“Scheisse, wir steigen auf,” read the banner at the Alte Försterei two seasons ago.
The slogan (“Crap, we’re getting promoted”) from Union Berlin fans was a tongue-in-cheek reaction to the club moving into second position after a 2-0 win against Würzburg on Matchday 23 of the season. But it also held more than a hint of honesty.
At that time, many supporters were quite cautious about a possible promotion to the Bundesliga and the threat of increased commercialization. They didn’t want it. They weren’t ready. In the end, they needn’t have worried – Union finished fourth.
But a club whose fan base doesn’t want to be promoted? The concept is quite alien given the purpose of football is to win football matches in today’s race for maximizing profits.
Attitudes have now changed on the promotion debate – as Union find themselves just two games away from a historic rise to the Bundesliga – but the ironic banner offers a glimpse into the ethos of a unique club that is attempting to buck the trend in modern football.
From little things…
Historically, Union Berlin were the worker’s club in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), playing second fiddle to Berliner FC Dynamo, the club many saw as the plaything of former Stasi boss Erich Mielke.
A cross-city rivalry was born, as Dynamo won 10 consecutive East German titles, while Union never finished higher than seventh as they hovered between the top two divisions.
“There was a political aspect, of course, because Dynamo were connected to the Stasi, which was for many people unwelcome,” Union Berlin’s head of communications and lifelong fan Christian Arbeit told DW. “But first and foremost it was a football rivalry.”
Union were also very much a part of the GDR’s sports system and funded by the regime, but the club’s roots go much farther back than the founding of the state, and they attracted a different crowd. The club became known for a supporter base that was anti-establishment, where dissenters could vent their disdain for the system in the anonymity of a crowd.
“It was a place for alternative culture. It was a place for individuality and freedom,” Arbeit said.
Both were excluded when the Bundesliga brought in former East German clubs for the 1991-92 season – following the fall of the Wall in 1989 and German reunification a year later.
Union Berlin captain Christopher Trimmel: “We are going into the playoff with a lot of self-confidence”
Rise from the rubble
Union Berlin would spend the best part of the next 20 years trapped in Germany’s fourth tier, despite a run to the German Cup final in 2001 and surprise qualification for the UEFA Cup.
Sebastian Fiebrig, who writes for fan blog Textilvergehen and runs the State of the Union podcast, points to the arrival of Dirk Zingler as club president in 2004 as a major turning point.
“The fans often had to push things forward, but since Dirk Zingler arrived, the club’s been pulling in the same direction as the fans, which is very special,” Fiebrig told DW.
Under Zingler’s direction, Union became more stable, eventually winning promotion to the second division, where they have been a regular fixture for the past decade.
Plans to turn Union Berlin into a bigger force, however, were constantly in the works. The stadium was expanded – partly funded by the fans in the famous “Bleed for Union” campaign – and sponsors and investment were sought.
“Our identity doesn’t mean we’re not commercial at all, of course we are. That’s football,” Fiebrig said.
“We take sponsorship to pay our players and we do business, you can’t survive without that. That’s one reason we’re now, perhaps, heading towards the Bundesliga.”
As Union’s on-field exploits improved, investment in players increased, and now the club, fans, and players have all eyes directed firmly towards promotion.
Unique home ground
Anyone who has been to Union Berlin’s stadium, the Stadion an der Alten Försterei, will rave about the experience. The quiet, leafy suburb of Köpenick in Berlin’s southeast is transformed into a vibrant, passionate party as an eclectic mix of fans combine for a 22,000-strong red-and-white army.
“On matchdays, it’s only about the football. The club makes sure the fans only experience football,” Fiebrig said.
That means no halftime shows, no music during goal celebrations, no light shows, no bells and whistles, just a traditional football experience without the trappings of modern football. All within a stadium that is a throwback to a bygone era.
Union Berlin have the chance over the next two matches to play their way into the Bundesliga
“It’s a non-mainstream, alternative feeling and that starts with the stadium,” Arbeit noted. “We have an all-standing stadium, as opposed to the almost all-seater stadiums we see now. It’s all about pure football.”
The result is a community, not just a club, and Union Berlin are now ready to share their matchday experience with the Bundesliga.
“Union is like a family. I’m sure every club says this but Union is different,” Fiebrig stressed. “We can be a good influence on the Bundesliga. People have the impression that the Bundesliga is losing what makes it special.
“Leipzig have their football vision and that’s fine. But we believe club members should decide in which direction the club should go.”
Arbeit, who drums up the atmosphere on matchdays as the club’s stadium announcer, also believes Union Berlin can shake up the top flight.
“We would welcome all the Bundesliga clubs and show them what it’s like to celebrate a goal without music, to see a corner not presented by anyone,” Arbeit said.
“That’s not what we think football is about. Fans are not customers here. We do things differently. We do things together.”
Promotion against the odds
First, however, the club needs to get promoted. A two-legged playoff against Stuttgart awaits and the odds are against Union.
Only two lower-division sides have won the playoff since its reintroduction 10 years ago. But there is positivity around the club that Union can beat the odds.
“There is still a chance, we are pretty optimistic,” Arbeit said.
If Union Berlin’s latest fan banners are anything to go by the mood has shifted dramatically away from the days where promotion was treated with trepidation.
“Gib niemals auf und glaub an dich,” reads the latest one (Never give up and believe in yourself). The fans are daring to dream after a remarkable season and there is little doubt where their aspirations now lie.
“It’s a common misbelief that Union fans don’t want to get promoted,” Fiebrig said. “It’s definitely changed in the last two years. There have been a lot of discussions among fan groups, but everyone wants this.
“This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to Union. We will never win a championship, so promotion is like winning a cup for us underdogs.”
Arbeit, speaking now as fan of more than 30 years, agrees.
“The club has led us to a point where we finally really want it and we’re pleading for it to happen,” he said. “We know the risks, but we’re not afraid. We want to remind people how football once was.”