

You had to use special, heavily guarded motorways, called 'transit roads', and adhere to very strict rules. Well, at least according to the instructions given to travelling football fans: If you let your scarves hang out of the windows, they will stop you and fine you lots of capitalist currency. If you forget what the speed limit is, they will pull you over and ask for more precious D-Marks than most people have on them. If you take the wrong exit and end up somewhere in East Germany, grumpy and potentially sadistic policemen will have a field day. If your car breaks down... well, good luck.

In the end, most of these horror stories never came true. Even the infamous customs men turned out be more or less human. True, one of those guys took a look at my passport and then stared at me for - I swear! - a full two minutes without once batting an eyelid. When he finally moved a muscle in his face, I was dead sure he'd tell me to get out of the car ('Real slow, son!') and put my hands on the roof ('Where I can see them!'). Instead he creaked: 'Going to the game?' When I nodded, he stared some more. At long last he put the passport back into my sweaty hand and said: 'Good luck. Hope you hammer them.'

Well, we did. And when we drove home most people were so drunk or so ecstatic they no longer gave a damn. They waved their scarves and honked their horns and they lived to tell about it. (Or at least I think so.) Yet it still seemed an enormous and unnecessary hassle to go through all this only to see a game that could easily have been played elsewhere.

Especially since going to Berlin was a real trek for most of the big clubs, save for Bremen and Hamburg, even if you disregarded the GDR hurdle. I mean, Munich is closer to Milan and Prague than to Berlin; Cologne is closer to Paris and Amsterdam than to Berlin.

And yet it was indeed the right decision to give the final a permanent home in today's capital, as the atmosphere on matchday is really something very special.

Some of the older Frankfurt fans may still remember it, as proud and tradition-laden Eintracht played and won here in 1988. But there is a very large and fervent crop of younger supporters (Frankfurt boasts a sizeable and creative 'ultra' scene, renowned for stunning choreographies) who weren't around when their team last played for a real trophy.

They will certainly look forward to the trip - and are probably already busy sewing or painting or constructing something to impress their peers.

  • Uli's seminal history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

    Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.

  • Any thoughts on this article? Email us.