Union Berlin: From East German also-rans to Bundesliga leaders


Union Berlin became Bundesliga table toppers for the first time in their history on Matchday 6 of the 2022/23 campaign, as the club's remarkable journey from the basement of German football reached its very summit.

It's the first time since 1970 that Union have placed first in a top tier, back when they led the DDR-Oberliga, which represented the peak of East Germany's footballing pyramid.

Even then it was a surprise to be stationed so high, with Union only ever topping the Oberliga once prior, during the 1967/68 campaign.

Their route to the top back then was as arduous as it has been to now become the country's pace setters.

Watch: Union beat Cologne 1-0 to move top of the Bundesliga for first time

Founded in 1906 out of FC Olympia 06 Oberschöneweide's merger with three local teams, the club went by Union Oberschönewiede when they decided to go it alone three years later after a brief partnership with previous German champions BTuFC Union 1892.

Its existence during Germany's interwar period saw the club reach the German Championship final in 1923, where it lost 3-0 to Hamburg, but they were subsequently left behind by the monetary muscle of Berlin rivals Hertha and Tennis Borussia.

At the end of World War II, the club began to rise again and won the Berlin Cup in 1946/47 but, as the country sowed further divides, Union were plummeting once more.

And, by the time the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, the team found itself in the third tier of East German football.

From there, they watched the likes of Vorwärts Berlin and BFC Dynamo dominate their side of a fractured Germany but, by the time they became 1. FC Union Berlin in 1966, Die Eisernen – a nickname now around 100 years old that stems from their kits once looking like the uniforms worn by metalworkers in the local factories – had clawed their way back to the top division on their side of the wall.

Union's East German Cup victory in 1968 is immortalised outside its iconic stadium. - IMAGO / Camera 4

They won the East German Cup in 1968, but the following two decades that proceeded German Reunification in 1989 saw the club ultimately settle into flitting up and down the country's doldrum divisions.

From there, they watched Hertha double down on their status as the premier outfit in the capital, but Union's first ever promotion from the Regionalliga Nord to Bundesliga 2 in 2000/01 suggested the promise that the club is now finally fulfilling.

That same season saw third-tier Union contest the DFB Cup final and, although they lost the showpiece to Schalke, it was enough to earn a spot in the UEFA Cup for the first time in their history.

The boom would turn to bust after back-to-back relegations in 2004 and 2005, prior to a return to the second tier in 2009.

It was a notable year for football on this side of the country as it also saw the founding of RB Leipzig a couple of hours down the road.

Watch: Union Berlin - A tactical analysis

Union could only watch on as Leipzig stormed up the divisions and beyond them, with Die Roten Bullen earning their Bundesliga bow just six years into their existence.

A third-place finish in the 2018/19 Bundesliga 2 campaign, though, would set up a top-flight debut of their own for Union as they overcame VfB Stuttgart on away goals in the promotion/relegation play-off.

It was a historic moment for a special club; one that represented Stasi opposition in the 1980s, and one that was rescued by the literal blood and sweat of the supporters.

They donated blood to fund the Köpenick-based outfit's registration with the DFB in 2004 and helped renovate the stadium as fans committed over 140,000 hours of free labour in order to deliver on the Stadion An der Alten Försterei's reopening of its doors in 2009.

For those that have poured so much into the club, they are now not just seeing the fruits of their labour, they're reaping them.

Union Berlin's supporters are now beginning to reap the rewards after years of ups and downs. - DFL

Their seventh-place Bundesliga finish in their second season in the big time resulted in a UEFA Europa Conference League campaign and they bettered that the following year by finishing sixth and booking a spot in the Europa League.

They have also ripped the Hertha flag out the ground in Berlin, courtesy of four derby wins on the bounce in all competitions to claim dominance in the capital.

Now they're top and were singing dreamily about being league leaders and lifting the Meisterschale after victory over Cologne moved them into first place after six wonderful weeks of the season.

The collective spirit that has been seen for years in the stands has manifest itself on the pitch, with captain Christopher Trimmel epitomising the spirit in the squad, while simultaneously setting the standards for his teammates to follow.

Then there's the dynamic duo in attack that have made a barnstorming start to the campaign; Sheraldo Becker and Jordan.

Watch: Sheraldo Becker: Union Berlin's difference-maker

Becker tops the charts for goals on six league efforts in seven appearances, while contributing three assists in the process. USA international Jordan also has three goals and two assists from his first six top-flight outings in Germany and is clearly relishing the partnership.

Meanwhile, coach Urs Fischer has been the man who's eked every ounce out of his players and whose humility after moving top sums up the club.

“The fans can celebrate accordingly. I look at the whole thing a bit differently. When I look at the table, I’m particularly happy about the 14 points,” Fischer told media after the game in Cologne. “They help us. Difficult weeks with mid-week games are still ahead of us. There will also certainly be times that don’t go so well. When it comes to the table, it’s still just a snapshot.”

A snapshot that they can at least enjoy for a couple of weeks after the 2-0 win at home to Wolfsburg ensured Die Eisernen will spent the international break looking down on the rest and one of very few teams other than Bayern in recent years to spent multiple weeks at the summit.

Watch: Highlights of Union 2-0 Wolfsburg

It is of course Fischer's job to keep everyone's feet firmly on the ground, but those supporters are cherishing the moment because they will be all too aware that they are far from permanent.

Although, considering the club's recent rise, and year-on-year improvement, you get the impression that the good times may well be here to last.