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


From the basement of German football to its very summit: Union Berlin became Bundesliga table toppers for the first time in their history on Matchday 6 of the 2022/23 campaign - and are back level with leaders Bayern Munich after 21 matches.

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

Even back then it was a surprise to be stationed so high. Union had only ever topped the Oberliga once before, during the 1967/68 campaign.

Their route to the top in the '70s was as arduous as it was to become the country's pacesetters in 2022/23.

Watch: Union made history by going top of the Bundesliga for the first time

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

During Germany's interwar period, the club reached the German Championship final in 1923, losing 3-0 to Hamburg. 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. As country was divided up, however, Union found themselves plummeting once more. And when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, the team had dropped to 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. By the time they became 1. FC Union Berlin in 1966, though, Die Eisernen - a century-old nickname that stems from their kit resembling the uniforms worn by metalworkers in 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 preceded German reunification in 1989 saw the club settle into a pattern of flitting up and down the country's doldrum divisions.

It was no easy thing to see Hertha emerge 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 in eastern Germany as it also saw the founding of RB Leipzig a couple of hours down the road.

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

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

However, a third-place finish in the 2018/19 Bundesliga 2 campaign set up Union's own top-flight debut, 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 its supporters.

With people paid to give blood in Germany, fans queued in their droves to do their bit and donate to help fund the Köpenick-based outfit's registration with the DFB in 2004. They also helped to renovate the stadium, committing over 140,000 hours of free labour in order to help rebuild the Stadion An der Alten Försterei and reopen its doors in 2009.

For those who have poured so much into the club, they are not just seeing the fruits of their labour. They are reaping them.

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

Watch: The Union Berlin fairy tale

They have also ripped the Hertha flag out of the ground in Berlin, claiming five derby wins on the bounce in all competitions to assert their dominance in the capital.

They were soon 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 2022/23 season.

The collective spirit that has been seen for years in the stands has manifested itself on the pitch. Captain Christopher Trimmel epitomises that spirit in the squad while simultaneously setting the standards for his teammates to follow. The skipper is known to rock up at training on his motorbike, perhaps having just finishing giving some local resident a tattoo.

Although they are Union Berlin, the team's home is very much the town of Köpenick, situated in the southeast corner of the capital. It's where the overwhelming majority of fans and members live.

It isn't Berlin as you'd normally think of it, but Union aren't a first-division club as you'd normally think of one.

For the people working there, it isn't just a job but a way of life and passion. For players, it was once just considered a cool place to be, a club that attracted those who perhaps felt marginalised in a similar vein to those at St. Pauli, another Kultclub.

Yet the landscape has changed around the Alte Försterei. Yes, the club coffers are much healthier than what they once were on the back of several years in the Bundesliga and now UEFA competition, as well as sound management. However, on-field success - quietly driven by Urs Fischer and his team in five seasons in charge - has now made Union a destination of choice for many.

Although players have to be the right fit for the environment, they no longer have to completely conform to how the club has traditionally been viewed or viewed itself, either. We saw that with the signing of Max Kruse, who famously rocked up to training in his Lamborghini but galvanised the team and helped take them to the next level - a level now proving attractive for more and more players.

That isn’t to say they’ve moved away from their tried and tested method of bringing in some rough diamonds or the occasional unknown – as long as they’re the right fit. Take the dynamic duo in attack that made a barnstorming start to the campaign: Sheraldo Becker and Jordan.

Watch: Deadly Duo Jordan and Becker

Becker picked up the Bundesliga's Player of the Month award for August, and even led the scoring chart after Matchday 7 with six goals and three assists. Jordan also had three goals and two assists at that stage, with the new signing clearly relishing the partnership.

Meanwhile, coach 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 - who signed a new contract early in the 2022/23 campaign - told media after the game in Cologne.

"They help 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."

Fischer was proved right after the September international break when 'Iron Union' suffered their first reverse of the campaign away to Eintracht Frankfurt. A 1-0 win at Stuttgart the following week put them right back at the summit, two points clear of fellow surprise package Freiburg.

Watch: Union went top again by beating Stuttgart

It is of course Fischer's job to keep everyone's feet firmly on the ground - and for others to speculate about whether Union can win the title. The supporters, though, are cherishing these moments because they will be all too aware that they are far from permanent.

A defeat at lowly Bochum reminded them of as much, although - typical of Union - Danilo Doekhi's dramatic late winner against Borussia Mönchengladbach on Matchday 12 kept the club top and the fairy tale still going.

Although overtaken by usual leaders Bayern Munich after an end-of-year dip, Die Eisernen briefly reclaimed top spot on Matchday 19, with victory over Mainz. They backed it up with a statement victory at Leipzig a week later (their fifth win in a row) and - despite being held to a goalless draw at home to Schalke - are level with Bayern on 43 points ahead of the pair's Matchday 22 meeting.

Considering Union's recent rise and year-on-year improvement under the meticulous yet understated Fischer, you get the impression that the good times may well be here to last.