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Men’s football Union Berlin handling Covid-19 like they did Bundesliga season, with collective effort

JAMES NALTON looks at the way the club has helped not only the local community but teams in the fifth-tier in testing times

THE German Bundesliga could be the first of Europe’s “big five” leagues to attempt to finish the 2019/20 season.

Before play was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, Germany’s top division was in the midst of a title race with a number of clubs in contention for Champions League places. 

Bayern Munich top the table by four points, but even though the defending champions have won the previous six league titles, they weren’t having it all their own way, with multiple challengers looking to end their dominance.

Further down the table, in their first season in the Bundesliga, Union Berlin were expected to drop straight back into the second division, but their mid-table position proves that their way of doing things can produce results on the pitch as well as maintaining the strongest of links with the supporters off it.

The side from the town of Kopenick, once part of East Berlin, are one of only a handful of clubs who remain entirely member-owned. 

They haven’t utilised the 50+1 rule which allows German clubs to receive outside investment up to a total of 49 per cent of shares. This rule ensures that supporters or members remain in control of the club at board level thanks to that important extra 1 per cent, but it has also led to the increased commercialisation of clubs across the league as they use the 49 per cent in an attempt to keep up with heavily bankrolled teams from other countries.

A glance at the names of the stadiums in the German top-flight is one example of this. Only two do not contain the name of a sponsor. One of those belongs to Union Berlin’s city rivals Hertha, who play at the federal-government-owned Olympiastadion, meaning that Union’s Stadion An der Alten Forsterei is the only club-owned stadium with no sponsorship.

There will be pressure to change this in order to retain their top-flight status for years to come, as has been the case at some other member-owned clubs in the league, but at least it will be the members who make such decisions, rather than have it forced upon them.

This method of ownership has meant that the bond between the club and the supporters has been an easy one to maintain and has remained harmonious during the coronavirus crisis.

Union were one of the first clubs whose players voluntarily waived their salaries, and one of the first to begin working with supporters during the lockdown. Their Warten auf Union (waiting for Union) initiative produced a schedule of activities for fans to take part in from home each day.

These included yoga, fitness tips, painting and activities for children including colouring-in patterns which could be printed from the club’s website. Virtual stadium tours were broadcast via the club’s official channels, along with documentaries on the history of the club.

And it wasn’t just a one-way street. Fans were eager to contribute in the other direction, with supporters’ groups refusing to take up the option for refunds on tickets for games yet to be played. Donations could also be made to the club online in the form of the price of a drink, a beer, a hot dog or a steak, as fans enjoyed their own snacks and refreshments at home.

“In light of the difficult situation, from which our beloved FC Union Berlin are not spared (short-term work for many employees is already a tangible consequence), the registered Union clubs (EUFC) have decided to waive any refund claims against the club from tickets we have purchased,” read a statement from the supporters.

“We will also not demand refunds on individual tickets we have bought. 

“We — the Union fans — have emerged stronger from every crisis in the past. When we had to, we have bled for Union. When nobody would help us anymore, we built our own stadium with our own hands. 

“Each time, our large family has grown a little bit closer together. Let’s together minimise the effects of the coronavirus! Become part of another new Union story for the red-and-white history books!”

Germany is beginning to come out of the other side of this crisis, and shops in Berlin have been able to re-open since April 22. The Union Berlin club shop has been opening for four hours each day, but has taken precautions to protect staff and customers.

Last week, Union staff, sponsors and volunteers used the re-opened club shop as a centre to prepare deliveries of groceries and household items, as well as the occasional piece of Union Berlin memorabilia thrown in for good measure.

These were then taken to various social institutions in the Kopenick area, along with some of the 500 or so home-made masks which had been produced during this time.

The team themselves have been back in some form of training since the start of April, beginning with sessions in small groups at the Alte Forsterei.

Union are also hosting a virtual fixture to help fifth-tier side FSV 63 Luckenwalde, with whom the club has developed a relationship over the years. Donations can be made by purchasing virtual tickets or virtual refreshments.

“FSV 63 Luckenwalde has been a reliable and constructive partner of our youth and amateur department for years,” said Union Berlin’s youth football director, Lutz Munack.

“We gladly accepted the invitation to a virtual game. Hopefully, this action will help FSV a great deal economically.”

There are rumblings that the Bundesliga could return as early as this month, but this brings its own issues.

Some fan groups across Germany have suggested that the resumption of the season in the form of games behind closed doors cannot be justified given the current situation.

They have also taken the opportunity to raise the issues of football’s apparent unsustainability despite the millions of pounds flowing into the game, and the over-reliance on TV money for survival.

At the moment, fan-owned clubs seem best-equipped to deal with such a crisis. There is an element of trust which means actions can be taken quickly and to the benefit of everyone involved, and not just so a billionaire owner can save a few pennies.

This leads to the preservation of institutions that help keep the community together, support the most vulnerable in that community, and work together towards similar goals with a similar mindset.

In a sporting sense, the prediction for Union Berlin ahead of this season was a struggle to remain in the top flight, but if it has been a struggle, it is one they have overcome.

Whether they remain in the Bundesliga or not in the future, the club will remain thanks to the way it is owned and run. The coronavirus is just the latest obstacle they have been able to overcome thanks to an equal collective effort.

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