Union Berlin, once an elevator club, now at home among the rich boys of Bundesliga

In 2019, when Union Berlin earned qualification to the Bundesliga for the first time in their history, a section of their fans came up with a cheeky way to mark their first game in the intimidating world of Germany’s top footballing tier. They wanted to show up wearing what you would typically describe as vacation attire: Bermuda shorts and paraphernalia like a big camera hanging from the neck, snorkeling glasses, skiing shoes, water float around the waist and a beach ball. The idea was a hat-tip to what club president Dirk Zingler had once said: should Union Berlin ever get promoted to the top tier, it would be like a holiday for them ― a holiday for which they had been saving money for years.

For a club of Union’s means, the tryst with the big, bad world of Bundesliga was never meant to last more than a year — a vacation. The club had a reputation for being what the Germans call a fahrstuhlmannschaft — an elevator club that yo-yos between the various tiers of German football. The fans’ wariness of playing in the Bundesliga was perfectly captured in a four-word banner they unfurled in a game in 2018 when it seemed like they could actually get promoted: Scheiße… wir steigen auf. Shit, we’re going up!

“That banner was made with a sense of self-irony, as a joke. But everyone wanted to get promoted. When you qualify for the Bundesliga for the first time, you’re among the poorest clubs in the league, because all the others will have earned money from broadcast rights from the previous season. Even now, we’re among the bottom one third of clubs in terms of money we get. But at least we’re not at the bottom anymore,” head of media for the club Christian Arbeit told The Indian Express earlier last week, before the club’s game on Saturday against RB Leipzig.

A banner held by fans of Union Berlin in 2018 that reads Scheiße… wir steigen auf. (Shit, we’re going up!)

Despite the clear gulf in financial spending, Union have not only managed to stay in the Bundesliga, but also get better each passing season. Since being promoted in 2019, the club from the German capital has successively finished higher in the standings: 11th in the 2019-20 season, seventh the next season and fifth the last season.

After 20 games in the current Bundesliga gone, Union are currently placed second in the league, just one point behind Bayern Munich and with more wins than the Bavarians.

The club has made progress by playing practical football rather than trying to emulate the attractive style that you would associate with Bayern or Dortmund. “In the first season, we relied a lot on long balls to get us the goals. We knew if we tried to emulate the Bayerns of the world, they will kill us on the pitch. Ours was a simple, yet effective, style. For us, good football doesn’t have to be very technically sophisticated,” said Arbeit.

“If you look at clubs with bigger budgets, like Wolfsburg or Hoffenheim or the traditional big teams like Borussia Monchengladbach you will see they’re not stable in themselves right now. They have bigger budgets than us, but no continuity in the head coach’s position or even their CEOs. If your management is not stable, how can your team be stable?” added Arbeit, a man who has been doubling up as a stadium announcer on matchdays for the team since 2005.

Their steady success has also been built on frugal spending in the transfer market, stability in the managerial position with Urs Fischer at the helm since June 2018, a stingy defence (only Bayern have conceded less goals than them) and cult-like support from the fans.

All those factors make them the modern-day antithesis of RB Leipzig, who they beat on Saturday at Leipzig’s home in a fixture given a prime-time slot.

In the aftermath of the result, midfielder Rani Khedira could only call the season so far as ‘a bit surreal’. Coach Fischer was also lost for words. “Forty-two points in the 20th round, what should I say? The madness continues,” he said.

The game itself did not disappoint: Union’s robust defence and never-say-die spirit on the pitch helped them overcome a one-goal deficit to beat Leipzig 2-1. The 4,500-odd Union fans that had travelled to the imposing Red Bull Arena stayed silent for the first 15 minutes to protest the way Leipzig had been bankrolled by billionaires. But when that self-imposed period of silence ended, it felt like the volume knob in the stadium had been cranked up.

“The energy that our fans bring is something else. They are always involved in the game. Our fans don’t go to games thinking, ‘we’ve paid money to watch you play. Entertain me.’ They never boo our own players or manager. Three quarters of the stands in our home stadium is standing terraces. So fans are massed together, elbow to elbow. They’re not there to sit and enjoy the game (as a leisurely activity),” said Arbeit.

While ‘ultra fans’ are commonplace in football, in Union Berlin’s case, their fans have donated blood in 2004 to raise funds for the club, and helped construct a part of the stadium in 2009 when the club couldn’t afford to pay workers to renovate it. The team is also one of the last remaining teams in the Bundesliga completely owned by the fans, which is why the game against Leipzig, bankrolled by energy drink manufacturer Red Bull, carried an extra edge.

“The next few weeks will be our biggest challenge. Leipzig away, then Ajax away in the Europa League, then Schalke and Ajax at home. Then we go to Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund away,” he said.

And even as Union find themselves inhaling the heady, stratospheric air commonly found at the top of the table, they have one eye firmly trained on the ground.

“40 points. That’s our first marker and goal. No club has ever been relegated after getting at least 40 points in a season of the Bundesliga. That’s what the team and the club is about. We don’t have too high expectations. We’ve had so many hard times in the past that we just want to remember these times,” chuckled Arbeit.

The win over Leipzig pushed them past that 40-point marker. The vacation just got a little longer.

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