Interesting things are happening in the Bundesliga. After nearly a decade of dominance from Bayern Munich, the level of competition in the league has been questioned by some, with growing concern about the consequences of Bayern's relentless success. However, the picture has shifted during the 2022-23 season; other genuine title challengers have emerged, the favourite among them being Borussia Dortmund, who at the time of writing are level on points with the current champions.
That's not the biggest surprise of the campaign, though. Just a few points behind them sit Union Berlin, a club that only a few years ago had never even played in the Bundesliga, let alone challenged at the top end of it.
In this article, we'll tell the story of Union's rise toward the summit of German football. We'll explore the history of the club and its origins in communist East Berlin, before looking at the principles and strategies that have allowed them to rise up the leagues. And crucially, we'll provide some insight into the unique, passionate fanbase that remains at the core of it all. In a footballing world that's been transformed irrevocably by cash, commercialism, TV streams, and state ownership, this is a tale of community togetherness and triumph that encapsulates what the sport is all about.
Situated in Köpenick, a leafy suburb in East Berlin that was part of communist East Germany until the Berlin wall came crashing down in 1989, Union Berlin is a club rooted in local community. Their ground Stadion An der Alten Försterei, accessed via a beautiful forest walk, is extremely picturesque; however, it also has a reputation for housing one of the noisiest, most electric atmospheres in German football.
There’s been a side playing in Köpenick since 1906, although Union in their current form weren’t established until 1966. Before the founding of the club, East Berlin already had two teams, one connected with the military (ASK Vorwärts Berlin) and one connected with the secret police (BFC Dynamo), and it was felt that another club was needed to represent the ordinary working people of the city. This fact is captured by the club's nickname, "Schlosserjungs", which translates roughly as "the sons of metal workers" and encapsulates the club’s connection with the working class population of East Berlin.
During communist rule, this bond between fan and club was strengthened by the difficulties of competing with top clubs in East Germany’s old DDR-Oberliga. At the height of communist rule in East Berlin, the league was dominated by the regime-supported Dynamo, whose club president was Erich Mielke, the ruthless head of the East German secret police, and who forcefully drafted in star players from other clubs to ensure Dynamo's sustained success.
At Union, an underdog mentality developed as a result. Fans were known to chant “I’d rather be a loser than a Stasi pig”, and sing about “bringing down the wall” when taking an advanced free kick (the only time they were able to make such an overt political statement). This proud counter-cultural identity has sometimes been overstated, but it’s undeniable that Union attracted a broad working class fanbase that East Berlin’s other pro-establishment clubs didn’t appeal to. Crucially, this mentality survived reujnification in 1990.
Without the falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Union never would have been able to compete in the Bundesliga. However, the transition into operating as a football club in post-reunification Germany wasn’t a simple one. Success under East German socialism relied on strong party connections, but under capitalism, good business acumen became the most important skill. The 1990s were a decade of financial turmoil in which Union struggled, but ultimately, they managed to stay afloat. In the 21st century, their story would be extremely different.
After the turn of the century, the club faced ongoing financial trouble, seemingly constantly on the brink of financial ruin. However, Dirk Zingler, who has been president of Union Berlin since he took over in 2004, navigated some difficult early days to eventually provide much-needed stability. Zingler inherited a club that was unable to guarantee the 1.46 million euros reserve the German FA demanded for Regionalliga registration. Eventually, the money was gathered, thanks to the blood, sweat, and tears of Union's own supporters – literally! In Germany, blood donors are paid for their donations; in order to raise the funds needed to keep the club alive, thousands of Union fans gave blood and donated the money, a remarkable testament to what Union Berlin means to its supporters.
Despite this immense effort, performances on the pitch remained disappointing, with successive relegations taking Union to the regionalised fourth tier of German football, NOFV-Oberliga. In their only season at this level, the 2005-06 campaign, they took a gamble and retained a professional squad. It paid off — this squad won them the league, kickstarting an upward curve that led them to help set up the new .3 Liga in 2008-09, before winning promotion and establishing themselves as a solid side in the 2. Bundesliga, where they became a part of the furniture. That all changed in 2018.
After a season in which relegation to the third tier was only narrowly avoided by a gritty 0-0 draw with Stuttgart on the final day, no one expected Union to challenge for promotion during the 2018-19 season. However, the arrival of coach Urs Fischer, who had had great success with FC Basel in his native Switzerland, led to an explosive surge in form. Typifying the need for smaller German clubs to operate smartly and efficiently in order to compete at the top end of the pyramid, Fischer led Union to a shock promotion that sparked scenes of jubilation, while also creating the brilliantly tongue-in-cheek chant "Ne Scheisse, wir steigen auf", which translates as "Oh shit, we're going up!" This chant encapsulated the underdog story behind Union's rise, although it also expressed genuine fan concern about what a move into top-flight football would mean for the club's identity.
They needn't have worried. In their first season in the Bundesliga, Fischer's side finished comfortably in mid-table, in 11th place. The following season, their upward trajectory continued, finishing 7th and grabbing a spot in the Europa Conference League. Against all the odds, they then went on to qualify for the Europa League proper in the 2021-22 season, finishing in 5th place, just a point away from Champions League qualification. And crucially, they've done all this while maintaining their strong sense of local pride. It's a remarkable story — but what are the key factors behind this impressive rise?
Urs Fischer is worshipped over in East Berlin, and you can see why. During his time at the club, high squad turnover has made things difficult, as star players have been consistently picked off by bigger clubs. However, changes in personnel have never stopped him from working his magic. A focus on recruiting good characters has helped foster a strong dressing room and great squad harmony, although tactical innovation is at the heart of his team's rise.
Under Fischer, Union generally play with a 3-5-2 formation, a shape which they've gradually transitioned to over time. Marauding wing backs provide width, with these players often drifting into the box to create overloads. Fast counter-attacking transitions are also important, with Fischer's team not afraid to sit in and defend when needed. They do press high and aggressive at times, although they like to pick their moments.
But in order for the innovative coach's tactics to work, smart recruitment has also been crucial…
Union's success has relied heavily on intelligent work in the transfer market. In order to help the club compete in the Bundesliga after promotion, former league champions Neven Subotic and Christian Gentner were signed on free transfers, bringing crucial experience to the side. Former Germany international Max Kruse was also brought in, a major coup. Other top players to have contributed to Union's rise include Taiwo Awoniyi, who was seriously impressive on loan from Liverpool last season, and a number of cheap gems plucked from the lower leagues.
Managing Director Oliver Runhert has been a crucial figure at the club when it comes to this work in the transfer market. Time after time, he's proved himself capable of finding ready-made replacements as soon as the club's star players are signed by richer clubs. This intelligent recruitment has helped them rise up the leagues and continue to compete.
It's impossible to talk about Union Berlin without diving into the unique role that their fanbase plays. From the blood donations that fuelled their league survival in the mid 2000s, to the poignant scenes of the club's first Bundesliga match, when fans brought along huge printed photographs of loved ones who had died and couldn't be there, they've been there every step of the way.
The fans are dedicated to keeping Union as authentic, passionate, and tied to their roots as possible. Each Christmas, thousands gather at the Stadion An der Alten Försterei to sing carols, light candles and have a drink together — this annual event has become a famous mark of the community spirit that exists at the club. When the ground was crumbling and in need of serious refurbishment in the late noughties, thousands of fans volunteered their labour, literally mixing the concrete and laying the steel needed to renovate their local stadium. These fan-led renovations, which saw around 140,000 hours of voluntary work completed, makes the fanbase's connection with the ground even more special - they're sewed into the fabric of the place.
There's a chant that's sung from the ground's terraces each matchday that pretty much sums up this special bond. It goes: "unsere Liebe, unsere Mannschaft, unser Stolz, unser Verein, Union Berlin!”, translating roughly as "Our love / Our team / Our strength / Union Berlin". The song can go on for minutes at a time, creating an electric atmosphere that makes Köpenick one of German football's most difficult places to visit.
The remarkable rise of Union Berlin is far from over. Not only are the club currently on the verge of qualifying for the Champions League for the first time ever, at the time of writing they are still genuine title contenders, just a few points away from joint leaders Dortmund and Bayern. And crucially, this league success is built on strong, sustainable foundations. As German football expert Rafa Honigstein told The Athletic Football Podcast, "This has not come by way of a Sheikh in Abu Dhabi… this is the most organic progress and success possible, and a vindication of the German model. The German model with its emphasis on organic growth makes it very difficult for clubs like Union or Freiburg to actually go to that level, they have to get things right over a tremendous amount of time to be in a position to compete, but it shows that it can be done."
According to Kit Holden, author of the English language guide to Union's rise, Scheisse, We're Going Up! , "the stability the club has at the moment, the upward curve that it's been on for the last few years, means that there's an ever-growing optimism here. The sky's the limit." For most football fans, it will be exciting to see what the next few years have in store for Union Berlin.