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My Berlin

Jacob Sweetman: “We’re bound together by the stadium itself”

Jacob Sweetman on how the stones of the Stadion An der Alten Försterei live and breathe devotion.

Image credit: Emily Sweetman

A few years ago, a silent protest took place across the German football leagues, a pointed gesture to prove the oft repeated adage that football without fans is nothing. For the first 20 minutes no one was to chant, to sing, to do what came most naturally to them. 1. FC Union Berlin were at home to Holstein Kiel, and the Stadion an der Alten Försterei was filled only with the noise of stifled yelps, of the intake of 22,012 breaths, of occasional comical outbreaks of exaggerated shushing.

But I’d been sick, and compounded this by not eating, by drinking Venezuelan rum… plus that joint at kick off – though I was old enough to know better. As the fans began to count down the last 20 seconds until they could break their silence, the tension rose, the atmosphere was thick, as if a storm were rising. I put my hand on the shoulder of my neighbour to try and steady myself but it was too late. As the twentieth minute was reached, and they roared as one with the volume of a jet taking off, I whited out, crumpling to my knees.

We were bound together, not only by the club we supported, but also by the stadium itself.

I was in my usual spot with my neighbours on the terrace, a motley collection of people I’d seen every other week for years. Though I barely knew their names, I knew where they were from and what positions they played when they played Sunday league football. One had asked me to write him a speech for his son’s coming-of-age celebration. Another had told me about watching the great Mäcki Lauck play when she was still young and this place was in a different country. I’ve seen them cry as I’ve hugged them with joy. I know how well and how badly they sing, how they swear, and who they despise. I know them better than people who’ve known them their whole lives.

With panicked looks, they helped me up and helped me out. I was lead outside where they fussed over me, staying by my side despite the riotous atmosphere and the game being played out behind us, despite my intense embarrassment. Despite them missing out on the thing they love more than anything else. We were, one of them said with a hand on my shoulder, family, after all. We were bound together, not only by the club we supported, but also by the stadium itself.

Nestled within the Wuhlheide forest, it’s located just a couple of tram stops in one direction from Köpenick town hall (and the statue of Wilhelm Voigt, ‘Der Hauptmann von Köpenick’, the petty criminal whose tale of using wit and gall to get by in a city that disregarded him remains the ultimate Berlin parable) and the factories of Oberschöneweide, where Union’s traditional fan base worked at the turn of the last century, and where the club in its modern incarnation was founded in 1966.

The 1.FC Union team on the balcony of the Alte Försterei in 2022. Photo: IMAGO / Contrast

They memorialise their roots at Union. There are pictures of Voigt on ultras stickers, and they still call themselves Schlosserjungs, the sons of metal workers. Many of my neighbours’ names are still written on the steel memorial commemorating their achievement in rebuilding the stadium themselves over a decade ago when everyone else had given up on Union. They had sunk the crash barriers into concrete they had mixed over the course of 14 months, in sun and rain, under the silent witness of the trees around them.

Many years ago, when I first interviewed him in the drafty, grey Portakabin that functioned as a media centre back then, Union’s head of press and stadium announcer, Christian Arbeit, joked to me about how every piece written by a writer coming to Union for the first time begins with a description of a walk through that forest. But the cliché had become just that because that walk and that forest are fundamental to the experience.

They say that the trees in Finnish forests still weep with sadness at the horrors they saw during the war against Russia. The trees of the Wuhlheide mutter of more prosaic things: of joints in the sunshine and Kümmerlings tapped against their trunks, of mutterings after losses and hard luck tales, and, more recently, of the joys of success, of goals scored against far bigger clubs, and of exhilarating, impossible sporting achievements.

The Olympiastadion’s stories belong to too many others. The Alte Försterei’s belong only to Unioner.

There were two entrances to that Portakabin, one used by the press, the other by Uwe Neuhaus, the coach. If you needed an off-the-record line, then you could try and collar Neuhaus as he stood outside his doorway puffing on a Marlboro Light. If he was in a good mood, he’d oblige you. If he wasn’t, you were best off avoiding his entrance altogether.

The last game there before the rebuild, and the panicked, last minute raising of the roof, was a party. Plastic sheeting was rolled out over the Waldseite, the end behind the goal. A runaway greenhouse effect took hold in the 30 degree heat. It was wild and drunken and full like it hadn’t been all season.

On that day, football itself took a back seat. We were mostly there to say goodbye to the old place anyway. Despite all the noise, Union remain prey to moments of sentimentality, after all. Arbeit does, too.

I sat down with him recently to talk about the place he calls home, a largely pointless gesture in Köpenick where everybody knows him, and all want to catch his eye. He smiles as he reminisces. “In the end the pitch was invaded… it was a beautiful day. They left everything open and they played quiet classical music. Everyone could just sit there for as long as they wanted.” Many were still there late into that night.

1. FC Union vs 1 FC Köln in 2022, Stadion Alte Försterei, Berlin. Photo: IMAGO / Nordphoto GmbH / Juergen Engler

It was 13 months before Union was able to move back in after rebuilding. The opening match was a friendly against Hertha BSC. The crash barriers were still being painted two hours before kick-off. Everyone who’d helped with the build wore a bright red hard hat. They were kissed and thanked, and patted on the back. Rheumy eyes twinkled in the warm evening sunlight. It was a remarkable evening. I’ve never seen a story in football that compares to what had been achieved.

The Hauptstadt clubs are poles apart. Union may currently be at their highest ever level – they have just finished an unprecedented fifth in the Bundesliga – but Hertha is traditionally the bigger club. Yet their stadium is the city’s. It can be rented, as Union did to play their European Conference league games this year. It is home to the Cup Final.

Union’s president Dirk Zingler’s master-stroke was for Union to secure the land under the Alte Försterei from what, as Arbeit says, was “a district and the city, who did nothing to keep it alive.” The Olympiastadion’s stories belong to too many others. The Alte Försterei’s belong only to Unioner.

Union have already proved that they can do anything they put their minds and their collective will to.

On match days they pour out of Köpenick S-Bahn into the old boozer, the Hauptmann, of course. A little further along, they drink outside at the Union Tanke, as smoke from the grills rises into the air. I bought my first ticket from a woman in a little box shed there 15 years ago, like she was selling tokens for the dodgems at a provincial carnival. I’d asked if it was sold out. “We haven’t sold out a game in years,” came the reply. She hasn’t been seen in her box selling tickets now for years. There are none left to sell.

So they plan to rebuild again, to allow more than 35,000 people into the Alte Försterei, with the largest standing section in all of German football. It is typically ambitious, but the plans have stalled. Bureaucracy has clashed against what Arbeit calls the sense of fantasy and self-belief needed to change their world again. But when I ask if it will ever happen, he responds incredulously, as if failure is inconceivable. “Sometimes I wonder, if there was no stadium at all there, and we suggested, say, building one for 22,012 people – I guess the authorities would say it’s impossible. So in our minds, there’s no problem with getting 37,000 people in there. We just have to prove it.” He finishes the sentence, though with a certainty familiar to anyone who has ever heard him speak about his club, their club.

Because Union have already proved that they can do just about anything they put their minds and their collective will to. It’s what keeps me there still after all these years, standing with my collection of neighbours on the terrace that they built, most of whose names I can say I now know, and who joyously continue to take the piss out of me for being a pathetic Englishman who can’t hold his booze. “The new stadium,“ says Arbeit. “It will come.”

Jacob Sweetman has lived in Berlin since 2007, having escaped England. He co-founded No Dice Magazine, has written for 11freunde, WSC, Wisden and many other outlets. He is the author of the acclaimed Dilshan: The Man Behind the Scoop and writes about 1.FC Union for Textilvergehen and anyone else who asks nicely enough. He has just finished a series of portraits of Berliners affected by the war in Ukraine for Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, and has started writing a book about cricket in Germany. He can still be seen on the Waldseite every other weekend.