I take a walk down my street, situated in the east Berlin neighbourhood of Friedrichshain when I hear the words “spiel tag” bellowed out at the top of a gentleman’s lungs as he enters Halfords (not that one) Rock Cafe adorning the red and white that has become synonymous with this part of Berlin.
It is indeed “match day” for this gentleman and the many other buoyant Union Berlin fans gathering at the bar eagerly anticipating their away clash with FC Köln as this is unchartered territory for this previously unfancied club who start the day fourth in the Bundesliga.
An own goal, missed penalty, disallowed goal and red card later, an impressive Union Berlin run out 1-0 winners and with other results going their way, have achieved the impossible. Union Berlin is top of the Bundesliga for the first time in their history. David is dining with Goliath.
It hasn’t always been like this. Based in the leafy, working-class suburb of Köpenick, Union Berlin has a truly unique history and is one of the modern days great underdog stories.
Due to a series of dissolutions and reformations in the wake of WWII, the club in its current iteration began in 1966 when Herbert Warnke, a trade union federation leader, proposed a club was created for the workers of Berlin.
Very little on-field success came Union’s way as they competed in the East German Oberliga over the next 24 years, winning just one East German Cup in 1968, whilst just up the road in the east Berlin suburb of Lichtenberg, rivals Dynamo Berlin had found a much more powerful ally and enjoyed greater on-field success. Dynamo was the team of the Stasi and its club president was the ruthless head of the secret police, Erich Mielke. This unsurprisingly led to Dynamo’s dominance which saw them win ten consecutive Oberliga titles between 1979 and 1988, forcefully taking players from their Oberliga rivals in the process.
As Dynamo continued to oppress and sink its claws further into the east German footballing landscape, Union grew into the role of the anti-establishment as students, skinheads, punks and dissidents unified to create a loyal fanbase, using Union games to voice their anger at the state from the safety of the terraces. Despite the relative woes on the pitch, the stadium rocked and the fans were in good voice as chants such as “the wall must go” and “I’d rather be a loser than a Stasi pig” rang around the ground.
After the wall came down the results on the pitch were finally on an upward curve but Union would face more concerning matters. Financial trouble and the threat of extinction loomed large and despite topping the Regionalliga in 1993 and 94, they couldn’t afford to enter Bundesliga 2. Eventually, in 2001, they managed to gain promotion from the Regionalliga and into Germany’s second tier for the first time. Despite two top-half finishes, they were relegated back to the Regionalliga in 2004 and unfortunately the financial woes were also to return.
Club member and lifelong Union fan Dirk Zingler stepped in to become the new club president (a position he continues to hold) and inherited the club’s dire financial situation. One of his first obstacles was the €1.46 million league registration demanded from the German FA, money Union simply didn’t have. The fans were not content with watching their beloved club fade away and decided to step in, setting up the campaign ‘Bleed for Union’. In Germany, blood donors are financially compensated so fans turned up in their droves to donate blood and give their club the life-saving treatment it needed. The fans literally keeping the club alive, a perfect metaphor.
Unfortunately, on-pitch trouble returned and they were relegated to the fourth tier, a semi-professional division in Germany. Zingler made the bold call to keep the professional squad together, something they could only afford to do for a solitary season. The gamble paid off and they bounced straight back to the third tier, thrashing the old enemy Dynamo 8-0 en route, a landmark day for Union fans. The following season, in 2008, they stayed up on goal difference and for the second time in four years, the fans stepped in to help the cash-strapped club.
Nestled within the Wuhlheide forest, the Stadion An der Alten Försterei has been Union’s home since 1920. The picturesque setting makes it one of the best pre-match stadium walks going as you traverse through dense woodland only to see the red structure emerge seemingly out of nowhere. But it was a very different picture when they survived relegation in 2008 as the crumbling terraces were in desperate need of rejuvenation but the club simply didn’t have the funds to rectify it. The fans contributed a total of around 140,000 hours of their time as volunteers poured concrete, painted stands, shovelled dirt and laid grass until they had a home to be proud of.
They were immediately rewarded as the club were greeted with another promotion in 2009 and back to Bundesliga 2. As they looked to solidify their place in the division, their first seven seasons back failed to yield a top-five finish until a promotion push in the 2016-17 season. Fans had to come to terms with this relative new-found success and the chant “Scheisse, we’re going up” could be heard from the 22,000-strong crowd. Ultimately they fell just short but this was the start of what would be an unprecedented period for the club.
In the summer of 2018 Union turned their attention to unassuming Swiss manager Urs Fischer. The former defender had been out of work since the previous summer when his contract wasn’t renewed by the new management at FC Basel despite winning back-to-back titles in his two seasons at the club, a title they haven’t won since Fischer’s departure in 2017. Fischer had caught the eye of FC Basel after guiding unfancied Swiss side FC Thun to the Europa League, a template he would later go on to replicate with Union.
Fischer looked to turn Union into a side that was unpleasant to play against and difficult to beat with willing runners and a properly organised structure. He did just that with Union’s first defeat of the season coming in their eighteenth game, however drawing ten of those matches meant there was still a lot to do if they were to realise their dream and gain promotion to the top tier. Two wins from their final nine games meant they had finished third and missed out on automatic promotion. All was not lost however as they still had the slim hope of promotion through the promotion / relegation playoff against five-time Bundesliga champions VfB Stuttgart – a match-up normally favoured by the Bundesliga side due to their superior wealth and more experienced squads.
Every bar in Berlin was packed to the rafters for the biggest game in Union’s history. A 2-2 away goal victory saw them over the line and they had done it. Union would now be mixing it with the big boys and the first side from the old East Berlin to play in Germany’s premier division.
Union initially struggled to adapt to the step up in quality accruing just four points from their first seven games in the unfamiliar Bundesliga which caused a switch in formation. Fischer, normally an exponent of a back-four, switched it up to a 3-4-3 with the ball and saw an immediate up-tick in form. Five wins in their next seven saw Union pull clear of the relegation places and would finish the season ensconced in mid-table with an impressive eleventh-placed finish, gaining plenty of admirers along the way.
Union would go on to lose top-scorer Sebastian Andersson that summer, whose 12 goals helped Union avoid the drop, to FC Köln for a club record €6.5 million. It was money they chose not to reinvest in the playing squad, instead choosing to bring in maverick Max Kruse on a free transfer and Taiwo Awoniyi and Joel Pohjanpalo on loan to replace Andersson’s goals. It proved to be a masterstroke as Union went into the final game of the season at home to RB Leipzig knowing that a win would see them qualify for the Europa Conference League. The game didn’t exactly go to plan as they headed into injury time with the scores level at 1-1 but a last-minute Kruse header secured the three points, Kruse writing himself into Union folklore in the process. Cue pandemonium.
Union decided to let midfielder Robert Andrich leave in the 2021 summer, receiving a €6.5 million fee from Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, making a decent profit on the player they signed two years prior. They would also let defender Marvin Friedrich head west to Borussia Mönchengladbach for €5.5 million in the January transfer window.
Union is currently operating with the third smallest budget in the Bundesliga so raising funds is always important before future outlays, all overseen by impressive sporting director Oliver Ruhnert. Union would go on to make Liverpool’s Awoniyi loan permanent with a club record €8.5 million after an impressive debut season.
A decent start to the 2021/22 Bundesliga season had fans believing again before their attention turned to their European adventure. Union held their own in a group consisting of eventual finalists Feyenoord, unfortunately finishing up in third place, one point behind second-placed Slavia Prague who advanced to the next round.
A mid-season dip in form meant their chances of returning to European competition hung in the balance but 16 points from a possible 18 meant they would again go into the final day of the season with everything on the line. Two goals from marksman Awoniyi, taking his league tally for the season to 15, saw them overcome Bochum 3-2 and finish the season in fifth, one point behind RB Leipzig in the Champions League places. Next season Union would be mixing it with Manchester United, Arsenal and Roma in the Europa League, only four years on from a gruelling Bundesliga 2 season.
This European campaign would also be the most significant and carry with it an element of romance. It would be the fourth time Union have qualified for Europe but the first on their own terms. When they won the East German Cup in 1968, Europe beckoned but with the Soviets moving into Czechoslovakia, a ban on all Eastern Bloc football clubs from competing in European competition was enforced. When Union qualified for Europe through a Regionalliga cup final appearance, the date was 11 September 2001 and the world’s focus was elsewhere.
Last season’s Europa League campaign would have to be played in the vacuous Olympiastadion, home to cross-town rivals Hertha Berlin, due to the Alten Försterei only boasting 3500 seats from their 22,000 capacity. The campaign would also be played in the backdrop of Covid with regulations still in place whilst attending football matches, all far from ideal. But when news came through that Uefa would be trialling safe standing for the 2022/23 season, Union could finally host European football in the place they partially built and call home. Incidentally, it was Union fans that were at the forefront of talks with Uefa over the rule change, the chance to earn more from gate receipts in the 75,000-seater Olympiastadion was never a factor for the Union management. “For us, it’s about the people in the ground,” press officer and stadium announcer Christian Arbeit explained to Kit Holden in “Scheisse! We’re Going Up!”, a heart-warming book on the soul of Union.
And so back to this incredible start to the 2022/23 season. Manager Urs Fischer still remains realistic stating the season’s goal is still to avoid relegation but five wins and two draws from their opening seven fixtures may cause him to re-evaluate as they sit at the summit of Germany’s premier football competition. A 1-1 draw with global heavyweight Bayern Munich garnered a response from veteran forward Thomas Muller that Union had “delivered exactly the kind of stuff that makes them so good and has won them much respect throughout the league — including from me. I’m a fan of Union.”.
Sheraldo Becker, a free transfer in the summer of 2019, sits atop the scorer’s chart with six goals and three assists from his seven starts. A contribution even more vital when you consider Awoniyi’s €20 million transfer to Premier League outfit Nottingham Forest could have had the more pessimistic fan wondering where the goals would come from.
Ranking third bottom for xG this season, accruing an xG of 5.9 for the 15 goals scored, may suggest this early success is unsustainable. They rank second best for xGA however, something that has become typical of a Urs Fischer side, meaning they should continue to pick up points and trouble the far superior, better-resourced sides.
These are unprecedented times for Union Berlin who is achieving success on and off the pitch. After years of hardship, they are performing beyond anyone’s wildest expectations as they go into the international break as league leaders. It will require a monumental effort to sustain this early season form but, whisper it quietly, Union Berlin hosting Champions League football next season anyone? Bet against this side at your peril.