FC Union Berlin may not play in the Bundesliga or even have a particularly successful history, but it’s a club you can’t help but root for when you hear their history.
Berlin may have carved out a niche as Europe’s epicentre of cool in recent years, but it’s had a torrid old history. Flattened, rebuilt, carved up and crudely stitched back together ‒ it’s the city of the ongoing identity crisis. And football isn’t immune from the upheaval.
When you think of Germany’s football heartland, the mind drifts to Bavaria and Bayern Munich. For sheer weight of teams, North Rhine-Westphalia also stakes a claim ‒ think Borussia Dortmund, Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Mönchengladbach, and FC Cologne.
In contrast, Germany’s capital is a relative backwater when it comes to football. There’s passion, sure. But resources and success have proven elusive. This is due in no small part due to the brutal fallout of the Second World War and subsequent Cold War division.
Nowadays, the most recognisable Berlin outfit is the blue and white of Hertha, who play in the affluent western suburbs at the Olympiastadion ‒ built for the 1936 Olympics.
Growing in stature in the second tier, however, is FC Union, the pride of the east.
Foundation, Cold War and Dynamo rivalry
The club can be traced back to its earliest incarnation as FC Olympia Oberschöneweide in 1906, then SC Union Oberschöneweide.
The club earned the nickname ‘Schlosserjungs’ (metalworker boys) due to their all-blue kit which invoked the uniform of local factory workers. These working class, underdog roots have endured to the present day, including their current moniker ‘Die Eisernen’ (The Iron Ones).
After World War II, occupying Allied forces demanded the dissolution of all German organisations, including football clubs.
Several name changes later, FC Union reformed in red and white kit in 1966 during East Germany’s sporting reshuffle. In 1968, they won the East German Cup, defeating FC Carl Zeiss Jena 2-1. It remains the club’s greatest triumph to date.
The good vibes were short lived, however. As the division between East and West Germany became more literal and strictly enforced, the East ‒ or German Democratic Republic (GDR) ‒ looked to flex its muscles on all available fronts.
Dynamo Dresden had established themselves as the gold standard in the Oberliga, winning five league titles between 1971-1978. But GDR officials wanted a successful team in the capital. With trademark subtlety, they enforced the relocation of Dresden’s squad to BFC Dynamo ‒ a relatively small police club in Berlin ‒ virtually overnight. Union had a powerful new rival.
Dynamo were backed by government officials, including notorious Stasi boss Erich Mielke ‒ the Stasi being the sprawling network of police, spies and informants within the authoritarian state of the GDR. With Mielke in their corner, Dynamo effectively had carte blanche to manipulate the league in their favour.
Referees were paid off or coerced. Opponents were often scared to try their best for fear of reprisal. Good players flowed like tributaries to a bloated river in the transfer market. As a result, Dynamo won 10 consecutive league titles from 1979 to 1988. A modern day equivalent might be having to play your local derby against Kim Jong-Un’s favourite team.
All the while, Union toiled away, regularly attracting 20,000 fans to games who took a firm anti-establishment stance. Like the Stasi more broadly, Dynamo fans developed a tendency for violence and getting their own way. Clashes with Union were particularly brutal, as Dynamo supporters revelled in their state-sanctioned privilege.
— Ned Richardson-Little (@HistoryNed) September 23, 2016
Reunification and bleeding for the cause
Due to the flux of German football in the 20th century, Berlin’s two main protagonists ‒ Union and Hertha ‒ did not actually meet until a friendly on January 27, 1990. It was 79 days after the fall of the Wall, yet still some months before reunification was rubber stamped in practice.
51,000 fans filled the Olympiastadion, paying for tickets with their respective currencies. 100 or so BFC Dynamo ultras showed up with a view to disruption but were drowned out by chants of “Stasi raus!” (Stasi out!) from both sets of fans.
If unification promised a new dawn of stability, Union would have to wait a few more decades. They topped their regional division in 1993 and 1994 but were denied permission to play in the 2. Bundesliga due to a lack of finance.
In 2004, the club was on the verge of extinction yet again. The German FA wanted a guarantee of 1.5 million Euros. Supporter and businessman Dirk Zingler stepped up to cover most of it – he remains club president to this day.
At the same time, fans started a campaign called ‘Bluten für Union’ (bleed for Union) ‒ literally donating blood and giving the money to the club ‒ in order to make up the difference.
In summer 2008, they were in another tough spot. The stadium was in dire need of renovations, with scarce time and money to address it. In response, 2,500 fans rolled up their sleeves, regardless of their expertise, and literally started rebuilding.
That season, Union were crowned inaugural champions of the 3. Liga, winning promotion to the second tier where they’ve since consolidated.
Game day in the forest
The revamped Stadion An der Alten Försterei (stadium at the old forester’s house) holds 22,012, with standing terraces on three sides, creating an intimate yet boisterous atmosphere.
You don’t see it right away. From Köpenick station, you head for the woods. Dappled sunlight peeks through the canopy, highlighting the procession of supporters in red. The sizzle of sausages wafts through the trees. The thumping of an expectant crowd grows nearer.
As the team is introduced over the PA system, each name is greeted with a unified bellow of ‘Fußballgott!’ (football god) by the fans. This is followed by a hearty rendition of Eisern Union, a delightfully jarring mishmash of an anthem.
Meanwhile, the mascot ‒ a knight with the face of Postman Pat’s evil twin ‒ casually twirls a spiked medieval flail. Among the crowd, a man with an oversized basket of pretzels rings a bicycle bell like Pavlov to condition hungry spectators.
On the post-game march back through the woods, there’s an informal guard of honour formed by the hunched backs of urinating men. Unsavoury, perhaps, but also a sign of respect for the team, that no one wanted to miss a minute of the action.
Despite the promise of an ‘authentic’ Berlin experience, this is no playground for plastic fans. It’s a refuge for purists who prioritise solidarity over silverware.
There are no flashy names. Robert Huth was part of the youth setup in 2001 before joining Chelsea. Felix Kroos (Toni’s brother) currently wears the captain’s armband. That’s about as close as it gets to recognisable prestige.
The club has shown its commitment to the fan experience time and again, and in 2014 created a ‘World Cup Living Room’, inviting fans to bring their own sofas to the Alte Försterei pitch and watch the internationals on a purpose-built big screen.
Where to from here?
FC Union’s perennial underdog status and anti-establishment attitude have endeared the club to many observers.
In an era when football is increasingly at the mercy of corporate wealth and commercialisation, FC Union feels like a tonic largely free from affectation. While many fanbases are increasingly compelled to measure success by their transfer dealings or trophy cabinet, Die Eisernen are showing another way.
Union’s league finishes in the 2. Bundesliga since 2012 read 7th, 7th, 9th, 7th, 6th, 4th. In 2016-17, they finished one place behind the promotion play-off spot. For a club that has been shooed away from the top table so many times, this sort of stability is savoured.
There’s no ‘us and them’ tension between Union fans and Zingler either. German football has traditionally adhered to a ‘50+1’ ownership rule ‒ aimed to preserve fans as majority shareholders, but there are exceptions for company-owned clubs like Wolfsburg (Volkswagen) and Bayer Leverkusen, and there’s a risk that the rule will disappear altogether as more clubs start to ignore it.
Take, for example, the policy of rapid climbers RB Leipzig, which precludes non-Red Bull employees from becoming voting members at all.
For Union, however, fan input is intrinsic to the club’s identity. All major decisions hinge on approval from the fans. Zingler couldn’t go rogue even if he wanted to.
It will be interesting to see if opinion starts to splinter if and when they reach the promised land of the Bundesliga. But for now at least, the harmony is iron-clad.
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The literal and well-documented division that scars Berlin’s history renders any unity metaphor too heavy-handed for use. Yet in this age of mega money and entitlement in football, it’s refreshing to see a club not out for validation.
In a city whose heart was hollowed out and its people played off against one another, the freedom of existence is worth cheering.
Asked of the potential pitfalls of Bundesliga promotion, former head of Union’s fan department, Jacob Rösler said: “The challenges would be tremendous. Keeping it ‘the Union way’ would require smart choices, and also luck.
“Being able to compete on our terms ‒ even with the smaller clubs in first Bundesliga, much less the top teams or in Europe ‒ seems a pretty optimistic goal right now.
“By choosing to remain a ‘club’ (maintaining member votes), owning our own stadium, championing 50+1 (not being bought by business consortia, sheikhs or whoever), and keeping a high percentage of affordable standing tickets, we have willingly decided to go the harder way.”
If material success ever does come to the Alte Försterei, it will surely be welcomed. Zingler has targeted promotion to the Bundesliga by 2021. There’s talk of further stadium expansion too.
But there’s a sense that the fans don’t need it. They need only enjoy each game. And you’d be hard pressed to find any Union fan who doesn’t love spending every other week in the house they built themselves.