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An unlikely Union: The rise of Berlin’s rebellious underdog football team

FC Union's qualification to the Bundesliga last season made history. With their next match tomorrow, we explore the legendary GDR football club's history and find out why it's attracting a new generation of Berlin creatives and intellectuals.

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Photo by Stefanie Fiebrig/www.textilvergehen.de. FC Union qualified for the Bundesliga for the first time on May 27th.

May 27th this year. Stadion an der alten Försterei, Köpenick. A full house of 22,012 hold their collective breath. Just before 10:30pm, the referee blows his whistle, finally. Suddenly hundreds, then thousands storm onto the pitch. There are songs, selfies, and fireworks and complete strangers embrace in pure celebration. Some fill their pockets with fistfuls of the hallowed turf to take home and care for as a living, breathing souvenir, while others go for the goal net or the corner flag. Emotions are running high. Mind you, this is no Hertha match: the ecstatic fans have just witnessed their team, FC Union, qualify for the Bundesliga for the first time. Given the crazed scenes, you’d be hard-pressed to believe the game ended 0-0!

“It was so elating! Twenty-two thousand happy people is quite something,” remembers Änne Troester. “I actually laid down on the pitch and closed my eyes. I felt like I was floating, like I was having a yogic experience. It was one of the greatest nights of my life.” Born in the former West and in Berlin since 1996, Troester is not your typical football fan. A 50-something dubbing scriptwriter with an international career, she has nonetheless been an Union season-ticket holder for the past 10 years. “I first went to a match 15 years ago. The club was still in the third league then, so it wasn’t really exciting soccer, but sort of like a rough-and-tumble family-type experience, that’s what I liked about it.” For Troester, who lives in a comfortable Altbau in Prenzlauer Berg’s Gleimstraße, her time spent at the Försterei exposed her to Union’s core working class fanbase. “In my everyday environment, I don’t get to meet people like that. For me, it was a slice of Berlin that I never really got in contact with, and that was part of the attraction.”

Her experience was similar to that of Stefanie Fiebrig’s, who in 2003 was dragged along by a friend to take action portraits of fans for a university photography assignment. “At the beginning I was much more inspired by the people who went to the games and who – no matter how it was – were euphoric, emotional and really engrossed in the match, so much so that you could see in their faces what had happened. I found that really fascinating.” Originally from Brandenburg, the 44-year-old photographer and print decorator – who previously had barely any interest in football – soon became a regular at home games. Then, inspired by some of the past experiences of fans, she founded the fan blog Textilvergehen in 2006, which has since expanded into a podcast. “I realised that these older Union fans had incredibly interesting stories to tell about the club. I wanted to document them so as not to lose the knowledge and the voices of these people.  

Legends unpicked  

While it’s clear that Union’s stories from the past play a part in attracting a new demographic, many of the tales also fall into the category of myths. A quick Google search will bring up article upon article about the club’s legendary status as a purported hotbed of punks, rebels and political dissidents during the GDR. An oft-repeated quote describing this phenomenon, goes: “Not every Union fan was an enemy of the state, but every enemy of the state was an Union fan.” But not everyone agrees with this characterisation of the past. “I think the whole political question is completely over-exaggerated. The club was supposedly a reservoir of dissenters – that wasn’t the case,” says club veteran Gerald Karpa, who has been an Union fan since the winter of 1979 when, as an eager 13-year-old, he first went to watch a game at the Försterei. In addition to being a lifelong fan and co-author of a book about the club’s history, since 2013 Karpa has also been employed as their chronicler and archives officer, a role in which he is responsible for researching Union’s history, as well as setting the record straight on the club’s purported rebelliousness. “The people who were here – the fans – were certainly not all friends of the state in the sense of committed FDJ (East German Youth Association) members, but they were still just as loyal citizens as all the others.”

Another embellished story relates to Union’s status as a workers’ club. While much of Union’s support – and that of the club’s predecessors – came from the working class areas near Oberschöneweide, Karpa says it was not specifically set up as a club for the workers, and was instead part of the GDR’s broader strategy to use sport as a propaganda tool to drive support for the system. “Union was initially established in 1966 as a socialist club. Not by dissidents or civil rights activists, not by long-haired artists who sat in the kitchen with red wine and candles and said, ‘Hey, do we want to start up a football club?’. It was established by officials simply as an instrument of sport politics. Nothing more.” But what about the legendary story that, during the 1980s, Union fans would chant ‘Die Mauer muss weg’ (the wall must go) as an act of provocation every time the team lined up for a free-kick? “I say ‘no‘, loud and clear. Many years ago I researched this and couldn’t find anyone who could say with certainty, ‘Yes, that’s what we chanted back then.’ I’m sure that someone said it at some point, but that it would have been the standard, and with an implied political message? Nah.”

Also vital to the development of Union’s reputation as some kind of rebellious, anti-establishment underdog was its GDR-era rivalry with Berlin’s number-one team: BFC Dynamo. During the shake-up of East German football in the mid-1960s, key institutions were appointed as backers of the professional teams. Union’s included local cable and transformer manufacturing plants in Oberschöneweide; BFC Dynamo, on the other hand, had among theirs the Ministry for State Security. With Stasi boss Erich Mielke as the chairman of the Dynamo Sports Association, BFC attracted some of the GDR’s best players and managed to win the East German Oberliga a jaw-dropping 10 times in a row, from 1979 to 1988. Their stranglehold on the domestic league, along with their overt Stasi links, only helped to fuel the narrative between BFC and Union: it was the Stasi versus the workers. “Union always stood as a counterpoint to BFC,” says Karpa. “And because Dynamo was connected with the Stasi, Union was always seen to be on the side of the good guys.” But while there certainly was a strong rivalry between fans, Karpa asserts that it was one first and foremost based on football, not politics. “To think otherwise, would imply that the BFC fans were also Stasi fans,” he says. “The BFC fans, like the ones I knew from school, had the same relationship with the Stasi as I did: none at all, because we weren’t political.” Questions of politics were brought to a head recently, when it was suggested in some quarters that Union and Hertha Berlin, the city’s other Bundesliga club, based in the former West, should play against each other on November 9th – the date of the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Union officials quickly shut down the suggestion, a decision Karpa is adamant was the right one. “It wouldn’t make sense if the match were made to be politically charged, as Union wasn’t an actor in the reunification of Germany. Not at all.”  

One big family  

With the club and its fans seen – either rightly or wrongly – as the rebellious underdogs standing up against Stasi terror and authoritarian rule in the GDR, just how has the club fared in the last three decades, post-Wende? The fact that it is currently in the Bundesliga seems a huge victory in itself. Its playoff success against Stuttgart in May saw Union become just the fifth former East German club to qualify for the country’s top division since reunification, with many others struggling to adapt to the capital-heavy demands of modern football. But why has Union – whose greatest on-field success is winning the 1968 East German Cup – succeeded where others have fallen? According to Karpa it is, at least in part, down to clever management: “After the fall of the wall, the DSB (East German Sports Authority) no longer paid what it used to pay. The club needed to find sponsors and run the business, and the people in charge have mastered that successfully.”

Image for An unlikely Union: The rise of Berlin's rebellious underdog football team

Photo by Javier Salguero. Fan Änne Troester has been an FC Union season ticket holder for 10 years.

While good leadership has helped the club make the transition, it certainly also has its fans to thank, who in 2007 helped write another chapter in the club’s history. With their stadium in Köpenick deemed not up to professional standards, and Union’s promotion to the second division under threat as a result, 2330 fans put in some 140,000 voluntary working hours over the course of 13 months to help renovate the terraces, saving the club millions of euros in the process. “I really liked the idea of solidarity,” says Troester, who despite having back problems at the time, helped out in the cafeteria. “There were people from totally different walks of life. And it wasn’t about where you came from or how much you earned. It was like, ‘You’re here, you want to work, what can you do?’” The club’s role in developing a sense of community goes beyond their Stadionbau – and it shows at every single match at the Försterei. Instead of loud music and a constant stream of blaring sponsorship ads, there is a distinctly different feel. “During half-time, ground announcer Christian Arbeit will come out and read some news – for example, deaths and births within the community. It’s like a town hall meeting with 22,000 people,” says Troester.

These strong social bonds and the club’s attachment to their history became clear when, during their first ever Bundesliga game in August, fans held up posters with the photos of loved ones who hadn’t lived to see Union compete in Germany’s top flight. On the same day, in protest of the ownership and management practices of their opponent Red Bull-backed RB Leipzig – itself seen by many as a corporate construct – Union fans remained silent for the first 15 minutes of the match. However, Union’s rise to the Bundesliga has forced it to try and balance the club’s reputation as a community entity with the commercial reality of top-flight football. Players and coaches move in and out much like any other professional club, while a recent sponsorship deal with Luxembourg-based real estate company Aroundtown has attracted criticism from some fans. Despite these challenges, the club’s values, along with the very genuine emotional connection with its supporters, have made Union the envy of football purists the world over. And they have helped to attract a new generation of fans from Berlin’s increasingly international population. Encouraged by the cheap tickets, unique stadium experience and elements of the club’s romantic history, many new-wave expats have made Union their team in Berlin. However, for a club like Union, this fan culture and broad supporter base comes as a matter of necessity, a vital currency in today’s footballing and social landscape. “I’m not totally naïve. I know it’s worth money to them, this special relationship, because they don’t have a whole lot else,” says Troester. “They don’t have great players, they’re never going to win the league, they’re never going to play internationally. To attract people, you have to have something truly special. And Union know that they have it.”