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Jacob Sweetman: Through the past darkly

A turbulent week for 1.FC Union has, in many ways, been incredibly instructive. About the past and the present. About the scars of Berlins history, and the perceptions of the people in the East and the West that still go on today.

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To say that it has been an interesting week at the Alte Försterei would be like saying that Stevie Wonder played a bit of piano on the side. In normal times the news that goalkeeper Marcel Höttecke had had the most expensive piss since Ben Johnson was handed a freshly unwrapped test tube, would have been massive. But this pales in significance compared to the headlines last Monday trumpeting that the 1.FC Union chairman, Dirk Zingler, had been in a regiment of the army that was under the command of the Stasi. This is my perception of the events which are rocking the club.

A couple of years ago the club tore up a lucrative sponsorship deal with a partner called ISP that had previously been heralded as a sign of the new future that Union were forging. But it turned out that ISP’s boss was a former Stasi operative. This was impossible for the club. Zingler (instrumental in the rise back up from the pits of the Oberliga to the 2nd division) came out and said that no matter how much money was lost, that Union could never have dealings with a man who represented the clubs ideological enemy.

That Eisern fans were always critical of the state is incontrovertible. That they were the freedom fighters that they now remember themselves as is possibly slightly less so. As a fan remembers it in the definitive book on the club “Eisern Union“. “The chief editor of the Eulenspiegel once said “Not every Union fan is an enemy of the state, but every enemy of the state is a Union fan“. Ergo, a fair number of those who continued to pour through the forest to the rickety stadium were just going about their daily business in an enigmatic and brutal state, and trying to make the best of what they had at the time. Though they chanted “The wall must go” they weren’t necessarily all radicals.

But to this day many of the fans define themselves through this history, and for them the DDR times are still a huge part of their identity for good or ill. If Dynamo were Stasi, so Union must remain the opposite.  So for President Zingler to be “outed“ by a newspaper would make a mockery of everything that the club stood for and still stands for today.

But naturally things are never black and white in this corner of the wild East. Zingler had informed those who voted him in as chairman at the time, and the gripe is whether the fans should have been more aware. But (and this is closer to the main point) he was an 18 year old boy, and military service was necessary if one wanted to continue ones studies at the time.

The club‘s and fans’ wagons circled around the President immediately. This was no longer about  an implied link to a reviled former state, but it was about which choices a young man really had in those days. It was about how people got by at the time, and how we all perceive those choices over 20 years later in a different country.

The forums have made fascinating reading for days and days now. Recurringly common stories about life in the DDR have flooded onto the pages, and are not necessarily all in support of the President (though the clear majority are). The most common perception is the one perpetuated by the club itself too. That this is nothing more than old tattle, perpetuated by journalists who never even lived in the country in question. How could they understand what was going through the mind of a young man as he made a decision that would affect both his and his families lives at a time when the toppling of the wall was simply inconceivable?

Maybe the whole thing could have been handled better, but a siege mentality has now developed at Union. The fans are staying behind Zingler and the club, because this is precisely what they always have done.

They don’t usually like politics at the Alte Försterei. Ones prides and prejudices are mostly left at the door, which is something I don‘t necessarily understand, but I have equally never witnessed political interference in the game (or, indeed, in life) on a scale even comparable to East Germany. For this same reason I can’t say who is right and who is wrong. I simply don‘t know, but am loathe to condemn a man for making a choice that I have never had to make, a long time ago. The main problem is that he made a rod for his own back with the ISP affair.

Saturday was the first home game of the season for 1.FC Union, against Greuther Fürth, and at last it was supposed to only be about the football again, but it was hard to avoid the feeling that events had overtaken matters. However the reaction of the 14,000 strong crowd at the end of the game was undeniably impressive. As always they stayed, almost to a man, until the team had been applauded around the ground. That they had been mauled 4-0 mattered little. It is what they always have done, in good times and bad.

 The visiting manager Mike Buskens was compelled to make a final statement after the usual press conference banalities were over. He talked, unprompted, about how proud the club should be of their fans, and the fans should be of themselves. He was humbled that they could still support their team this way, through thick and thin, through all the shit of the past and all the shit of the present.