Talkin’ Tennis

Do you have an affinity for swanky West Berlin’s finer things? Do you look dashing in purple? Have a wicked ping pong serve? And most importantly, do you hate fascism? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, then we might just have the perfect club for you.

Tennis Borussia Berlin, frequently TeBe for short, might be one of the most famous clubs in the Oberliga Nordost-Nord (5th division). Which of course, means there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of them. But that’d be a real shame, as TeBe have quite a history and a vibrant fan culture. So we sat down with long-time supporter Endi, who is chairman of the fans department (the TBAF) within the club and sits on the member-elected supervisory board, to shed a bit of light on what has to be the most confusingly-named soccer club in the city.

Endi’s been a TeBe fan since 1998, when he first moved to Berlin. His gravitation to Tennis Borussia happened naturally enough: he was on the lookout for a club in his new city, and a couple trips to Hertha were enough to make it clear to him that, “the Olympic Stadium is not a great place to be in December with 18,000 people watching.” So he joined about 200 TeBe fans for their 3rd division away clash at Babelsberg 03, and that was that. Babelsberg, currently a club with dedicated leftist politics, had some nazi elements occasionally showing up to games back in the 90s. This crew attacked the TeBe fan section repeatedly throughout the match, which got Endi thinking, “well, if the nazis hate this team that’s probably a good sign.” This solid advice can be applied to many aspects of life, not just football.

Charlottenburg’s upper crust meets crust punks

Outside of the excitement of fending off neo-nazis, much of his initial experience at TeBe was a pleasant surprise. Endi had heard a bit about the club but all he really knew about it was, “that they were one of the smaller teams of Berlin, pretty badly supported. That they were proper West Berlin, rich West Berlin. A bit snobby-ish.” Which made it a nice shock when the away section of that first match was full of ‘alternative’ people and punks, some of whom Endi recognized from concerts and other events. By now, Tennis is likely best known for their alternative and politically engaged fan culture, standing out as one of the biggest left-wing clubs in the area (a title ironically shared with Babelsberg 03). While this developed naturally, fans did make a concerted effort in the 90s and early 2000s to advertise the team in record shops, pubs and punk venues to grow the alternative fan-base. Still, the club remains firmly rooted in its Charlottenburg home.

TeBe plays in Mommsenstadion, just a tick outside the ring from Westkreuz, and the demographics of their supporters were roughly split between old-school, often conservative and upper-class West Berliners and the punk and slacker set that has been an ever-increasing portion of the fan base since they began coming in the 90s. They’ve often been strange bedfellows, and Endi describes the mix as, “two groups of people who really didn’t have anything to do with one another, be it political beliefs, life circumstances, whatever.” And while this clash was even more prominent when he began attending matches, both sets of fans’ commitment to the club, especially when TeBe was twice bankrupt, has bridged some of the cultural divide and allowed for general agreement on issues facing the club and establishing an anti-fascist and anti-racist identity, which may not have necessarily been the first priority of the West Berliners.

Fans taking in a victory against Hansa Rostock II last season. We neglected to test them on whether they were punks or old-school West Berliners.

The club identity’s evolution was accomplished through the hard work and organizing of its fan base. And while standing against fascism, racism, antisemitism and homophobia may sound obvious or even trivial, it has been rendered more important than ever in 2018. When Endi started attending matches in the 90s, being an overtly left-wing club (especially one playing most frequently in the former GDR) was as uncommon as it was dangerous. TeBe fans were often attacked at away matches, including what Endi describes as a lowlight during their brief 2nd Bundesliga years (1998-2000), in which 1,000 Chemnitz fans decided to celebrate avoiding relegation on the last day of the season by storming the pitch and attempting to attack the 100 or so TeBe away fans, chanting “Jews Berlin” at them. And while openly left-leaning clubs and fan-bases have become increasingly common in German football, that doesn’t negate the fact that plenty of teams still have far-right fans

As Endi puts it, “I think for most of the years, being openly political was a necessity. Especially during the circumstances where we had to play, especially at away games.  We want football to be an inclusive sport for everyone, that’s one of the function of any sports club anyway.” And with politics seeming to dominate much of German soccer news, from Babelsberg’s spat with the NOFV to Eintracht Frankfurt’s President receiving criticism for stating that he doesn’t want AfD voters as members of his club, it’s not a problem that’s going away, and it’s one that needs to be actively combated.

For the record, Endi has absolutely no problem with barring right-wing fans from stadiums and football clubs, even if it does lead to them complaining about being persecuted (I mean come on, who in German history has ever been more persecuted than Nazis?)  “In times where right-wing politicians are invited to basically every talk show on German TV, they can’t really say that they’re not being heard any more. I am happy for anyone who tries not to give them a platform,” he said.

They also play football

TeBe doesn’t just have politics going for them.  If you’re the type of person who looks to the German 5th division to do your glory hunting, then now might be a good time to hop on the bandwagon.  Then again, that type of person probably doesn’t exist. They’re currently 2nd in the league and making a strong push for promotion. TeBe signed Union Berlin legend Karim Benyamina in the winter break to help with the effort, although the 7-point gap from the top will be extremely difficult to overcome.  They’re also still alive in the Berliner Pokal, and they just knocked out the Berlin Liga’s Tasmania Berlin this weekend to advance to the semifinals.

On the pitch, Tennis Borussia is probably best known nowadays for their youth setup.  Currently-playing graduates include Jerome Boateng and Dortmund striker Maximilian Phillip. TeBe’s footballing salad days are unfortunately a ways behind them. They had two (not so) glorious years in the Bundesliga in the 70s , including a win against Bayern at TeBe’s then temporary home Olympic Stadium, and then had a dramatic climb to the 2nd Bundesliga in the late 90s (which oddly enough occurred just as  Endi started following them, I’m sure there’s absolutely no connection there).  Although playing in the 2nd division sounds nice, the circumstances weren’t exactly ideal.  Their promotion was fueled by ownership who made their cash through a pyramid scheme and tried to buy their way into the Bundesliga, making TeBe one of the most hated teams in the country and ensuring their eventual return to orbit would be an exceptionally painful one.

TeBe in action against Hanso Rostock II.

Those 2nd Bundesliga years did at least give fans a high point in the club’s recent history: a 4-2 Cup victory against Hertha at the Olympic Stadium that Tennis fans still refer to as ‘the October Revolution’ to this day (told you they were leftists). You can check out some extremely low-quality highlights here. Note: the purple pixelated blobs are TeBe.

Since then they’ve spent most of their years in the Oberliga, punctuated by a four-season stint in the Berlin Liga (6th division) from 2011/12 to 2014/15. Despite being a low in the club’s sporting history, their run in the Berlin Liga is actually seen positively by fans. Endi calls this regrouping phase a, “highlight of the last 20 years.” It broke up nearly a decade of playing the same clubs year in and out in the 5th division, and they essentially, “started from scratch, most of the budget came through fan donations and engagement of fans looking for smaller sponsorships and that type of stuff,” which brought fans together and strengthened their connection to the team.

Playing in the Berlin Liga afforded Endi and co a chance to attend all of the clubs away matches, all of which are within city limits. TeBe had a couple hundred fans going to nearly every away match, while supporters got to discover exotic new corners of the city like Gatow, Süd Falkenfeld and Mahlsdorf (only one of those was made up). While the extended tour of Berlin was nice, TeBe and its fans have their sights set on the greener pastures of the Regionalliga. Though if they do stumble and can’t manage promotion, or the end up dropping back down to the Berlin Liga in a year or two, it’s hard to imagine Endi won’t still be there after over three decades of supporting the boys in purple.