Last Saturday, when 19-year-old Matthew Hoppe’s hat-trick earned Schalke 04 their first Bundesliga win in almost a year, an 82-year-old man sat in a publishing house’s offices in Berlin and celebrated the U.S. youngster’s goals maybe more than the Royal Blues players on the pitch at the Veltins Arena.
That man, Hans-Gunter “Atze” Becker, turned around and asked: “Where’s this lad from? Did he ever play for them before? It’s sensational what he is doing. He used those chances an experienced pro would have never taken amid a bad run like this. He’s a national hero in Gelsenkirchen now! And we kept our record.”
Earlier that day, a car picked up Becker, former captain of Tasmania Berlin, from his home and drove him north, right into the heart of Berlin. Germany’s biggest publishing house, Springer media, had invited him to watch the Bundesliga match between FC Schalke 04 and TSG Hoffenheim in their offices.
It’s been 55 years since Tasmania Berlin (apparently named for the place in Australia where the club’s founders were going to go and live around the turn of the 20th century) set their historic mark: 31 straight games without a win before rounding out the 1965-1966 season with two wins, four draws and just 10 points from 34 games. They were relegated after just scoring 15 goals and conceding 108 — an average of over three per game.
Those numbers were seemingly safe for eternity and they would define Tasmania Berlin’s identity — “This story is simply part of Tas. It is true that our only Bundesliga season was five-and-a-half decades ago, but we are always a topic nationwide,” club chairman Almir Numic said in a December interview — though the club didn’t set out to make history like this.
Unlike the rest of Germany, where the growing schadenfreude over Schalke’s plight spiralled out of control — until last weekend’s victory, Schalke had played 30 games without a win, one shy of Tasmania Berlin’s all-time mark — Becker rooted for the Royal Blues. Large parts of the footballing world waited for Schalke to keep failing and equal a league record nobody thought anyone could crack — especially not those like Becker, on the Tasmania team that set the ignominious standard back in the 1965-1966 season.
In the end Schalke, on their fourth coach in a year when former Tottenham Hotspur manager Christian Gross took over on Dec. 27, fell one match short of joining the fabled Berlin side for the worst-ever run in German professional soccer history thanks to the 4-0 win over Hoffenheim.
“I never even considered anyone would come close to it,” Becker, a defender during his playing days, told ESPN. “These days, clubs just have so many options to end a run like that. They can buy players, they can hire psychologists. We weren’t able to do that. Those were different times.”
Along the way to the publishing house, Becker’s journey took him past the old Tempelhof Airport, a giant recreation park ever since the closure of the inner-city airport in 2008. He remembered what it was like hopping on planes there back in that 1965-1966 season. That year, he was a frequent guest at the airport. He recalled how he’d board the plane in West Berlin to fly over the old German Democratic Republic and land in some West Germany city where usually the team he captained, Tasmania Berlin, would concede a couple of goals, pick up no points — they only drew once in 17 games — and then return to the divided city.
Right before they touched down on their way back, if they looked to the south they could see their old club ground, the Werner-Seelenbinder-Sportpark.
“By the time we played our last away match — against Schalke 04, of all teams — the club had run out of money. We left Berlin by coach in the morning, travelled all the way to Gelsenkirchen, which is over 500 kilometres away, left the coach, did a little warm-up [routine] and played. We lost 4-0 that day, which was good.”
In 1965, Tasmania only found out they were to play in the Bundesliga three weeks before the first match of the season. Hertha Berlin, the biggest club in the divided city, had been relegated because of financial irregularities; they had paid sign-on fees for players, which was forbidden at that time. But for political reasons, the German FA insisted on a Berlin-based club being part of the Bundesliga, the West German football league that went professional in 1963 with 16 founding members. Tasmania’s forced promotion to the league also had the side-effect of Schalke 04 remaining in the Bundesliga despite finishing bottom of the table the previous season.
An amateur side through and through, Tasmania Berlin’s players were on holiday all over Europe at the time the news filtered through. Becker was at the beach in Scharbeutz and recalls one of his neighbours walking up to him and telling him he had to return to Berlin.
“It was on the radio,” Becker said, and so all the players finished their holidays and had 14 days to prepare for the top flight of German football.
“It was a sheer impossibility,” Becker says. “Just like staying up [in the Bundesliga]. I saw that straight away. But the club told us we should quit our jobs and become professionals. I was not interested in allowing football to destroy my existence. I had been in civil services for a few years already and I told the club I wouldn’t quit my job,” he remembers in a broad local accent.
“I told them we’d only be pros for nine months, and they asked why. ‘Because we’ll go down,’ I replied, but they wouldn’t take it. ‘It’s impossible,’ they said, and I answered that, with almost absolute certainty, exactly this would happen.”
Several of Becker’s teammates quit their day jobs so they could dive into the Bundesliga adventure. “When it became clear we’d be relegated, they said I was a fortune teller, but I was only being realistic at the time.”
Regardless, Tasmania managed to excite the entire city. When they played their first match against Karlsruhe on Aug. 14, 1965, over 81,000 fans passed through the gates of the Olympiastadion and the sheer euphoria of the occasion helped lift them to a 2-0 win. But once the joy was gone, fans no longer showed up at the stadium they now used, because their home, the Werner-Seelenbinder-Sportpark near the Tempelhof Airport, did not fulfil the requirements needed for a Bundesliga stadium.
“By the time we played Borussia Monchengladbach in January, there were only 827 fans in the Olympiastadion,” Becker said.
However, those who were there made it feel a family event. During one of the matches without fans, Becker’s wife was giving birth to their son and he recalls the stadium chanting: “Buy us a round, buy us a round!”
Kasey Keller and Steve Cherundolo debate whether or not his hat trick is a sign of things to come for Matthew Hoppe.
It was one of many memories resurfacing in recent weeks as Schalke 04 edged closer to the record, the club named after the Australian island of Tasmania that was suddenly all over the news. Word reached every corner of the world that not only were the mighty Schalke 04 were on the verge of becoming the Bundesliga’s worst team of all-time, but that the record-holders were actively rooting against it.
“[The losing record is] part of our identity,” club chairman Numic told ESPN back in November.
Numic had taken over the club’s chairmanship earlier in 2020 and had big plans. The club, which was reformed after Tasmania Berlin dissolved in the early 1970s due to financial difficulties, had been following Schalke’s progress closely throughout the streak. Under Numic’s leadership, the club renovated their modest stadium and built a new casino; fans helped with the work, maintaining social distancing as best they could. When fans were allowed back in for a brief period last summer, during the pandemic they showed up in numbers — some of them, like Hans-Joachim “Jockel” Posinsiki, were even members of that old Bundesliga team from back in the 1960s.
In its present form, the club is thriving, playing exciting football and were top of the NOFV-Oberliga Nord — a league in the fifth tier of Germany’s soccer pyramid — when football came to a standstill again in November, right as Schalke’s “efforts” to take Tasmania’s record picked up pace.
“I think I know how it felt for them,” Becker said. “It’s like walking into a swamp, trying to turn back, but there is no way back. You are stuck. It felt like that for us all those years ago.”
Last Saturday, club chairman Numic watched Schalke from the SV Tasmania Berlin casino to follow their progress. “We rooted for them,” he says, revealing that he supports Schalke’s fiercest rivals, Borussia Dortmund. “But my Tasmania heart was beating stronger.”