Guest post from FC United of Manchester co-owner
I'm delighted to share a guest post that featured in the FC United of Manchester programme yesterday. Peter Thwaites came to Berlin and writes a superb piece on why FC Union are such a pull for English fans who rally against modern football.
About FC United of Manchester
In 2005 FC United of Manchester were formed by a group of Manchester Unites supporters. The catalyst was the Glazer family takeover. They were set up as a community club and are the antithesis to the current Manchester United business model. As the club website states, "The material theft of a Manchester institution, forcibly taken from the people of Manchester, was the tip of a pyramid of destruction, with changing kick off times for the benefit of television, soulless all-seater stadia full of 'new' supporters intent to sit back and watch rather than partake in the occasion, heavy handed stewarding and ridiculously priced tickets propping it all up. By May 2005 some supporters had had enough." You can read more about FC United of Manchester here.
Eisern Union by Peter Thwaites
Berlin has many attractions as a city - museums, nightlife, architecture, eating and drinking not to mention the immense history that hangs over it. But wherever you go in the world there is always football to experience.
Most visiting football fans, I suspect, would gravitate towards Hertha Berlin. Indeed it is worth a visit if only to see the “ground” - the iconic Olympiastadion, originally built in neoclassical style for the 1936 Berlin Olympics and, despite being refurbished in 1993, retaining much of the original architecture and stonework.
But Hertha are not the only show in town or even, in fact, the best. One Friday evening I decided to head out on the S-Bahn to Köpenick, a historic town incorporated into Berlin in 1920 and home to 1. FC Union Berlin. Whilst Berlin is viewed historically as the seat of Nazi power, it was in fact originally a Communist stronghold, particularly among the working class of Berlin. No more so than Köpenick where, on the day Hitler came to power on 30 January 1933, a red flag flew from the chimney of a brewery. The subsequent reprisal from the Nazis followed in June during the “Köpenicker Blutwoche” (week of blood) when 500 people were imprisoned and 91 murdered.
FC Union Berlin (pronounced Un-Yun) were originally a works team, metalworkers, hence the nickname "Eisern Union" (Iron Union). They play at level 2 Bundesliga and their ground is the Stadion An der Alten Försterei. No matter what name we eventually decide on for our ground in Moston, I can guarantee we will not get anything nearly as evocative as the “Stadium near the old Forester's house”! They are a fans-owned club, with a very similar ethos and outlook to FC United, particularly in their opposition to the commercialisation of football.
Köpenick turns out to enjoy a picturesque setting, indeed by a forest and on the banks of the Spree. (I later discover that you can take a boat trip out here from Treptower Park. While you’re at it, visit the fantastic Soviet War Memorial at Treptower, then enjoy a drink on the boat cruise to Köpenick before going on to an Union game – perfect day!)
I walk from the Aldstadt (old town) out to the ground. The first thing I notice is that, despite the capacity being only 17,000 or so, there seems to be a disproportionately high police presence. Union are playing Eintracht Braunschweig but I don’t know whether this is normal or whether the clubs have “previous”. There are some Eintracht fans congregating with cans bought from the garage next to the ground but they don’t seem in any way threatening. I wander around and walk into what I think is the ticket office but is actually the main reception where a nice lady directs me to the next door along.
Despite my “BBC Steps” attempt at the language the guy in the ticket office immediately spots that I’m not German, “Dutch…? Oh, English… great to have English people here!” He advises me that Block P in the main stand would be a good place to stand and sells me a ticket for €11. I didn’t know this at the time but the ground I’m about to go into was refurbished in 2009 and rebuilt by the fans. I don’t mean just through financial contributions – they actually built it! 75,000 man hours, up to 1600 different volunteers supervised by 6 professional builders and saving the club €2.5M! As I come to realise, there are fans clubs in Germany but Union really are a fans club.
So it’s a warm spring Friday evening by the forest, food stalls, drink stalls, plenty of red and white in evidence. The ground inside is very like an old English Division 3 ground but none the worse for that. It’s mainly standing with the long main stand and the area behind one of the goals being the more populated areas. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere, much more down to earth than the grandeur of the Olympiastadion. Supporters stand on the terraces enjoying a beer or a fag (the attitude to smoking in Berlin is so relaxed, it’s almost compulsory). I haven’t really read up on the club at this point so I’m unprepared for what happens next.
As the teams come out, something is starting to happen over the loudspeakers and music starts to swell. Behind the goal, a huge transparent flag begins to rise, outlined with black and white images of what I presume are famous players. Then the “Union Hymn” begins. This is “Eisern Union” sung by the East German punk singer, Nina Hagen (not to be confused with Nena who sang “99 Red Balloons”). It’s a surreal mixture of hymn, anthem and heavy rock but an impressive spectacle as the whole crowd joins in.
Some other interesting banners on display; “weil das Herz weiß, was du tun musst” = “Because the heart knows you have to do” and “unsere Liebe, unsere Mannschaft, unser Stolz, unser Verein” = “our love, our team, our pride, our club”.
In the meantime, the Eintracht fans, who are penned into what is appropriately Block Z, set off around a dozen flares simultaneously to welcome their team onto the pitch. They’re completely obscured by smoke for about 5 minutes and any asthma sufferers should look away now.
The atmosphere throughout the match is very similar to what we experience at FC. The actual game itself can hardly live up to that spectacle but is enjoyable nonetheless as Union run out 1-0 winners with mazy dribbling midfielder, Chinedu Ede, catching the eye. I hope to be able to come back for their final home game (v Hansa Rostock) but unfortunately it is restricted to “members only” and is a sell-out, not to mention a 5-4 victory for Union.
There doesn’t appear to be any serious rivalry between Hertha and Union. During the time of the Berlin Wall, Hertha were in the West and Union were in the East. In the East but not of the East. When the Wall came down, one of the first things they did was to play a friendly against each other. In fact the first competitive game between the two didn’t occur until 2011 when Hertha found themselves in 2 Bundesliga, an event which is now repeated this season.
The same cannot be said of Dynamo Berlin however. If Köpenick stuck two fingers up at the Nazis, they were equally at odds with the old East German, GDR regime. FC Union’s bitter rivals were the state sponsored Dynamo Berlin who won 10 consecutive league titles between 1979-1988 due to state sponsored favouritism that extended to fixed transfers and crooked referees. However, once the Wall came down, the patronage that Dynamo had enjoyed from Erich Mielke, head of East Germany's Stasi (the secret police), could no longer help them.
If you find yourself at a football ground in Berlin, you may be taken in by the architecture and the scale and the history of the Olympiastadion but you will surely find your spiritual home closer to the house of the old forester. Eisern Union!
The matchday programme that the article featured in is handed over to the Eiserne Botschafter modern museum
English speaking FC Union Berlin fan club
We're in the process of setting up an English speaking, FC Union Berlin fan club. We're hoping to get expressions of interest throughout 2012/13 season and become an official fan club in time for the 2013/14 season. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and follow our new Twitter account @unioninenglisch for more details.