Forgotten Teams – Tennis Borussia Berlin

Hertha BSC, it seems, have a knack for being relegated in controversial circumstances. Even the alarming scenes in Duesseldorf last week pale into insignificance in comparison to the fateful summer of 1965, when Hertha’s disqualification for illegal player remuneration saw the newly formed Bundesliga thrown into its first, and most notable, political crisis.

It was a crisis which saw Tasmania Berlin rise emphatically to fame and fall even more emphatically to infamy. A crisis which cemented Spandauer SV’s reputation as a forgotten club of Bundesliga history. A crisis which illustrated the chaotic and volatile nature of Berlin football in the 20th century.

Right in the middle of the crisis was a club side based in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin. This was the Berliner Tennis Club Borussia, affectionately – and since 2000, officially – known as Tennis Borussia Berlin, or simply “TeBe”.

Their role in the Hertha scandal may have been more third spear carrier than lead male, but there they most certainly were. On the brink of something special – of notoriety even – without quite managing to achieve it entirely.

Yet nationwide success has never been the driving force behind Tennis Borussia Berlin. Rather a cult status which is as much down to the club’s community image as it is to any footballing prowess. The club’s official website lauds TeBe for its capacity for renewal:

“While other Berlin clubs of the last century like Viktoria 89, BSV 92, Blau-Weiss 90 or Wacker 04 have disappeared, TeBe have always managed to pull through.”

To either side of the above quote is an advert imploring readers to join the “We Save TeBe” campaign. Since 2010 the club has found itself in severe financial straits, threatening its very existence, and now, those who love it are seeking to keep it alive. . They are as ever, determined to endure.

Tennis, Football and Cake

On the 9th of April 1902, at 13 Spandauer Bruecke, not far from the Hakescher Markt, twelve young men sat in a Konditorei, discussing sport. Among this apparently unremarkable group of students were members of two different Berlin based sporting associations: Die Kameradschaftliche Vereinigung Borussia and Berliner Tennis-Und-Ping-Pong-Gesellschaft.

When they left the Konditorei at around 9pm, they had created a single amalgamated sports club which would, in accordance with one of its parent clubs, start life primarily as a haven for tennis players. Some of these avid sportsmen, though, were also interested in “the decadent English game” of soccer. And it was in this field that the newly formed Berliner Tennis-Club Borussia would ultimately excel.

This is at least the gist of the official story of Tennis Borussia’s birth, as readable on the club’s website. From humble beginnings, though, arose a club whose fame has, if not spread far and wide, certainly cemented itself in the dusty chronicles of German football. These days, it is football fans in Charlottenburg, not tennis fans, who proudly call their beloved club a Traditionsverein.

Two Old Gentleman of Borussia

Had history taken a different course, and Germany’s national league for some reason never been formed, Tennis Borussia Berlin could have been very different. Certainly, their brief periods of glory have been limited to regional Berlin competitions. When the members of Berliner Tennis-Club Borussia payed their 50 Pfennig for a Berlin football league licence in 1903, they would perhaps have thought winning the Championship was little more than pipe dream.

Borussia, incidentally, is a latinicisation of “Prussia”. By the time TeBe stumbled upon their first taste of glory, however, the Prussian monarchy, the legacy of Bismarck and Wilhelm I, had already expired. The twenties, though, saw two other grand old men of German history begin their own route to fame at Tennis Borussia. Step Forward, Otto Nerz and Sepp Herberger.

Nerz, who would later become the very first official German national team coach, took over the reins at TeBe in 1924. Just like his predecessor Richard Girulatis, Nerz had been a lecturer at the Deutsche Hochschule fuer Leibesuebungen. Unlike his predecessor, his new profession was notable for its success. In his very first season, the club soared up the rankings to finish in second place in Rang B of the Berlin Oberliga. Four years after that, they would find themselves competing in the 1928 Oberliga Championship Final, against Hertha BSC, for the right to call themselves the capital’s greatest football team.

They lost. And among the losing team was one Sepp Herberger, the man who would be the first to make Germany World Champions. Herberger had gone, however by the time TeBe dispelled the ghosts of ’28. The club had already notched up titles in other sports, most notably Rugby and Boxing, but footballing silverware eluded it until 1932, when victory over Minerva 93 saw them finally claim their most wanted prize.

Fall and Rise

The success was short lived. 1932 signalled the last year of freedom for thousands of Germans, and as many were soon to find out – among them one of German football’s greatest pioneers Walther Bensemann – football and National Socialism did not go hand in hand.

The Master Race and soccer were simply incompatible. Not only was football, to Hitler’s great chagrin, unpredictable enough to be lost even by the most perfect example Aryan excellence, but many clubs, TeBe included, found themselves irrevocably damaged by the ideological pogroms of the NSDAP. A third of all members were suddenly removed from the Tennis Borussia ranks, and the club had to rebuild from scratch. Even an 8-2 victory over Hertha in the Berlin-Gauliga Final of 1941 cannot, understandably, be noted among the club’s greatest moments.

Under the new name of SG Charlottenburg, TeBe won the Berlin Championship for a third time in 1947. It was the start of a new era, and indeed the most successful one in the club’s history. Switching back to their previous title in 1949, the club went on to secure three consecutive championships between 1950 and 1952, and consolidated their position as the Berlin team of the 50s with the 1958 Championship. In 1954, moreover, one notable alumnus even won the World Cup.

Bundesliga Out of Bounds

By the time the next decade rolled around, however, TeBe had once again surrendered their superiority to Hertha BSC and Tasmania Berlin. It was the former – and indeed the grander – of the three who were selected as a founding member of the newly formed Bundesliga. Hertha had risen again.

It did not take long for them to fall. In the fateful summer of ’65, Tennis Borussia were considered as a replacement for a Hertha shamed by their financial exploits. Having finished underneath all three of Aachen, 1. FC Saarbruecken and FC Bayern, though, TeBe were deemed as too controversial a choice, and were rejected in favour of Tasmania. Tennis Borussia had, once again, to be content with the fringes of success.

And so it has proven ever since. Promotions to the Bundesliga in 1974 and 1976 were both followed by immediate relegation, and the formation of the 2. Bundesliga in 1980 saw TeBe relegated once again to the third tier.

Not until the nineties did the club experience anything like a revival. In 1994, they reached the semi final of the DFB Pokal, and four years later, even managed to exact small revenge on Hertha with a 4-2 victory in the same competition.

The Millenium, though, saw yet another ungainly bump back to Earth, as TeBe marked their 98th birthday by losing their league licence after a financial dispute with their sponsor. Subsequent relegations over the following decade culminated in a disastrous last three years for the club. 2010 saw them slip into insolvency, and a year later they hit their all time low on the pitch, with relegation to the sixth tier.

Relegation was confirmed in a dramatic season finale at home to SC Borea Dresden, which TeBe managed to push to extra time. Even in their darkest hour, though, Tennis Borussia failed to stop believing. As one observer remarked: “TeBe went down together as a charismatic, likeable family.”

“We Save Tebe”

It is that family mentality which has carried TeBe through the generations. Based at a stadium named after a classicist historian, and parent to one of Germany’s oldest women’s teams, it would be difficult to find too much that is commercial about Tennis Borussia. Even the half time refreshments are cheap; for less than 5 Euros, you can pick up a beer and a sausage about the length of your forearm. And you certainly don’t need an Arena Card.

As far as family dynamic goes, the club is about as far from patriarchal as you can get. Founded in 1969, the club’s women’s team is among the oldest in Germany. They share the Mommsenstadion with the men’s team, and are 13 time Champions of Berlin.

Myriad reasons, then, for the creation of the “We Save TeBe” campaign, initiated in 2010 after the club’s latest financial crisis. The club, claims the movement “stands for globalised football on the pitch and in the stands, and is known nationwide for its stance against racism, homophobia and antisemitism.” Sold yet?

With the aim not only of bringing in financial support for the club, but doing it through fans and ex-players alike, the “We Save TeBe” movement is a far cry from throwing a call to Dubai in search of a willing investor. Its endorsers range from St Pauli midfielder Charles Takyi to the chairman of the Berlin Lesbian and Gay Association, Joerg Steinert.

“TeBe has always stood against discrimination in football,” says Steinert, “We hope that other clubs can follow this example, and that our beloved club can endure.”

You wouldn’t need to look too far in Charlottenburg to find hundreds of others with the same view. 110 years on from its birth in the Spandauer Bruecke Konditorei, Tennis Borussia Berlin is on the brink of extinction. It is not the first time, and for this remarkable club, one must hope it is not the last.

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Kit Holden is a freelance sports writer, specialising in German football. Alongside his contributions to the Bundesliga Fanatic, he provides regular Bundesliga coverage for The Independent Online, Total Football Magazine, Talking Baws and others. He is based in Cambridge, where he allegedly does an undergraduate degree in French and German.

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