May 30, 2017

1. FC Union Berlin: Germany’s Other Cool Team

St. Pauli gets the title as the “coolest club” in Germany. They’re not about chasing trophies at all. They really give their all for the fans, who give their all back. They’ve been on the brink of bankruptcy multiple times and still survived through it all.

But what if I told you there was another team that was just like that, in an even hipper city? There is.

Officially, the team is named 1. FC Union Berlin. But nobody in the east, or anywhere else for that matter, actually calls them that. They are simply known by their nickname, Eisern Union, meaning Iron Union.

I heard many stories about the club’s fan support before going to see them. I heard how there was just standing in the majority of the stadium, and that everyone gets involved. I saw how the fans donated blood and built the roof over the stadium themselves to keep the team going.

Even the receptionist at my hostel, a Wigan fan originally from England, told me I was going to have a great time and to “get ready for the ride of my life.”

I’ve experienced the Echte Liebe in Dortmund, and went right next to the Yellow Wall, but this …. I gotta see.

I meet up with fellow Bundesliga Fanatic writer Janek Speight, an Aussie who lives in Berlin and has season tickets to Union Berlin. I grabbed a 25 Euro ticket off the black market and off we walked into the forest.

It was as if we were walking through Central Park, a far cry from the beeping ‘tourists driving trabis’ and getting into the thick of Berlin.

Along the way, the shouts of “Fussballgott” got louder and louder and the trees cleared away to show the Stadion an der Alteren Försterei. A small, yet intense stadium in the middle of the forest was where I was going to be for the next couple of hours.

I showed my ticket and hopped in. But there was no seat number on my ticket at all. Well, in most of the stadium, there are no seats. Unless you want to be a high roller, away from much of the fan support, you stand the whole game. And that’s what we did.

Janek and I grabbed a spot in the upper part of the section, near the very top of the stadium. Even though it was the furthest away we could get, 25 Euros (overpaying by about 10 Euros) was still a better deal than most anywhere else.

It wasn’t just the fact that most everyone was standing, but that everyone was into the match. Even the ones who paid 40+ Euros with their silly chairs were jumping up and down at every chance they could get. And boy were there a lot of them.

“EISERN! UNION!” was the first call I heard. And more and more kept coming throughout the match. There may have been just a couple of minutes in the entire 90 minutes that might not have had any singing. What a spectacle.

But during the singing, I overheard a conversation behind me between another newcomer to the Stadium of the Old Forester and old-timer. It was about St. Pauli of all teams! The longtime fan told his friend that there was “no friendship, only sympathy” between the cool kids of the 2. Bundesliga, and perhaps even more, of the entirety of German football.

Perhaps it’s the different kinds of cool that are in play for the two sides. St. Pauli really grew into popularity during the 1980’s as many clubs in West Germany were facing a neo Nazi hooligan problem in the stands. Their fans were aggressively against far-right politics in the stands and went far-left in a reflection of who was in and around the Millentor: the squatters, punkers, socialists, and the world-famous Reeperbahn. Union Belrin on the other hand was from the east and wanted to have a team to really enjoy, but didn’t need politics to bat away swastikas. Their current president was (and really still is) a big fan of the club and can be found alongside the fans on matchday, home and away.

The match ended 2-0 for the Iron Union, with Fabian Schönheim and Sebastian Polter scoring against Eintracht Braunschweig while Daniel Haas kept the clean sheet.  As it was the final match of the season, the entire team went to every corner of the stadium to thank the fans for their support. One fan, overcome with emotion, ran out onto the field to join the team in the celebration. Somehow the security missed him and was about five steps behind. The rest of us in the stands were bummed because we’ve seen the takedowns before. But a player intervened and told the security guard that he was allowed to celebrate with them. The entire team welcomed him and danced around him and exchanged…shorts of all things. And that fan managed to run back into the stands just before that guard could grab him, leading to wild cheers from all of us.

Crazy things tend to happen in forests. But the crazy support in the former East Berlin is one crazy experience any Bundesliga fan must jump into.

Niemals vergessen. Never forget. Eisern Union.

kai

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