Germany’s capital city has two representatives in the top-flight, of the two, Union Berlin’s story is different than most
A quick Google search will tell you that there are more than 50 football clubs operating at different levels of the German footballing pyramid, originating from the city of Berlin.
It would probably take more than 50 searches to learn about each club’s role in the cultural landscape of Berlin. Union Berlin, though, are a club for the fans, of the fans and by the fans.
The city isn’t popular for its footballing success, as other cities in Germany have staked their claims to far more trophies over the course of history. Although, it is a city that truly represents the people. And amongst all of the teams, the Iron Ones of Union Berlin have a truly special background.
This is the story of Die Eisernen, told best by the fans who have lived in Union’s embrace and experienced the joys and the lows that have come along with supporting their team.
The birth of Union Berlin
Union Berlin in its present shape came together in 1966, but before that, the East Berlin native side were called FC Olympia Oberschöneweide, which was founded 60 years before they became Union.
“So, it is a child of the DDR era. Throughout that time it was very much the underdog, with the Stasi-backed club whose name shall not be mentioned winning the league title ten years on the bounce (thanks in no small part, it is said, to some very dubious refereeing decisions).”, says Jon Darch.
Though, it would be an error to limit Union’s supporters’ group to just one sect of people. It is a club that is open to all.
“So, Union was the club for the fan with no great love for the machinations of the state. For fans who felt to a degree like outsiders and who had to look after one another. And more than anything, it is that sense of togetherness, cameraderie and caring for those even less well off than you that shines through at Union to this day.”
And that, I’d say, is what Union stands for. Caring and sharing.Jon Darch
The club is incredibly proud of its working-class roots and they called themselves the Schlosserjungs (metalworker-boys). While Union as a club are not fuelled by any political agendas, they are in many ways, an anti-establishment club. A club for the fans who wish to be uninhibited in the way they support.
The history of Union Berlin
Upon studying Berlin’s history and it’s deep-rooted connections to the sport of football, you realize, there are just too many significant moments that piece together to form Union’s history.
The German Reich’s control in the mid 1930s saw the club in its previous form play in the Gauliga Berlin-Brandenburg, which was then the highest division of football.
After the second World War, SG Union Oberschöneweide was born during the late 1940s, however, their success was short-lived. The cold war and it’s subsequent effects on Soviet authorities in Berlin meant that there was once again a division of the club. Players and coaches alike fled to follow separate paths. Then the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961.
The remnants on the east of the wall continued to play as SG Union Oberschöneweide, and after undergoing several changes in names, 1.FC Union Berlin finally came to be in 1966.
Defining moments for Union Berlin
Therefore, it begs the question, is it possible to pinpoint one moment as a defining one for a club that has clearly gone through so much turmoil?
“Certainly not an on-field moment. While other supporters go to football, we go to Union. Its the communion we go for, not the events on the pitch. And I don’t think you can say that any one moment has defined that sense of family and belonging. It has evolved throughout the club’s history through the actions of the members.”, says Jon.
“For me, it was the arrival of Oliver Ruhnert in the sporting director role. We went from the little club who might, to having the clear vision of where we stand now, well not in a European place but established as a Bundesliga side. He has so much to do with this rapidly becoming a reality. He’s the man who gives Urs Fisher the tools to meld a team capable to do more than just survive.”, explains David Gray, speaking to First Time Finish.
David is a freelance promoter and merchandiser for artists and is another proud member of the Union family.
Memorable moments all along
“There are a few defining moments, it depends on who you ask, and what the context is.” says Jacob Sweetman, a journalist and writer, based in Berlin.
Jacob recalls several fantastic moments in the club’s history, however, one stands out in particular as his personal favorite.
“There’s the rebuilding of the stadium and the rebirth under Uwe Neuhaus. The first derby win against Hertha at the Olympiastadion when Torsten Mattuschka scored (but John Mosquera’s goal was better) was amazing to experience. But actually in my opinion the friendly against them at home a couple of years before to christen the stadium was much more emotional, and a statement”, recalls Jacob.
For a club that has since then beaten Borussia Dortmund, drawn against Bayern Munich and beaten the odds when they were seemingly against them, nothing trumps the feeling and the emotion in those moments.
The rebuilding of the Alten Försterei
Football is nothing without its fans. And as the pandemic continues to affect the sport across the world, teams are feeling the effects of it. Some have done well without the thousands cheering them on, while others haven’t.
There are several special tales of fans and their extraordinary feats in support of their club or country. Still, none can come close to what Union fans did for their club in the summer of 2008. It was a time of financial turmoil, as the great economic crisis loomed, leaving hundreds jobless in East Berlin.
They did not just sit hand in hand though. the Alten Försterei had faced licensing issues from the DFL on several occasions in the past because the stadium wasn’t up to the standards required to compete in the top 3 divisions of German football.
So the fans took it upon themselves to change that. 140,000 hours of manual work was put in by around 2,000 fans and the result was something quite extraordinary.
“Trying to be successful when the odds were always against you will always help forge an loyalty to your club. I’ve known nothing different during my time as a supporter. You are they club as soon as you step inside the ground for the first time. You aren’t a consumer as English football sees fans.”, says David.
A unique stadium with unique stories
“I was privileged to see the building of the stadium first hand, and thinking about it today still makes me stop for pause. it really was such an astonishing achievement.” recalls Jacob proudly as he proceeds to recall a special tale.
“A couple of years ago Sylvia Weisheit, the woman who was basically site manager and drove the whole thing through, was given a send off when she finally left the club and she was cheered by the fans as loudly as any mere footballer ever was.” says Jacob.
It’s important to understand the context of this, Union were the first champions of the then founded 3. Liga, while playing their home games at the Jahn Sportpark, the home of Hertha Berlin.
“After the last home game everyone marched the several miles to the Alte Försterei building site to celebrate. But there were only probably 6 – 7,000 fans on average at most back then. The rebuilding came at the same time as Neuhaus was delivering success on the pitch. The stars aligned somehow.”
A truly remarkable story of a special stadium that welcomes not just fans of Union, but all visitors as its own.
The name of the stadium quite literally translates to Stadium at the old forester’s house. This is because, for one to actually reach the stadium, the best way to do so, is to walk though the Köpenick forest.
“The walk through the forest as songs swirl through the branches is like nothing else.”David Gray
Bluten für Union
Being a football fan is not easy. There are moments of great ecstasy and there are some difficult lows too. There have fans who have shed tears of joy and sadness on multiple occasions.
Having said that, not many can claim to have bled for their clubs as Union supporters did when their club was in the direst of circumstance.
Union had experienced great success in the second division in the early 2000s and even played in qualifying matches for the UEFA Cup. However, financial problems once again came to the fore and when lifelong Unioner and club fan Dirk Zingler took over as chairman, things weren’t looking good.
That is when the fans stepped in to support their fellow Unioner. That is just how strong the bond is at this club.
“The Bluten für Union campaign was actually before my day, but it has achieved mythical status, certainly. But it is often forgotten that it was only one part of a much wider campaign including a march through the city. The club was really on the brink and the campaign was a brilliant way of communicating to the wider populace and country how important they were, to a large part of the city that was utterly ignored after the wall came down.” recalls Jacob.
The Union Weihnachtssingen
Of all the special events that Union organizes for it’s fans, the Christmas celebrations at their home stadium is a sight to behold.
“Due to my work, I design and sell merchandise for musicians and comedians on tour, yes I’m spending a lot of time at home at the moment. I have only been to two Weihnachtssigen nights the third and then again in 2018, how the scale of things has been raised is incredible, only this club and this fan base could have done this and only in Germany could it had been done. A country, city and district who actually care. Community spirit at its best. Again it is wonderful to be a part of something so special” explains David.
“This last 23 December was the first time in 8 years that I’ve not been there for the ‘Christmas Singing’. It’s a great evening. Once again, it’s all about the Union family, which on that occasion each year grows to include a lot of wives, girlfriends and children, who might not go to the stadium for the games, but who like to come along for the Christmas gathering.” says Jon.
Connection between fans and the club at Union Berlin
While the vast sum of money meant that the club was still alive and kicking, it still experienced relegation from the Regionaliga (third tier of German football) and then fell to the fourth tier, which was then a semi-professional league.
Zingler’s decision to retain the players that got relegated meant that they bounced straight back up into the Regionaliga and a couple of years after that, into the 2.Bundesliga.
From the outside, it looks as though things have always been smooth sailing between the club and its supporters. And yet, you’d be wrong to assume so.
“You’ve made a fundamental, but wholly understandable, mistake there. You have assumed that there is a ‘club’ on the one side and the ‘fans’ on the other, i.e. that the two are not one and the same. The reality, of course, is that the fans ARE the club. It’s a true members’ club.” explains Jon.
Resolving matters in the right manner
All executive decisions at club level are as a result of elections held. The fans determine the way the club is run and even have a supervisory board for the executive board of Union. Any concerns at any point are addressed and have been, for quite some time.
“That’s not to say, however, that the executive board is always 100% in tune with all parts of the fan base. Although they are themselves all fans and all used to stand on the terraces, they have once or twice mis-read the mood.” says Jon.
“During the 2014 World Cup, for instance, they turned the stadium into a ‘World Cup Living Room’, inviting fans to book spaces on the pitch to set up sofas to watch the games on a huge screen. In PR terms it was a very successful wheeze and got the club lots of column centimeters around the world. But for some fans, not least the ultras who stand behind the goal, it was unacceptable for an event linked to the much-hated FIFA to be staged in OUR living room. Especially as just a couple of years earlier the club executives had themselves used imagery deriding Sepp Blatter in a campaign to raise money for the building of the new main stand. So, the ultras were not happy, and several of those sofas ended up in the river.”
The silver lining to this incident was it brought the fans and the administration even closer because the executive chairman listened to the concerns of Union ultras and since then, there have been no such incidents.
So ‘ne Scheiße, wir steigen auf!
After a period of stability in the 2. Bundesliga, the fans experienced a surprise promotion push from the team in 2016-17. This led to the famous chant “So ‘ne Scheiße, wir steigen auf!” translating to, ” Oh shit, we’re going up!”.
Two years later, the dream was finally realized under Urs Fischer’s guidance. In the play-off final at the Alten Försterei, all that Union needed was a 0-0 draw, and they got it.
Of course there’s the Stüttgart games, the second of which is the happiest a game of football has ever made me, and to be on the pitch after was a thing of utter joy.Jacob Sweetman
The promotion push from the 2. Bundesliga to the Bundesliga led to better sponsors and more money to spend, so Fischer strengthened his side which today is one of the most disciplined defenses in the top-flight.
The players of Union Berlin
One player who has experienced it all with the club is captain Chistopher Trimmel, who is a fan-favorite and adored by all in Köpenick. The 33-year-old continues to be one of the finest right-backs in the Bundesliga since getting promoted, but there is more to him than what meets the eye.
“Trimmel is utterly loved because he is honest and hard working and he understands the club.” says Jacob, recalling a snippet of a story about Trimmel from Christoph Biermann’s book – Wir werden ewig leben.
“There’s a bit in the book about him staying up the night before a game. A friend of his was dying of, I think, cancer and they had a celebration of her, him and all her friends. he gave her a tattoo that night of a small elephant, and then he did one for everybody. This only came out after the season ended. he isn’t a showoff, and that’s the important thing.”, explains Jacob.
Trimmel aspires to be a professional tattoo artist and takes his art very seriously.
Kruse at Union
Although now injured, Max Kruse’s early season form for Union was fantastic, scoring six and assisting five in the first ten games of the season. He is another who has found his place amongst Die Eisernen.
” We all knew he was something better than what we had had previously. I don’t think anyone thought he would have the impact he has had but that said Union are a team. The win lose and draw as one. No one is singled out for good or bad. This is what has driven us on to where we are now this season despite injuries and suspensions. Eisern Union personified.” explains David.
“The commonality is their loyalty, they keep their feet on the ground. That’s what’s important.”, says Jacob.
It is their loyalty that has brought them so far in the Bundesliga and it is that loyalty that will undoubtedly carry them far under Fischer.
They are Die Eisernen and this is their story.