From rags to riches, the fortune in football has often turned its tides in favour of several clubs and national sides in football history. The success of Greece in Euro 2004, Leicester City winning the premier league in 2016, Nottingham Forest’s league win in 1978 are some of the notable examples of exceptional stories in world football. Every season, we witness such success stories from all across the world. Now, as we pen this article, such a similar story is taking shape in the German capital of Berlin, the city which had witnessed a rich and turbulent history. Now with the story of Union Berlin, the proud capital is once again in the spotlight of world football.
Fußballclub Union Berlin e.V or FC Union Berlin is a club that has impressed everyone with their stellar performances this season. With 39 points from 29 matches, the club is currently placed 7th in the table, with an eye set for European football for next season. Since getting promoted in 2019, the club has produced some incredible results. They even upset Borussia Dortmund in their first home match of the 2019/20 season.
With a lesser budget and many not so well known players, the club still finished 11th in their maiden season in the Bundesliga. Their rise to top-flight football is also quite similar to the story of Leeds United in the English Premier League. But a comparison between the two teams is less futile considering the political implications and cultural history of the club and the city it represents.
Union Berlin is also the first club from East Berlin to be a part of the Bundesliga in its modern era. Despite being a club from the capital city, Union were never wealthy enough to be called a top-flight club until very recently. Meantime, their rival Hertha BSC has placed Berlin on the football map of Germany. However, both these clubs have failed to create a powerful identity or spirit in Berlin similar to that of several of the Bavarian football clubs in Germany. Unlike London, Paris or Madrid, the city of Berlin always failed to be considered alongside other footballing capitals.
Berlin also played a crucial role in creating the German footballing body or DFK. 24 members of the 86 founding fathers of the DFB were from the city. Despite these accomplishments, Berlin always lacked the presence of a club that could compete in the top tier of German football.
RISE & FALL
The emergence of Union Berlin can be traced back to 1906 when Union’s earliest form FC Olympia Oberschöneweide was born in Berlin. They were three clubs that merged to form a new club. A few years later, they changed their name to SC Union 06 Oberschöneweide. Primarily a working-class locality, the club adopted the nickname ‘Schlosserjungs’, which translates to metalworkers. This working-class identity is directly linked with their modern tag, ‘Die Eisernen’ or The Iron Ones.
They were successful early in the day, appearing in the 1923 German championship final against Hamburger SV. Following this, they kept up with other powerful Berlin sides of the time: Viktoria 89 Berlin, BSV 92 Berlin, Hertha and Tennis Borussia Berlin. Under the Nazi Reign, the footballing structure of Germany changed drastically, and this affected the club’s fortune of Union in the late 1930s. They had little success during this period, with war brewing within the borders.
Soon after the war, the Allied-occupied Berlin banned all the footballing bodies in Germany. Briefly switching between names, they initially returned to the old self in the 1948-49 season. Cold war tensions created drastic changes, with several Union players and coaches fleeing to the west and forming the Sport-Club Union 06 Berlin.
THE TURN OF TIDES IN FAVOUR
By the time the USA and the Soviet Union created the Berlin wall in 1961, Union were languishing in the third tier. Moreover, the club that stood in the east became FC Union Berlin in 1966. Unexpectedly, Soviet ideas to appease and gain the support of the working-class community strengthened their role in the locality. The club colours changed, and they adopted the red and white kit as a symbolic representation of Soviet symbolism. The club received massive support and success during this period, despite their being an anti-soviet dislike among the local community.
Shortly after, in 1968, they won the East German Cup, followed by short-term successes in the newly formed division. They even developed an intense rivalry with BFC Dynamo, a club which was supported by the Stasi or state security service of Soviet Berlin. However, by the time German reunification happened in 1990, Berlin was financially struggling to keep up with the club’s misfortunes. After winning the division in 1993 and 1994, financial regulations barred them from playing in 2. Bundesliga because of their financial problems.
They also came closer to progressing into the 2. Bundesliga in 1998–99 and 1999–2000 season as well. However, they finished top of the Regionalliga Nord (third division) in 2000/01 to reach 2. Bundesliga for the first time. They also were quite successful in the German Cup and UEFA Cup. The club again slipped to the third division and then to the Oberliga Nord (IV), but returned to the third division after capturing the Oberliga title.
In 2004, the club was on the verge of collapse after the Football Association body of German football requested a guarantee of 1.5 million Euros from the club. However, with a strong fan base and a visionary owner, the club managed to avert that situation before it became too late. Interestingly, the fans started a campaign called ‘Gluten Für Union’ or ‘Bleed for Union’, which helped in finding money for the club through the means of blood donation.
Later, the community once again came forward to deal with the poor condition of the stadium. Without significant financiers for the restoration of the stadium, 2,500 fans collectively contributed 140,000 working hours for the renovation of the stadium.
TOP FLIGHT FOOTBALL
A perfect reward was waiting for them, for the hard work and dedication the club and the community had done for several years. Since the turn of the last decade, the club has managed to create an identity and stability in their performance as well. Union had finished strongly season after season in 2. Bundesliga ever since 2012. Ultimately, they managed to secure their first-ever promotion into the Bundesliga after defeating VfB Stuttgart in the playoffs of the 2018-19 season.
Interestingly, they started the 2018/19 campaign differently. Rather than giving away points, they stayed firmly in mid-table, with 10 draws and 7 wins in the first half of the season. With the help of goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz, they kept an excellent record from not conceding too many goals. The signing of Felix Kroos into the midfield, the goal-scoring form of Polter and Andersson somehow bolstered their form.
Playing under Urs Fischer, Union relied profoundly upon set pieces and long balls throughout the season. These tactics worked particularly well against teams that emphasised little on Union’s dependence on both wings to build the game forward. In DFK Pokal, Union also came closer to creating a major upset against Borussia Dortmund as well.
They also maintained the same form for the rest of the season and edged past VfL Bochum in the final fixture to book a place in the playoffs. They managed two draws in their play-off against Stuttgart and booked their place in Bundesliga. Under Fischer, the club’s vision was pretty much apparent even at the start of the season. By building an excellent squad and creating efficient form, Fischer turned the team into a top title contender. After the game finally ended, fans flooded the field in celebration, with tears and joy erupting all across the stadium. Thereby, they became the 56th team to play in the Bundesliga ever since its founding.
Union started the new life in Bundesliga with vast changes in the first team. The club made a major revamp in their squad by making 14 different signings, including a successful move for Marvin Friedrich from FC Augsburg. However, they failed in their first match against their rivals RB Leipzig by losing 4-0. Slowly, they picked up points and achieved a major upset against Borussia Dortmund by beating them 3-1 at home. They also overcame their Berlin Neighbours Hertha in November, followed by picking up points, as they moved further up the table. At the halfway point of the season, Union managed to reach 11th in the table and stick with it for the rest of the season.
Their second season by far has proved more successful under Fischer than ever before. They managed to develop the quality and tactics of the game Union played last season. So far, they have achieved a winning rate of 33.33% compared to the 35.29% of last season. Considering the games played, they also have adhered with both winning and drawing games. Also, 6th placed Bayer Leverkusen, are now just 4 points away from Union. This means, a major upset for top clubs trying to qualify for European football next season. It will also be interesting to see whether Union will find a place in next season’s Europa League or Conference League.
Whatever the result, the success story of Union Berlin is a proven example of how hard work and sheer commitment can turn the fortune of a club.