Union Berlin pack out their old style stadium in east Berlin every week. Dan Williamson joined the crowds at a 2. Bundesliga game.
“Hailing from the working-class eastern suburb of Köpenick, Union call the Stadion An der Alten Försterei 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.”
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Union Berlin history
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.
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.
Union Berlin directions
The journey to the ground was a palatable 20 minutes on the S-Bahn although, as with most football-related journeys, 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.
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. Despite this, and a pocket of away fans in the home end, there wasn’t a hint of trouble.
The start was delayed by half-an-hour to allow for the arrival of the visiting fans from Eintracht Braunschweig. 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 fixture.
Stadion An der Alten Försterei
Just before kick-off the hardcore fans in the Waldseite, 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.
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. 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. Christoffer 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.
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.
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This is an edited version of a feature that first appeared in Football Weekends magazine, the fan’s guide for great trips in Europe and the UK. Visit www.footballweekends.co.uk for more details.