Berlin’s hopes of having two teams in the Bundesliga and the first team from the former East Germany to play in the top-flight for eight years burned a little brighter on Monday.
Union Berlin defeated Nuremberg 1-0 to go top of Germany’s second division, one point ahead of previous leader Stuttgart with nine games remaining.
The 21,210 supporters in the crowd partied as Union made it to the summit for the first time since September 2013. Union also set a new club record with a sixth consecutive win in the second division. Moreover, Union beat Nuremburg for the first time in the second division.
“My players can all read, they see the newspapers, they can feel the sense of euphoria in the city,” Union coach Jens Keller said. “It’s possible that that had an effect on the performance.”
The fans chanted the club’s nickname, “Eisern Union (Iron Union), Eisern Union, Eisern Union!”
The top two finishers earn promotion directly while third place gets a playoff against the team that finishes third from bottom in the Bundesliga. If Union stays of course, it would join city rival Hertha Berlin in the 18-team Bundesliga and become the first team that played in East Germany’s Oberliga to play in the reunified country’s top flight since Energie Cottbus was relegated in 2009.
Based in what was West Berlin, Hertha never played in the Oberliga. Leipzig, another team in what was East Germany, was founded only in a rebranding exercise in 2009.
Union fans were already in a party mood hours before kickoff, settling pre-match nerves with bottles of beer on the way to the game and stopping near the stadium in the eastern borough of Koepenick to snack on bratwurst sausages and chips.
The club still plays at its Stadion an der Alten Foersterei (Stadium at the old Forester’s House), which it moved into in 1920 after winning the Berlin championship.
Union has weathered financial difficulties and even a spell at fourth-tier level to become Berlin’s second-best supported side. Older fans remember its difficulties going back to East German times and even before – Union lost players when Berlin was divided, with some opting to remain in the west. For a time there were two Union teams either side of the divide.
New fans less interested in history are wooed by Union’s fan culture and the sense of involvement fostered by the side. When the financially strapped club needed to modernize its stadium in 2008, it was fans who came to its rescue with around 1,600 volunteers contributing an estimated 90,000 hours’ work to save on construction costs.
Four years before, fans gave blood under the slogan “Bleed for Union” to raise almost ?1.5 million to help the club escape bankruptcy.
Thousands go to Union’s Stadion an der Alten Foersterei (Stadium at the Old Forester’s House) to sing Christmas carols at every year, continuing a tradition started by 89 “crazies” in 2003, according to the club.
In 2014, Union turned its stadium into what it called the world’s biggest living room when it invited fans to bring 780 couches to watch the World Cup on a huge screen. The pitch was covered in sofas flanked by atmospheric lamps and the surrounding stands were decorated with wallpaper to create a cozy World Cup atmosphere. Germany won, making it even better.
Union, which traces its beginnings back to 1906 as Olympia Oberschoeneweide, went through name changes before earning its current name in January 1966 when East German authorities restructured the country’s clubs, which were heavily politicized at the time.
East Berlin was supposed to get only two clubs the army-supported Vorwaerts Berlin and police-backed Dynamo Berlin but trade union chairman Herbert Warnke argued that Berlin also needed a club for the civil population, leading to Union Berlin’s approval despite its predecessor TSC Berlin only playing in the second tier.
Dynamo, which was supported by Stasi chief Erich Mielke, became the capital’s dominant side and Union’s hated rival. Amid allegations of match-fixing and politically influenced favors, it went on to win 10 successive East German titles from 1979-88.
Union won the East German Cup in 1968 but it wasn’t allowed to play in European competition.
“Neither surveillance by the police and Ministry for State Security (Stasi) of the GDR, nor sporting hindrances kept Union fans from being faithful through all the years to the club,” Union said on its website.
Union, which didn’t have political support, was left to yo-yo between the top two divisions. But it makes the most of its resistance to the East German regime as it prospers from its loyal fan-base.
“We’re happy of course, but it’s just a moment,” Keller said. “We’ll keep working to stay where we are.”