Everyone loves an underdog story. It’s a massive, painful cliché — for a reason. Who wasn’t glued to their screens for St. Peter’s Cinderella run in last year’s March Madness? For all their dominance, can Steph’s Warriors match the raw, delirious passion of that ‘07 team?
In modern soccer, stories like these are increasingly impossible. An oligarch sets his sights on a new Premier League team every week, and the threat of a Super League looms large over Europe.
In the concrete jungle of Berlin, one team is defying the odds.
Enter Union Berlin.
Die Eisernen are challenging for the Bundesliga title, five points behind joint-leaders Bayern Munich and Dortmund. Two weeks ago, they dethroned European royalty — Dutch champions Ajax — in the Europa League. They’ve done all this with the third-lowest wage budget in the German top flight.
But punching above their weight is nothing new to Union. They are a relative minnow of German football. Before the club’s promotion in 2019, they had spent the past two decades flitting between the second and third tiers.
That’s not to say its history isn’t remarkable. Far from it, as you’ll soon find out.
Founded by metallurgists in 1906, Union has always been a working-class club. When the Soviets came to town 40 years later, they might’ve expected state support. Instead, the DDR aligned themselves with Dynamo Berlin. Specifically, Dynamo was the club of the East German police, known as the Stasi. Supporting local rivals Union became an act of defiance. Bohemians, punks and dissidents flocked to the Old Forester’s Stadium. Local magazine Eulenspiegel summed up their support best: “Not every Union fan was an enemy of the state, but every enemy of the state was a Union fan”.
However, all that passion didn’t translate to on-field success. Union only won one German Cup in the DDR period, compared to Dynamo Berlin’s ten league titles — Soviet favor came with influence under the table. Fans didn’t much care, as they shouted “I’d rather be a loser than a Stasi pig” at every Berlin Derby.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was the great equalizer; in that, all of East German football was devastated. The eastern league system was scrapped and integrated into West Germany’s. The Öberliga consisted of 20 teams. Per DFB ruling, only two were admitted directly into the cash-flush Bundesliga — from which they were quickly relegated. The rest, including Union, were sent tumbling down the pyramid. Reunification’s footballing legacy remains to this day: perennial Öberliga champions Dynamo remain in the fourth tier.
Union too, was hit hard. By 2004, the club could no longer afford their third-tier license. Liquidation was distinctly possible. Fans sprang into action, starting the “Bleed For Union” campaign. The name was literal: thousands were rallied to donate blood, the proceeds going directly to the club. Although it was relegated soon after, the club’s survival was secured.
That level of devotion is hard to grasp from an American perspective. For starters, our teams are owned by multi-billionaires, so scenarios like this are unlikely. But in that hypothetical, have we any reason to bleed for teams that now amount to branded investments?
If any especially passionate readers say yes, Union fans have done you one better. By 2008, The Old Forester’s Stadium was falling apart. Club owners lacked the funds to renovate. So what did fans do?
They built the stadium. Brick-by-brick. As volunteers.
Tottenham ’till I die and all, but I wouldn’t have helped build our billion-dollar stadium without compensation.
That rebirth began the Ironmen’s ascent. They won the third division that year, and they established themselves in the second over the next decade. The top tier, though, was still a pipe dream.
Until it wasn’t.
Under newly hired head coach Urs Fischer, Union stormed the 2. Bundesliga in 2018-19, finishing third and qualifying for the promotion playoff. Fans were stupefied — some even feared the club couldn’t afford top-flight expenses. The rallying cry for this unlikely promotion push was “Ne Scheße, wir steigen auf!”
“Oh s—, we’re going up!”
And, after beating VfB Stuttgart — who’d won a national title while Union was in the third tier — go up, they did.
Their first few top flight seasons saw steady progress. Last season, the club finished fifth, just a point behind the Champions League places.
And this season, they look to go four spots further. Fischer remains in charge. He has them playing typical underdog football: disciplined defending, set plays, and direct counterattacks. It’s not pretty, but it is damn effective.
His stars aren’t household names: Have you heard of Sheraldo Becker and Jordan Pefok? I hadn’t, but the goalscoring charts certainly have. New defensive general Danilo Doekhi has an eye for goal as well, scoring four in nine (!) from center back.
Let’s head back down to Earth. Union probably isn’t winning the league this year: record champions Bayern Munich are inevitable, as Union found out in a recent 3-0 loss. Even challenging, though, deserves praise.
This title charge sums up the Berlin club: A high-flying middle finger to football’s establishment.