If you were asked what the only European capital without a top-flight football team will be next season, what would you say? Sift through obscure Eastern European football leagues looking for the anomaly? Argue that London doesn’t technically have a team that represents the city as a whole? Claim that is was a trick question? The answer, in fact, is Berlin – capital of Germany.
Ask most people whom they support in the capital of Deutschland, and the answer will be fairly repetitive. Hertha Berlin are very much the big dogs of the city, being a fairly consistent member ever since the birth of the Bundesliga a relatively short time ago, without ever being particularly spectacular. However, in a few months the fairly embarrassing status of the only European capital with no team in the top division will return to the city, as Hertha found themselves in the relegation zone when this season ended, meaning they will spend the 2012-13 season in the second tier of German football – where they also spent the 2010-11 season. But is there not another Berlin team who they can share this burden of expectation with? Enter, Union Berlin.
Currently also residing in the German second division, Union Berlin have always been the poorer, less popular little brother of its cross-town sibling. Although Hertha may have been a yo-yo club in the recent past, hopping between flirting with Champions League qualification and relegation, Union have experienced a similar inconsistency, just further down the ranks as they spent most of the 1990s flipping between second division football and regional football in the third and fourth divisions. They eventually became one of the founding members of the nationalized Third Liga in 2008-09, in which it was its first ever champion, but it is the pre-unification history that really makes the club what it is.
Indeed, it was largely down to the division of the city that spurred on the misfortune that Union suffered that led to the position that it finds itself in now. Pre-construction of the Berlin Wall, Sport-Club Union 06 Berlin (a side made up of mainly those who had fled to the West from the East) were a very popular side, drawing in massive crowds to the Olympic stadium on a regular basis, but post-construction was a very different story.
From 1961 onwards, it went through a number of names in the immediate period after the construction of the wall, with the rivalry with Stasi financed Dynamo Berlin dominating many of the club’s events in this period. “I’d rather be a loser, than a stupid Stasi pig!” amongst other chants of defiance against the government-sponsored team would ring out from the fans, as they underwent a series of dubious defeats to their East German rivals, causing them to flitter between the leagues in a pattern of constant relegation and promotion. The government’s tendency to favour “elite” clubs such as Dynamo Berlin and Dynamo Dresden – the two sides in which any form of footballing talent would almost certainly end up at – meant that “civilian” clubs suffered considerably as a result. It is this defiance and resistance against adversity that makes up much of the club’s identity even to present day.
Union Berlin to the present day maintain a stark anti-commercialisation stance when it comes to their club; something that is quite rare especially in the climate in which modern football finds itself today. A number of bold acts have reinforcing this position in their recent past, such as in 2009, they announced that they would sell their stadium (the Stadion An der Alten Försterei) to their fans, so it was majority owned by the supporters, in an effort to stop their club being part of the show business that the rest of the footballing world has become. Indeed, the integrity of the club is what remains at the forefront of priorities, as it wants to avoid following other clubs into such plans as the de-personalisation of their ground that has become ever more frequent in Europe (with Hamburg being cited by the club as an example, which has renamed their stadium three times all in one decade). Moreover, 2009 also saw them sever a tie with a sponsorship deal with International Sport Promotion, after it was found that its chairman, Jürgen Czilinsky was an ex-Stasi member, in yet another show of commitment to its roots.
Indeed, Union Berlin’s status as a “Kult” club through its emotional anti-Stasi roots and strong, anti-corporatist values that it has installed in the base of the club has given the club an admirable identity, with this stout resistance against the loss of connection and emotional attachments to the club going against the grain of what modern football all too often purveys. The way it almost foregoes success to keep its club a respected entity in Germany is incredible, demonstrating that one can still be proud of their club despite the lack of silverware in its trophy cabinet, knowing that any success that does come there way will be earned and achieved in a proper way.
Union Berlin may be subordinated as Berlin’s “second club” on the success ranking, but it shall always be the favourite of the romantics, with its cult status shining through in a vain attempt to hold up what is left of football’s honour.
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