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Shit, we’re top of the league: What’s going on with Union Berlin?

Eisern Union! It would have seemed impossible a few years ago, but FC Union Berlin are sitting on top of the Bundesliga. We spoke with Kit Holden - author of Scheisse, We're Going Up! - about Berlin's cult club.

Union Berlin: top of the league!? Photo: Kit Holden

Kit Holden is the author of Scheisse! We’re Going Up! The Unexpected Rise of Berlin’s Rebel Football Club, published last month by Duckworth Books. He also happens to be writing about the club while they are experiencing one of the most dramatically successful runs of form the club has ever known.

You can see him talk next month on October 4th, as part of Exberliner’s reading series. But we decided to catch him ahead of time, and, as he put it, to strike while the Eisern are hot.

Union are top of the Bundesliga. What’s going on? 

It’s weird! For years it’s been true that you can only win, go top of the league, or get in the Champions League if you’ve got a certain amount of money. It’s like the rules of modern football don’t apply anymore.

Obviously, we’re six games in. It’s a bit premature to start talking about the German Leicester City, but people are enjoying it. It’s been a crazy few years and we’re only reaching the point now where no one’s surprised anymore. They’ve kept on exceeding expectations left, right and centre. 

In your book, you say that for most of their history they had this reputation as a club of dissidents, the club of the civilians rather than the state, they were even known as “The Unpromotables”. When did that change? 

You can say there are three phases to Union’s history. 

At the famous stadiums like Dortmund, it’s really only one end of the stadium that’s really loud… at Union it is three, or even four

The first is the DDR times when they were the “civilians club”, and had this rivalry with BFC who were the Stasi club. Over the years, this became a bit of a legend. They were the dissident club or the rebel club, which is a little bit of a romanticisation – but that’s what you do in football: you romanticise things. And it’s true they were probably the most popular club in Berlin, even though they weren’t particularly good, at least in the 70s. They were likeable underdogs. 

And then, after the reunification, like a lot of East German clubs they really struggled to make the transition and plummeted down the rankings. There are lots of structural things which didn’t help them – to be honest they didn’t help any East German clubs – and Union spent about 15 years struggling to stay alive. That’s where the second half of the myth kicks in: the community club, the family club, where the fans came together to save it from bankruptcy, donating their own blood to build their own stadium and all the rest of it. And that period lasts for about 20 years after the Wende.   

That’s the foundation stone for the whole romance. Then, finally, you’ve got the last 10 years since they finished the stadium renovation and came up to the Second Division. In this last stage, they’re basically a very, very healthy and successful football club that’s been getting better and better and better. You’ll struggle to find a club anywhere as well run as Union have been in the last 10 years. 

You set out to write a book – in English – about what could be called Berlin’s second biggest club. Yet it feels like Union carries a special appeal for outsiders and newcomers, and English speakers. Why do you think that is?  

I think there’s two things. The stories of Union are unique. Christmas Carol singing each year, donating blood, building their own stadium. No matter whether you’re into football, those stories draw people in. But I think they’re also indicative of something which expats and newcomers look for in Berlin, something more subculture than mainstream. 

In the end, Hertha fans started firing rockets on the pitch, and some Union fans tried to rush the away block. That set the tone.

It’s like stories of a nightclub where you get in via a secret buzzer at the door, or a bar you can only go to if you’ve heard about it, it’s not on Google Maps or whatever. That’s quite a classic Berlin thing. And Union has something of that.  

Christian Arbeit, the stadium announcer and club spokesman, put it nicely. “We were like sleeping Beauty,” he said, “you had to come and find us out in the forest in Köpenick, cut your way through the bushes and kiss us awake.” It’s changing now, but for a long time they were almost an undiscovered gem.  

That’s one side of it. The other is that at least in the Anglo-Saxon world there is a kind of a fascination with East Berlin and with the DDR – and these things dovetail quite handily to create an atmosphere that is really different to a lot of other football stadiums. It gets people hooked. 

It’s quite remarkable that Union Berlin are currently – together with RB Leipzig who are a special case because they’re backed by Red Bull – the only club from the former East in the Bundesliga. I wonder if you could briefly talk about the structural problems those clubs faced, and how Union was able to overcome them? 

Well, for a long time, they didn’t. They suffered the same as everyone else. Some would argue that it was a bit of a stitch-up: there weren’t enough spaces in the reunified league structure given to the East German clubs, and they were short changed a bit when the leagues were merged. There are arguments each way, but there is certainly some truth to that. 

But the bigger picture is the same as in part of the economy after the Wende. The things you needed to make something work under East German socialism were just totally different. There you needed party connections and so on, while under capitalism you needed a different type of business acumen. And then it all happened so quickly that you’re faced with a choice: do you keep the same people who know the club, the region and all the rest of it, even though they don’t necessarily have the kind of nous to navigate the new economic system, or do you bring in totally new people from the West who don’t know the club and don’t particularly have a link to it?  

Lots of clubs tried it one way or the other and many of them ended up getting a bit ripped off. 

And then there are the stories of the scouts and sporting directors from West Germany who, straight after the Wende, went into the training grounds of all these East German clubs and started swiping up all these players like Matthias Sammer and – later – Michael Ballack.   

It’s kind of a legend in its own right – these stories again have been told and over-told – but there is some truth to it. That transition was tough and the fans remember it. There’s a funny story with Leipzig: after Union was promoted to the Bundesliga, the fans held up a sign: Nach 10 Jahren wieder, ein Ostverein in dieser Liga. After 10 years, an Eastern club in the league. 

The Union fans were saying to Leipzig: you’re not really from the East. It’s still a point of pride.  

Shit, we’re going up! Kit Holden’s book is an invaluable guide to Union history. Photo: Duckworth books

I didn’t realise that, for most of their history, Hertha and Union weren’t rivals. In fact, the fans expressed solidarity, calling them their “brothers behind barbed wire.” What’s the status of that friendship, or rivalry, today?

Under East German socialism [things] were just totally different… you needed party connections. Under capitalism you needed a different type of business acumen.

Well, it’s ambivalent. The thing is, it was easy to maintain a friendship when you’re in another country. Some Hertha fans would hold up an Union flag in the Olympiastadion, or come over to watch a game at the Försterei, but it’s not like thousands of people were doing it. For a lot of people, it was probably more about pissing off the authorities by wearing a sticker of a Western club, so it’s hard to quantify or gauge. 

I remember going to the first Bundesliga derby in 2019 after Union got promoted and people were saying: this will set the tone for the rivalry. If it’s friendly, it might be the friendship derby. If they kick lumps off each other, it’ll go that way.  

In the end, the Hertha fans started firing rockets on the pitch, and some Union fans tried to rush the away block. That set the tone. There were people on both sides who wanted a scrap. It’s become a real local rivalry.  

In the book, you profile different fans and build this kaleidoscopic view of the club, but what about your own relationship with Union? When did you decide: this is my club? 

I was talking to someone recently and he said that, for him, an important thing about the club was the experience of bringing someone along, and of being brought along yourself. It’s this feeling of “I’ve got to show you this thing” which I think goes way back to the 70s. You’re shown it, you want to show it someone else, and the cycle continues.  

And then there are just little things which make this club special: the protests where everyone wears black and stays silent for 15 minutes. Or even in the matchday programme, I remember when they played RB Leipzig and, instead of having a normal article about the opposition, they’d printed a really dry Wikipedia article about bulls: how they were kept, farmed and domesticated. They were making a joke, and it was weird and funny. I remember thinking: this is just very, very likeable.  

Also, we should mention the stadium. Even at the famous stadiums like Dortmund or whatever, it’s really only one end of the stadium that’s being really loud. The others are watching quietly. But at Union it is three, or even all four sides. That’s special. It blows you away pretty quickly.  

Ok, so Union play Wolfsburg on Sunday and, obviously, a win keeps them on top of the league. Let’s say this is the first game I’ve ever watched. Who are the three players I should look out for? Who makes the team tick? 

Ok, so you got Christopher Trimmel, who’s the right back and the captain. He’s Austrian, but he’s the longest serving player at the moment. He’s been there for 8-9 years and he is one of the only three, I think, in the squad now, who was already there on the team when they were promoted

The community club, the family club, where the fans came together to save it from bankruptcy, donating their own blood to build their own stadium.

He’s a great set piece taker, but he’s also the kind of player that still gives you hope, even if you’re 35 yourself, that maybe you could make it one day. This is a guy who likes jazz, buys art and rides a Harley-Davidson. Apparently, he’s really good at DIY. Just a friendly, nice, normal bloke. He has a tattoo parlour and when you watch him you’re like: you’re amazing, but you weren’t destined to play football. 

Number two? Sheraldo Becker is the most exciting player. An explosive winger-slash-striker who has developed in the last few years and is a classic example of that thing that we were talking about, how the [head coach] Urs Fisher and [sporting director] Oliver Ruhnert get the best out of the players. 

When he arrived, he was very talented, very quick, but you know 70% of his crosses would go into row Z. He wasn’t quite good enough for the first team and was getting a bit annoyed. Then, in the last 2-3 years, he’s developed into this absolutely outstanding player. They’ve managed to keep him for another year, which is really, really good. 

For the third one, I’m going to go for Morten Thorsby. He’s new and he’s a good example of how they manage the turnover of the squad. He plays central midfield, and he’s a tall, blonde Norwegian bloke, but he’s also got an environmental NGO that he set up. He’s a big advocate for footballers doing more for the environment. The Union fans call him the Greta Thunberg of football. 

Kit Holden’s book, Scheisse, We’re Going Up! is available from Duckworth books.