HEAVY SNOW fell last weekend in Kopenick, a mosquito-infested district in Berlin's far east. The event, or rather the local football club's desperate appeals for help to clear the pitch ahead of a big cup-tie, made the national news.
A hundred fans turned up with shovels at the "Old Foresters's Lodge", and the team thanked them by humiliating the visitors, Borussia Monchengladbach. Kopenick was now on the front page of every newspaper.
For on Tuesday night its local side, Union Berlin, an amateur club playing in the Northern division of the Regional League, had just reached Germany's equivalent of the FA Cup final.
Perhaps Union were a little lucky. A sudden thaw had transformed the pitch into a mud bath, neutralising the opponents' superior skills. Union were 2-1 down 10 minutes before the end, scored a nice goal and somehow hung on through extra-time. After that, the penalty shoot-out was a doddle. Monchengladbach had clearly not taken the trouble to practise their kicks before the match.
It was a silly oversight, because these days the Bundesliga aristocrats cannot take victory for granted against the minnows of the nether divisions. Union are the third non-league club to reach the cup final in the last 10 years. This season had also witnessed some other notable giant-killing feats, topped by the slaying of mighty Bayern Munich at the hands of non-league Magdeburg in the early rounds.
In the past German football buffs have looked with envy at one particular aspect of the English game: its strength in depth. The top German clubs do not seem to have been getting any stronger in recent years, but something interesting is happening at the grass roots. The likes of Union Berlin and Magdeburg are becoming harder to beat.
The missing ingredient of the past was money, and Union Berlin is a good illustration of how a smart deal can transform an impoverished club's sporting fortunes. Twice in the last decade Union had actually gained promotion to the Bundesliga's second division, only to be denied entry because of its failure to put up the required bank guarantees.
Union could be heading up at the end of this season, though the fans in Kopenick dare not dream of such things. They have become used to half a century of glorious under-achievement, with just one national cup captured in the old East Germany, …