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Blood, sweat and tears

Union Berlin: Underdog days are over

1. FC Union Berlin have come from the the fourth division to the top of the Bundesliga thanks to their fans' (actual) blood, sweat and tears.

Berlin’s underdog football team is on the rise. Photo: FC Union Berlin

Berlin is a city of doubles: two zoos, two opera houses, two history museums, two former airports – and two rival football teams. Founded in 1892, Hertha Berlin was historically the city’s more successful team. In contrast, its DDR-born rival, founded as 1. FC Union 74 years later in East Berlin, has long been the underdog. But today, we’re seeing a role reversal of fairytale proportions. 

Hertha, with a larger stadium and a wealth of resources, including over €350 million in investment, has languished at the bottom of the league for the near-entirety of this season. And little Union Berlin, a team steeped in history but which had never played in the top German league until 2019, is now on a rapid rise and playing in European competitions. 

⚽️ Shit, we’re going up! Understanding the rise of Union Berlin

Fans are already dreaming of hosting big-name international teams like Manchester City at their humble home base in a small forest in Köpenick. Union, which struggled financially after the fall of the Wall, has always been associated with working class traditions, anti-capitalist sentiments, and a fan base devoted to these ideals. Take their motto, displayed proudly on their website and merch: ‘The strong helps the weak’. 

Now, after decades of being the weaker Berlin team, 1. FC Union is finally in a position to embody their slogan – and that’s largely thanks to their fans. Whether you follow football or not, the magical story behind Union’s success is universally captivating. It’s a story built on lore and identity, the tumultuous history of Berlin, and a group of people who, for decades, rode their values all the way to the top. 

Blood, sweat, and tears

The team may have had its ups and downs, but its fans have stayed loyal through it all. Photo: union-foto.de / Hupe / Eisernfoto / Schmidt

Football fans are notoriously rabid for their home team, but what Union fans are doing goes way beyond waving the flag and sporting their club’s colours. Back in 2004, while Union Berlin were languishing in the fourth division, the club found itself in dire financial straits. In order to save 1. FC Union, hundreds of supporters went on a blood drive, donating the money they earned from saving the lives of others straight into saving the club they loved. 

And then, in 2008, after being promoted to the second division, the fans got together to renovate the Stadion An der Alten Försterei, which at the time failed to meet the league requirements. More than 2,300 volunteers served as the construction crew, renovating and rebuilding the stadium with their own hands in an unprecedented act of fan support. 

Everyday people helped shovel gravel and pour concrete. The fans put in over 140,000 hours of work, replacing crumbling terraces, putting in new fences, and adding a roof, all to ensure the club could carry on. How many other teams in the top tiers of European football can claim that their fans have put real blood and sweat into their club? 

The little stadium in the woods

Jacob Sweetman, English press officer 1. FC Union Berlin. Photo: Makar Artemev

Jacob Sweetman, co-founder of Berlin football publication No Dice and the English press officer for Union Berlin, is a true fan of the club. Sweetman has been following and writing about Union for over 15 years, and for him – and the rest of the club and its staff – their club is more than just a football team. “Union is about being this place where all kinds of people come together, where everyone can escape from their everyday lives,” he says of the club’s purpose. 

The Alte Försterei, home for Union fans, is commonly referred to as the little stadium in the woods, because it actually is a little stadium in the woods. It currently has the smallest capacity out of all the stadiums in the Bundesliga. To get to the games, fans have to walk through the Wuhlheide woods and past the former Forsthaus, the forest lodge from which the Alte Försterei took its name – a walk that has become a ritual for all fans. 

Everything about the stadium is about honouring the community. The corner flags, designed as red and white sharks with pointed teeth, were made by lifelong Union Berlin supporter and local artist Andora. Leading into the stadium is the tunnel of fame, where placards dedicated to those who have financially helped the club along the way sit side-by-side with those dedicated to deceased fans. In the centre of headquarters is a LEGO replica of the stadium, lovingly assembled by one young supporter. And in the beer garden is the Stadionbauerdenkmal, a monument dedicated to the volunteers who helped rebuild the stadium back in 2008. 

To be the number one team in Berlin is a source of enormous pride.

More important than all the monuments and fan memorials, however, is that the stadium is owned by the supporters. Back in 2011, the club decided to sell shares to its members for €500 apiece. The revenue raised from this initiative was used to help further develop and expand the club grounds. Unlike other clubs from around the world, who sell their stadium rights to multinational corporations, Union made sure that no company could come in and rename their property.

Such initiatives have also helped drive up club membership over the years, from just over 5,000 in 2006 to 53,115 and counting today, with each member offered a vote in decisions concerning the club. Its membership has become so large that Union now rent the Tempodrom for their annual general meetings. 

Union building

To say the team’s ascent has been spectacular would be underselling their performances. No other team in Europe has had a comparable rise through the ranks across the past two decades. Even when the Wall was still up, Union wasn’t the biggest club in East Berlin. Now, they’re one of the only football teams from all of East Germany to have success in the Bundesliga. 

The club has managed to do this without taking any investment from petrol states, selling off the naming rights for the stadium or turning their club’s history into plaything for Hollywood superstars (yes, Ryan Reynolds, we’re looking at you.) 

In 2005, the team was playing in the fourth tier of the German league system, not reaching the top of the Bundesliga until the 2019 season. For the past three years, Union have consistently finished higher in the league than their city rivals Hertha Berlin, who play in the Olympiastadion across town, which holds around 50,000 more spectators than the Alte Försterei. The success has taken the German underdog into European competitions, pitting them against some of the biggest teams in Europe. 

This year, Union played – and beat – Amsterdam’s Ajax, one of the most successful and recognised teams in the world. “The biggest success for us is not winning, or beating teams like Ajax,” says Sweetman. “It’s the fact that we carry on existing, that’s what’s important. You look around, and there’s such a pride for us to be where we are and that we do it on our terms.” 

Scheisse, wir steigen auf! (Shit, we’re going up!)

It could be argued that the success and glory run in opposition to what the club stands for. That somehow aligning themselves with larger football bodies that have been criticised for their questionable politics and financing, and playing against teams with controversial backgrounds, would bring disrepute to Union’s moral standings.

So much so that when the team was being promoted back in 2017, a banner was unfurled reading: “Scheisse, wir steigen auf!” (Shit, we’re going up!), a quote that encapsulates the fans fears that success will somehow detract from the club’s authenticity. 

When asked if Union is betraying its values through its success, Sweetman laughs. “It’s the question I get asked the most. It’s a fear that has been projected onto us, because of the romance of this little stadium in the forest.” 

“We want to take this vision of being a community endeavour into the spotlight,” Sweetman says about Union’s foray with international success. “We’re not going to boycott these competitions just because they don’t match our values. We want to use this to show the world that we can succeed in capitalistic, patriarchal, hegemonic structures. It’s using what is there to get what is best for your club and your people.” 

The revenue that such success brings to the team is important for the club achieving its wider goals as well. The money generated by the men’s team feeds directly into professionalising and developing the women’s team, among other activities. “The women’s team will move into the professional sphere next year, and we’ve managed to bring on board [retired football star and former] European cup winner Jennifer Zietz as the director of women’s football, who has the aim of getting us to the Bundesliga within the next five years or so.” 

The team’s success is also used to benefit the wider local community as well. Earlier this year, the club teamed up with Adidas and Kreuzberg cult-fashion-brand Irie Daily to produce a one-off kit. Instead of the normal shirt sponsor on the front of the kit, the special edition was printed with ‘MellowPark’ on the front. 

“It’s a skate park just down the road that is absolutely vital for the community,” explains Sweetman. The proceeds from the sales of the shirt and limited kit will go into building a new skate park. “They’re our neighbours, and it’s the right thing to do. You see, it’s all about remembering where you came from.” 

Ethics at play

Despite reaching the top of the Bundesliga, 1. FC Union have remained true to its identity. In their first game against East German rivals RB Leipzig, a controversial outfit that was bought out by Red Bull in 2009, Union held a 15-minute silent protest at the start of the game. It’s not the first time that Union has protested RB Leipzig, either. Back in 2014, fans held a similar silent protest while dressed all in black, holding a giant banner that stated: “Football needs workers’ participation, loyalty, standing terraces, emotion, financial fair play, tradition, transparency, passion, history, independence.” 

It’s all about remembering where you came from.

Union’s integrity and strong ethics are a legacy from the club’s DDR history – though they’re admittedly amenable to the modern regime. “The club isn’t really anti-state or anti-capitalist,” explains Sweetman. “If we were, how would we have ever achieved any of the things that we have?” But the fans still revel in their use of iconography and lore from the DDR period. 

During the team’s recent European endeavours, the travelling supporters refer to themselves as the Reisekader, a term originally given to a special group in East Germany who were given permission to travel to the West. The Union roadies deck themselves with logos of old airliners and passenger ships, intentionally anachronistic references to DDR-era modes of transport. 

During the team’s game against Malmö in Sweden, the Reisekader unfurled a giant choreo – homemade canvas art that is unique to German football – of an old intercontinental aeroplane, showing that this time, the fans can and will travel. “What’s funny is that many of the fans nowadays probably weren’t even alive during that period,” jokes Sweetman of the DDR origins of these symbols and traditions. 

Developing Köpenick

It’s no coincidence that Union Berlin’s success is intrinsically tied to the growing prosperity of its home base, Köpenick. The district’s S-Bahn station is being expanded such that regional trains will be able to stop there by 2027, thus massively reducing the commute time to the rest of the city. Over the past couple of years, Köpenick has also seen some of the highest population growth in the city, the result of which can be easily seen when travelling to the Alte Försterei from the city. 

“When you come here along the forest, all you see is new apartment builds,” Sweetman says about the area’s development. “People are moving to Köpenick, and it is no longer seen as the end of the world anymore.” Köpenick’s growth is also tied to the other developments in the wider region: the (controversially functional) new airport, new university buildings and campus sites, and even the new Tesla site, all of which drive money and prosperity. “The area was seen as a backwater, but now that image is changing.” 

Soon, the Alte Försterei will add to this collective growth once work starts on an upcoming stadium expansion. “The growth is all linked together, as the hub of the city is moving away from its traditional centre,” explains Sweetman. “The city needs to exploit its space, which is something southeast Berlin has a lot of.” 

Winning Berlin over

Who doesn’t love rooting for the underdog? Photo: union-foto.de / Hupe / Eisernfoto / Schmidt

Beyond the pomp and ceremony of the grand competitions, part of the country’s captivation with football comes from romantic local tales like Union’s. It’s about the magic of the game, and the battle of an underdog. Union has managed to embody all these tropes, moving the goalposts for all underfunded, fan-built clubs around the world. 

And it’s paying off – this season the team’s on-the-pitch success has seen them defeat archrivals RB Leipzig both home and away, take points off giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund and come back to defeat Borussia Mönchengladbach in one of the most epic games of the season. It’s a level of triumph that is unprecedented in the club’s history. “We’ve never been a success,” Sweetman says. 

Even during the DDR period, Union played third-fiddle next to SV Vorwärts, the team of the state army, and BFC Dynamo, a club that was supported by the Ministry for State Security, aka the Stasi. “Not every Union fan was an enemy of the state, but every enemy of the state was a Union fan,” wrote German humour magazine Eulenspiegel in a piece about the club. “To be the number one team in Berlin is a source of enormous pride,” says Sweetman. 

The next stage in the club’s development is the planned stadium expansion, to ensure that more members of their community will be able to come and revel in their success, upping the capacity from 22,012 to 37,700. “People from all walks of life gather here, as football is a game you have to watch in a stadium,” explains Sweetman. “This is a great opportunity for us, to see us represent a greater part of Berlin, and to represent everyone who’s been here for all this time.” 

To keep up with the club, follow @1.fcunion or visit their website.