Next weekend, a minor miracle will occur at the Berlin stadium where Hitler watched the Olympic Games of 1936. Incredible as it may seem to the locals, work will at last begin on the refurbishment of the dilapidated arena where Germany hopes to stage the final of the football World Cup in 2006.
If all goes well. For so ineptly has this national prestige project been handled by "Banana Republic Berlin" that another hitch cannot be ruled out. After all, politicians have taken five years to get to the point, scheduled for Thursday, when the contracts can be signed. Time is short: next month Fifa chooses between the bids of front-runners Germany, England and South Africa, and Berlin has yet to lay the first brick.
The saga of the Olympic stadium encapsulates all the vices of a city burdened with history, especially its dependency culture. As a beleaguered outpost of the Free World, West Berlin was lavished for four decades with subsidies, and no one really needed to work. Everything changed 10 years ago, but the regional government of Berlin barely noticed. To this day, the begging bowl remains the mainstay of the local economy. While Ken Livingstone frets about Londoners subsidising the rest of Britain, the taxpayers of Europe's biggest economy must keep their capital afloat.
Berlin's self-esteem in matters of money is astoundingly low. When its football team, Hertha, qualified last year for the Champions' League, the city claimed it was too poor to put in the stadium seating required of all other contestants from Iceland to Armenia.
This is the attitude that has also been holding up urgent work on the crumbling stadium. Five years ago Berlin's regional government declared that the federal authorities had to foot the bill, as the stadium belonged to them. Bonn held out for two years, until Helmut Kohl relented, agreeing to pay DM100m (£32m) towards the costs and gave the property to the city. Berlin, still pleading penury, then spent the next three years looking for a private investor foolish enough to stump up a further half a billion deutschmarks with no prospect of returns. When that failed, Mayor Eberhard Diepgen took the begging bowl back to the federal government.
No luck. Chancellor Gerhard SchrÃ¶der is fed up with whingeing Berliners who turn up at his doorstep demanding money under increasingly desperate pretexts. His patience snapped at a recent meeting with a local politician who suggested that the Tiergarten, the city's central park, should be maintained out of the federal budget. "If you wish, I will again ask members of the Bundestag not to drop litter in the Tiergarten," the Chancellor told Peter Strieder, Berlin's minister of urban planning and a fellow Social Democrat.
The point has finally been taken. Last week the Berlin government struck a deal with the construction company Walter Bau, which leaves the local taxpayers DM283m out of pocket. The builders are providing a loan of DM90m, and the rest of Germany, as agreed three years ago, chips in with DM100m.
For that the 78,000-seat stadium - Germany's largest - will get a roof and VIP lounges. The style of the Nazi-era monument will be preserved, apart from the eagles and swastikas which had already been removed after the war. Hertha will pay an annual rent of DM11m into the depleted city coffers - unless they themselves slip into a lower division and financial trouble, in which case maybe fans of Bayern Munich will be asked to make up the difference.Reuse content