We recently visited Union Berlin to find out the story of this incredible club. This piece originally written for MoreSport perfectly epitomises what it’s like to experience a Union Berlin game first hand…
Guest Post by Kevin Ross
Modern football at the top level might be decadent and depraved, but with teams like 1.FC Union Berlin bubbling under the soul of the game isn’t yet in the devil’s hands…
We’d been to the early Saturday game and were back in the nondescript bar in a bland post war building throwing down lager from plastic glasses, trying to get some feeling back into numb toes. The big screen shows the developments in the main afternoon games and cheers and groans fire round the room as goals go in and coupons are made or ruined by teams they don’t follow. The bar is full of people who had also been to the match. A standard Saturday afternoon mix of day-trippers, old veterans with grubby time served scarves, young men clad in Stone Island and all types of fans in between. It could be any bar, near any stadium, in any corner of Britain but it is not. This is the Abseitsfaille in Köpenick, East Berlin, Germany.
Behind the bar was the stadium we’d just left, the Stadion an der alten Försterei, home of 1. FC Union Berlin. Although their history can be traced back further they came into their current form in 1966 and plied their trade in the East German Oberliga. As a working class team they found success limited unlike their Stasi backed cross-city rivals BFC Dynamo who won ten titles in a row, many of those in dubious circumstances. However following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of German football, like many of their contemporaries from the East, they found life tough. They were until recently beset by struggles on and off the pitch falling as low as the regionalised fourth tier. Fortunately the situation is now a lot healthier and they are firmly entrenched in the 2. Bundesliga.
We’d made our way to the game firstly on the S-Bahn with fans of both sides happily mixing while drinking bottles of beer and then by foot through the forest surrounding the ground, which is dotted with people collecting empty beer bottles and selling full ones from shopping trolleys. Once inside the stadium an array of outside beer kiosks and open air grills serving bratwurst and pork steaks at the back of the stand gave the feel of a festival. The bitter wind and single digit temperatures soon shattered the illusion. After refuelling we climbed the steps and out onto the top of the terrace. The stands were already packed with people drinking beer, smoking, eating and chatting despite kick off being a long way off. Despite it being midday the floodlights were on as the low, weak Winter sun failed to penetrate the cloud.
The stadium holds just over twenty thousand and when full like this has a beauty that belies its utilitarian style. You can keep your Wembley and fancy new builds this is a stadium with character, soul and life. Three sides of terracing built by the fans for the fans, without frills, for the sole purpose of watching their team play and perhaps having a few beers at the same time. This is not hyperbole as it was literally constructed by the supporters. Without enough money to develop a dilapidated ground promotion to the second tier in 2008/09 was in jeopardy so they volunteered over a hundred thousand man-hours to get the work done. The club then sold the majority share of the ground back to fans to fund further work. It was not the first time the fans had given blood, sweat and tears to help the club. In the dark days of 2004/05 the fans donated blood to raise the license fee to allow the club to compete in the regional leagues.
As the teams emerged the Union anthem blasted out of the speakers, it began with a slow deep atmospheric narration before bursting info life and it seemed like everyone raised their scarves and belted out the words with heart and feeling. The 1860 Munich fans away to our left behind the goal contributed to the atmosphere with their own tifo. Throughout the game the Waldseite behind the goal to our right, which houses the Union Ultras, gave support to the team, chanting, bouncing and waiving flags. There is no ‘where did you park your minibus?’ or ‘who are ya? Who are ya?’ just thousands of sonorous voices in union pouring continuous support down from the stands. Chants of ‘Eisern Union’ (Iron Union) bounce back and forth between the Waldseite and the Gegengerade where we stood followed by mutual acknowledging applause.
The game did not begin well for Union with 1860’s shaven headed Adlung playing the pantomime villain, niggling, benefiting from debatable decisions, creating chances, scoring and generally being a pain in the Union rearguard. Union were ragged at the back and struggling 1860 were four goals up within fifty minutes. There were angry voices and shouts but no deafening chorus of boos, no attacks on the dugout, no thrown season tickets, no slam of seats flipping up as thousands left. The noise from the stands just cranked up.
As the chants throughout game and the wording round the top the stands says `unsere Leibe, unsere Mannschaft, unser Stolz, unser Verein` (our love, our team, our pride, our club) and this really is their club and you can feel it in the stands. Union Berlin is owned by the members/fans rather than by some absentee billionaire, the tickets are not a king’s ransom at under £13 per match and there is no steward telling you to calm down and sit down. The fans have a voice within the club and the club listens. They have not sold their soul in search of a short-term boost. It is all about the football and the fans and it shows. This is how football should be, standing on the terrace with your mates and as a bonus you can have a beer while you do it.
The players on the pitch responded to the encouragement. Union scored almost immediately from the restart then won a penalty. Quiring, a boyhood Unioner, missed it. Union then missed chance after chance, enough to win the game and the fairytale comeback that looked odds on never materialised. It ended 4 – 1 to 1860 Munich but the majority of fans stayed, as always, to applaud the team’s efforts and they in turn acknowledged the fans. The bond between club, players and fans seems one based on mutual respect rather than mistrust and was refreshing to see.
Back in the bar, which is emptying a little, a man approaches us smiling but my basic German means I don’t catch what he saying. He is soon stopped mid flow by a younger stern faced man and there is a heated debate and the older man heads for the door. The stern faced younger man is looking more relaxed now and apologises that we had to witness that and explains that the older man’s type is not welcome at the club. He advises the clue is in the name, they are a Union and everyone stands together and they have no time for people who try to break that. A chant of ‘Nazis Out’ follows which is taken up by all those nearby and spells out exactly what the first man had been all about. We chat about Union and English football with our newfound friend before I go to get us a round in. I thought I’d better as I plan to come back. I can’t wait.
@arleneisaboot. If you want to go to a game or find out more then follow @unioninenglisch or check out www.union-berlin.com
This article was originally written for MoreSport here