In GDR times, East Berlin football club 1. FC Union Berlin was known for being anti-Stasi. In the stadium, supporters chanted ‘Die Mauer muß weg’. 25 years after the fall the club has not let go of its image of necessary irritant yet, although now its supporters fight Red Bull rather than the secret service. Union always comes first.
In the Köpenick disctrict on the very outskirts of East Berlin, players of FC Schluckauf ’82 are preparing for their match against Hobelbank. They’re going over their tactics in the pouring rain. A handful of friends and family have gathered in the dugout to watch the game.
Schluckauf ’82 is a supporters’ club: all members are really fan of professional football club 1. FC Union Berlin. There must be at least eighty of this type of clubs, says Schluckauf ’82 coach and founder Frank Völker (54). He’s standing next to the goal. His boys won this year’s competition by beating every supporters’ club, for which they were honored in Alten Försterei, the stadium of 1. FC Union Berlin. A tremendous honor: “They were welcomed like true professionals.”
The stadium is a special place for supporters. In 2008, it was renovated entirely by fans, because the club was in dire straits financially. All together, fans have worked on the renovations for approximately 140 thousand hours. Völker: “Everyone has contributed to the stadium. I even know people who temporarily quit their jobs.” Then, the supporters bought the stadium: every club member put in 500 euros.
It’s a real working class club, according to Völker. Just like Köpenick is a real working class neighborhood. You won’t find a place that sells soy burgers and lattes here, unlike in other, more hipster parts of East Berlin. The club is like family. If Union wins, every bar near the stadium will give out free rounds of beer, says Völker. They even celebrate Christmas together. Over twenty thousand fans get together in the stadium every year to sing Silent Night and O Tannenbaum. The club’s anthem Die Hymne, performed by East German singer Nina Hagen, also blares through the speakers at Christmas time – and at every match: Wir aus dem Osten/ geh’n immer nach vorn/ Schulter an Schulter/ für Eisern Union/ Hart sind die Zeiten/ und hart ist das Team/ Darum siegen wir/ mit Eisern Union (translation: We from the east/ will always go forward/ side by side/ for the Iron Union/ Times are tough/ and tough is our team/ That’s why we win/ with the Iron Union).
In GDR times, the supporters felt connected through their fight against the communist system. Together, they chanted anti-Stasi slogans. “Beating BFC Dynamo Berlin – the secret service home team – felt like we’d single-handedly taken down the Wall,” says Völker. It’s a feeling that still unites long-time fans to this day. For younger fans today, the club is mostly an ordinary football club, Volker says. His never takes his eyes off the brightly-lit field. “Younger supporters who grew up after the fall of the Wall don’t know the real Union fan culture. Mostly, they want to light fireworks in the stadium and party in a bar afterwards.”
“Younger supporters mostly, they want to light fireworks in the stadium and party in a bar afterwards.”
Whenever he attends a match in Alten Försterei, he’s still among the same people he watched the game with back in 1975. “I wouldn’t say they want the Wall to be resurrected, but from the moment the borders opened, East Germans have been going through a lot.” He sums up: issues concerning drugs, prostitution, and foreigners. “We never had to deal with any of that before. The younger generation has no idea. Last summer several Union fans were at the World Cup in Brazil. That would have been unimaginable 25 years ago. But even after all these years, the relations between East and West Germany are still crooked. There’s still a divide: the east is still poor, and the west is still rich.”
UNION VERSUS THE SECRET SERVICE
Völker has been an 1. FC Union Berlin supporter since 1973. A friend took him to a match after school one time, and from that moment he could be found at Alten Försterei every single week. Völker: “I’m lucky he didn’t take me to BFC Dynamo, or I might have become a Dynamo supporter.” He laughs at his own joke. In the GDR era BFC Dynamo Berlin and 1. FC Union Berlin were fierce rivals. BFC Dynamo president was Erich Mielke, who was also head of the Stasi. He used tricks that made sure BFC Dynamo won the GDR Oberliga year after year: bribing and threatening referees, and taking players from other clubs and ‘delegating’ them to Dynamo, as it was called. And whenever 1. FC Union was ahead, they’d just add another ten minutes to the match, says the coach.
The greatest game Völker ever saw dates back to 1976, when 1. FC Union miraculously beat BFC Dynamo. “They tried everything: extra time, penalties, but nothing worked.” As a result, Dynamo had no chance of winning the competition anymore, as opposed to every other year. Völker: “That in itself was considered a crime against the state.” He remembers him and 20 thousand other Union fans parading through Friedrichstrasse, right alongside the Wall. Völker: “It was a major victory. We had beaten the system.”
“We had beaten the system.”
Soon, Völker started noticing men wearing suits and ties in Alten Försterei more and more often. It was obvious they weren’t fans. “They took pictures and were always there.” Their presence didn’t stop him from singing along, though. If his team was granted a free kick and the opponent formed wall, the fans would sing: ‘Die Mauer muß weg, Die Mauer muß weg!’ Völker: “We’d also chant ‘Scheisse Stasi!’” Völker beams with pride talking about it. “We mainly wanted to rattle the police.” His assistant coach is nodding next to him: “Union was a club for rebels. Like The Rolling Stones.” Suddenly, Völker explodes. His boys are screwing up against Hobelbank. “Defense! Look left!” He’s pacing up and down the line, gesturing wildly. All his boys can do is sprint across the wet grass.
At halftime, all six members of the audience gather in the strip-lit container behind the football pitch, which serves as a cafeteria. Packets of shag tobacco are prodced, and half-liter beer cans are opened. The five men and a single woman are eager to talk about their love for Union – a love that was kindled only after the Wall had fallen.
“You can tell it comes straight from the heart.”
What was the deal exactly with the club in GDR times? Nobody really talks to each other about that. Older supporters who’ve grown up in the GDR have explained Union was an anti-Stasi club, of course. “It’s still tangible whenever we play against Dynamo,” one of the boys tells us. “During those matches, the long-time fans are louder than the young supporters. They’ll roar non-stop for ninety minutes. You can tell it comes straight from the heart.” The post-Wall fans love it, and always join in, but forget all about Dynamo Berlin the next day: "That club has been insignificant for years now. They play Oberliga, while we play 2. Bundesliga.”
Tobias Ott (26) is in the cafeteria as well. He’s been a fan ever since he could walk, he says. Ten years ago, his father – a hardcore Union Berlin supporter from Köpenick – took him to the blood bank for the Blüten für Union campaign. Ott visisted the blood bank as often as he could, because every cent he made from it went directly to Union. The campaign was set up by fans to help their team into the Regional Liga. The club was only allowed to play regional if it had a 1.46 million-euro reserve. And Union could leave that to the fans.
To Ott, the club comes first: he spends at least a couple thousand euros a year on Union. His employers – he works in home care and food and beverage – won’t put him on the work schedule when Union plays. And he travels the country to see his club play in every corner of Germany. He, too, helped build the stadium, although he claims that’s nothing special: “We’ve all contributed.” The others nod in agreement.
The club’s GDR history doesn’t really interest him. He’s not very political, he says. He does, however, strongly oppose the trend of sports sponsorship becoming more important than football itself. Last September he and thousands of other Union fans joined the campaign against club RB Leipzig. The campaign was a protest against Red Bull, the owner and main sponsor of the East German club. Alten Försterei was decorated with banners reading ‘In Leipzig stirbt die Fussballkultur’ (Leipzig’s football culture is dying) and texts the like. At the entrance, Union supporters gave out thousands of black ponchos to fellow fans. The first ten minutes of the match, all black-clad Union fans were completely silent. RB Leipzig supporters didn’t know what hit them. Then after ten minutes Union fans started a countdown after which they burst out chanting Eisern Union! Eisern Union! The stadium exploded, says Ott.
The club is proud of the fact it’s not dependent on a single sponsor like RB Leipzig. Besides, Union has a reputation to uphold: in 2009, the club let go of their main sponsor ISP because the manager had a Stasi past. Völker: “A club can’t do business with someone who has worked with the Stasi for ten years. Money is less important to Union than our history and our image.” Striking detail: when in 2011 it came to light their own chairman president Dirk Zingler had been affiliated with Stasi, he could stay. “Zingler spent three years with the Stasi , but only because he wanted to go to college. You were only allowed to apply for college after having spent at least 18 months in the military. Since Zingler has done so many great things for our club over the past years, firing him didn’t cross anyone’s mind.”
The rainy night ends in a 1-3 loss for FC Schluckauf ’82 against Hobelbank. A shame, we should have done much better considering our status of champions, Völker says a few days later. He’s sitting at a table outside Die kleinste Brauerei Deutschlands (Germany’s smallest brewery) in Köpenick. It’s twelve in the afternoon, and Völker orders a half liter cherry beer with chilis.
Völker also participated in the campaign against RB Leipzig: “Of course,” he says. Anything for Union. The club wants to show the public it doesn’t depend on sponsors. Nina Hagen even touched on it in her club anthem: Wer lässt sich nicht vom Westen kaufen?/ Eisern Union, Eisern Union! (Who won’t be bought by the West?/ The Iron Union, the Iron Union!) Still, Völker believes the younger generation’s aversion to sports sponsorship must be taken with a pinch of salt. “Yes, Union is against commercial sponsorship to an extent. The Alten Försterei can never be sold, and the stadium belongs to the fans.” But the older generation knows better than that, says Völker: “Union can’t survive without sponsors. And if it weren’t for Red Bull, Leipzig would no longer have a football time. That’s just the way it is.”
Without money, we’re done, he states matter-of-factly. “Those kids have tunnel vision. All they can think of is being against it all, but at the same time they show up at trainings sipping from a can of Red Bull. I have to say there are fanatics who won’t touch Red Bull ever again – they’ve switched to other energy drinks.”
WORKING AT THE UNION GAS STATION
At the brightly-lit Zapfstelle 1. FC Union Berlin gas station close to Schöneweide Station – also in Köpenick – we find Daniel Zwick (29) behind the counter. He stopped drinking Red Bull after the campaign against RB Leipzig in September of this year. He does still sell it. He just started his shift. It’s nine thirty, and he only gets off work at five in the morning. This is what he does five nights a week. It is what it is, he says, and shrugs. Zwick: “I want to work here. What other employee would allow me to wear a Union T-shirt for eight hours?” It’s his dream job, even if he’s had to give up a lot for it. “I hardly see daylight, and my friends say I make little money, but it’s all for the club.”
A football club with its own gas station. Union slogans are everywhere. Over the beverage cooler it says Eisern Union!. Apart from magazines and snacks, the store also offers Union T-shirts and pennants. The wall’s adorned with black-and-white pictures of well-known players from days past, and a TV screen shows the club’s highlights. Tickets for Union matches can be bought at the register. You’d think the money of people coming here all ends up with the football club.
Zwick: “The fans think the same thing. They’ll make a detour just to pump gas here so they can support their club. Then again, there are people who drive to another gas station for the exact opposite reason, too. Thing is, this gas station doesn’t belong to Union. It’s a Total station, and they happen to sponsor Union.
Zwick was four when the Wall fell. He doesn’t remember it at all, but sometimes his mother talks to him about that time. She used to work at a butcher’s in Köpenick. “She’ll say it wasn’t all bad, because everyone received education, had a job, and a home.”
What are his dreams for the future? He hopes to win the lottery, he laughs. Then, sincerely: he wants to keep his job at the Union gas station for as long as possible. It’s his dream job. If only he’d have fewer night shifts: “I can do this for another four years at the most; these night shifts have been really tough for a year now.” He pauses. His actual dream would be to travel to the US and do Route 66. “But if I can’t save for that, 1. FC Union making it into the 1. Bundesliga would be great, too.”