The German capital’s other club are in the midst of a battle for what could be their first promotion to Bundesliga this season. Union Berlin’s slow and steady rise up the ranks has been marked by a fascinating history and unique bond to their fans.
1. FC Union Berlin's official birthday is 20 January 1966, but truth behind their founding is a bit more complicated. In 1906, a club called FC Olympia Oberschöneweide was founded; in 1909 it merged with BTuFC Union 1892 - a team of some standing that had won with German championship in 1905.
Together the two clubs became known as Union Oberschöneweide. That version of Union began playing its home matches in the Stadion an der Alten Försterei in 1920, where three years later they had such a good campaign that they reached the final of the German championship - though they lost to Hamburg 3-0.
As a club based on the southeastern outskirts of Berlin, after the Second World War Union found themselves part of the German Democratic Republic’s football pyramid. The club played under a series of names and spawned a splinter club founded by players and officials who moved to West Berlin prior to the building of the Berlin Wall. Finally, in 1966, the club earned promotion to the East German top flight, the Oberliga, and renamed itself 1. FC Union Berlin.
Things began well for the newly re-christened club. Union finished sixth in their first Oberliga season and knocked reigning league champions Carl Zeiss Jena out of the cup in 1968. Their high point was fifth-place finish in the Oberliga in 1970-71, after which they spent the better part of Germany’s years of partition as a yo-yo club.
When the country was reunified, Union found themselves in the third tier and just missed out on qualifying for Bundesliga 2 in a play-off, but they did not give up trying. Twice in the 1990s the team qualified for promotion to the second tier but were refused entry after falling into financial difficulties.
The club has since recovered both on and off the pitch and Union’s committed fans have been instrumental in shepherding them through crisis after crisis, holding marches through the city in 1997, raising money through a blood drive in 2004, and acting as a volunteer work crew during renovation works on their home ground starting in 2009.
The supporters’ bond with the club and the stadium is indeed remarkable. In 2014 they invited fans to bring their own sofas and watch the action from Brazil on a big screen in a ‘World Cup Living Room’ promotion; since 2003, fans have gathered each Christmas for what has become Germany’s largest mass carol-singing event. In February 2015, Union received plaudits from across the world of football for renewing the contract of midfielder Benjamin Köhler, a day after he was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph nodes.
Should the side currently coached by Jens Keller manage promotion to the Bundesliga, Union would be certain to cause a stir, and perhaps win a few neutrals’ hearts. Even if they do not, the intense love they receive from their fans ought to be enough to get them through whatever comes next.