‘The Fans Who Literally Built Their Club’

Union Berlin are a fascinating football team. I have previously mentioned them, all too briefly, in an article about their protest against RB Leipzig a couple of years ago and I have always wanted to do a little follow-up on this remarkable club. Much like many German teams they have an incredibly strong identity and are not quiet about the things they feel passionate about. Given they are located in Berlin it is difficult to separate German history and the football and they have experienced a fair bit in their 112 year history.

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Since German reunification in 1990 they have gone through some incredibly turbulent financial matters and were previously denied (on multiple occasions) entry to 2.Bundesliga due to their monetary problems. They have been a mainstay of the second tier since 2009 but have always suffered from being in the shadow of city rivals Hertha Berlin. Union have never actually played in the Bundesliga. The two city clubs have a rich political history with Hertha belonging to the west of the city and Union the east. It has meant that Union Berlin have always struggled in comparison with their wealthy rivals who also boast one of the world’s most famous footballing arenas in the shape of the Olympic Stadium. They have however managed to avoid much of the political landscape that surrounds Berlin and they consider themselves a ‘free’ club, meaning they don’t align themselves with a particular political party or organisation.

When trying to find out what this club is all about the stadium is probably a good place to start. The story of the ‘Stadion An der Alten Försterei’ (meaning Stadium at the old forester’s house) is one of football’s truly heart warming tales. In 2008 when the old stadium was crumbling into nothingness the club decided that they wanted to rebuild the ground. They didn’t want to move or build a shiny new arena that would alienate the fans so they decide to reconstruct what was already there. Given that money has always been tight for Union it looked like that this was going to be an impossible task but then, as if by miracle, fans started to show up in their hundreds and then thousands. During the construction it was estimated that well over 2,000 Union fans helped in completing the stadium. It of course does not hold a candle to the behemoth spaceship like Olympiastadion across the city (built originally by the Nazis for the Olympic Games in 1936) but it is an incredibly traditional and fan orientated ground with open terraces and a tight atmosphere. The fact that the fans built it themselves (and it is located in a forest) makes the whole thing even more special.

The club have always tried to involve fans and, in the last few years, have organised a number of different unique fan events like their yearly Christmas Carol singing that takes place on the pitch for 90 minutes involving thousands of Union fans. They also turned the entire stadium into a ‘World Cup Living Room’ in 2014. Fans were encouraged to bring their own sofa to place on the pitch so that they could watch World Cup games in comfort on a giant screen.

World Cup 2014 - Public Screening Berlin

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In a world dominated by mega rich footballing corporations it is important to remember that clubs like Union Berlin are the reason why people watch football in the first place. They are a community based people’s club that embrace the reality of what this sport is all about.

The story of Union is incredibly rich and I can’t really do it justice within 600 odd words but if you want to watch a short film about the club then the excellent people at Copa90 have a great little documentary (that this post is named after).

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