Berlin is notorious for footballing underachievement: neither of the only two professional clubs, Hertha BSC from the former West and Union from the East, has ever represented the German capital in an adequate way. But 50 years ago, at the hottest point of the Cold War, things looked even worse. The underdogs Tasmania 1900 suddenly had to stand for Berlin in the Bundesliga – and they set every conceivable record for being terrible.

Football isn’t what it used to be? Back in the day, people claim, everything was more fun. The crowds still came to see footballers rather than social media superstars. The playing standards may not have been comparable with today but at least there were characters on the pitch: many were brutal destroyers, but the elegant few raised the spirits. After the game, some of these tough men would light a fag, down a beer or give an interview with crude vocabulary. There was something more real about those figures compared with today’s immaculate athletes with their good looks and carefully anodyne post-match statements. The grounds were different, too: again, not as good, comfortable and safe as today. But they felt like a real home, rather than a sterile multi-event complex. That’s the theory.

There is probably no place in the world where these prejudices are as obviously both true and false as in the Werner-Seelenbinder-Sportpark in Neukölln, a working-class district in Germany’s capital that has undergone significant gentrification. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the stands are half empty and an echo lingers in the air after the coach shouts at his players. Those dressed in white and blue, the favourites, score a quick but deserved goal with a header. True: back in the day, this club would rarely be considered favourites, let alone manage to be on a winning run, even if it was on home soil as today.

“Tasmaa-nia, Tasmaa-nia!” As Hagen Nickelé, coordinator of the ultra supporters, chants the first line with the rhythm of the Italian national anthem, the handful of others know their response: “TASMAA-NIA, FAN-TAS-TI-CA!” On his day off, all seems good to Hagen Nickelé. His beloved Tasmania 1973 Berlin dominate the game and they might close the season among the top three in the Berlin-Liga, the capital’s top division – part of  the sixth tier nationally. “We wanted to be promoted this year,” explains Nickelé, a blond-haired fan from northern Germany dressed in the white-and-blue of his side, “but it’s not that easy, you know.” Other teams have invested notable sums in their squads. Even in division six, competition is tough these days. “But of course,” Nickelé adds without being asked, “this is not comparable to the financial situation back then.” Although Tasmania never were a rich club, they used to list full-time professionals on their payroll. Today, players are happy to get some pocket money, free beer and sausages after home games.

In many ways, downsized Tasmania Berlin have been, and still are, going against the trend. “We like the underdog image,” says another ultra in the stands, Ulrich Timm. Born in 1950, 18 years before Nickelé, his supporters club’s boss, Timm has experienced all eras of the club. As a child, he was raised during the great times of the late 1950s. In his adolescence, Timm learned what it meant to root for a team that had become a national joke. And because he was faithful enough to suffer more, he experienced the bitter years of sporting over-ambition and financial demise as a young adult. Later, Timm supported the renaissance of the love of his youth. “Tasmania,” this retiree dressed in an old jersey explains, “is all this suffering taken together. You can’t come here without knowing our history.”

“Kevin! Get up and don’t complain!” A shout flies over the stands and extends to the other fields beyond. The coach’s voice is so loud that it hurts – though partly because the bench is only five metres from away most of the spectators. Even Ulrich Timm, whose ears no longer serve him as they once did, soon stops waving his decades-old handmade white-and-blue flag. Tasmania are already 2-0 ahead: things are going absolutely as planned. But the coach’s temper is challenged by his striker, Kevin Lenz, who fell to the ground after a soft tackle. “You’re not playing for Hertha, you understand?!”

The tall forward Kevin Lenz is not nearly agile enough to play in the Bundesliga, nor does he have the technique or stamina. But here in Neukölln, the historical underdogs draw some of their pride from their opposition to Berlin’s big club, the Bundesliga side Hertha BSC. Clearly, it’s a one-sided rivalry: while many of the Hertha players signed from foreign clubs may not even have heard about this mediocre amateur club, all Tasmanians unite behind one cause. Nickelé puts it into a simple statement: “We all feel a very strong aversion to Hertha BSC.”

Is it envy? Hertha play in Berlin’s biggest sporting venue, the Olympic Stadium, which today holds 76,000 spectators. Through the trashy-sounding loudspeakers of Tasmania’s Werner-Seelenbinder-Sportpark, an old man’s voice announces today’s match attendance: “We thank 80 visitors for coming!” Next to the pitch, a handful of boys dressed in Tasmania track suits are playing and their ball sometimes flies onto the field of the adults. There is little commitment to ameliorate the irritation: were these boys asked for which club they’d rather play, the answer would almost certainly be Hertha, not Tasmania.

“We’re a club in opposition,” insists Nickelé. It is as much a description of himself as of his favourite club. Nickelé, 47 years old, moved to Berlin 20 years ago. “I did not like the commercialism of most clubs,” he says. “In Berlin, Hertha BSC were very much like that.” The alternative would have been FC Union Berlin, located in East Berlin and today playing in the Second Bundesliga. But East German history and the club’s nostalgia about it did not seem an option.

For lovers of football history like Nickelé, there was another choice: Tasmania 1973 Berlin. “People who have been following German football more seriously know this club.” To be sure, there is this stigma of being the worst ever. But isn’t this also what makes Tasmania unlike all other clubs? Especially in Berlin, Tasmania 1973 Berlin may even be the obvious choice for a football lover with sceptical feelings towards today’s levels of commercialisation.

The capital city of Europe’s most populous and economically powerful country has always tried to be a football hub. But for one reason or another it mostly failed. After the Second World War, when football became more widely popular, clubs in West Berlin lagged behind those from other areas. The East Berlin powerhouse BFC Dynamo Berlin, sponsored by the socialist government’s secret police, the Stasi, won nine consecutive East German championships. But when Germany reunified in 1990, the club was politically stigmatised. It has been an amateur club for many years now. In the Bundesliga, the financially well-equipped Hertha have a history of bad management. In the 1980s and 1990s, the club mostly played in the second division. For more than a decade, Germany’s top flight was played without a club from the capital.

But because rich Hertha have often disappointed, there has been room for challengers from the city. Once, 50 years ago, the chance of the Tasmanians had come. “That year in the Bundesliga probably killed us,” moans Ulrich Timm. But, he adds, “it also made us immortal.” There has never been a worse Bundesliga team than Tasmania in 1965-66.

How did this happen? “Actually, we should have played in the Bundesliga from its first season,” remembers Hanns Leske, a 65-year-old companion of Timm who earned a PhD in sports history and wrote a widely acclaimed book about his club entitled Der ewige Letzte (Always the Last). In that historic season for Tasmania, Leske was 15 years old. A passionate supporter of the club, he wrote down all line-ups in a notebook, travelled to away games and gathered a private collection of documents about Tasmania. When Leske talks about his club, though, he cannot avoid mentioning Hertha. This is not just because Tasmanians consider Hertha arrogant: they also think their place in the Bundesliga unfair. “I mean,” Leske says in an almost apologetic tone like someone who is reluctantly repeating his core message over and over again, “I have proven in my book that they sneaked their way into the Bundesliga. They should not have played there from the beginning.”

What Leske means is this: until 1963, West German football was structured on a regional basis, with regional champions who would then compete in a play-off system for the national championship. For the 1963-64 season this system was changed to a national league– the Bundesliga. In the run-up, most expected that those clubs who had been most successful over the previous three or four years would play in the first edition of the Bundesliga. Had that happened, Tasmania would have secured their spot in the Bundesliga: the side had recently won three consecutive Berlin titles and in 1962 even came third in all West Germany. But before the end of the 1963 season, the president of Hertha, who had good connections with the political and regulatory authorities, received a confidential message from the Deutscher Fußballbund (DFB), Germany’s national football federation: to qualify for the first Bundesliga season, the single spot for Berlin was going to the team that won the 1963 regional championship.

“Tasmania’s president had no idea about this arbitrary rule. Everybody thought the successes in previous years would suffice, so the management had not invested in the team in 1963,” says Leske. That year, Hertha took the Berlin title and thus secured the significant Bundesliga revenues coming from gate receipts, media coverage and other sources. The West German capital’s footballing hierarchy was clear: Hertha were the number one. But not for long. After two sobering seasons, finishing 14th out of 16 teams both times, Hertha tried to improve by spending big. But Hertha’s managers paid bigger salaries and cash bonuses than were allowed. As a result, the club that many thought should not have been part of the Bundesliga in the first place were relegated.

This was not just a sports scandal. In 1965, the citizens of Berlin citizens were very aware of their position on the front line of the Cold War. Three years earlier, the Cuban missile crisis had almost precipitated another world war. Berlin was in its fourth year as a divided city, characterised by the high wall erected by the East German government. Although West Berlin belonged to the “free world”, its locked-in citizens struggled to leave their territory. In response to this crisis, the hometown of Hertha and Tasmania became a capitalist enclave pampered by the Western partners: citizens of West Berlin were exempt from the otherwise mandatory military service and the city received subsidies from the other West German federal states. The West wanted to demonstrate the supremacy of liberal democracy over socialism.

“Having a Bundesliga season without a team from Berlin was just unthinkable,” recalls Leske. Of the many levels on which the two Germanies fought a battle about who was more successful, sport was one of the most important because of its public visibility. Football was arguably the most popular sport on both sides of the border. With Tasmania seething after being overlooked for the Bundesliga’s opening season, DFB officials had little choice but to offer them the vacant spot. In a sense, it was a belated victory over their local rivals and all the others the Tasmanians felt had betrayed them. 

But Tasmania’s management were told of their promotion only two weeks before the start of the 1965-66 season. Nobody was prepared. Deutschlandfunk and Radio Luxemburg broadcast messages for the Tasmania players who were on holiday in various parts of Europe, calling on them to come home soon to get ready for the Bundesliga adventure. “Tasmania players,” the message said, “please report yourselves immediately.” The defender Helmut Fiebach, for example, was found by local policemen on a camp site in Austria, while others were lying on the beaches of Spain or Italy.

“That message reached me on the Baltic coast,” recalls Hans-Günter Becker, the team’s captain. “Of course, I packed my bags immediately.” So did others. And although it was difficult to land big signings to improve a squad that had been expected to play in the second tier, the club’s managers did pick up Horst Szymaniak, who had been a star of the Italian club Varese. Szymaniak was 30 and already beyond his peak, but thanks to his experience with the West Germany national side he was to become the team’s leader. With him in the squad, there was at least hope that Tasmania could represent Berlin in a respectable way.

“But to be honest,” Becker says, “we knew from the beginning that we had no chance.” Which was not to say that anyone was hesitant to give it a try. “We all wanted to embark on this adventure although from the beginning, I told everybody that it may be smarter to write a letter to the football association, saying something like, ‘Dear DFB, thank you very much for considering us, but we’d better keep training for another year.’” That letter was never written. Instead, the players, until that point mostly amateurs, were asked to scale back their regular jobs, become full-time professionals and start the season with almost no preparation. Becker, an employee with a local public authority, was lucky to have an understanding superior. “I told him: ‘Hey boss, from now I can only work part-time. But don’t worry, it’ll only last eight months.’” The boss agreed and a year later praised his employee: “Great to have you back as before, Becker. I knew I could count on you!”

At first, the players could also count on their hometown. The Berlin newspaper BZ ran a front-page headline “We need a chant for our new Bundesliga side” and suggested the rhyme “Ra-ra-ra, Tas-ma-nia”. Even East Berlin’s papers were taking an interest in the class enemy’s side. Hardly surprisingly, the mood at the first game of the season was euphoric. In a packed Olympic Stadium, where so far Hertha had been playing their games, more than 80,000 came to see the underdogs. The visitors Karlsruhe, a nominally stronger team with a history among the elite, were the obvious favourites. But the impossible happened: the Tasmania forward Wulf-Ingo Usbeck, nicknamed ‘Ringo’ because of his resemblance to the Beatles drummer, scored a first goal, followed by another. Karlsruhe were too shocked to get their act together. Tasmania won their first match in a stadium where they didn’t belong, in a league where they didn’t belong. 

Within two weeks, though, Tasmania were back as underdogs. They slipped into a relegation spot and defeat followed upon defeat. No wonder: many of the players kept their jobs in the form of part-time arrangements. Only one training session per day was possible and the team’s fitness level lagged behind that of the competition. And the few players who had no job on the side would kill their free morning s with alcohol. Of the star player Horst Szymaniak, it was said that he regularly came fully drunk to the evening training sessions, next to a baker who had started work at 5.30am or railway officials who would sometimes arrive late because of the workload during the daily rush hour. “The Tasmania side was an unequal team in many ways, and even a drunken Szymaniak was still the best footballer,” says Leske.

As the season went on, the early euphoria faded away in most aspects. The Olympic Stadium changed face, from the proud and threatening sporting temple it had been designed as into some sort of abandoned battlefield: there wasn’t much doubt who would lose the games once Tasmania came onto the pitch nor did many fans come to witness the spectacles. Whether in the East or West, Germans were split between laughing about the Tasmanians and feeling sorry. A popular joke of the time asked when Tasmania has last won a game, and the response was: “ask your grandfather”. When the season’s first half came to a close, Tasmania was already so far behind that relegation had almost become an arithmetic certainty. 

“As the season went on,” recalls the striker Jürgen Wähling, “being one of the eleven on the pitch turned into a sort of punishment.” German football regulations did not at that point allow substitutions, increasing the suffering, especially for defenders and the goalkeeper. “Sooner or later, I lost the enjoyment of playing football,” said the goalkeeper Hans-Joachim Posinski, nicknamed ‘Jockel’. Some fans may have contributed to this feeling. When the other goalkeeper, Heinz Rohloff, on 30 April 1966 let in a third against Eintracht Frankfurt, parts of the Tasmania crowd lay down a wreath. Behind the flowers, a large banner showed the number 100 – the team had just conceded a century of Bundesliga goals.

The 1965-66 season marked a year of Bundesliga records, most of which were established by the Tasmanians and have not been broken. Most prominently, there is the points tally of eight out of sixty-eight – the worst performance of all time. The goal difference was the worst as well: no other team has since scored as few as 15 goals in a season and none ever conceded as many as Tasmania’s 108. Also, no other team won fewer games in an entire season than Tasmania with two in total and none away. The 28 defeats are another historical best, or worst. Neither has any side suffered 10 losses in a row or gone 31 consecutive matches without a victory. Also, no team so far has attracted as few as 827 spectators in one game, as Tasmania did in their winter encounter at home against Borussia Mönchengladbach. Of the all-time Bundesliga table, summing up all seasons so far and thus currently ranking 53 teams, every German with a solid interest in football knows the occupants of two spots: the first are record champions Bayern Munich, the last are Tasmania 1900 Berlin.

After the one-year adventure, relegation didn’t just mean a step back to normality. A credit of 150,000 Deutsche Mark from the football association and the sale of the most prominent players –Horst Szymaniak joined the Swiss side FC Biel and the 22-year-old forward Wulf-Ingo Usbeck moved to Nürnberg – helped avoid immediate financial collapse. But for a club that still enjoyed no privileged connections with either the political or economic elites risking expenditures that exceeded revenues proved unsustainable. “Tasmania had always been a club of simple people and was financially quite limited,” says Leske. As a result, in 1973, after various attempts to achieve promotion to the top-flight again, the holders of all negative Bundesliga records were overwhelmed by a debt burden of 800,000 Deutsche Mark. Tasmania 1900 Berlin filed for bankruptcy and were consigned to history.

Leske, then in his early twenties, belonged to those who helped establish a successor. In the year 1900, drinking seafarers and workers had been sitting in a public house in Berlin and founded, from of a feeling of melancholia and wanderlust, a sports club to be named after a far-away Australian island. The logo was to include the dog-like animal from there – the Tasmanian devil. In 1973, the newly founded SV Tasmania Neukölln, starting anew from the lowest and most provincial division, took over as many relics of the failed predecessor as possible, including the image of the devil. Hanns Leske, who later became part of the club’s board, steered attempts to reach the playing level of earlier days. But as money was lacking and the road through the lower leagues proved rockier than expected, the Tasmanians got stuck on the way.

In the 1990s, a real estate investor pumped money into the club and temporarily lifted Tasmania to sixth place in the Oberliga, the fourth division. The crushing defeats from the Bundesliga year had made the club sufficiently prominent to attract new donors, though all such engagements would turn out to be short-lived. Once the first sugar daddy departed, Tasmania went into free-fall through the amateur divisions, until an apartment building firm showed interest and in 2000 also bought the license to appear in the club’s name – turning it into Tasmania Gropiusstadt. Under the brief reign of the company, the club reached the fifth tier, but soon slid again. Since 2012, without the backing of a rich institution or individual, the team today called SV Tasmania Berlin have been playing in the sixth division. “We have the potential to reach the fifth at least,” insists Nickelé as he rolls up his Tasmania flag after the victory in the Werner-Seelenbinder-Sportpark. “We want to be the club of this part of town and establish an authentic image.”

A football lover throughout his life, Nickelé was born in Hanover and later lived in Hamburg for many years. “My hometown club Hannover 96 has been practically bought up by a local businessman who cares more about money than football. And the big team in Hamburg, HSV, are a rich club without soul or even success.” In discussions between the Tasmania board and the ultras, Nickelé uses these two as shocking examples for what a club can lose when financial matters leave of popular control. “We want to be more like Hamburg’s second club, FC St. Pauli.” World-renowned and popular, St Pauli play in Germany’s second division and have for years been marketing themselves as an alternative, punk-rock and left-wing club, though it has long become a successful business venture. “Sure, there are compromises,” says Nickelé, “if you want to improve.”

How far does the club want to improve, and would another sugar daddy with deeper pockets be acceptable to achieve such goals? Hanns Leske doesn’t care much anymore. “I parted from the club a while ago,” he says in a sober voice on the telephone. “I didn’t like the attempts with instant money.” Why does he not even come to his old club’s traditional stadium anymore to see some games, why does he not care how the Tasmanians are doing today? Leske cannot give a clear answer, rather an apparent mixture of anecdotes and moral rules, typical of an emotionally attached man: “You know, it’s no longer what it used to be. After all that has happened to the club, these newer constellations called Tasmania have too little in common with the original. Tasmania 1900 was the love of my youth.” One that may not have been an easy love, but it was unforgettable.