'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!