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Men's Football How blood, sweat and solidarity helped guide Union Berlin to the Bundesliga

IN THE final moments of the 2018-19 season, Union Berlin became the first second division side since 2012 to triumph in the Bundesliga’s promotion/relegation play-off.

The win over two legs against Stuttgart saw Union, the club from east Berlin, promoted to the Bundesliga for the first time in their history.

Fans streamed onto the pitch, letting off fireworks and lighting flares as they did, in a scene unmatched across the footballing world. These type of celebrations might be viewed as troublesome or unruly by the authorities in Britain, but not in Germany.

The commentators on the British broadcast of the game, Tim Caple and Efan Ekoku, understood the significance of this moment.

“They’re on to celebrate, there will be nothing but good natured celebrations here,” observed Caple.

“They’re doing their best now to try to stem the tidal flow of fans…” 

Ekoku interjected: “Why should they? There’s no need.”

Manager Urs Fischer embraced his coaching staff before joining the fans and players on the pitch, united as one. All had played their part in Union’s rise to the top.

The fans themselves have steered the club through financial crises on numerous occasions, campaigning to save the club in the late ’90s by making potential donors aware of the club and what it stands for.

In 2004 supporters gave blood — something which is financially rewarded in Germany — and sent the money they received to the club, who at that time were struggling to afford a licence to play in the fourth tier of German football.

Then, when Union’s Stadion An der Alten Forsterei required renovation in 2008, thousands of supporters turned up to help on the site, saving the club millions of euros.

This bond between fans and club was evident on the opening day of this season, and it was apt that RB Leipzig were the opponents.

The club, also from east Germany, are owned, sponsored, and run by the energy drinks company, Red Bull GmbH. Union fans protested against this corporate presence, and it’s not the first time they have done so.

When the pair met in the 2 Bundesliga in 2014 as RB Leipzig, formed in 2009, were working their way up the divisions, Union fans made their feelings known, and they didn’t hold back.

“Today’s opponent embodies everything that we at Union don’t want from football,” read a leaflet handed out at that game.

“A marketing product pushed by financial interests, players with euro signs in their eyes supported by brainwashed consumers in the stands who have never heard anything of fan ownership.”

“Football culture is dying in Leipzig — Union is alive.”

Now in the top flight, the message from Union fans was more visible.

“After 10 years an eastern club is in this league again,” read one banner, as fans refused to acknowledge RB Leipzig’s existence, suggesting that Energie Cottbus, relegated in 2009, were the last side from east Germany to play in the Bundesliga.

Daniel Rossbach, who is part of the Textilvergehen fansite and podcast, explained further.

“Leipzig — we try not to do their marketing for them by calling them by their ‘name’ — are seen as the antithesis to much of what Union stands for,” he told the Morning Star.

“The key points are a football experience that arises from and serves the community, rather than utilising it for commercial purposes.

“Union is not anti-commercial — it has sponsorship deals etc — but it tries to keep what happens at the stadium as focused on the rituals and actions of supporters as possible, without commercial activities hijacking that. Which is impossible with Leipzig there.”

Like most clubs in Germany, Union Berlin is majority owned by its supporters, but RB Leipzig aren’t. Red Bull have managed to work their way around this ownership structure to gain as much control of the club as they can.

“The way Leipzig was founded and works is the opposite of an autonomous organisational structure in which the community, ie members of clubs, have a say in how their football club behaves,” adds Rossbach.

“This is a fundamental tenet of what Union is about.”

Union have waited a long time to take their place in Germany’s top flight, and many fans who have supported them during their earlier struggles are no longer with us.

To recognise the contributions of those who have passed, fans paid the price of a ticket for the club to produce large pictures of their friends and family, which were displayed before kick-off ahead of their Bundesliga debut.

The Alte Forsterei holds 22,012 fans, but the official attendance at this fixture was recorded as 22,467, counting the deceased as if they were present.

It was a touching moment typical of the club and moments such as this will be evident throughout the season, not least when they play west Berlin side Hertha at the Alte Forsterei in November.

Cross-city rivalry is potentially bigger in Berlin than in other cities, but Union would rather not dwell on old divisions. They faced as many problems as an East German side in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as they have in a unified Germany but, nevertheless, East Germany remains part of their history.

Though the club can be traced back to 1906, the current version was formed in the GDR in 1966, and there lie its roots.

“This is something that belongs to the club’s identity,” says Rossbach. 

“As long as there is a clear social and economic divide in the country, and also in football, these will remain active.

“But none of that means that being east German is central to Union’s identity, and it’s especially not meant to exclude people who haven’t experienced German partition, or have done so from the Western side.”

The issue of money and commercialisation increases as a club rises up the divisions. 

This is as true in Germany as anywhere else, and those with an ethos like Union’s have to find a balance between remaining competitive, fighting to stay at the top of the game with the money required to do so, and also staying true to their roots.

“We are expecting the Bundesliga to be a daunting environment for keeping Union close to its values,” Rossbach adds.

“These values are tested constantly as long as the club wants to be a professional football club, that is, a successful professional football club.

“An example of the challenges that come with that is the sponsorship deal with Aroundtown, a real estate management company, while there is a housing crisis in Berlin that is one of the main defining social-political issues in the city.

“But the way football at Union works and is conducted, at least in the confines of the match experience, seems to stay true to itself.”

Union is a club which isn’t defined by any political stance, in the way a club such as St Pauli are, but a number of political messages are sent out by the fans each week. Their attitude towards Leipzig is an example of this, as is their vociferous opposition to nazism, fascism, homophobia and sexism.

Their actions and words also mark them out as a club which is trying to avoid being drawn into the capitalist bubble and the alienation of supporters and loss of original club values which often comes with that.

Union may struggle to remain in the Bundesliga this season, and lost 4-0 to Leipzig in their opening game, but that they’ve made it this far shows how strong a club built and run by its supporters can be.

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