Union Berlin, once an impoverished East German upstart, is now Bayern Munich’s biggest challenger

BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 23: Josip Djuranovich of 1. FC Union Berlin scores 2:1 and celebrates his goal with teammates in the second match of the UEFA Europa League play-off round between 1. FC Union Berlin and AFC Ajax on Stadion an der alten Försterei February 23, 2023 in Berlin, Germany.  (Photo by NESimages/Michael Bulder/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
FC Union Berlin players celebrate after scoring a goal in the Europa League match against Ajax on Thursday at the Stadion an der alten Försterei in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by NESimages/Michael Bulder/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

The story of Bayern Munich’s most incredible rival in the Bundesliga begins in earnest behind the Berlin Wall.

Union Berlin is now at the top of the German league, tied on points with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, and is the ultimate antidote to the rampant commercialization of football. But when it first emerged in its current form after a series of name changes in communist East Germany, it proved to be the antidote to the Stasi, the state’s secret police. Union was No a political tool, and since then its rebellious identity has been exaggerated; but he became a refuge from a boring life in an authoritarian republic and a rival to the communist party’s favorite club.

As such, he relied on local companies such as the cable factory rather than the federal government. While its rival, BFC Dynamo, won 10 titles in a row in East Germany, Union jumped between the top and bottom tiers. Then after the reunification of the country in 1990, it was promoted to the third tier regional league. For decades it remained in obscurity.

During the 1990s, when Bayern won their 12th, 13th and 14th Bundesliga titles in the West, the Union constantly flirted with financial ruin and perhaps even extinction. In 2008, he needed to refurbish his century-old stadium, simply to maintain his license and his place in the 3rd tier regional regional league and then the newly created 3rd league.

His problem, as always, was money.

Thus, he addressed the heart of the club, its heartbeat since its pre-war founding: the supporters.

Thousands of them volunteered over 100,000 hours to restore the An der Alten Försterei stadium. – literally the Stadium in the Old Forester’s House – whose stone steps were crumbling. They came every morning at 7am to save the club millions of euros in refurbishment and make up for the lack of government funding. They poured concrete and brandished shovels; they sweat during the day and are cold at night; they put off vacations and new jobs to fend off the German Football Federation’s threat to close their ramshackle but beloved home.

They refurbished it to meet standards as soon as their team was promoted to the second division. And then, a decade later, the tale really unfolded.

In 2019, Union moved up to the Bundesliga for the first time in its history. The club’s revenue that season was $58 million, about one-twelfth of Bayern’s $700 million turnover. That summer, they spent a total of $11 million on a dozen players just to survive in the top flight. He did this and then he did more. He finished seventh in the 2020/21 season and fifth last season. He qualified for the Europa League where he eliminated four-time European champions Ajax in a cauldron of rain and organic noise on Thursday.

Now he’s heading to Munich (11:30 AM ET, ESPN+) on Sunday, to the giant Allianz Arena for a fight for the top spot on the table that no one could have dreamed of.

Bayern are royalty, the German football aristocracy, holding 10 consecutive titles by an average margin of 13.6 points and 31 Bundesligas since the league was founded in the 1960s. His list over $1 billion. Its 75,000 capacity stadium is named after a multinational financial services company. His commercial power is irreversible, and his influence on German football seems unrelenting. Even Red Bull-backed RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund, backed by 150,000 players, $400 million in annual revenue and decades of victories, couldn’t break Bayern’s monopoly of success.

Then came the Union (pronounced Un-young) Berlin. They’ve been called the “German Leicester,” but their roots are much more humble, and their steady rise even more implausible.

BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 23: View of the stadium from the outside before the second UEFA Europa League play-off match between 1. FC Union Berlin and AFC Ajax at the Stadion an der alten Försterei on February 23, 2023 in Berlin, Germany.  (Photo by NESimages/Michael Bulder/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
An outside view of the Union Berlin Stadion an der alten Försterei, which fans helped renovate. (Photo by NESimages/Michael Bulder/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Working origin Union Berlin

Union traces its history back to 1906, and while its origins are complex, its core identity has survived. It started as FC Olympia Oberschöneweide, a club in the southeast of Berlin populated mainly by factory workers in the region. Many were metallurgists. The main slogan and battle cry of the Union is “Eisern Union!” (“Iron Union”) is a relic of that earlier era. As is the club’s working-class image.

However, his early success was interrupted by the war. All German football clubs were dissolved after the Allied victory in World War II. The following years of the Cold War were equally turbulent. Some members of the reformed (and permanently renamed) club went to West Berlin in the 50s. The wall was then erected in 1961.

In the following years, the East German authorities sought to reorganize football, envisioning two powers in East Berlin. ASK Vorwärts Berlin and BFC Dynamo were created and maintained by the state security forces. In 1966, 1. FC Union Berlin became a “civil club”, a relative outsider and affiliated with the national union.

It thus acquired a reputation as a dissident club full of anti-Stasi sentiment. The stories were fueled by favoritism from the government, which sent the best players to BFC Dynamo and allegedly rigged the results through threats and payments to referees. FC Union fans, who regularly clashed with fellow rival clubs and bore disproportionate blame for the riots, reportedly chanted “scheisse Stasi!” (“s*** Stasi”) and that “the wall must come down”.

These reports have been exaggerated and the reputation oversimplified, say many people associated with the Union. Of course, there were many fans who hated the communist government, but there were also many who tolerated it peacefully. What they rallied around was not an ideology; it was a football team.

Matches at the Alte Försterei brought aliveness to an existence that, for many, was somewhere between monotonous and depressing. So the Union for tens of thousands of local residents became love forever.

They remained committed throughout the 90s, even though Union was denied promotion from tier three to tier two due to its financial instability. They stuck with him even after he forged bank guarantees and struggled with debt. In 2004, when the club was in desperate need of 1.5 million euros, they launched the “Bleed for the Union” campaign, in which they donated blood and forwarded the resulting compensation to the club. In the end, his real saviors were local companies, and in particular a businessman named Dirk Singler, who has been the club’s president ever since; but fan ingenuity has become folklore.

A few years later they helped modernize the stadium, and a few years later bought it – or at least shares of 500 euros a share to help service loans related to further construction. They own both the stadium and the club in a literal and spiritual sense. In a sport filled with sheikhs and American billionaires, this green East Berlin upstart has become something of a hipster paradise.

Union head coach Urs Fischer (second from right) tries to calm the team's players and staff after the Europa League play-off football return match between 1. FC Union Berlin and Ajax Amsterdam in Berlin, Germany, Thursday.  February 23, 2023 Union Berlin beat Amsterdam 3-1.  (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
Union head coach Urs Fischer (second from right) tries to calm the players and team staff after the Europa League match against Ajax in Berlin, Germany on Thursday 23 February 2023. Union Berlin beat Ajax 3-1. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn) #

“Our love, our team, our pride, our club”

When they arrived in the Bundesliga four years ago, some Union supporters did worry that the pressure for commercialization and the need to compete in terms of money could destroy the club’s foundation. But so far there is nothing. With a capacity of 22,000, the stadium has retained its original name and family atmosphere. It still comes out of the woods, with standing terraces uncluttered with ads, and a man reaching out from a red brick in one corner to manually replace a low-tech scoreboard.

So no, he doesn’t have money like his fellow Premier League or Bundesliga rivals. His earnings clearly increased after the promotion – to $129.5 million last season compared to $77.2 million in 2020/21. — but they remain a fifth of Bayern. His payroll pales in comparison. Croatian defender Josip Juranovic’s record-breaking $9 million contract last month would not have made it into the rankings. Top 40 Bayern all-time.

He alternated with players who exceeded expectations and then received higher salaries elsewhere. And yet somehow he continues to win.

Its mastermind is a 57-year-old Swiss with glasses and a baseball cap named Urs Fischer, whose compact 3-5-2 system is at the heart of their recent success. His starting 11 players, not counting Juranovic, cost the club less than $10 million in reported transfer fees – and less than a tenth of the cost of a single player on the Bayern bench. But this tight-knit team, mostly acquired for free from companies like Sandhausen and ADO Den Haag, was determined and energetic.

Their rise to the top of the Bundesliga and the round of 16 of the Europa League was the result of discipline, ingenuity and fire. At every stage, they were met with anticipation, even the assumption that skill and style would eventually win out. Bayern’s goal difference is a whopping 40 plus compared to Union’s 11. Basic numbers like expected goals tell an equally random story. Certainlythey mutter this can’t go on.

But footballas the Germans call it, can be a fun game, especially when 11 players and tens of thousands of fans fight or sing for each other and try as one.

This is what the Union will be doing on Sunday in Munich and beyond. And whatever the result, they will still have each other; they will still have “unsere liebe, unsere mannschaft, unser stolz, unser verein”, as the fans sing, “our love, our team, our pride, our club”.


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