Ο γύρος του κόσμου με ένα σομπρέρο

“Shit, we are at the top of the Bundesliga!”

One morning in October 1906, Wilhelm Voigt got up from his bed, put on his captain’s uniform, went out onto the street, walked to a nearby military camp, and waited outside. When five soldiers appeared, he approached them and ordered them to follow him. As they made their way to the train station, six more passersby joined the small group of soldiers. Their destination was Köpenick, an area southeast of Berlin, about 30 minutes from the city center.

When they arrived there, Captain Voigt entered the town hall and arrested the mayor and treasurer, claiming that there had been a report of tampering with the accounting books. As part of the investigation he conducted, he was supposed to seize the money from the treasury, which at that moment held a little over 4,000 marks, and deliver it to his superiors. Shortly thereafter, he placed the two detainees in a passing wagon, asked the driver to transport them to headquarters for interrogation, and ordered the soldiers to guard the town hall while he prepared his report. Without anyone realizing it, he took the money and disappeared.

The 56-year-old Voigt had absolutely no connection to the military. He was an unemployed cobbler with a hobby of committing thefts, forgeries, and burglaries. To become a captain, even if only for a few hours, all he needed was a uniform that he sewed himself from various pieces of used clothing, along with some imagination and audacity.

The news spread throughout Germany and even reached the ears of the Kaiser. Voigt was arrested a few days later, but he had already become famous for his ingenious and audacious trick. The residents of Köpenick not only didn’t hold a grudge against him but turned him into a local folk hero and later placed a small statue of him at the entrance to the town hall!

FC Union Berlin was, for many years, the team of the working class on the eastern side of the divided capital. It was the common people’s response to the police and army teams. The sole serious alternative for the local metalworkers, students, artists, rock, and punk communities (later the anthem was sung by Nina Hagen, the ‘Godmother of German Punk,’ while in recent years, its captain is Christopher Trimmel, an honest right-back who locals often spot at punk rock and metal concerts and riding his beloved Harley-Davidson). It was a meeting place for people with long hair, cowboy boots, jeans, and slightly different views on the regime and Stasi’s actions. As a saying of the time went, ‘Not all Union fans are counter-revolutionaries, but all counter-revolutionaries are Union fans.’ According to legend, during fouls, the stands would shout, ‘The Wall must go,’ a phrase that, if heard anywhere outside the stadium, would have had far from pleasant consequences.

When the Wall came down, Union joined the 3rd division of Germany, where it remained stuck for a decade. Its inability to progress didn’t deter many in Köpenick. The uniqueness of the region couldn’t help but transfer into the DNA of their pride. The fans’ greatest fear was never losing by a heavy score or being relegated. They’ve proven this several times.

A few months ago, they had a proper party in the stands and sang ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ by Monty Python while their team was losing 4-0 to Leverkusen, which until then had only 2 wins in 13 matches. The year they first secured promotion to the Bundesliga, a peculiar, self-deprecating chant that later became a banner dominated: ‘Shit, we’re moving up a league!'”

Unlike many other well-known places, in that corner of Berlin, the result doesn’t determine whether people will support. In some years of the previous decade, the stadium had a 90% attendance rate in most games, with an average of 20,000 spectators per match!

In 2016, around 11,000 fans made a round trip of 1,000 kilometers midweek to Dortmund for a simple 2nd round cup match! They had never seen their team lift a title, never seen them play in the Bundesliga, never celebrated a high-profile signing; they were stuck in the 2nd division for years, and they didn’t have many hopes of leaving with a positive result from there. Nevertheless, they went in large numbers, sang, had their beers, were eliminated, and returned home with their heads held high, knowing they had done their duty.

At this particular stadium, you will never hear boos or jeers for a player having a terrible day. Willingness and effort suffice, even if they are not always evident. In place of harsh judgments, you’ll find support and encouragement. According to a local myth, when God created the world, He asked the stones if they wanted to become Union fans. The stones replied, ‘We don’t think we’re tough enough to handle it.’

What worries and concerns the Union fans more is not to change the character of the club. Not to alter the famous 50+1 rule that applies in Germany and allows fans to hold the fate of their team in their hands. Not to disturb this familial and camaraderie atmosphere that persists even today, being a neighborhood team in a globalized football world. Not to disrupt their beloved routine of going to the stadium, seeing their friends, drinking their beers and eating their sausages, and singing for their passion regardless of the score or division. The scenario with a foreign investor who comes out of nowhere, buys shares, spends money on expensive stars, builds a stadium that doubles as a shopping center with a big sponsor’s name on the marquee in a more commercial area and tries to create a catchy, global brand name and expand the customer base by attracting tourists from all over the world may sound ideal to many fans worldwide, but there it represents the definition of a nightmare.

Union was, is, and must remain theirs, with its strengths and weaknesses, with its unique aura, even with the limitations that arise from this uniqueness. They don’t just want this; they demand it and have earned the right to do so with their money, sweat, and even their blood.

Every time Union came close to disaster, its fans stood firm and managed to keep it alive. All on their own. With street fundraisers, sponsorships from local businesses, by organizing rock concerts or friendly matches with St. Pauli, with money they earned by giving their blood, in a now-famous campaign encouraging people to donate blood instead of money and contribute to the salvation fund. Thanks to all of the above, in 2004, 1.5 million euros were gathered within a few weeks, ensuring the precious participation license in the professional leagues of Germany was not lost.

A few years later, in 2008, when their ancient stadium, built in 1920, was deemed unsuitable to host matches in the 2nd division, the fans provided a solution once again. While there might not have been money for a complete reconstruction, there were plenty of willing minds, hands, and shoulders.

On the first day of the general call, 200 people, many of whom had absolutely no experience in the construction industry, gathered outside the offices, waiting for instructions. Over the next few months, 2,333 volunteers worked for over 140,000 hours in total to prevent the team from having to move to another stadium away from their neighborhood. Some of them took leave from their regular jobs to be able to fully dedicate themselves to the reconstruction.

This was their second home, where they spent their weekends, where they met their friends, where they watched the 2014 World Cup, filling the pitch with sofas they brought from their homes, where they celebrate Christmas every year. It’s their stadium, literally. In 2011, the fans bought 58% of the shares so that no president could ever tamper with it, for example, by adding a company name to its name. Such sponsorships in this area of Berlin are not even discussed, no matter what the price, no matter who the president is. We’ve said it before; Union belongs to its fans, and that’s non-negotiable, as they already own 100% of the club’s shares, something you rarely find, even in Germany’s 50+1 system. Their influence is not limited to just electing the president every four years.

December 2003. 89 fans plan via the internet, buy plenty of wine, climb over the fence, and sneak into the stadium. There, they organize a Christmas party with chants, songs, alcohol, and carols. Over the years, this celebration becomes established, the crowd constantly grows, and today, you’ll find nearly 30,000 people at this gathering!

The president himself comes from the terraces and is a resident of the area, just like almost all the club’s employees. Dirk Ziegler continuously extends his tenure since 2004, as the fans consider him one of the main reasons for the golden football era in the neighborhood. Thanks to his management, Union has become a role model for all small clubs, operating in the best possible way on and off the pitch (always considering their limited financial resources). The number of members is constantly increasing. From 4,000 members when Ziegler took over, it has now reached 49,000, a number so large that it makes the expansion of the stadium an urgent need, which can currently accommodate only 22,000 spectators. However, this expansion may take time, as at Union, every possible major change is met with a dose of skepticism and many discussions. As the communications manager says, ‘We know well that the club will never stop changing. However, we try to do it slowly and under control so that it never loses its orientation and identity.’

A significant portion of the recent sporting success belongs to two other individuals who appeared in recent years and, paradoxically, do not come from Köpenick. Oliver Ruhnert had various roles in other clubs before finally becoming the sporting director. Ziegler hired him in 2018, and one of Ruhnert’s first decisions was to bring in Urs Fischer as head coach, who had won two consecutive championships with Basel. The Swiss coach, working outside his home country for the first time, took over Union in 2018 when the club had already spent nine consecutive seasons in the second division. In his first year, he managed to lead Union to a historic promotion.

The cult team from East Berlin would face the giants of Germany for the first time. The small, picturesque stadium nestled among the trees with the lovely name ‘Stadium of the Forest Guardian’ would host the stars of the Bundesliga.

The scoreboard at Union’s stadium. It can’t get any cooler than this.

The real breakthrough began then. In their first season in the top division, despite being one of the favorites for relegation, they finished in 11th place. In the second season, they took another step up, finishing in 7th place and celebrating their qualification for the Conference League. Last year, the Fischer-Ruhnert duo secured their place in the Europa League as they finished in 5th place. This season, the overachievement has surpassed all reasonable limits and has now reached the levels of fan fantasy. Just past the halfway point of the season, Union sits in 2nd place in the Bundesliga, just one point behind league leader Bayern Munich. They have advanced to the quarter-finals of the cup and will also compete in the knockout stage of the Europa League, where Ajax awaits!

A neighborhood team (organizing barbecues where players and fans eat and chat together, and when they win, they buy rounds for all the customers in the area) with the smallest stadium in the Bundesliga and one of the lowest budgets is in positions that lead to the Champions League, ahead of many historical clubs and teams with much greater financial power. All this with a roster that doesn’t have any superstars but includes players willing to sacrifice for the team and follow Fischer’s quite demanding instructions to the letter.

The trio of unexpected success: On the left, the coach; in the center, the president; on the right, the technical director.

The system of success works roughly as follows: Ruhnert identifies and buys a cheap, unknown player he believes fits Fischer’s style and Union’s overall philosophy. Fischer harmoniously integrates them into the team, and thanks to the right teamwork, the player reaches their maximum potential. A bigger club comes knocking, willing to pay a much larger sum than what Union spent on them. Almost immediately, Ruhnert replaces them with a new, inexpensive, unknown player who, in some miraculous way, proves to be equally good and useful. It sounds almost utopian, but it is indeed working in reality and has transformed a club that was stuck in the lower divisions just 3.5 years ago into a credible contender for the championship!

Köpenick is once again in the spotlight in the country, but this time not because of a fantastic impostor with a fake captain’s uniform, but because of a unique team that hopes above all not to lose its soul and connection with its people. And if it manages to continue exceeding expectations and turn from a charming outsider into one of the prominent players, the communications manager has an answer to that: “It’s one of the most common questions people ask me. How can a club like Union stay true to its roots and traditions while expanding its fan base and becoming a significant force in the Bundesliga and Europe? How can you do that without losing what made you special from the beginning? Honestly, I don’t know. But I do know that those who have discovered Union recently seem to understand its philosophy, which means we are currently doing our job right.”



German football

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