Cup final Saturday. Tonight in Berlin, Borussia Dortmund will take on Eintracht Frankfurt in an all-or-nothing battle for six kilograms of gilded silver and I will not be there to see it. Tickets are like gold dust and I don’t want to go to there anyway.
Not that I have anything against the capital, on the contrary: I think it’s a fascinating place, constantly in the throes of reinvention yet still a history lover’s paradise. It represents the country well: Berlin is Germany in a way that London can never be England: diverse yet down-to-earth, open and affordable.
So why don’t I want to go there? Because as nice as Berlin is I can never get a decent tour guide. I’ve been several times, twice for cup finals, but I’ve still never found the right person to show me round.
The first cup final I went to was in 2008. Two hundred thousand people applied for tickets and I was one of the lucky ones. I made the trip with my friends on an officially organised bus. This is where we met Ralli.
Ralli’s job was to make sure that we behaved. However, dressed in a black and yellow plastic Pickelhaube spiked helmet, a yellow rain mack and yellow socks rolled up over his jeans he also fancied himself as an entertainer. He even had a catchphrase which he wanted us all to say:
Or some such nonsense. We stared back at him blankly. It was six o’ clock in the morning. For the next seven hours, he regaled us with anecdotes from the legendary 1989 final, a final for which — he reminds us after every third sip of beer — he was there. Our tour of Berlin began on the ring road outside of Dortmund while at the back of the bus his robustly promiscuous girlfriend was busy testing the tonsils of half of the town.
When we got to the capital, Ralli suggested that we stick together so he could show us round because — he tells us in increasingly intoxicated vowels — in 1989 he was there. We ran away down the street.
We had more luck in 2012. In 2012 The Chief decided that he would show us the capital from the bus window. He had obviously done his homework; as we approached the stadium he spoke with an authority which suggested that he had swallowed the guidebook whole.
Unfortunately he had also swallowed several pilseners and half a bottle of herbal liqueur, all of which somewhat detracted from the effect somewhat.
“No city…hic!…has suffered…like Berlin. For Berlin…is a city of pride and…dignity…of …hic! On the left you will see…” Slur. Pause. Out.
So I’m staying in Dortmund. You can go to Berlin if you like; there’s plenty to see there. The Wall for example. They pulled it down in 1989 but it’s still there, broken up into a million pieces and sold in a thousand souvenir shops. The Reichstag, Potsdamer Platz, the Central Station. The stadium is a monument in itself, its design unaltered since Hitler’s 1936 Olympics. It is a masterpiece of construction.
And then of course there is the Brandenburg Gate. Finished in 1791 it is instantly recognisable if not necessarily spectacular. My tip would be to focus on one point: the statue at the top.
Much debate exists as to why King Friedrich Wilhelm II chose Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory, to top the monument. It was after all supposed to be a symbol of peace. But Victoria, in her four-horsed quadriga tells you much more about Berlin and how it fits in as a European capital than any of the other stuff.
The four horses are exactly twelve feet high. Metres were more Napoleon’s thing. There are four horses but only two different bodies. To save money, two of each body were made and then given four different heads and the whole thing is made of bronze.
It must weigh a ton, it sits over sixty feet from the ground and it has only ever been stolen once. Napoleon was once again the guilty party; after the battle of Jena-Auerstedt he marched through Berlin and ordered the statue to be taken back to Paris as a trophy. Dubious souvenirs are something of a Berlin speciality.
It was packed into boxes, hauled by road to Hamburg, packed on to a ship to Rotterdam, boated down the Rhine and then dragged the rest of the way. By the time it got to the Louvre it was a mess.
It stayed there for seven years before the Prussians invaded Paris and took it back. The journey back to Berlin became a triumphal march. It was dragged back over land and several German city gates had to be knocked down to allow it to pass. Fireworks lit up her triumphal passage back through Berlin. Revenge is sweet.
Nowadays Victoria is much more of a francophile. In 2015 the gate was lit up in red, white and blue as a gesture of solidarity to France after the Paris terrorist attacks. She has seen a plenty of action over the years with more defeats than victories. She survived the Soviet invasion in 1945 when most of the city was pulverised. She was there when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and when German was reunited in 1990 although in the mean time she was taken down and given a much-needed makeover. Of the original structure only one piece survives but she’s still standing tall. That’s Berlin for you.
I watch the game in on the Peace Square in Dortmund with Mani, an old friend and a good one. There are around thirty thousand people there and, while we are not quite the oldest swingers in town, we certainly make it into the top ten. It is the first day of the year where the temperature has reached into the 30s and we sit behind a bush among the beer cans drinking champagne produced from a seemingly bottomless handbag by a twenty-something companion.
Champagne before the game is a bit premature of course. Don’t praise the day before the evening say the Germans: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. It proves to be so: as the sun sinks behind the stadium’s Marathon Gate, Dortmund do one thing right and one thing only: they win the choice of ends and elect to shoot in the other direction.
A rocket of a shot gives Dortmund the lead but Frankfurt stand their ground. They are the underdogs but they have qualities that we do not. Eintracht Frankfurt. Look up Eintracht in a dictionary and you get words like “concord”, “harmony” and “unity”. They play like a team, for the man on the left and the man on the right.
In the stands, Eintracht’s fans are wearing identical shirts and working as one: First the top tier is a sea of black and white flags, then the bottom. Repeat. Amplify. They are making all the noise and when Rebic scores an equaliser they go wild. 1-1. Dortmund are on the back foot.
Nervous moments follow. Eintracht sense that they can do this but they have an Achilles heel. One of the reasons that so many of their players are injured is that they are the dirtiest team in the league. Now when it matters most, indiscipline is their undoing. A foul in the box: penalty for Dortmund.
Spiderman in the number 17 shirt steps up and slots the ball home without even looking towards goal. Ice cool: advantage Dortmund. There is no way back now and the seconds run down slowly but surely. After 95 minutes the whistle blows, Dortmund’s captain picks up the trophy and the rockets fire in to the air. As the stadium is showered in golden confetti I am reminded of 2012 and for a brief moment I wish I was there. After that I’m just glad I’m wearing my dancing shoes. Dortmund 2 Frankfurt 1. The cup is coming home.
It has been a close one and Frankfurt deserve respect for the fight they put up. Their players tear off their losers’ medals as soon as they think the camera isn’t watching and in the stands their fans pack up and go home.
My heart goes out to them. In 2008 we lost. It was a long way back on that bus: Berlin is miles away from anywhere. We were all out of alcohol and tobacco but we at least had the consolation that Ralli was fast asleep under his plastic Pickelhaube. Silence is golden.
We got home at nine o’ clock the next morning. It was cold and raining but at least there was nicotine for the smokers.
“What a shit weekend!” said The Chief, smoke bellowing from his ears and nostrils.”All that way for nothing.”
“Not quite nothing” comes the reply. Someone unzips his jacket and presents him with our guide’s plastic helmet.
Not exactly gilded silver but a trophy nonetheless. We will treasure it always.