Few people outside of Germany had heard about Union Berlin before May 27, 2019, when the team ascended to the Bundesliga for the first time in its history. Before that, the club had been a fixture of the second division—but its support outclassed most teams in Germany regardless of the league.
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 except 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.
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 the club of the establishment. Union became the club of the anti-establishment, and its working-class fan base soon started to expand to punks, skinheads, students, and dissidents.
Union Berlin became more than just a football club and came to represent rebellion—much like St. Pauli but in a climate of actual oppression.
The DIY spirit at Union Berlin is still alive, and the club is still very close to its fanbase: 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 2,000 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.
The stadium at the Alte Försterei is a proper ground. I used to go all the time when I lived in Berlin and Union played in the second league. 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. Next time you’re in Berlin, make sure you check out a match if you have the opportunity.