“If Everton were playing down the bottom of my garden, I’d draw the curtains,” said former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly.
My attitude towards Tasmania Berlin might not go as far as the outright neglect shown by Shanks towards his club’s neighbours, but after years of living on the same street as their stadium, the fact I still haven’t visited probably says more about them than it does about me.
The modern incarnation of Tasmania are as unremarkable as they come: they have bumbled around the regional leagues, rising as high as the fourth tier, dropping to the sixth and eventually settling in the fifth, the Berlin-Liga. Their average attendance rarely goes beyond mums and dads.
Perhaps the only interesting thing about them today is their name. Tasmania Berlin have at times been suffixed with Neukölln, Gropiusstadt and Rixdorf, depending on which part of southern Berlin they were calling home at any given time. Less clear is why they find themselves sharing a name with an island off the Australian coast.
The best theory holds that the group of Berliners who formed the club back in 1900 were planning to emigrate to Van Diemen’s Land and thus named their new club after it. Why they would form a football club and then immediately leave is anyone’s guess, but the name stuck and, yes, their fans do occasionally wave boxing kangaroo flags.
Given how remarkably unremarkable SV Tasmania are, it may come as a surprise that everyone in German football knows who they are. The name Tasmania evokes the same instant recognition that Ronnie Radford does with FA Cup giant-killing and Jamie Pollock for hilarious own goals. In Germany, Tasmania are the sine qua non of rubbish.
A glance at the all-time Bundesliga records explains it: the most defeats, fewest wins, most goals conceded, fewest goals scored, lowest number of points, worst goal difference, biggest loss and even the lowest attendance are all held by the Tasmania Berlin team of 1965/66, by far and away the worst side in the history of the division – and perhaps top-flight football anywhere.
And yet, despite this, it wasn’t really their fault. Their ineptitude was almost romantic, a perfect storm of poor political decision-making of which Tasmania would reap the whirlwind.
Ahead of the creation of the Bundesliga, Hertha BSC – Berlin’s largest club – had been parachuted into the league. Their performances were dreadful, but not dreadful enough to get them relegated. Indeed, demotion only occurred when a financial scandal saw them punted out of the top flight in 1965, with the club caught paying their players well beyond the allotted salary cap in order to convince talented stars to move to isolated West Berlin.
Their place was offered to Berlin-Liga winners Tennis Borussia Berlin, but having failed in the promotion play-offs they thought it inappropriate to take up a spot they didn’t deserve. The runners-up, Spandauer SV, also declined. Despite these setbacks, a West Berlin team was deemed essential and, eventually, one was found: third-placed Tasmania were promoted, just a week before the start of the season.
The Tasmania of 1964/65 had been amateurs, but they were forced to turn professional within a matter of days – ironic enough, given that it was an excess of professionalism which had seen Hertha kicked out.
“The club wanted us to give up our jobs practically overnight,” remembered Hans-Günter Becker, who captained the side. “I told my employer than I could only do half-days. We all knew it was only going to last one season.”
Their surprise promotion had allowed them to sign Horst Szymaniak, once of Inter and a member of the Team of the Tournament at the 1958 World Cup, but the midfielder could do little about the 10 others around him. He looked, a newspaper at the time wrote, “completely out of place in a team of manual workers”.
That said, in front of a crowd of 81,000 at Hertha’s Olympiastadion, Tasmania opened the season with a 2-0 win over Karlsruhe. Wolf-Ingo Usbeck, known as Ringo due to his name’s similarity to the Beatle, scored both goals late in the second half, two of the four with he would top the charts for Tasmania in 1965/66.
Needless to say, things began to unravel after that initial victory. Tasmania conceded five to Borussia Mönchengladbach, Hamburg and Hannover, six to Cologne and seven to Nuremberg before November was out. Manager Franz Linken departed following a 6-0 reverse at home to Cologne, with Heinz-Ludwig Schmidt chosen as his replacement. Taking on the most poisoned of chalices, Schmidt would soon learn just how incompetent his team were: they lost his first two games in charge 5-0.
By January they would entertain just 1% of the 81,000 who had turned up on the opening day; an all-time Bundesliga low of 857 people showed up in driving snow to see a Borussia Mönchengladbach side featuring Günter Netzer and Berti Vogts struggle to a goalless draw, the first point Tasmania had picked up in three months. “I’ve never seen my team play so badly,” said Gladbach coach Hennes Weisweiler of his team’s inability to beat their hapless opposition.
“Of course it was depressing,” said captain Becker of the fall in crowd figures. “But who can blame them? It was done before the first half was up, and at the end our fans were exclusively from our city district, Neukölln”
The nadir would come in March. Meidericher SV – now known as MSV Duisburg – put nine past Tasmania, to this day still the heaviest defeat in Bundesliga history. They conceded their 100th goal of the season a few weeks later against Eintracht Frankfurt – a fan brought a placard to ‘celebrate’ the milestone – before, amazingly, managing their second win of the season against fellow relegated side Borussia Neunkirchen. By the end, they had conceded 108 goals, scored just 15 and lost 28 times.
The season could not finish fast enough for some of the players, six of whom had already announced they were leaving by the time Frankfurt rolled into town. For those who knew this was likely to be their only crack at the top flight, the feeling was different.
“Basically, we were so hopeless going into each game that we were kind of half optimistic,” Becker recalled. “When it didn’t work out, we took the defeat with a good dose of humour,” he recalled.
Becker would finish his career at Tasmania, back in the lower leagues. Yet even that didn’t last long: within eight years of their Bundesliga debacle, the club went bust. They had actually challenged at the top of the Berlin-Liga, twice losing out in the promotion play-offs in a bid to return to the top tier on merit, but the financial burden of their brief brush with professionalism led them to bankruptcy in 1973.
Tasmania Berlin – the club which exists to this day in south Neukölln – is a new organisation, re-founded after the death of the old one with the intention of serving the local community. After all, when the 81,000 from the Olympiastadion had dissipated, the 1,500 or so that remained were Neuköllners.
In 1965, Neukölln was enclosed on two sides by the wall and on the third by Tempelhof Airport, a place few wanted to go and even fewer cared about. Tasmania, like the district they represented, were on a hiding to nothing.
Now, Neukölln is the centre of Berlin’s Turkish and Arab communities – not to mention a fair few hipsters – and the new Tasmania serves them, with a youth-orientated setup which has seen the likes of Carsten Ramelow and Antonio Rüdiger come through the ranks.
One senses that it suits them better. They’ll always have 1965/66 – and whether they’d like to remember it or not, they’ll be reminded of that catastrophic campaign every time a team is so bad that one of their records comes under threat. So far, though, Tasmania have managed to keep hold of all of them.