UPDATE May 27, 2019: Union Berlin just got promoted to the first division for the first time in their history!
There’s a common bad habit among football fans, and that is ignoring everything but the first division of whatever league they follow. In Germany, the second division has a lot to offer—in my opinion much more than the first one: tradition-rich teams, actual competition instead of one-club-dominance, high-attendance games, and clubs from the former East Germany. And one of the clubs that make the second division in Germany so attractive is 1. FC Union Berlin.
Köpenick is the south-easternmost borough of Berlin and home to 1. FC Union Berlin, one of the most authentic clubs in German football. A working class club from its inception, Union Berlin has won no major silverware in over 50 years bar the East German domestic cup in 1968. And still, home matches at the Stadion an der alten Försterei are usually sold out, and legions of fans travel all over to see their team—just like they have been doing since the club was founded in 1966.
Union Berlin in East Germany
Union Berlin is a product of the East German Football system. See, in the first decades of the DDR, like in other Socialist countries, Football teams represented industries or were connected to the political establishment. The so-called Betriebsportsgemeinschaften had names such as Chemie, Motor, Empor, Wismut—representing, respectively, the chemical, automotive, trade, and mining industries. Likewise, the police and the army were also represented and competed under the names Dynamo and Vorwärts, respectively. In the mid-1960s, the governing body of East German football decided to establish (and in some cases reestablished) a number of elite football clubs—which we would otherwise think of as normal clubs. Thus, in late 1965 and 1966, a number of new names made their appearance in the Oberliga: 1. FC Magdeburg, Hansa Rostock, Hallescher FC, 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig, FC Carl Zeiss Jena, FC Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz). Berlin also saw the birth of two new clubs: Berliner Fussbal Club Dynamo and 1. FC Union Berlin.
Football in the DDR fell prey to massive political manipulation. Erich Mielke, head of the infamous Stasi (the East German secret police), wanted Dynamo Berlin to be the most successful East German club, and saw to it that it became one of the top players in the league—which eventually led to Dynamo winning the East German championship 10 years in a row in the 1980s.
Union Berlin always played in the shadow of Dynamo Berlin, which was by all accounts the club of the establishment. Union gradually became the club of the anti-establishment, and its working-class fan base soon started to expand to punks, skinheads, students, and dissidents. Thus, Union Berlin became more than just a football club and came to represent rebellion—much like St. Pauli but in a climate of true oppression.
Union Berlin in the Second Bundesliga
A visit to the Alte Försterei today will show you that this spirit is still alive: You’ll see more punks walking around there than in other cities bar probably Hamburg. Countless Motorhead tshirts, Mohawks, shaved heads, you name it. These fans share the space with Ultras, Hooligans, Expats (who tend to gravitate toward Union instead of Hertha), old school East German fans, and Berlin transplants from Southern Germany.
The stadium at the Alte Försterei is a proper ground. When Union Berlin was promoted to the second division, their stadium needed to be renovated to meet the standards of the German Football Association. The club didn’t have the money to carry out the necessary work, so the fans stepped up and took care of renovating the stadium themselves. All in all, over 2000 volunteers clocked in a total of over 140,000 hours of unpaid labor to make sure that their club could start playing in the second division. Today, you will see a statue of a bear (the symbol of the city) wearing a red and white scarf and a hard hat right next to the stadium. This statue commemorates the dedication of those fans that helped out the club in their time of need. Union Berlin is thus DIY as fuck, and the club’s relationship with their fans is one of mutual respect and support. In short, Union Berlin is as Punk Rock as it gets.
What makes the Alte Försterei even cooler is that only one of its tribunes is an all-seater—the rest is all-standing. That is indeed a rarity in German football, at least in the two upper divisions, but it makes the atmosphere all the more electric. Experiencing this stadium, which has a capacity of 22,000 people and is decorated with quotes of Nick Hornby, is truly a must do for any football fans traveling to the German capital.
I myself sympathize with Union Berlin even though I am a Dynamo Dresden supporter. Some fans I met in Dresden told me that, while they don’t have a fan-friendship with Union, they like and respect them. When the Elbe rose and flooded Dresden, a number of Union fans made the two hour drive to Saxony to volunteer together with Dynamo fans and build dykes with sandbags. That’s a gesture that people haven’t forgotten.
I can’t say how many times I’ve seen Union Berlin live, but I do remember seeing them against Kaiserslautern, Sandhausen, St. Pauli, Braunschweig, and Borussia Dortmund.
Union Berlin is a cool club with a very unique culture. Union fans are loud and friendly, and going to the Alte Försterei is still an affordable experience, as tickets start at only 14 Euros. Next time you’re in Berlin, make sure you check out a match if you have the opportunity.