Union Berlin: Friday night in the forest

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter several weeks of frantically checking the official website in search of tickets, we received the unwanted news: the game was a sell-out with entry restricted to season ticket holders and members only. I’d previously been assured by several people that tickets to 1. FC Union Berlin weren’t normally hard to come by but that the game against Eintracht Braunschweig was “high risk”. I scrambled around, contacting anyone and everyone connected with the club on Twitter in a desperate attempt to get tickets but to no avail. Thankfully, at the last minute, my father-in-law managed to source tickets and we were in. Game on!

 

Berlin’s history is a tragic one, the city ravaged by World War II and divided the Berlin Wall. This partly explains why Berlin has punched well below its weight when it comes to football, with the city yet to provide a national champion in the Bundesliga era, a staggering anomaly when compared to other European capitals of a similar size. Hertha Berlin SC, who hail from the affluent western suburb of Charlottenburg, are the city’s most successful club. Hertha play their home games in the stunning Olympiastadion, designed by architect Werner March at the behest of the Nazis for the 1936 Summer Olympics but since revamped to wonderfully combine history with modernism.

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Hailing from the working-class eastern suburb of Köpenick, Union call the Stadion An Der Alten Förtserei home. In contrast to the Olympiastadion which comes with running track and views that require binoculars, Union’s home is a throwback to an old English stadium, with terracing hugging the pitch on three sides. The club was born, in its current guise, in 1966 but can be traced all the way back to 1906 when it was founded by metal workers. Allegedly Union are the team of the people in Berlin, and this is proven by the unofficial measure of how many stickers are plastered over city walls and lamp posts, something which became an obsession of mine during this visit.

On the pitch the club has a modest history, largely spent in the second and third tiers of German football. However, Union are now solidly consolidated in the 2. Bundesliga, having spent the past eight seasons at the level after an extended period of yo-yoing. During the GDR-era the club developed a bitter rivalry with Dynamo Berlin, the team associated with the secret police, who unsurprisingly won ten league titles in a row between 1979 and 1988.

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In contrast to their right-wing rivals, Union’s fans are generally of a left-leaning persuasion and the stadium has become a “must see” tick on any serious groundhopper’s list. The club has risen to fame among European football fans thanks to well-publicised community initiatives such as the “World Cup living room” – where fans were invited to watch Germany games in the 2014 World Cup by bringing sofas onto the pitch to watch on a giant screen – annual Christmas Carol events, and a “Bleed for Union” blood donation drive.

The journey to the ground was a palatable 20 minutes on the S-Bahn although, as with most football-related journey’s, it was a bit of a squeeze. As the train pulled in to Köpenick station the fans could be seen in bars below, enjoying wares from food trucks and beer in copious amounts. The ten-minute walk to the stadium was easy; we simply followed the hordes dressed in red and white and walked beside the huge forest which the stadium backs on to.

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Upon arrival at the stadium’s main stand we were ushered up to the Eisern Lounge, where we helped ourselves to high-quality food and Berliner Pils beer before venturing out onto the balcony from where we watched the game. Unlike in England, in Germany you’re allowed to smoke in the stands as well as take your beer with you. I even saw a steward lighting the cigarette of one fan, a far cry from the often frosty and suspicious relationship between fans and stewards in England. Despite this, and a pocket of away fans in the home end, there wasn’t a hint of trouble.

Union’s opponents on the night of my visit, Eintracht Braunschweig, were founder-members of the Bundesliga in 1963, winning their first title in 1966/67 before being eliminated by the mighty Juventus in the subsequent European Cup at the quarter-final stage. Braunschweig were in the Bundesliga as little as five years ago, although they went into this game one point behind their hosts.

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The start of the match was delayed by half-an-hour to allow for the arrival of the visiting fans. A 6.30pm kick-off time on a Friday night is not particularly kind to away fans but given that Bundesliga games usually kick-off at 8.30pm, it’s a measure to prevent the second tier games clashing with the top division clash.

Just before kick-off the hardcore fans in the Wald Seite, which literally translates as “Forest Side”, produced a spine-tingling display of sound and noise. Two podiums, each containing one fan with a megaphone and another with a drum, conducted the crowd as if it were an orchestra. Deafening chants were accompanied by giant flags, and red and yellow smoke from flares engulfed the whole stand. Considering the attendance for this game was approximately 21,000 the atmosphere was, man-for-man, one of the best I’ve experienced anywhere in Europe and South America.

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Felix Kroos, younger brother of Real Madrid and Germany star Toni, captained the home side who had the better of a goalless first half. Marshalling the Union defence was Toni Leistner, a 27-year-old who has been with the club for more than three years and has recently been linked with a transfer to Norwich City. His head was like a magnet for the ball, and he also seemed to win tackles with ease, using his experience and excellent positional play to make up for a distinct lack of pace. Marcel Hartel and Simon Hedlund were lively throughout, with the latter breaking the deadlock after 52 minutes. An eye-of-the-needle pass from Sebastian Polter released Hedlund who slid the ball beyond the advancing ‘keeper from the edge of the 18-yard box.

The away side equalised just 11 minutes later, launching a counter-attack following a poor Union corner kick. Cristoffer Nyman slid in to convert a cross from close range to ensure that, for the away fans, the 250-kilometre journey wasn’t in vain. Some attractive football was played throughout the 90 minutes by both sides, but the end product was often lacking with promising moves breaking down in the final third, something often symptomatic of teams competing in the second tier.

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Over the weekend a Union fan insisted that their club are the team of the people in Berlin. The city itself is hugely popular with tourists and an incredible place to visit, yet a little rough-around-the-edges compared to its European counterparts of a similar size and standing. Having previously attended a Hertha match in the polished Olympiastadion, it certainly does appear that Union is more congruous with Berlin and indeed its immediate surroundings in Köpenick. A thoroughly enjoyable experience and one that certainly augments a trip to one of Europe’s finest and most intriguing cities.

Tips

Tickets can usually be sourced directly from the club’s website, depending on the opponent, with modest prices for the English wallet. The stadium can be reached via the S3 line of the S-Bahn network, in the direction of Erkner in the east of the city. Get off at Köpenick and simply follow the throng of football fans bedecked in red and white for the ten-minute walk to the stadium.

First published in Football Weekends magazine (Issue 29, December 2017)

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