Among the many fabulous presents I received for my birthday was a pair of tickets to see 1. FC Union at home to Fortuna Düsseldorf in the German second division. They were a present from Erik, who has been trying to get me to come to a game since we moved to Berlin. We didn’t manage it last year – not because I didn’t want to, but because it proved too difficult to organise (I know, I know…). This season he played it very well – even down to getting permission from Ilka for me to go to the game before he bought the tickets. Back of the net!
Union are the East German Berlin team, Hertha BSC being their West German counterparts. They play at the Stadion An der Alten Försterei, a 19,000 capacity stadium on the edge of a forested park called Wuhlheide. The name translates as ‘Stadium near the old forester’s house’, which is rather more poetic than most football stadium names. And this is the way Union would like it to stay. They are currently raising money to develop the West stand, and rather than sell the naming rights for the stadium in order to raise the money (as other clubs have done), they are instead offering club members, fans and sponsors the opportunity to buy shares (a maximum of 10) in the stadium at €500 a pop. Their stated aim in doing this is to preserve the footballing experience and the electric atmosphere at home games, rather than selling out to commercial interests. Having experienced the atmosphere, of which more later, I fully understand and support this aim (though I haven’t put my hand in my pocket just yet).
They’ve come up with a great advertising campaign for the share issue, which has already got them into a spot of bother. Here’s one of the three posters / postcards they’ve produced:
The strapline reads ‘We’re selling our soul – but not to everyone’. This poster is a dig at RB Leipzig, a fourth division team that recently received a large investment from Red Bull. There’s a quote from Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz underneath that says ‘How much does the world cost?’, implying everything has a price. Note that I didn’t say that Leipzig were bought by Red Bull – under German football ownership laws, that’s not allowed. Club members have to own at least 51% of the club, which prevents the kind of takeovers by super-rich oligarchs seen in the English top division in recent years. Red Bull were also not allowed to call the team ‘Red Bull Leipzig’, so they used a cheap trick to get around this – they called the team ‘RasenBallsport Leipzig’ (Racing Ball Sport Leipzig), or ‘RB Leipzig’ for short… and are now threatening to sue Union over this advert. Here are the other two images:
The quote from Blatter is ‘People who sit down are calm’ – three of the stands at Union are are exactly that – standing, just like the majority of stadiums prior to Hillsborough. Union want it kept that way, though the new stand will have seating, as does the one it will replace – just a lot more of it. The rest of the fans are happy to stand. The last poster is my favourite:
The quote from Berlusconi is ‘Big clubs have high costs. They can’t play in provincial stadiums with capacities of 20,000′. Union think otherwise. Each of the quotes are attributed – to a “football” sponsor (Mateschitz), a “football” marketer (Blatter!) and a “football” president (Berlusconi). The quotation marks are there to imply that what these people are involved in isn’t really football – it’s business, and this is what Union are taking a stand against (no pun intended, though English speaking Germans might like that, they love puns over here).
So what about the game, I hear you cry? Well, Fortuna were top of the league coming into the game, while Union were in seventh, so it was going to be a tough match. Walking through the forest to the stadium was certainly a pleasant change to trudging through streets of terraced houses. Here’s the view from where we stood:
The smaller stand on the right hand side is the one that’s going to be redeveloped. There was a half-hour delay to the kickoff due to the visiting fans’ bus getting caught up in traffic – it’s a long way to Berlin from Düsseldorf – so I did what any good German fan ought to do: I bought a bratwurst and a beer. Just before kickoff, the fans were tuned up by a guy with a microphone who introduced the team – every player’s name being greeted by the capacity crowd with a chant of ‘Fussball Gott!’ (football God). After this came the club’s anthem, and I started to understand why Union cherish their atmosphere so highly. The whole stadium sang along (OK, maybe not the away fans) – I managed to pick up some of it and joined in. Once the game got underway, Union had the ball in the back of the net after about five minutes, only for it to be ruled offside. Without the benefit of a replay, it’s hard to say if this was a good call – it looked very tight. Union kept up the pressure and actually had the better of the first half, backed all the way by the fans, who made a terrific noise. Despite all this, the score stayed at 0-0 until half time. Just before the start of the second half, the visiting fans let off red and white smoke (those being Fortuna’s colours), which led to another delay while the police moved in – fireworks are banned in Germany, except for New Year’s Eve. Here’s what it looked like:
Fortuna stepped up a gear in the second half, and so too did the Union fans – there were points in the second half where the volume was amazing. Union managed to weather the storm, and even had a great chance in the dying seconds to win the game, only for the opposition keeper to make a great fingertip save over the bar. Final score 0-0, but by no means a boring game, and the standard of football wasn’t too bad either. The real stars though were the Union fans. If the team could play as well as their fans can sing, they’d be playing the first division.
I suppose I ought to explain the title of this blog: U.N.V.E.U. stands for ‘Und niemal vergessen, Eisern Union’, which translates as ‘And never forget, Iron Union’ (Iron Union being the club’s nickname). Union fans use it in a similar way to Liverpool fans using YNWA, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. It’s another part of the footballing tradition Union are so keen to preserve, along with the name of their stadium and their fantastic fans, among whom I now number myself. Here’s one last picture of them saluting the team as they came out, as my salute to them. U.N.V.E.U.!
Some further reading:
Here’s an good blog on German football ownership, with more about Leipzig.
The Economist has an article about the share sale that also mentions the game I was at.
This article in the Guardian goes into the 50+1 rule in more detail.