RB Leipzig and Union Berlin: contrasting histories, same objectives
RB Leipzig against Union Berlin: two teams based in the former East Germany with very different histories but united in their quest for Bundesliga glory. Their on-field battle on Matchday 20 promises to be as intriguing as their storied pasts...
Like Leipzig, Union's history started with another club: SC Union Oberschöneweide, which was founded in 1906 in the neighbourhood of Berlin from where it took its name. They would finish runners-up to Hamburg in the 1923 German championship. The club still exists and like many German clubs it has several departments, including a bowling section that won the women's national title in 2022.
When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, the club lost a number of its best players to East German powerhouses ASK Vorwärts Berlin and Dynamo Berlin, and dropped into the third division. Administrative wranglings led to a name change on 20 January 1966 and 1. FC Union Berlin was born.
An East German Cup win in 1968 soon followed, but that was the sum of the club's success before the 1989 fall of the Wall. They were again in the amateur backwaters of German football when they reached - and were beaten by Schalke - the 2000/01 DFB Cup final in Hertha Berlin's Olympiastadion home across the city.
Watch: This is Union Berlin
It did give them a taste of European football, however, with Schalke qualified for the Champions League: Union - the first amateur German team to play in Europe - were knocked out in the second qualifying round of the UEFA Cup. Promotion to Bundesliga 2 came by finishing top of the 3. Liga in 2008/09, and a decade later, they defeated VfB Stuttgart in the relegation/promotion play-off to reach the top flight for the very first time.
A boat parade on the River Spree followed, and after finishing 11th in their maiden Bundesliga season, they clinched UEFA Europa Conference League qualification by ending the 2020/21 campaign seventh. They finished two places better off the following season to earn UEFA Europa League football for 2022/23, the season in which they would move to the top of the Bundesliga for the first time in their history.
Ever wondered how long it takes to build a Bundesliga title-challenging team virtually from scratch? Leipzig provide the answer.
Leipzig as a city is steeped in history both in a general and footballing sense. First documented back in 1015, it played a key role in the fall of the East German regime that ultimately led to German reunification. The German FA (DFB) was also founded in the city in 1900, while VfB Leipzig were the nation's first champions in 1903. When reformed as Lokomotive Leipzig under communist rule, they won the 1965/66 Intertoto Cup, were 1973/74 UEFA Cup semi-finalists and 1986/87 European Cup runners-up.
However, this football-loving city, where over 100,000 people once went to watch Rotation play Lokomotive in 1956, was starved of top-level competition. VfB - again rebranded back from Lokomotive to try and re-ignite the pre-War glory days - had just one season in the Bundesliga in 1993/94, finishing bottom.
Watch: RB Leipzig's 2016 promotion party
Then, in 2009, Red Bull entered the market and the Leipzig footballing landscape changed again. Looking to expand its empire after the success of Red Bull Salzburg across the border in Austria, the drinks company acquired the right to compete in German football's fifth division from SSV Markranstädt. And so started one of the most remarkable and rapid rises football - not just German football - has ever seen.
Yes, if it's decades of history and tradition you want, this club is not for you. That is a matter of fact. If the club were a person, it wouldn't yet be old enough to drive. And many German football fans of so-called Traditionsvereinen - traditional clubs - have little time for what they see as a bunch of Johann come latelys. But RB Leipzig - the RB does not stand for the energy drink but rather Rasenballsport or Grass Ball Sport (don't you love German compound nouns?) - certainly have a massive future. And for a city still scarred by the not-so-distant past, that's what counts.
From claiming the regional Saxony Cup in 2011 - the club's first-ever piece of silverware - RB Leipzig was in the top flight by the start of the 2016/17 season. Not content with that achievement, they went unbeaten for the opening 11 games of their top-flight history, and finished the campaign runners-up to qualify for the UEFA Champions League. Since, their worst finish is sixth, and they finished runners-up again in 2020/21, reaching the DFB Cup final. The following season, they claimed the trophy by beating Freiburg on penalties.
The name of Union's home, Stadion An der Alten Försterei, isn't easy to translate into English: the Stadium at the Old Forester's Place gives the best sense, and there is still a forest on one side of the ground as well as the former forester's cottage in front. With standing on three sides, some 22,000 can pack in, providing an atmosphere that the grander, over-three-times bigger Olympic Stadium cannot. If you want the charm of an old-school football stadium experience - literally built by the blood and sweat of volunteering fans - this is the place to go.
Approaching the Red Bull Arena, you feel like you're about to enter some sort of Roman amphitheatre, not a state-of-the-art football stadium. The walls of the former Zentralstadion - Central Stadium - remain, but once inside, you find yourself in a modern football venue that was rebuilt for the 2006 FIFA World Cup and still has the stud imprints left on a changing room door by an angry Zinedine Zidane from that tournament. Yes, that was before RB Leipzig even existed. Now a 47,000 capacity stadium — 42,600 for international games — it is one of the most eye-catching of all the Bundesliga temples of football.
The club's growth on the pitch has been matched by the swelling of support off it. There were under 5,000 club members in 2006; by December 2022, that number was just under 50,000, making them the 'pure' football club (i.e. there is no other sports team under the club name) with the most members in a German-speaking country. It is also over double their stadium capacity. They have - like most German clubs - an anthem: Eisern Union, first sung by Nina Hagen in 1998, and the 'Iron Union' phrase is plastered on fan merchandise.
You would think Hertha fans would be persona non grata, but there exists a fan partnership - another common thread in German football fandom - between supporters of both teams of a reunified Berlin since the fall of the Wall in 1989, and a 1990 friendly between the pair gathered 50,000 in the Olympiastadion. That said, everyone loves to win a city derby, don't they?
Leipzig's fan base has grown as fast as the club and by the start of the 2020/21 season, there were nearly 150 fan clubs with some 24,000 members. Their status as a club that is not seen by the majority of German football fans as being one that is based on the principle of 50+1 ownership - i.e. that the club and by extension the fans are the majority shareholder in their own team - means fan partnerships are non-existent for now. There is some hostility towards RB Leipzig as a club from opposing fans, but their supporters are known for their anti-discrimination, anti-violence stance, often making their views well known via banners displayed at games, where they simply want to see their city's representatives do well.
Union Berlin - Wolfgang Matthies
Given their lengthy history, there are a good few candidates. It could have been Lutz Hendel, cheekily nicknamed 'Meter' due to his height or lack thereof (1.69cm/5'5") and who played 421 competitive games for the club between 1976 and 1993. There's current captain Christopher Trimmel, the club's all-time leading Bundesliga appearance maker. But Union fans themselves voted Matthies their 'Most Valuable Union Player' of all-time in 2006. The former goalkeeper - known as 'Potti' - played the last of his 253 matches for the club in 1988, but he remains legendary to Union fans of all ages. "I have always fought to the last, even when I knew that we had no chance," he said. You can see why he's so loved.
RB Leipzig - Yussuf Poulsen
Look down the current first-team squad, note when they arrived at the club, and one date stands out: 2013. The name alongside it is Poulsen's, the forward who has become a staple in the senior Denmark squad. He was only just out of his teenage years when he left Lyngby in his native country to move to Germany, a gamble for all sorts of reasons, especially with Leipzig in the third tier at the time. After a spell living with Joshua Kimmich, frequently making the now-Bayern Munich man late for training due to the Dane needing additional team to do his hair, Poulsen has morphed into a Leipzig legend over the following decade as he heads towards 200 Bundesliga appearances and 400 competitive games for Die Roten Bullen.
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