Bundesliga Return: Union Berlin - The Outsider’s Club Who Literally Bleed for the Fans

Union Berlin

All football clubs are special but some are more special than others. After suffering relegation to the third tier of German football, the then Regionalliga Nord, FC Union Berlin were in serious danger of going out of business.

The DFB (German FA) required a deposit of €1.5m for participation in the upcoming 2004/05 season and the club formed in the shadow of the Berlin Wall for the workers of Berlin, known since 1966 as 1. FC Union Berlin, was facing bankruptcy.

In response, Union’s fans devised a campaign that has come to epitomise the strength of the connection between them and their team, as well as demonstrating their now-famous sense of innovation. The ‘Bleed for Union’ campaign saw fans donating their blood (donors receive payment in Germany) before forwarding the reimbursement towards helping save Die Eisernen (The Iron Ones).

Now, the club are 11th in the Bundesliga and they should be the team any outsider should follow if you're after a German team to choose.

Bleeding for the Club

It is easy to see why such a story - supporters literally bleeding for their club - has become such a popular reference point for what it means to be a Unioner, yet without the arrival of current President Dirk Zigler in the same summer, it is likely their stirring efforts would have been in vain.

Zingler’s arrival in 2004 can essentially be considered the starting point for Union’s rise from not only the shadow of the Berlin Wall, but also its status as a perennial underdog. A Union fan and local businessman, Zingler is that rarest of things in modern-day football - a chairman beloved by his team’s fans, who are able to look at him and see an image of themselves reflected back.

In 2008, with the club’s home, the Stadion An Der Alten Försterei (Old Forester’s House), urgently requiring a new stand, Zingler spent 12 hours a day on the ground alongside the volunteer workforce (drawn from 2500 Union fans) to help build it. He also speaks like a fan.

Earlier this season, following a request by fellow Berlin club, Hertha BSC, to mark the city’s first ever Bundesliga derby by arranging the fixture for November 9th - the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall - Zingler responded, “I don’t understand the request, for me it is a derby. It stands for rivalry, for division; it stands for football-based, class-conflict in the city”.

His tenure has been no Leipzigian tale of manufactured success, however. Rather, it is a story that contains elements that would resonate with any fan for whom obscurity is the norm and success a fleeting bedfellow. Indeed, within 12 months of Zingler becoming president, Union would suffer a second successive relegation and the indignity of playing semi-professional opposition. It would be another three years before they would again play in the German second tier, the 2. Bundesliga, with promotion followed by seven successive seasons of thrill-free mid-table finishes, never placing lower than 12th or higher than 6th, a run remarkable for its consistency if nothing else

The Iron Ones and their peculiar history

Yet for Unioners, football has never been about glory and it is difficult to see how it ever could have been so, considering their history. Their team is one that was established at a time when East German football was heavily politicised and of questionable integrity. Union - the worker’s team - was forced to watch on as bitter rivals, the Stasi-led BFC Dynamo and state-backed Dynamo Dresden, would share fifteen straight titles between 1975 and German reunification in 1990.

Clubs such as Union Berlin were effectively feeder clubs for those connected with the government of the German Democratic Republic, while also being forced to endure referees who were all too happy to provide favourable decisions for those teams representing the state or its appendages.

It is no surprise that in the face of such injustice, the club’s identity grew to encompass layers that were entirely independent of the team’s performance on the pitch. Union became a team, though not defined by an anti-communist stance, that symbolised to many: rebellion, dissidence and disaffection with and against the status quo. If you were a punk, skinhead, student or outsider in East Berlin before 1990 - you were a Union Berlin fan: or, as German satirical magazine Eulenspiegel would describe the dynamic, ‘Not every Union fan was an enemy of the state, but every enemy of the state was a Union fan’.

The Iron Ones were a genuine cult football club before the internet and a globalised world devalued the term by offering up a new one on almost a monthly basis.

Doing it their way, and their way only

It is a club that has managed to combine a punk aesthetic with family values. The club anthem, Eisern Union, was composed by German punk legend Nina Hagen and is sung before every game in a stadium that remains majority terraced. Since 2003, it has been a Christmas tradition for the same stadium to be full, not to watch football, but to sing Christmas carols for 90 minutes.

Every aspect of the club places its supporters at the centre in a way that, even amongst a league that mandates supporter participation in club ownership via the 50+1 rule, stands out with the regard in which it holds its members.

Indeed, in 2012, Union were the only club who refused to agree to a DFB initiative seeking to make association-wide changes to the matchday experience, without first obtaining the complicit agreement of its supporters. It is an anti-authority disposition that has survived even as they have reached the pinnacle of German football, with their most recent home fixture in March featuring protests at what they perceive as favourable treatment from the DFB towards billionaire Hoffenheim investor, Dietmar Hopp. Protests that would prompt the referee to twice stop play.

With such a seductive off-field history, it would be easy to forget that the East Berlin club do very much play football and in fact, have defied doubt after expectation after doubt in their historic first season in the Bundesliga.

A solid debut Bundesliga season

Currently 11th, eight points clear of the relegation zone, they find themselves in a mid-table position that represents excitement at new heights being reached, rather than the monotony of mediocrity it may have before. It is certainly a level of comfort that did not seem plausible following a start to the season in which they lost 6 of their first 7 games. Union would win their eighth, 2-0 against SC Freiburg, and have not returned to the relegation zone since, instead steadily climbing the table under two-time Swiss Superliga winner Urs Fischer, who was appointed as manager of the club at the beginning of last season’s promotion campaign.

Following Union’s difficult start, Fischer switched to a back three featuring former-Dortmund centre-back Neven Subotić and has retained the system with Union’s results improving. Going forward, the set-piece delivery of right-sided midfielder Christian Trimmel has proven a rich source of goals for Swedish striker Sebastian Andersson, with Trimmel recording the most set-piece assists in Europe’s top 5 leagues this season - ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold - while Andersson is the third most prolific scorer from set-pieces with 7 of his 11 Bundesliga goals coming from a dead-ball. It is a combination that gives Union an outsider chance of qualifying for Europe, with them currently standing 7 points behind sixth-placed Schalke.

Berlin has long been an anomaly amongst major European cities for its failure to possess a team that has reached a European final, or even win the national league title. It may still be some time before this can no longer be said. Yet with Union's rise, they now at least have a top-flight derby and a club telling a unique tale that looks likely to continue reaching the minds of more and more football fans in the near future.

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