Meet Union Berlin: Germany’s fan-powered success story

Union Berlin Source: City-Press

There has always been an interesting relationship between the big European capital cities and their football teams. Yet it hasn’t always been productive.

London, Paris, Berlin and Rome have never been the historical football powerhouses of their respective nations. Among the big five, Madrid is the only exception.

Of those four cities, Berlin has probably been the least successful – at least since Paris Saint-Germain were recently taken to some outrageous financial heights. Domestically, the German capital is probably less influential than any of Munich, Dortmund, Hamburg and Gelsenkirchen.

No Berlin side has won the Bundesliga of a re-united Germany. Hertha Berlin, the biggest side of the capital, and who finished sixth last season, haven’t won a national league title since 1931 (32 years before the Bundesliga even began) – and their only recent “championship” came when they won the second division titles in 2011 and 2013.

As interesting as their history is – a curious, sordid tale with plenty of intrigue, worthy of another column – the real story in Berlin football is unfolding on the other side of the city.

Far from the triumphant surroundings of Hertha’s gloriously revamped Olympiastadion in the west, Union Berlin have been quietly doing their thing in the Stadion An der Alten Försterei, located on the south-eastern fringe of the city.

That makes them a team of the old East Berlin, and therefore, a participant in the wild (and largely misunderstood) world of East German football.

But Union are not one of those nostalgic faded giant of the Soviet era: they never won the league title and only once (1968) won the cup. Crosstown, the Stasi-backed Dynamo Berlin won 10 titles straight from 1979 to 1988, aided by a host of abnormalities that remain unexplained. Indeed, Union had the double whammy of being on the wrong side of the tracks on the wrong side of the wall.

However, while reunification has generally been problematic for East German football, Union Berlin are – discounting the ostentatious rise of RB Leipzig – the probably the biggest success story from the ost.

But their success is not a story of titles and trophies but of collaboration and community. And less than 24 hours after PSG purchased Neymar for €222 million ($A330 million), I ventured to Union’s stadium, where such notions of extravagance have no place.

Union is not only surviving, but thriving. A sold out crowd of almost 22,000 squeezed into every space at the Alten Försterei, a venue most of us can only dream of visiting every other week.

The stands are steep, intimate and enclosed. Absolutely perfect for football. And yet here’s the real kicker – the fans built the stadium themselves. They couldn’t have made it better.

Over 2300 fans volunteered their time and labour to convert their old, worn-out venue (deemed unsuitable by the German Football League in 2006) into a venue that could generate an atmosphere unlike anywhere else. For the record, they were still in the third tier this stage (even slipping into the fourth tier in 2005-06). But this is what can happen when fans bind together. Union have been on a steady upswing ever since.

The stadium is a trek from the city centre, which is probably why most tourists wouldn’t bother. But that makes it all the more rewarding when you jump off the tram and follow the sea of red shirts disappearing into the forest.

Once you emerge from the greenery, a beautiful stadium lies in wait. The elegant external facade of the main stand mixes stateliness and homeliness – a world away from the too-clever designs of modern stadiums. This is the venue of the famous "World Cup living room" in 2014, when fans were allowed to bring own sofas into the stadium.

All around is a sense of self-ownership: this is the living, breathing embodiment of the  famous "50+1" rule. Fans happily enjoy the intimate, vibrant social spaces, complete with outstanding food and excellent German beer. The joviality is infectious.

It is the total opposite to the sterile environment offered up in so many other countries, Australia included. Even Union’s official website encourages you not to drive to the match (“how will you be able to enjoy a couple of pints whilst watching the game?”).

This is only the second match of the 2.Bundesliga season but having already beaten Inglostadt in the opening game, and having narrowly missed promotion last season, there is already a palpable sense of expectation.

The stadium design encourages noise and holds it in – and when the players emerge for the start, it is like a rolling wave of sound. Stadium design really can affect football matches and here, it's deafening. The (unsurprising) architectural lesson: get the fans as close to the play as possible on all four sides. 

The match against Holstein Kiel is a classic. The visitors take the lead through the excellent Kingsley Schindler, then Union responds inside two minutes. Schindler sets up another before Union hit back with two fine goals of their own to take lead. Then the visitors nab a third of their own. It’s 3-3 and we have played barely 30 minutes.

Such an breathless opening means the game can’t find any predictable rhythm – and the supporters, too, are a bit dazed. It takes a brilliant shot from Steven Skrzybski early in the second half to decide the game in Union’s favour. The hunt for promotion is off to the flyer.

But even if Union don’t go up, what they are doing is a success story worth repeating over and over. Football clubs needn’t produce a slick, modern product with a cookie-cutter offering. In fact, if you’re looking to create something successful and long-lasting, it can be quite the opposite.

Union’s mission is really quite simple: listen to the fans, engage with the community, have a social conscience and keep the books tidy. Do that, and winning matches actually becomes easier. They only sign players and coaches who embrace the wider mission, which fosters an even deeper sense of loyalty.

In a football world where everyone is scrambling to make a fast buck as quickly as possible, perhaps we need to take our eyes off the glitterati and remember why we all fell in love with the game in the first place: camaraderie, passion and a sense of belonging. May Union Berlin be a lesson to us all.