Union Berlin were knocked out of the UEFA Cup in 2001 by Litex Lovech, after becoming the first and only side from the German second division to qualify for Europe. - © imago images
Union Berlin were knocked out of the UEFA Cup in 2001 by Litex Lovech, after becoming the first and only side from the German second division to qualify for Europe. - © imago images

How Union Berlin played the UEFA Cup before reaching the Bundesliga


Union Berlin became the 56th club to play in the Bundesliga when they were promoted to Germany's top flight in 2019, but while they navigated uncharted waters successfully, European football next term could actually be familiar territory to the Eisernen.

Before they had ever risen to the highest level of German football, Union had already tasted UEFA Cup football, back in 2001.

While 2020/21 goes down as the most successful season in the club's history - with the possibility of qualifying for the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League on the final day - that 2000/01 campaign pushed it close. Already showing strong signs of success in the Regionalliga Nord, the third tier of German football at the time, Union were also making good progress in the DFB Cup.

Union Berlin, from the Regionalliga, met Schalke in the 2001 final of the DFB Cup. - Lars Kuehlke/Bongarts/Getty Images

Victories over Rot-Weiß Oberhausen and Greuther Fürth saw them ease into the third round, where a favourable draw saw them face struggling Bundesliga 2 side Ulm. A 4-2 win at the Alte Försterei set up their first meeting of the season with Bundesliga opponents.

Assured of home advantage due to their lower-league status, Union fancied their chances when VfL Bochum's name came out of the hat, and a 1-0 win in front of 11,000 fans saw them through to the semi-finals. Once again, luck was on their side as they avoided the two top-tier clubs VfB Stuttgart and Schalke and were drawn against the only other remaining team from outside the Bundesliga, Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Not even snow and freezing temperatures could interfere with Union's dreams of reaching the cup final, with fans turning up en masse to help clear the field in time for a pitch inspection. The match was on, and a 2-2 draw was followed by the nervy lottery of a penalty shoot-out.

Berlin prevailed 4-2 and booked their trip to, well, Berlin for a final which, 24 hours later, they discovered would be against Schalke.

Union were 3-0 aggregate winners over Finnish club FC Haka Valkeakoski in the first round of the 2001/02 UEFA Cup. - Danny Gohlke/Bongarts/Getty Images

Since the Royal Blues had already qualified for Europe, despite the heartache of a dramatic last-second Patrik Andersson goal which deprived them of the Bundesliga title, Union knew that their day out at the Olympiastadion meant one thing: regardless of the outcome, they had already qualified for the UEFA Cup.

They were eventually beaten 2-0, with Jörg Böhme giving a sullen Schalke something to celebrate, but having already sealed promotion to Bundesliga 2 for the first time in their history, becoming the first and only German third-tier club to qualify for Europe was the crowning achievement.

Rubbing shoulders with the likes of AC Milan, Inter Milan, Valencia and Chelsea, Union's first challenge came in the form of Finnish side FC Haka Valkeakoski. A 1-1 draw in Finland was followed by a 3-0 win at home, although their 'home' for the night was the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Stadion, since the Alte Försterei did not meet regulations. For a club used to third-division football and below, this was hardly surprising.

Litex Lovech were their next opponents, but a 2-0 defeat in the German capital's Olympiastadion left them with too much work to do in Bulgaria, where they nevertheless picked up a creditable goalless draw.

Another German side would go on to reach the UEFA Cup final that season, with Borussia Dortmund losing 3-2 to Feyenoord. But that year's Cinderella story was supplied instead by a small German club from the third division, who took their bow on the European stage.

Twenty years later, that very same club have are on the verge of earning another crack at continental football, with the next fairy tale waiting to be written.