Union Berlin, once an impoverished East German upstart, is now Bayern Munich’s biggest challenger

FC Union Berlin players celebrate a goal during Thursday’s Europa League match versus Ajax at Stadion an der alten Försterei in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by NESimages/Michael Bulder/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

The story of Bayern Munich’s most improbable Bundesliga challenger begins in earnest behind the Berlin Wall.

FC Union Berlin now stands tall atop the German league, level on points with Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, as the ultimate antidote to soccer’s rampant commercialism. But when it first emerged in its current form, after a series of renamings in communist East Germany, it established itself as an antidote to the Stasi, the state’s secret police. Union was not a political vehicle, and its rebellious identity has since been overstated; but it became a refuge from dull life in the authoritarian republic, and a rival of the communist party’s favored club.

So it relied on local companies, such as a cable factory, rather than the federal government. While its rival, BFC Dynamo, won 10-straight East German titles, Union bounced between upper and lower tiers. It then settled into a regional third-tier league after the country’s 1990 reunification. For decades, it languished in obscurity.

In the ’90s — as Bayern won its 12th, 13th and 14th Bundesliga titles over in the West — Union constantly flirted with financial ruin, and perhaps even extinction. In 2008, it needed to renovate its century-old stadium simply to maintain its license and its place in the third-tier Regionalliga Nord, and then the newly created 3. Liga.

Its problem, as ever, was money.

So it turned to the bedrock of the club, its heartbeat since its pre-war origins: the fans.

Thousands of them volunteered over 100,000 hours to rebuild the Stadion An der Alten Försterei — literally the Stadium at the Old Forester’s House — whose stone steps had been crumbling. They turned up every morning at 7 a.m. to save the club millions of euros in renovation costs, and make up for a lack of government funding. They poured concrete and wielded shovels; they sweat during days and froze at night; they put off vacations and new jobs, all to repel the German soccer federation’s threat to close their decrepit but beloved home.

They refurbished it to meet standards just as their team earned promotion to the second division. And then, a decade later, the fairytale really unspooled.

In 2019, Union ascended to the Bundesliga for the first time in its history. The club made $58 million in revenue that season — roughly one-twelfth of Bayern’s $700 million turnover. It splashed out $11 million in total on a dozen players that summer, its goal to simply survive in the top flight. It did that, and then did more. It finished seventh in 2020-21, then fifth last season. It qualified for the Europa League, where, on Thursday, it eliminated four-time European champ Ajax in a cauldron of rain and organic noise.

Now it is off to Munich on Sunday (11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN+), to the gargantuan Allianz Arena, for a top-of-the-table clash beyond anybody’s wildest dreams.

Bayern is royalty, German soccer’s aristocracy, the winner of 10 consecutive titles by an average margin of 13.6 points, and of 31 Bundesligas since the league’s founding in the 1960s. Its roster is worth more than $1 billion. Its 75,000-capacity stadium is named after a multinational financial services company. Its commercial power is irreversible and its grip on German soccer has seemed unyielding. Even RB Leipzig — backed by Red Bull — and Dortmund — backed by 150,000 members and $400 million in annual revenue and decades of winning — have been unable to break Bayern’s monopoly on success.

Then along came Union (pronounced oon-yōn) Berlin. They have been called “Germany’s Leicester,” but their roots are far more humble and their sustained rise even more far-fetched.

BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 23: stadium overview outside prior to the UEFA Europa League knockout round play-off leg two match between 1. FC Union Berlin and AFC Ajax at Stadion an der alten Försterei on February 23, 2023 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by NESimages/Michael Bulder/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

An outside look at FC Union Berlin’s Stadion an der alten Försterei, which fans helped renovate. (Photo by NESimages/Michael Bulder/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Union Berlin’s working-class origin

Union traces its roots back to 1906, and although its lineage is complicated, its core identity has persisted. It began as FC Olympia Oberschöneweide, a club in southeastern Berlin populated largely by employees of the region’s factories. Many were metalworkers. Union’s main slogan and rallying cry — “Eisern Union!” (“Iron Union”) — is a relic of this early era. So is the club’s working-class image.

Its early success, though, was interrupted by war. All German soccer clubs were dissolved after the Allied victory in World War II. The subsequent Cold War years were equally turbulent. Some members of the re-formed (and constantly renamed) club trekked to West Berlin in the ’50s. Then the wall went up in 1961.

In the years that followed, East German authorities sought to reorganize soccer, and they envisioned two East Berlin powers. ASK Vorwärts Berlin and BFC Dynamo were established and supported by state security forces. In 1966, 1. FC Union Berlin became the “civilian club,” a relative outsider with ties to the national trade union.

And so it developed a reputation as a dissident club full of anti-Stasi sentiment. Narratives were fueled by government favoritism that funneled top players to BFC Dynamo and allegedly rigged results via threats and payments to referees. FC Union fans — who regularly clashed with counterparts at rival clubs and drew disproportionate blame for the disorder — would reportedly chant about the “scheisse Stasi!” (“s*** Stasi”) and that “the wall must go.”

Those reports have been exaggerated and that reputation oversimplified, many people affiliated with Union have said. Sure, there were many fans who detested communist rule, but there were also plenty who amicably tolerated it. What they rallied around was not an ideology; it was a soccer team.

Matches at the Alte Försterei stadium injected vibrancy into an existence that, for many, was somewhere between monotonous and oppressive. So Union, for tens of thousands of locals, became a forever love.

They remained devoted throughout the ’90s, even as Union was denied promotions from third to second tier because of its financial instability. They stuck by it even after it forged bank guarantees and struggled with debt. In 2004, with the club in desperate need of 1.5 million euros, they started a “Bleed for Union” campaign, whereby they’d donate blood and forward the compensation they received on to the club. In the end, its actual saviors were local companies and, in particular, a businessman named Dirk Zingler, who has been the club’s president ever since; but the fans’ ingenuity became folkloric.

A few years later, they helped modernize the stadium, and a few years after that they bought it — or at least shares of it, at 500 euros per, to help service loans associated with further construction. They own both the stadium and the club, literally and spiritually. In a sport increasingly populated by sheiks and American billionaires, this upstart in leafy East Berlin has become something of a hipster’s paradise.

Union's head coach Urs Fischer, second right, tries to calm down players and team's staff after the Europa League playoff second leg soccer match between 1. FC Union Berlin and Ajax Amsterdam in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. Union Berlin defeated Amsterdam by 3-1. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Union’s head coach Urs Fischer, second right, tries to calm down players and team’s staff after the Europa League match against Ajax in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. Union Berlin defeated Ajax by 3-1. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

‘Our love, our team, our pride, our club’

When they arrived in the Bundesliga four short years ago, some Union fans actually worried that the pulls of commercialism and the need to compete monetarily could corrupt the club’s foundation. But thus far, nothing has. The 22,000-capacity stadium has retained its original name and family vibe. It still emerges from the forest, with standing terraces unencumbered by advertisements, and with a man who reaches out of a red-brick structure in one corner to change the low-tech scoreboard by hand.

So no, it is not flush with cash like its English Premier League brethren or fellow Bundesliga contenders. Its revenues have obviously soared since promotion — to $129.5 million last season, up from $77.2 million in 2020-21 — but they remain one-fifth of Bayern’s. Its wage bill pales in comparison. Its club-record signing, Croatian wing-back Josip Juranovic for $9 million last month, would not rank in Bayern’s all-time top 40.

It has cycled through players who exceed expectations and then jump at higher salaries elsewhere. And yet, somehow, it just keeps on winning.

Its mastermind is a 57-year-old bespectacled, baseball-cap-wearing Swiss coach named Urs Fischer, whose compact 3-5-2 system underpins their recent success. His starting 11, outside of Juranovic, cost the club less than $10 million in reported transfer fees — and less than one-tenth of one Bayern bench player. But this cobbled-together team, mostly acquired for free from the likes of Sandhausen and ADO Den Haag, has been resolute and fiercely spirited.

Their climb to the top of the Bundesliga, and to the Europa League round of 16, has been one of discipline and smarts and fire. They have been met at every stage by an expectation, even an assumption, that skill and style will eventually win out. Bayern’s goal differential is a whopping plus-40, compared to Union’s 11. Underlying numbers, such as Expected Goals, tell a similarly fluky story. Surely, they mumble, this cannot last.

But fussball, as the Germans call it, can be a funny game, especially when 11 players and tens of thousands of supporters fight or sing for each other, and endeavor as one.

That is what Union will do on Sunday in Munich and beyond. And no matter the result, they will still have each other; they will still have “unsere liebe, unsere mannschaft, unser stolz, unser verein,” as the fans sing — “our love, our team, our pride, our club.”


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