Until this summer, Germany was the only major European football nation that didn’t have a team from its capital city in its top division. But in 2012-13, Hertha Berlin, one of the great under-achievers of German football, won promotion to the Bundesliga as champions of the second tier.
But Berlin has another club that is making some noise these days and it’s from Kopenick on the outskirts of town. 1.FC Union, from the old East German League, is riding high in Bundesliga 2 this season and attracting very healthy crowds to his stadium in the forest.
Union’s fans, who might spit on the floor if you mention the name Dynamo, the old Stasi (Secret Police)-backed club, are a passionate bunch. A few years ago, with the club in financial difficulty, they launched a campaign called “bleeding for Union” in which supporters sold blood donations and in turn gave the money to the club.
They have no such need today. “We are in pretty good shape,” said Klaus, a long-time Union fan and child of the old Democratic Republic. I was curious about the old DDR and in particular, one of Berlin’s great sporting moments, the East’s 1-0 win over the West in World Cup 1974. “What about Sparwasser, then [the player who scored the winning goal]?”, and my bad diction was interpreted as asking for a glass of water.
Klaus has only read about the game, but Jurgen Sparwasser is still something of a legend in Berlin sporting history, even though he played for Magdeburg.
Undeterred, I wanted to know more about the old East Germany. But there was no “Goodbye Lenin” nostalgia from the three 1.FC Union fans from a footballing perspective. “The 11 shits used to win all the time,” said Achim, referring to Dynamo. “It was a foregone conclusion. There was no way anyone else was going to win the Oberliga while Mielke was in charge.
In 1978, Erich Mielke, the head of the Stasi said it was time for Dynamo to be successful. And so they were, winning the Oberliga 10 times. The East’s best players were enticed to Dynamo and it was an offer they could not refuse. Anyone who has seen “The lives of others” will understand. Since reunification, Dynamo have sunk to a lowly level of the German game.
But what about 1.FC Union, what was their part in this fiasco? They never threatened to win the Oberliga and were lower quartile for most of the time. In fact, they finished bottom in the 14-team division in 1989. They did win the East German Cup in 1968, beating Carl Zeiss Jena in the final. They qualified for the European Cup Winners Cup, but withdrew along with other Eastern Bloc countries following the Russian invasion of the old Czechoslavakia.
Before the wall came down, Union were linked to the Eastern German Trade Union, FDGB, making them something of a non-conformist club where anti-establishment chanting was commonplace. That’s why their rivalry with Dynamo was so intense.
FC Union’s club song is a stirring anthem sung by German punk star Nina Hagen, called Eisern Union (Iron Union). It’s an intimidating little number, and Achim, Klaus and Wolfgang treat me to a [badly sung] rendition:
Eisern Union! Immer wieder Eisern Union!
Immer wieder! Immer wieder!
Immer weiter ganz nach vorn!
mit Eisern Union!
FC Union have started 2013-14 well. They are currently second in Bundesliga 2 and have lost just once in six games. They lost their opening game of the season against Bochum, but since then have beaten Dynamo Dresden, Fortuna Dusseldorf and St.Pauli.
The recent win against St.Pauli was dramatic. They fell two goals behind after just six minutes, but skipper Torsten Mattuschka and Slovakian striker Adam Nemec brought the score back to 2-2. The winner was scored by on-loan centre forward Simon Terrode with a header four minutes from the end.
If 1.FC Union can win promotion, that will make two Berlin clubs in the Bundesliga. When did that last happen?