THE TROUBLE with most football grounds is you cannot get a true perspective of what they really look like unless you fly over them. Many stadiums are located in areas where you cannot take a step back and admire the structure. Admittedly, today’s new grounds have to work hard to differentiate themselves from each other, but there are some that will stand up well to scrutiny – Arsenal’s Emirates is a good example. Bordeaux is an aesthetic football venue if ever there was one.
Game of the People has been in Berlin on assignment, but took time out to revisit a stadium that is both haunting and impressive in its size and design.
You arrive there on Berlin’s oh-so-efficient U-Bahn, in this case, the U2 line to Olympia-Stadion. Everything about this stadium just says “statement”. You leave the station, walk through a tunnel and continue along a leafy path that slightly rises to the flagpole-lined Olympischer Platz. And there, you see it, iconic – often filed under “Nazi architecture” – intimidating and slightly chilling.
The Olympic Stadium was built for the 1936 Olympiad, designed by architect Werner March. He was the son of Otto March, who had worked on a stadium that was earmarked for the cancelled 1916 Olympics which was demolished to make way for the new site. Werner March had a problem in that both Adolf Hitler, who had been appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933, and his party architect, Albert Speer, were breathing down his neck. The duo had strong opinions about the sort of building that they wanted to represent “the thousand year Reich”, in fact they would come up with the idea of “Germania”, which was influenced by classical Roman and Greek architecture.
March was, apparently, pressured into toning down the modernity of the stadium. Although it has been scarcely proven, March was forced to abandon some of his original plans that included glass and steel and the use of reinforced concrete, which was very à la mode in the mid-1930s. In its place was a neoclassical structure fashioned out of, to quote Simon Inglis in his book, The Football Grounds of Europe, “grey, rough-hewn Franconian limestone with no external relief or colour”.
Work was always lagging behind schedule, not helped by the fact that only “complying non-union workers of German citizenship and Aryan race” could be used by the construction companies engaged to build the stadium. In the summer of 1935, it was clear that more workers were needed and another 600 were hired, bringing the total to around 2,100. The cost of the stadium alone was 27 million marks.
The stadium was just one of a number of grand buildings being constructed at the time. It was not just meant to be a sporting venue, either, for Messrs Hitler, Goering and Goebbels were all keen to stage political events at this symbol of the Nazi vision. It isn’t hard to visualise the stadium adorned with flags bearing the swastika or jack-booted soldiers marching around its limestone corridors. You can get a sense of it in Leni Reifenstahl’s part documentary-part propaganda film of the 1936 games, Olimpia.
When we arrived, the stadium was getting ready for Hertha Berlin v Schalke 04. Indeed, some Schalke fans were walking around the Olympischer Platz in their best blue shirts.
Hertha haven’t always played at Werner March’s creation. Their original home ground was in what is now the Berlin borough of Mitte, although it used to be in Wedding. Their ground, Stadion am Gesundbrunnen, was a multi-use site that held 35,000 people and was used in the 1936 Olympics: Japan beating Sweden 3-2 in front of 5,000 people; Peru 7 Finland 3 (2,500); and Peru 4 Austria 2 (5,000).
The stadium was centre stage for the 1936 football competition , which saw Italy beat Austria 2-1 in the final (although Austria has been technically knocked out, their conquerors Peru, withdrew) before a crowd of 85,000. A year later, the final of the German championship was played at the stadium for the first time, Schalke 04 beating 1.FC Nuremberg 2-0.
Hertha kept their Gesundbrunnen stadium (which had the Berlin Wall as its neighbour when the city became even more separated than it has been since 1945) until 1974, nine years after they started playing Bundesliga games at the Olympiastadion. They sold it to avoid bankruptcy and as the club declined – all the way down to amateur level – Hertha ending up playing at the Poststadion, a ground that now plays host to Berliner AK 07. It is another “of its time” design, constructed in 1929 for the local postal authorities.
So low did Hertha sink that there was talk of a merger with a number of local clubs to form “FC Utopia”. Thankfully, the club found its way back and in 1997, they won promotion to the Bundesliga. There were hopes that with reunification, Hertha could become a symbol of the new Berlin which was once more the capital of Germany. In 1997-98, their crowds increased from 17,500 to 53,000. In 2015-16, they averaged 49,500 per game.
Hertha have started the 2016-17 season well and, according to German media, the capital’s long sleeping giant is “hip, vibrant and constantly evolving”. A team from Berlin hasn’t won the German league since 1931 – that’s even before the Olympiastadion was built. A lot of history has passed since Berlin fans last celebrated the title. The German football capital is currently a lot further south.