Sunken gladly into our S-bahn seats on the way home from the Stadion an der Alten Försterei, two friends and I received a stern warning. “You might have had fun today,” the two Union Berlin fans opposite told us, “But you won’t be really welcome unless you come when the team are struggling, too.”
Thankfully Anne and Corinna, my companions on Saturday, are not ladies who flinch easily. In fact, although they have never been to a Union game before, I’m fairly sure they are as iron as any of the women we saw wearing “Eisenen Mädchen” t-shirts. Both scoffed at the posturing blokes who, it has to be said, did themselves no good by confessing they sleep in Union bed sheets.
Though perhaps pompous in their delivery, our slightly sozzled train mates did have a right to drive a hard bargain. Union really is their club. They played their part in building its new stadium, proudly painting the red stripes at the top of each concrete stair we had climbed and along with 2,000 other supporters contributing numerous hours of toil to re-house their beloved team. They did a great job, too. Because Union’s stadium is a magnificent place – compact, with steep stands that rise out of the Köpenick woods like a concrete fairly-tale castle and butt up as close to the pitch as humanly possible.
We couldn’t help but linger on the terracing to take it all in as the crowds filed out following a fortuitous 2-0 win against Allemannia Aachen. The low Autumn sun was a blessing and a gentle entropy swirled pleasantly around us as fans trundled hither and thither, joyously shredded tickets fluttered in the breeze and kids skipped up and down the steps. After an edifying afternoon in Sector 2, Block H, it was like staying to watch the end credits of a particularly fine film.
Moments before we had saluted the victorious players as they made their way round the ground to thank the fans. It cannot be emphasised enough how gratifying that sight in German stadiums is. Union’s players must easily retain their humility, though. This is after all a place where the substitutes bench really is a wooden bench sandwiched between stand and touchline, rather than an array of leather-clad bucket seats with built-in heating. In an age where the world’s top players earn in a week as much as punters can hope to earn in a decade, it feels significant that somewhere in the universe, a bench is still just a bench.
Christopher Quiring was summoned from it in the 64th minute, much to the delight of the home crowd, who promised us that their number two would soon be playing in the Erste Liga. One jinking run later and he won the penalty that sealed Union’s victory, prompting satisfied grins and much singing from the faithful, who had been in fine voice the entire game. Research has shown the psychological benefits of singing in a choir, and it must be true of football crowds, too. Joining the thronging red ranks of Union supporters for an afternoon is a chance to leave your worries at the turnstile, loosen your vocal chords and let your uncertain voice grow in volume and sureness as it finds its range, however limited. The crowd did just that – conjuring some surprisingly melodic songs from the club repertoire (many packing an east-German punch that pleased Anne and Corinna, both born and raised in the DDR). There is something unmistakably rock and roll about the Union songbook and the rise and fall of voices and the rhythmic bouncing of the crowd is beguiling. It is sad how rare it has become to hear men’s singing voices, however wonky and tune-shy they may be. En masse, they retain the power to make neck hairs stand on end.
If there is a bum note struck in the crowd it is by the megaphone-wielding capos, who are by no means an annoyance unique to Union. In fact, Matthias, a fan in front of me pointed out that the Union capos at least had some feel for the cut and thrust of the game and let the chanting ebb and flow with the action. Perhaps. I can only say that however fun chanting “Sha la la la, Union” is, that my brain started to feel lobotomised after being tyrannically pummelled with the same handful of syllables for ten-minute stretches. If that is what the modern fan is after – complete and utter sensory shut down – I can sympathise. But it leaves too little room for exuberance, wit or spontaneity, something Union fans surely possess in spades.
Who are the Union fans though? Superficially, they are more about beards and less about scarf-skirts. They are fathers and sons and tiny grinning granddaughters perched on shoulders. They are Köpenick locals and an East-Berlin diaspora returning home every two weeks. They are also traditionalists, increasingly rubbing shoulders with a new breed infiltrating their number. Indeed, as we had walked to the stadium before the game, I had asked Anna and Corrina if this was a special moment for them. The romantic in me had imagined that the mythology of Union as the DDR’s anti-regime club had captivated them since childhood and finally led them up to this fateful moment, traipsing in a jolly crowd smelling of beer, bouletten and Karo cigarettes to see “Die Eiserne”.
“Quatsch,” was their unsentimental response. Like many, they had simply become curious three seasons ago when the club set up shop in well-heeled Prenzlauerberg, during the rebuilding of its stadium. Every fortnight, Eberswalder Strasse filled with red shirts and a pleasant rumble emerged from the Jahnsportpark. The locals’ interest was piqued and some followed the club back to Köpenick.
They will have to face the same tests we were warned of. The club is after all “Unsere Liebe, unsere Mannschaft, unser Stolz, unser Verein” – “Our love, our team, our pride, our club” – not just anyone’s. And although that is a potent slogan and an intoxicating chant, it is a statement of an identity forged in opposition. Union is proud to be seen as anti-everything (even the mascot is a mace-wielding knight ready to take on all-comers), but what will happen when the last Stasi mitarbeiter has been purged from its staff or its sponsors or faded from its rivals’ crowds? When the notion of the “West”, to whom fans insist in their anthem the club will never be sold, dissolves? There is abundant bullishness and good humour on the home terrace that augurs well for the club. That will hopefully ensure that the kids gambolling around the ground inherit something precious when they grow up, rather than something soured: a warm and welcoming soul, rather than an embittered heart. Because, there is something exhilarating and enticing about Union these days, that prompted my friends one summer’s evening to say, “ We would love to go to Union Berlin”. That is how every new fan’s journey begins and in their new home, in a changing Berlin, Union must remember to look forward to a bright future as well as back to an embattled past.
Titus Chalk is a freelance football journalist who has been living in Berlin since August 2010. For "11Freunde" he writes a column about the English Premier League. For Tagesspiegel.de he writes about football culture in Berlin. Titus loves his Kiez in deepest Neukölln (apart from the dog mess) and is marginally addicted to kebabs. He plans to learn about Berlin through its fan culture and will one day communicate with you entirely in German (with added Schnauze). Allet Jut!