Tuesday, 26 February 2013

This is not an interview - with Chris 'Lopez' Lopatta

Who is Chris Lopatta? He's an Unioner, an actor and he helped build the Stadion An der Alten Försterei. He's also taken the time to talk to me about Union. He tells me that it was in 1977 that 'habe ich mein Herz an dieses rot-weiße Fahnenmeer verloren'. He lost his heart to Union - he stood behind the stand when a game was sold out and was mesmersied by a sea of red and white. You can almost hear the memory in his voice as he passionately recalls the moment.


'Football is our Religion' sings the voice. One of the many songs recorded about 1. FC Union Berlin. I sat for over 3 hours with Chris Lopatta (Lopez) discussing Union Berlin via music, books, diaries and photographs - oh, and of course the internet. We were able to go back in time to the days of the DDR using his diary and the musings of an eleven year old boy. We could also venture into the modern day with Google Street View showing Lopez the Stadium of Light - in Wearmouth not Lisbon.  

Prior to trawling the numerous Lopez archives we broke bread. Not to confess anything other than our mutual love for Union and to eat a traditional German breakfast consisting of various meats and cheeses. Perhaps the blood of Christ was represented by the red of Union that Chris wore. I fear the analogy, like religion itself, is wearing thin. Exposed for nothing more than a way to convey a message. There is no message here, nor indeed an interview. Just two blokes sitting in an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg discussing footy, life, atheism and the stuff the Bayern Munich and Manchester United fans will never understand - relegation. We both laugh at that realisation. 

How had I arrived here though? My Union journey is a strange one. Lopez and I both can't recall our first Union game from memory. If he consulted one of his many diaries he'd find the answer. As would I if I looked at the history of conversations, archived on email, with my mate Rob. 'I just remember the feeling,' Lopez explains. If you have been fortunate enough to attend a game at the Stadion An der Alten Försterei you'll understand this. The sermon (result) is not especially important. The key is the  'stimmung' - the atmosphere. On Union message boards many have on their profile - 'I do not go to the football, I go to Union.' It's a view the Berliners are sometimes criticised for. They should expect more. They should want more. They should want success at all costs. Does the history of East Germany play a part in the Unioner psyche - not chasing the dream, which requires the spend, spend, spend mentality? Maybe. 

I first met Lopez prior to a theatre performance about Union in which he starred. I wrote a small piece here about the show. With hindsight, it is apt that we met, not at the stadium, but at one of the cultural events that envelope the association. Wrapped up like a festive gift for the fans, the play was pre-Christmas and lasted for a week. As with the previous football matches in Köpenick that season, the show was 'ausverkauft' - sold-out. I was told to turn up without a ticket. I'd be looked after - they would get me in. Lopez greeted me in the doorway, not with the demeanour of a man ready to play the lead role in a play, but with a friendliness and enthusiasm that typifies the club. 

Das Stück zum Spiel

We agreed to meet during the 'winterpause' and had it not been for the dreaded 'grippe' (flu) we'd have achieved that aim. However, the postponement of our 'interview' meant that we'd seen each other at Union the previous Friday evening. Union dispatched of Sandhausen in a similar fashion to the opponents they had faced from Switzerland in a friendly only a week and a half previously. With ease. The winter break is a strange phenomenon and tough to adapt to. The first few weeks are fine. The last couple are agony. Lopez recalls the break had lasted for almost 10 weeks in winters of a bygone era. That certainly puts the six week pause into perspective.

Discussing Union with Lopez is always illuminating. I am treated to the view of the insider, a man who helped build the stadium, who features on stage in telling the Union story and who knows the club inside out. Lopez is a huge fan of Zingler - the President of the club. He talks of Dirk Zingler as a man who is 'one of us.' Lopez has pictures of Zingler from years ago as a fan. In modern football not many clubs can boast a President that prefers the terraces to the Executive Box - a true supporter. 

The fact the people (not all fans), some 2,200 of them, built the stadium is a well-trodden path. I was keen to explore who these people were and why they did it. Clearly the large majority were fans of Union. However, a story that Lopez told me about a friend of his from Leipzig, sticks in the memory. The summer was approaching and his friend's son did not have a job. Rather than idle away the summer getting up to mischief in Leipzig, his mother suggested that the son go to Berlin and work on the stadium. He was not a Berliner, not an Unioner, yet he helped build the stadium. Again, as an outsider, you wonder if this was due to some kind of East German spirit. Not shying away from hard work and going off in search of community - rather than this being anything to do with football. A common theme at Union. Many are there as part of a ritual, to search for belonging. I'm heading dangerously close to comparing football and religion again - it's difficult not to.

The following quote, although about religion, could equally apply to football and in particular Union - 'group identity can provide unity in the community.'  From a very young age Lopez was gallivanting around the DDR and beyond watching football. His diary contains the scrawls of a pre-teenage boy; obsessed with the facts and security that football brings. The 'zuschauer' (spectators) are almost always noted, the scorers (with the time of the goals) and the diary often contains full team-sheets and of course, the final-score. Football offers a certainty, a result and you can chart history with many of the facts that are detailed in his diaries. However, you still require faith. 

We sat huddled over the small red pocket-diary, flicking from page to page. As I look at the dates I notice that it's approaching my 10th birthday. Lopez is slightly older and I explain that I was exactly ten years old the day the Berlin wall fell. I was at primary school the day that Lopez hitch-hiked from Greifswald to Berlin. I remember people talking about the Berlin wall at school. Lopez remembers the football fixtures either side of the wall coming down. Thousands were watching games in Berlin. The wall falls. Then, only '300 zuschauer' are jotted in his diary at a game between Union and Dresden. A fascinating insight into modern day history. Dwindling crowds, a tumbling Berlin wall and the start of a passion for Union that would see him end up with a lifetime 'dauerkarte' (season ticket). These are the stories that you only hear about when you attempt to get under the skin of the club. The sorts of stories that you learn about when you're really digging, trying to build something. Trying to understand the mind-set of the fans and of the community you are becoming a part of.

'You've not written many notes. It's all in your head,' Lopez generously remarks. He's correct. I'm no interviewer. I sat silent for seconds when he asked me what other questions I had. I was not unprepared. It was almost as if the 3 hours we had sat there had been enough. Lopez naturally talks about his life, with Union intertwined, the two are inseparable. Clearly, Lopez is not alone in his love for Union. He mentions constantly the word 'heart' and words like 'love' are never far from the lips of an Unioner when it comes to his or her club. Again, a story that struck a chord was of an Erzgebirge Aue fan who loves Union. He explains that she lives in Berlin and can't help but come to matches. It's almost as if football fans do not have a choice where Union are concerned. It's no wonder Union have a fan club called 'Eisern Virus.' 

I'll be meeting Lopez again. Perhaps we can expand on away matches, the Berlin derby and other stories that I failed miserably to note down. His take on the Berlin derby is well worth recounting. Firstly, back to his diary. The man was a 'groundhopper' to use the modern day parlance. When he was not watching Union he was at Hertha or other games in the city such as Tennis Borussia - he just wanted to watch football. 

It's this mentality that makes it easy to understand why Union fans are not that bothered about Hertha. Many of them would have watched Hertha years ago. There was no rivalry as the clubs did not play each other for geographical reasons. 'There is no history' between the two sides Lopez points out. Four competitive fixtures is indeed nothing to base a rivalry on. He describes the jousting that goes on between rival sets of fans as 'banter' and nothing more. Interestingly, the media and many on social networks take a different view to an Union banner that was held up at the Sandhausen game. The scenes at the Olympiastadion on Monday 11th February bear out Lopez's view, as many fans walked to the game together. In a city once divided this is especially poignant. The middle of the stadium was a speckled red and blue colour and it was a city derby to be proud of.

Many thanks to Lopez for his generosity of spirit, hospitality and giving a lad from the north-east of England a greater insight into 1.FC Union Berlin. Und Niemals Vergessen...Eisern Union!

Monday, 25 February 2013

A Neutral View of Köln v Union

I was navigating the second-hand household goods market in Berlin this weekend. A free washing machine and a very good value wardrobe were the fruits of my labour. Thankfully though, I was lucky enough to get in contact with Damon Main, editor of who was attending the game. 

"A native of the 'granite city' of Aberdeen with a passion for football, writing, photography and travel - Damon has spent most of his life watching the round ball game. From his first football match in 1978 to fulfilling a dream and watching Argentine football at the La Bombonera home of Boca Juniors, Damon somehow manages to combine his sense of wonderlust with his keyboard to bring readers"

Here is Damon's take on proceedings in Köln on Saturday lunchtime. 

At 11.15am it is very cold in central Koln - but that did not stop the welcoming party being in place at Köln Messe/Duetz station. By the ‘welcoming party’ we mean about 150 police complete with video cameras, police vans and all fully dressed in riot gear awaiting the football special from Berlin. At 11.39 the old Deutsche Bahn train pulls into the station and the songs, scarves and flags of Union Berlin fans celebrate arrival. They left Berlin shortly before 4am.

Union Ultra's - caught by the fuzz

Whilst FC Koln are new arrivals in the second tier of German football Union have been around in the league for a few years now. The current campaign is going quite well for Union and they sit in 6th position but some points off surprise front runners Eintracht Braunschweig and city rivals Hertha. 

Union are placed neatly behind FSV Frankfurt and today’s opponent’s 1.FC Koln. The club from the Rhine are the new arrivals in the second division having finished 17th in the top tier following a dismal campaign. The current playing squad is reflective of the drop with star player Lukas Podolski sold onto Arsenal and budgets adjusted accordingly.

Not that the team from the Rhein Energie Stadium are not used to a spell in the second division; they are known as one of German footballs foremost ‘yo-yo’ clubs constantly dipping between the top two leagues. With both clubs being in close proximity in league terms - if not geographically – the Saturday lunchtime game meant an early start for both teams and fans alike.

1. FC Koln v Union Berlin / Bundesliga II / Saturday 23.02.2013 / Rhein Energie Stadium / 42000 Zuschaeur

From the platform at Koln Messe Duetz all the Union fans are hoarded onto trams to the rear of the station for the trip to the westerly located ground. The former Mungersdorfer Stadium, in both its old and new format, has long been one of Germany’s premier football stadiums. Used during the 1988 European Championships its subsequent upgrade to a modern footballing arena saw the stadium host games at both the 2005 European Championships and more notably at the World Cup in 2006 where the 2-2 between England and Sweden occurred.

By 2005 it was retitled the Rhein Energie Stadium; the energy provider signing a deal to allow its name on the stadium frontage in exchange for substantial financial backing. The ground then  went from a traditional multi-sport theatre to one more modelled on the British design; that of rectangular shape with four distinctive posts in each corner much like a boxing ring.

Outside the Stadium

Speaking of boxing, the trams carrying the fans to the stadium were channelling in one by one as kick off approached, when a number of police vans sped by, towards the ground, at top speed. Suspicions that some sort of stand-off between police and rival sets of fans had occurred was later confirmed with a number of Union fans arrested. 

Given the weather front developing (snow, ice and a bitingly cold wind) the vast majority of supporters were indulging in more friendly means of warming up with bratwurst, fries, hot drinks and beers being downed by the dozen. Entering the stadium was fairly simple – no backlog of huge queues or small turnstile entrances just electronic ticket scanner gates with the formalities of a quick body search between fans and watching the game.

Although nothing new security inside German football stadiums has grown – some say excessively – over the course of the current season. The relegation of Koln to the second tier witnessed one of a catalogue of serious fan incidents that have led to a media and state backlash against more extreme forms of support. Specifically stewards were looking for fans carrying pyrotechnics and offensive banners; a strong part of the remit to clamp down on supposed poor stadium behaviour.

Union fans occupied the north end of the ground, at the opposite side from the tradition ‘Sud’ standing area of the more passionate red and white clad elements of the Koln support. On the pitch Union were playing in their away colours of deep blue – colours said to be representative of an early nickname of the club ‘schlosserjungs’ or metalworking boys. The blue colours are said to have been chosen being reminiscent of the blue overalls worn in the industrial districts of Berlin (the Eisern Union ‘Iron Union’ chants can be seen within the same theme).

Early exchanges are dominated by Koln with numerous crosses coming into the box directed towards new Koln striker Austrian Stefan Maierhofer. The forward man is though ungainly and uncomfortable failing to use his height to the advantage of his team. More threatening for Koln is defensive lynchpin Canadian International Kevin McKenna who at every corner and free kick tries to get on the end of balls into the box.

After a few threatening efforts it’s that man McKenna who eventually gets onto the end of a ball into the box to loop a header over Union keeper Haas. With the stronger arm the visiting keeper may have been able to keep the ball out but it had been a goal coming for some time.

The Union fans despite being congregated on mass are surprisingly quiet in the corner; instead it’s the home fans that goad the visitors from the capital in the face of the on-field domination.

By half time the snow is coming down in sheets and the ground staff are on clearing the lines of the icy snow around the penalty box. Things soon heat up in the second half though when Maierhofer belies his height to swivel in the box and fire past Haas and it looks game over.

Only after falling 2-0 behind to Koln do Union attempt to ‘have a go’ and appease the travelling fans but generally the Union side are dysfunctional from the midfield onwards and offer nothing. Conditions underfoot do not help things – its slippy and wet making ball control and slick passing tough – but you got the impression that even on a carpet of velvet Union would have trouble putting home keeper Horn under any sort of noise.

After the game Union fans trundle back to awaiting trams for the trip back to the city. Despite a few bowed heads I join them on a tram and as a group spirits seem surprisingly high despite what they have witnessed on the field and the long trip back home ahead that has to be negotiated. The trip to Koln for Union fans was one of the ‘must do’ of the season. 

Union ist eine Religion

1. FC Koln remains one of the most traditional sides and the Rhein Energie as well as the city of Koln still has a big pull. Moreover the availability of football special trains in Germany allowed fans to travel together as a group on mass allows supporters to mingle, drink and sing songs whilst travelling without effecting ordinary passengers. On arrival the massed ranks of supporters together at a point in time allows police the opportunity to organise logistics of travel for fans separate from home fans to get to the stadium safely.

Off the field the league table post game showed a Koln side only three points behind Kaiserslautern; with the Red Devils facing a crucial clash with Hertha Berlin on the Monday evening. Union meanwhile dropped to 8th place following the surprise victory of 1860 Munich away to leaders Braunschweig.

The fact that such traditional team names such as Kaiserslautern, 1860 Munich and Hertha Berlin can be mentioned when discussion second tier Germany football gives some indication of the competitive field Union Berlin need to negotiate if a place at the top table is to be reached. As fellow ‘Kult’ club St.Pauli showed when they reached the Bundesliga staying in the top tier is another matter.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

A Tale of Two Hearts

'To have another language is to possess a second soul.` One of the few quotes I can ever remember, so thus, a favourite. As the Berlin blogosphere (strangely) discusses whether you should learn German in Germany, I began to ponder this Charlemagne quote in relation to Union Berlin. I was worried my life revolved around Union until I discovered a friend had purchased an Union shower curtain. I've not plunged to those depths. Yet.

One of my hearts

Supporting Union is akin to having two hearts. A second soul is something that I imagine nourishes you. A second heart would be a disability and could possibly kill you. I woke up this morning, stooped over the radiator to warm my hands before writing and peered down into the Hof. Only one set of footsteps soiled the snow. The left-hand side must be the early risers. Not a footprint from the right hand side at this early hour.

As I gaze upwards and study the small narrow rooftops, covered in a flimsy blanket of snow, I wonder what the weather is like in Birmingham and Cologne. Two hearts, pulling at each other, both eager for the blood, the knowledge that keeps them beating. Sunderland face West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns today. A compact ground. A good footballing side at present. A tough game for my hometown club. Union travel west to play Köln. Another compact ground and both sides are playing well.

I'd started the day watching a clip from a Sunderland game against Dynamo Moscow. I was disappointed we got beat 1-0. It was over 60 years ago. The 'joker of Roker' Len Shackleton was the star in those days for the Bank of England Club. Know your history, know your roots and you'll understand the people. Well, maybe if you can fathom the beautiful north-east accent. Full of warmth, passion and charm.

After watching that clip I'd read an e-mail from Michael from the Eiserne Botschafter and uploaded two pieces of lost property on to our Facebook page. How would Union get on today I thought as I messaged my partner in crime Andrew. I went for a 3-2 win. I knew Sunderland would get beat so focused on Union. I was not sure if I'd see either game due to making arrangements for moving apartment. Hopefully I'd see all of the Union game.

So, what is it like having two hearts? You worry more, you get beat more often and you make ludicrous plans such as attempting to see both teams in the space of 24 hours. That story is to follow. However, your life is enriched as you make new friends, learn a new history and celebrate more goals. Friendships are formed and molded by results. Off to the pub to celebrate after a Friday night game. Nobody fancying even a coffee after a drab game on a Saturday as half of the city is ravaged by flu.

Football, like learning a language, is not always easy. The results don't always go your way but you make friends, share experiences and you're a better person for it. Give me two hearts, two souls. 6 points today would be brilliant. I have a sneaking suspicion it may just be the two though!

PS - Sorry if you have Phil Collins in your head right now.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Mein Erstes Mal / My First Time

When we have a proper website there will be a section about 'Mein Erstes Mal.' As a pre-cursor, have a read about how Newcastle fan, David Ellison, popped his Union cherry. If you'd like to write about your first time (or anytime at all come to think of it) at Union get in touch - we'd love to share your story with everyone.

In the Summer of 2011, myself and my good friend Scott had planned to go on an InterRail trip for a month starting in July in my favourite city of them all, Berlin. As it happened, the trip was postponed for a year, but we were still going to Berlin so all was not lost.

About a week or so prior to departure, I half-heartedly checked the fixtures of a certain Hertha BSC, only to find they weren't playing. In the back of my mind, probably as a result of too many games on Football Manager,  I was sure there was another team in Berlin. 'I'll heck FC Union Berlin,` I thought and indeed I was right. Having fumbled my way through their website using my A-Level German skills it turned out they were playing Greuther Fürth at home on the day of our arrival. Happily, our budget airline flight pitched us up at Schönefeld at 9am, meaning we could attend. All I knew was that the Stadium was called 'Stadion An der alten Försterei'; when translated, this means 'stadium near the old forester's house' which didn't instill me with confidence with regard to finding the ground. It would be fine, we knew the S-Bahn station we needed and from there we'd be OK, or so we hoped.

We arrived in Berlin with no problems and dropped our bags at our hostel near Friedrichstraße  and returned to the station, bound for Köpenick, a town-cum-suburb at the Eastern edge of Berlin. As the train headed east, we picked up ever more fans and slowly the buzz built inside me for my first game beyond the confines of mainland Britain. Piling off the carriage and down the stairs we began to follow the flow of fans towards the ground, buying a beer off a man with a trolley, which we now realise is standard Berlin practice. We passed a flare under a bridge and a rather busy looking bar before walking through the forest on the approach to the ground itself. I made reference to the name of the ground previously but I hadn't realised the ground was actually in the forest! Sensational stuff.

We paid for our 'stehplatze' and treated ourselves to a 'schal' (scarf) before devouring the steak roll which to date remains the best food I've eaten at a football match. Taking our places on the terrace I was immediately drawn to the words above the stand behind the goal.

Our love. Our team. Our pride. Our association.

One hell of a contrast to the vile '' badge emblazoned upon the home of my team at St James' Park. It was becoming increasingly obvious that this was one hell of a club, one that's not just for the people, but with the people.  As kick-off approached, so the terraces filled and suddenly everyone raised their scarves with the loudspeakers beginning to bellow out a song. We obliged with the scarf raising but we could not partake in the vociferous rendition of the song which we now know as Nina Hagen's Eisern Union, but I did manage to pick out a few of the lyrics, which were clearly hugely emotive.

Wir aus dem Osten gehen immer nach vorn // We from the east always go forward
Wer lässt sich nicht vom Westen kaufen// Who will not be bought by the West? (thanks KiWo)
Wir werden ewig leben//We will live forever

Taken aback by this, it took a while to register the way in which the Unioner were heralding the team sheet.  It's fairly standard practice in Germany and increasingly elsewhere for the announcer to shout out the player's forename with the fans to belt out their surname. This is also the case at Union, however  there's a little addition on the end - 'FUßBALL GOTT'. Football god. The game hadn't even kicked off and already we were absolutely loving it.

The game was soon underway but unfortunately the quality of the atmosphere was not reciprocated on the pitch, with it being a largely scrappy affair with Fürth being two up by the half hour mark. The support remained unwavering from the Unioner whilst the small pocket of Fürth fans were going absolutely wild, clearly enjoying their day out in the capital. All the while an affable elderly gent kept chatting to us, albeit in German and with it being three years since I'd spoken the language the conversation was rather lop sided in his favour, with my responses mainly being 'Ja' and 'wir brauchen ein Tor'. Half time came and went without incident aside from a fresh Berliner Pilsner and after 50 minutes Fürth as good as sealed the win with the third. Union had been creating good chances but conspiring to spurn them all with incredible disdain. The forward line of John Jairo Mosquera and Silvio was far from dynamic, prompting the crowd to come out with my favourite chant of the day.

ein Tor, dass kann doch nicht so schwer sein
a goal cannot be that difficult

With the game sliding towards a defeat, I began to leaf through my programme, where there was an article about the previous season's win over Hertha at the Olympiastadion and Union's 25,000 away fans which was yet more reason to love this club from the East. In the 80th minute Fürth got themselves a fourth, which made no difference at all; Union fans still wanted a goal and the Fürth fans remained crazed. 

It was bizarre to us that the crowd never once turned on the team; it was evident that these fans will follow the team whatever happens without ever really getting angry. At a typical Premier League game, be it Scottish or English, a game will never pass without fans hurling abuse at a player, yet this never once happened. Indeed after the final whistle the vast majority of the crowd stayed behind to applaud the team. Another extraordinary moment on an extraordinary day.

As we and the 15,000 others headed back through the forest we wore our scarves proudly, despite the fact it was a lovely summer's day and the S-Bahn was like an oven. Since that day I've followed Union closely, having been back to see them twice more, most recently paying £200 for flights to see the Berlin Derby whilst my browsing history is dominated by watching videos of Union fans on YouTube. Some people have questioned my love for Union and my reply is always a simple one; just go. I defy anyone to go and see 1. FC Union Berlin and not fall in love and equally I defy anyone to visit Berlin and not be mesmerised by an incredible city.

Einmal Unioner, immer Unioner
Once a Unioner, always a Unioner
David Ellison

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Superman Nemec rescues point for Union

To say Union were not as good as they were on Monday night would be akin to saying it was quite a big bang in the Russian sky this week. Nemec eventually found the Kryptonite in a game where Union players could not find their feet - nor each other. 

Superman Nemec poster in today's programme
The game was a catalogue of errors; players slipping at inopportune moments, the referee not giving the most blatant of penalties, Mattuschka having an off-day and a cheeky penalty attempt gone horribly wrong. Most of what I have described happened from the 85th minute onward. The previous minutes - aside from the Haas challenge that was more brick house than stonewall penalty - were forgettable. So much so, I've had to write this at 16:00 on a match day. By Sunday the game will be a mere footnote in a season where Union will perhaps rue their sluggish start.

The hangover that was feared after the exertions of the Berlin derby was realised inside the first minute. A routine cross was whipped across the face of the visitors goal. Union should have scored. On another day, perhaps they would have been sharper, perhaps they would have been one up and able to grind Ingolstadt into submission. As it was, the crowd were ground into submission with a display that wreaked off the morning after the night before.

Two of us in the group were close to losing our voices and we were carried by those around us. Trying to sing the odd song but struggling. The players mirrored our physical state, regularly falling over on the slippery surface and unable to create many clear-cut chances. 

Before half-time the referee inexplicably waved play on after what seemed a certain foul by the Union goalkeeper. The Ingolstadt player was rounding Haas and his leg connected with the keepers outstretched leg. As the Ingolstadt players chased the referee up the pitch, Haas appeared to apologise to the victim of the injustice. After the touch of an elephant it was pleasing to see the sportsman's touch.

'They can play to midnight and they won't score,' I quipped, as Union went on the front foot, attempting to get the ball into the oppositions third of the pitch. They were a goal down after some neat interplay in the box from the team who started the day in 10th spot. The goal was not undeserved and was by no means against the run of play. Ingolstadt had a strange strategy of pressing quickly when Union were on the ball yet taking the sting out of the game with every goal-kick, free-kick or throw-in. They have only lost twice on the road for a reason.

Quirring was one of the two substitutes that Neuhaus introduced in the second half to change the game. It was down his right flank that Union tried to press. A ball was floated into Nemec and he scored another header. It was Union's turn to snatch the draw five minutes from time. We celebrated as if we'd won. Superman to the rescue. Fitting.

Union had had a couple of half-hearted penalty appeals turned down. In the 90th minute the referee spotted an infringement in the box. He pointed to the spot, no doubt aware of his first half error. Union were furious, a yellow card was given for a bizarre act of a player running up to the ball on the spot and ranting at it (apparently he spat on the ball ha ha). The Ingolstadt player stepped up; as cool as Clarke Kent. However, he was no Superman. He chipped the ball, it struck the bar and the game was up. A point saved. The referee left the field to an enraged home support. Today, it was certainly a case of a point saved, rather than two points dropped.  

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Union Berlin Triumph Again

An unashamedly partisan post as I reflect on the Berlin derby. 

Union have played Hertha in four competitive fixtures. It's currently one win a piece and on Monday 11th February, in the Olympiastadion, the 74,000+ crowd were treated to a pulsating derby that ended all square. The stadium was full of Union fans and not just in the away end, where over 20,000 were packed in; many not bothering with their allocated seats and congregating around the banners draped over the front of the upper-tier. 

Red flames greet Union Berlin

Make no mistake, this was a triumph for the red and white team from Köpenick. Naturally, in the aftermath, there was talk of two points dropped rather than one point gained. That's inevitable after being 2-0 up and leading the game for well over an hour. The convincing nature of Union's demolition of Hertha in the opening hour will live long in the memory. Again, to be clear, Hertha were restricted to play acting, moaning and did little to test the Union goalkeeper in the first hour of this game. As they became increasingly frustrated the Unioner rallied around their team, becoming increasingly louder as the first half drew to a close. 

The day had started early for the 'Union in Englisch' crowd as we joined forces with the Danish Union supporters and took over the Oscar Wilde pub in Berlin's Mitte district. We were also joined by representatives of the Swedish Unioner and our good friends from the Eiserne Botschafter. Friedrichstraße station was awash with red and white. Even those who were in the 'home' end were wearing Union scarves and were later able to walk freely around the stadium with no hint of trouble. There was an estimated 25,000 Union fans in the ground. Around 30% of the capacity. Without the neutrals and the international fans, who had traveled en masse, the derby probably would not have sold out. As Erik from the Swedish Unioner fan club pointed out, 'Hertha Berlin have spectators and Union Berlin have fans.'  That's not to decry the Ostkurve, who do their best to create an atmosphere. It's just difficult in such a large arena with a running track and music that's played when the home team score.

The differences between the two clubs are stark. Hertha have spent lavishly in comparison to their neighbours, possess a gigantic rented stadium and the 40th and 75th minute were sponsored by firms keen to advertise themselves to the clubs' fans. They also went into the game as clear favourites and were a massive 15 points ahead of Union, and to give some context to Union's achievement, had conceded only 5 goals at home this season before the derby. The best defensive record in the division. Union finished this game with the 3rd worst away defence, in terms of goals conceded, in the league. The top three have now scored a total of 9 goals against the Berliners. Union's advantage is whilst they have garnered only 2 points from these three games, they have scored an impressive 8 goals in reply.

Union made a mockery of the stats and were leading inside 10 minutes. I've no idea what happened as I was probably about a mile away from the action on almost the back row of the upper-tier. Terodde scored - I learned this from someone in front of us who had an app. The delights of modern day football and watching in an international sporting arena. The net bulged and 25,000 Union fans went berserk. Standard stuff at big football games. I was hugging the long haired German, jumping around with my mate Rob and trading high-fives with 'app woman' and her husband. When Union score, whether home or away, I get this feeling of being at one with my fellow fans. I may not be fluent in German but football transcends this. Barriers fall down like a wall as people lose their inhibitions and freely hug strangers. Much as they probably did in Berlin on November 9th 1989.

If you're reading this blog it is unlikely you need a match report. A blow by blow account is not what I can offer. The emotion and tension was that of a derby. You will the clock forward. At one stage in the second half I was sure that the seconds had started to slow down on the huge electronic scoreboard above the Ostkurve. I was worried. Half-time passed with much merriment as a home fan failed with his answer when guessing the amount of stations between Ostkreuz and Köpenick. It's 5 not 4. Ludicrous half-time entertainment from DB - the Hertha sponsors. As ludicrous as the situation on the S-Bahn post-match, as it took us over 2 hours to get back to our side of the city.    

I'd seen Union away in Braunschweig and we'd surrendered the lead twice. The nerves were settled when Mattuschka put the ball on a plate for Nemec. We could see this time and I ended up in the row in front due to the euphoric celebrations. This was 'our time' I thought. I did not dare breathe this out loud to Rob. Don't jinx it I told myself. The atmosphere was incessant. The sound could not escape out of the 'Marathon Gate' as Union increasingly upset Hertha's rhythm and closed down the home side. Union's players were clearly beginning to tire. Mattuschka had put in a tremendous shift, breaking up play, spreading the ball wide to the impressive Zoundi and  playing the role of leader. He rose to the occasion as top players invariably do. He left the field to a rapturous applause from one-third of the stadium.

The Brazilian, Ronny, had been shackled all game. The Union defence had spent an hour and a quarter brushing off their rivals with relative ease. However, they were undone by two set-pieces and it took something special and the help of the referee for Hertha to drag themselves back into the game. Union failed to clear the ball on a couple of occasions in the left full-back area. After the ball pinged about a free-kick was awarded. I was too far away to definitively tell if it was dubious. It appeared so and the referee had long since lost control of the game; brandishing cards at will and removing the ability to make a robust challenge out of the game. 

As fate would have it the free-kick was a carbon copy of the Mattuschka effort that won the derby for Union back in 2011. 'He's too fucking far over,' I muttered as Haas, the Union keeper lined up his wall and stood two yards from his post. The gap was big enough to drive a Russian tank through, the wall failed and the ball ended up in the bottom corner. The Brazilian ran off to jump in the snow. The Unioner broke out in song. It was still a triumph though. We'd twice breached the meanest defence in the league. We'd shown it was not about resources but about team spirit, passionate fans and the pro-pyro lobby will have been happy. Union will likely be fined for the dramatic red flares that lit up the away end. Nonsensical stuff.

The nonsense was far from over though. The game was finished, we trudged off to wait silently together, red and blue, young and old, mother and son, father and daughter, 'auslander' (foreigner) and German. Then it happened. The nonsense. Rival fans were on separate platforms and took advantage of the mounds of snow that had been piled up. A few snowballs were thrown. All good natured. Then someone wearing blue - I won't dignify the idiot with the term fan - threw a glass bottle into the middle of the fans a mere 10 yards from where we were stood. The glass bottle rested near my feet and then we realised someone had been hit. Blood everywhere, the Unioner once again spilling blood for the cause. A sad and unnecessary end to a wonderful weekend. There were woman and children on the platform. Luckily there was no retaliation. 

It was, whilst not in terms of points, a victory for Union and I was proud to be part of it. Nobody expected such a high quality performance. Whilst Union could not mimic the 2011 victory, the performance was a significant improvement and Hertha were made to look poor this time round. Union may not gain promotion this season but only a fool would bet against them making an incredible ascent to the top tier in the next few seasons. Perhaps the next time Union play Hertha, both teams will be in the Bundesliga 1. 

For more images of the derby take a look at the superb 

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

International FC Union Berlin supporters - Berlin derby weekend

The score last time at the Olympiastadion

Union in Englisch

Firstly, the name is not serious. Thanks for the correspondence and feedback though. My favourite was that it should be 'English' not 'Englisch.' At present we have a facebook page and Twitter account. We're meeting before the next Union game to discuss website content and to start building the site. We're especially interested in articles on your visits to Union, why Union and of course any pictures. Post them on our page, drop us an e-mail ( or send us a tweet to @unioninenglisch - it's always great to hear from people.

Stickers available on the day - limited edition
What is the point?

Someone asked me this the other day. I told them to jump. There is no point. You live. You die. Sorry, why have a fan club with information in English - everyone should speak enough German to sort out tickets or they should not bother attending. That's an interesting view but not a view we subscribe to. Firstly, we're made up of a bunch of people from the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. English is our common language. We all speak German to varying degrees of success. We all love speaking to the locals and learning about the history of Union. If we can then pass on what we learn to the English speaking world we see that as a good thing. No Dice Magazine has been a big success story recently. An English language magazine all about Berlin football. People told them they were mad. They proved the critics wrong. It's been a huge success.

The Launch

On Sunday at 17:00 we'll be launching the concept of an English speaking supporters group of Eisern Union. Details here about the exhibition. Union is about more than football. It's about community and it's also about the theatre (there is an Union play) and about art. The Eiserne Botschafter (Union Ambassadors) have kindly partnered with us to host our launch event. A massive coup and we're delighted as they have a Union Berlin modern museum which will open as well. It has numerous Union artefacts and is worth a visit in its own right.

The exhibition will feature 32 photographs dating back to 2006. We can exclusively reveal that the prints (300mm by 450mm - pretty big!) will be available to order on the night. They will be €10 each or 2 for €15 (excluding postage and packing). This is simply to cover the costs of the exhibition. Hopefully we'll have some cash in the kitty to fund the website too! If you live abroad (or in Berlin) we'll of course post them out to you in special tubes to protect the prints.

After the exhibition we will be going to an Union pub nearby. An experience in itself. Check out the event page above for details.

What else can I do over the weekend in Berlin?

Clearly there are a lot of international Union supporters in Berlin for the derby on Monday. If you're anything like us you'll be spending the weekend taking in a mixture of culture, football, average food and drinking. To help you with all of these things just read on.

Regular contributor Felix has put together a good list of games that are on over the weekend. Click here to read it. My personal recommendation is the Tennis Borussia game on the Friday night. A gem of a stadium and great club. If you want to see Union place twice during your stay, then it's Union Berlin II vs. Red Bull Leipzig (Regionalliga) at the Jahnsportpark for you!  Handy if you want to brave the elements and take in the legendary Mauerpark flea market prior to the game. For a traditional German breakfast I strongly recommend Entweder Oder which is also nearby. 

Derby Day

As well as our launch event we'll be meeting for a few pre-match drinks on Monday afternoon. Whether you are an Unioner or a Hertha fan, we'd love to see you for a beer. This is a friendly city derby and we're keen to enter in to the spirit of things. We're hopeful the UK Hertha fans will join us as well!

We've decided to travel to the game from Friedrichstraße via the S-Bahn. We needed a pub in close proximity and have opted for an Irish boozer - Oscar Wilde. It serves food, alcohol and is an ideal central meeting point. The plan is to be in there from around 15:00 and depart just before 18:00. If you can't find us then ask at the bar or look for 10 Swedish lads!