This weekend, football will restart in the Bundesliga. Thanks to Germany’s vastly superior handling of the corona crisis, with their death toll dwarfed by ours, life has started to go back to normal over there.
While the Premier League may be keen to rush the football back, at all costs it feels at times, we look to be some way off seeing Manchester United play again. The next time we do, it’ll be in an empty stadium on the telly, with Scott McTominay’s goal on derby day feeling like a distant memory. The enormity of what was around the corner didn’t really hit me on the day and like plenty of other reds I’m feeling the hole in my life left by the absence of football. There are worse things of course. People are losing loved ones, are separated from their family and friends and are feeling the strain of not being able to work. While football obviously pales in comparison with these struggles, we still miss the routine and emotion that we get from going to the game or watching the team play on TV.
As a result, I’ve been on the hunt for a German team to get behind as the weeks go by, and I’ve settled on Union Berlin. While probably the more ‘hipster’ choice (and therefore one I was desperately looking for an alternative to so I didn’t have to get called out on Twitter!) that seemed like a pretty shit con in comparison to other clubs. Schalke came close, but then their president is a proper dick, Bayern Munich feel like a too obvious glory supporting move, RB Leipzig were out for obvious reasons, as were the scouse Germans Borussia Dortmund. Eintracht Frankfurt are a decent bet too, for anyone looking, or at least you could be seen attending a Borussia Monchengladbach game in the form of a cardboard cut out in the crowd. But Union Berlin it is for me.
Last summer I went to Berlin for a few days for a bit of culture and booze. One night we got speaking to a group of locals about football and they started talking about FC Union Berlin. We’d gone to the East Side Gallery earlier that day and done a walking tour of the city, so it felt even more relevant. They were Hertha fans anyway but talking about their rivals’ recent promotion, the first East Berlin side to reach the top division, piqued my interest.
A couple of months earlier, Union Berlin had finished third in the second division and played Stuttgart, who finished third from bottom in the Bundesliga, in the play-offs. They drew the first leg 2-2 away after going behind twice, then were promoted on away goals after drawing 0-0 at home.
A few weeks after I came back from Germany I read Nick Ames’ article in The Guardian about the club. I learnt more and, while not normally a follower of the Bundesliga, looked out for their result in the first game of the season. They lost 4-0.
But the feeling from the supporters who Ames talked to was they were delighted to have reached the Bundesliga but were intent on making sure things stayed the same at the club. Of course they wanted to win and see their team do well, but that wasn’t the only thing that mattered.
Known as “iron men”, they appear to have something special about them which draws you in to the club. There are plenty of examples, but here are just a few of the stories that make you understand what Union Berlin is about.
The club had money problems for years and has twice been denied promotion because of their lack of funds and inadequate stadium. In 1993 and 1994 they won the third division only to be denied a licence to move up. In 2004, with the club set to be booted out of the fourth tier if they couldn’t raise the €1.46m reserve that was required to remain in the football league, supporters took part in a “Bluten für Union”, or Bleed for Union, campaign. They regularly gave their blood to blood banks, donated the money they earned to the club and raised the money needed.
Back in 2008, the German Football Association had threatened to close the club’s Old Forestry Stadium, which dates back to the 1920s, so more than 2000 supporters got to work. After earning promotion from the third-tier in 2009, their crumbling stadium didn’t meet the requirements for the licence for the league, so around 140,000 hours were volunteered to get the stadium up to standard. They saved the club close to €20m with their work.
“This is the most unique experience of my career,” said Sylvia Weisheit, a die-hard Union Berlin fan for four decades and manager of the stadium construction project. “The fans spend their free time and holidays working at the construction site. They are totally committed to the community, and any company would be glad to have such workers.”
It is not just their own club they’re committed to either, but football integrity in general, which was best displayed when they protested against Red Bull’s ownership of RB Leipzig. They held up a “Football culture dies in Leipzig” banner, dressed in all black as if attending a funeral, and stood in silence for the first 15 minutes of the game.
Dietrich Mateschitz is the owner of Red Bull and, despite having no real interest in football, bought Austria Salzburg, now known as FC Red Bull Salzburg, in 2005. As well as their new name, they also got a new logo and colours. The fans who protested were banned so they formed their own club, SV Austria Salzburg, and returned to their original colours. Mateschitz created franchises in New York and Sao Paulo before coming to Leipzig. This soulless approach, as we’ve seen with other franchises closer to home, is against everything Union Berlin stands for.
The club’s official anthem goes: “Wer lässt sich nicht vom Westen kaufen? Eisern Union, Eisern Union!” Or for those of us who aren’t fluent in German, “who won’t be bought by the West? The Iron Union, the Iron Union!”
What helps foster the connection between all elements of the club is the president, Dirk Zingler, who is a lifelong fan himself. As a successful local businessman, he stepped in to help the club in 2004, initially as a sponsor and then taking the reins. He joined them in rebuilding the stadium.
When signing a player, he relies on other senior members of the club to all agree he will be a good buy and right fit.
In an era where money rules everything in football, and this is sadly an experience United fans can understand better than most, Union Berlin choose to instead stick to their principles. When it emerged that their main sponsor, ISP, had a chairman who had served at the East German Ministry for State Security for 10 years, Zingler tore up the agreement. Their deal with Jürgen Czilinsky would have brought in €10 million over five years but Zingler believed this was incompatible with their anti-authoritarian reputation and, after ISP hadn’t disclosed this information to them, believed they were left with no alternative but to walk away from the agreement.
“Further cooperation under these conditions, even taking into consideration the legal and economic consequences for the club, wasn’t possible,” Zingler told the Berliner Morgenpost at the time.
When the German league announced it was bringing in new regulations to police fan behaviour at football games, Union Berlin supporters were frustrated that fans hadn’t even been consulted on this and spoke out. The presidents of every top flight club signed the new agreement, except for theirs.
In 2011, Zingler announced that the club would be selling their stadium. “We have decided to sell our soul,” he announced, “to our members.” The stadium that they built, they now own, at €500 a share. It’s a far cry from the Emirates and Etihad stadiums we see in England. You can’t imagine they’ll be selling the naming rights at Stadion An der Alten Försterei any time soon. “Flag wavers, cardboard clappers and goal music – football has become show business. And it is running the risk of becoming interchangeable and indistinguishable,” he added. By contrast, Union Berlin has “its own, unique football culture: terraces, direct passion and unadulterated football.”
When Union Berlin were promoted this season, Zingler froze ticket prices, bucking the trend of clubs who often rinse their supporters in the top flight.
Ahead of their opening game against RB Leipzig, with the plans of a protest announced, Zingler revealed that he would join in with the 15 minutes of silence. “The fans have the club on their side,” he said.
Hertha Berlin requested that the first Bundesliga derby be played on November 9th, the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Zingler was having none of it though.
“For me it’s a derby, it stands for rivalry, demarcation and footballing class warfare,” he said. “I think it’s absurd to give this match a friendly character under the mantra of playing for German unity.”
The club was formed 1906 by metalworkers in the industrial district of Koepenick in the east of the city under a different name. After World War II, Union Berlin played in the leagues of Communist East Germany, after the majority of coaching and playing staff formed Sports Club Union 06 Berlin in the West. Out of interest, this breakaway club still exists but now plays in the amateur leagues.
While Union Berlin enjoyed some success, Dynamo Dresden were the dominant team, much to the frustration of the East German government. This led to the creation of BFC Dynamo, a club run by the Stasi secret police, who would become Union Berlin’s hated rivals. Erich Mielke, the country’s state security minister, was their chairman, and with the help of the government, Dresden’s squad was moved to BFC Dynamo. They went on to win 10 league titles from 1979 to 1988, but it was later revealed they had bribed referees, sent death threats to rival players and were involved in dodgy transfer deals to make this happen.
“They had a lot of money and they had the best players,” Thommy Thiele, an Union fan since he was 13 years old, told DW Radio. “We hated the BFC Dynamo, we hated the secret service, we hated the Berlin Wall, we were in opposition to the state. That’s why in the 1980s there were over 20,000 people in the FC Union stadium every match and only 5,000 people at BFC Dynamo.”
Union Berlin drew in all who were anti-establishment, from students to artists and skinheads to punks, with them all united in opposing the regime.
Due to Union Berlin’s lowly placing in German football until recently, there hasn’t been much opportunity for clashes with local rivals Hertha Berlin. They first played against each other in a friendly match in 1990, a couple of months after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
A few hundred BFC Dynamo fans showed up to cause trouble but both Union and Hertha fans joined in with chants of “Stasi Out! Stasi Out!”.
The clubs wouldn’t meet competitively until the 2010-11 season, when Hertha were relegated, and again in 2012-13 when they again played in the second tier. While their rivals made light work of returning to the Bundesliga, Union Berlin languished.
After their promotion, Hertha Berlin ventured on to enemy territory and painted the town blue, covering it with their club stickers. Having been able to forget about their local rivals for decades, suddenly they were relevant again.
In their first Bundesliga meeting earlier this season, Union Berlin won thanks to an 87th minute penalty.
The next derby is next Friday night.
So for now, it’s “Eisern Union!”