It was twelve years ago when I first visited Union, a soccer club in the industrial suburbs of what was once East Berlin. The club’s stadium sits in Köpenick and attracts a lot of fans from Oberschöneweide and other neighboring districts that still smell of steel, sweat and rust, and still wear scars from the turmoil of German reunification. I can’t recall the match and the score from that day, but I do remember that the team playing in the traditional red-and-white jerseys lost. That season, Union—or die Eisernen (the Irons), as the fans and club proudly call themselves—were demoted to the third and occasionally the fourth division, after having played the previous three seasons in the second division and even reaching the final of the German Cup, in 2001.
I found myself in a dilapidated stadium; weeds had broken through the brittle concrete of the old terraces, or standing areas. Along the muddy path to the stadium, spent beer bottles and cans had been piled high around massive oak trees and bony bushes. The stadium could accommodate twenty thousand people, but only six thousand or so had turned out, and only a few were sitting in the plastic seats of the antiquated stands. A steady rain was falling, yet nearly everyone was standing, cheering and chanting at the top of their lungs. There were fans with unfashionable haircuts and rough, fleshy hands. There were punks and skinheads, men and women of all shapes and sizes with beer bellies. There were faces lined with deep wrinkles that told stories about falling, suffering and getting back on your feet. I watched the fans as much as the game. Everybody seemed to know each other.
That day changed my life. The Liverpool soccer legend Bill Shanky once said, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” Union fans would agree. They have turned the game into an occasion for rebellion, hope, culture, community and philosophy: an act of enlightenment, but also something more. At a time when billionaires are kidnapping traditional soccer clubs and turning them into money machines, and the line separating fans from consumers is being erased in sports stadiums around the world, Union has shown me what real fans can tell us about being vital actors in a civic and democratic society.
When I was growing up in a village in western Germany in the 1980s, I never really played soccer (only table tennis), and I wasn’t interested in club soccer. Germans try to make sure that devotion to a club stays in the family, but my father has always been too much a loner to be a proper fan of any sport. When it came to soccer he only watched the televised games of the German national team during international tournaments, and simply for the sake of entertainment. The one relative of mine who cared about soccer was an uncle who followed Borussia Mönchengladbach, a highly successful club in the Seventies. He would sit in front of the TV with a mesmerized stare and clenched fists. When BM lost he roared and cursed; I found it fascinating to see an adult lose self-control.
Even though I didn’t inherit the soccer gene, the game was a defining part of my identity—whether you loved or hated it, there was no way to avoid it. The industrial cities in the Rhineland and Ruhr Valley have always been fertile grounds for soccer. My primary school classmates were big fans of 1. FC Köln (Cologne), Borussia Mönchengladbach and Alemannia Aachen. I had some mellow sympathies for Cologne and its talented, flamboyant goalkeeper, Harald “Toni” Schumacher, who had curly hair and a strange mustache. Toni was born in Düren, a midsize city near my village.Once a beautiful medieval town, Düren was leveled during World War II and later rebuilt, and now breathes an air of melancholy. Toni was one of us who had escaped the dull provinces. He was also the keeper of the German national team. I still remember the semifinal of the World Championship in 1982, when Toni, determined to snag the ball, leapt like Bruce Lee into the French defender Patrick Battiston, knocking him unconscious.
Two of my friends marked with the soccer gene had been Cologne fans since childhood. I became a fan, too, but only when Toni’s and Cologne’s stars began to fade. I liked my first experience of a home game: the blunt cheering and swearing, the adrenaline pumping through your veins hours before the first kick, like at an Iron Maiden or Kreator concert; the unrestrained drinking; the emotional explosion when Cologne scored. It felt good to be part of a clannish community with its own rituals. The crowd could unleash a flood of anger towards its team one minute, and in the next an outburst of love would roll over the players and the field like a tsunami.
Cologne fans are famous for their devotion, but when the team played miserably, they stopped singing and started booing, and even turned their backs on the players to express their sense of betrayal. During the Nineties, fans grew irate over the gradual deterioration of the team’s play and management; the gut punch came in 1998 when Cologne was demoted from the Bundesliga to the second division. I still remember that day. I was studying Russian in Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, a city of one million people. It was May 9th, hot and humid, and everyone was celebrating Den Pobedy, or Victory Day. Veterans in uniforms decorated with medals strolled along the banks of the Volga. Young men drunk on vodka and happiness—in what proportion I can’t say—danced in a fountain. All I could think about was the dreadful news of Cologne’s banishment from the Bundesliga, its home since 1963. I bought some vodka and walked down to the river and tried to drown my sorrows.
It wasn’t my last taste of defeat. When Cologne lost a home game on a Saturday, which was often, my weekend was ruined. I couldn’t concentrate on learning Russian vocabulary or grammar, and not even the music of Black Sabbath or Agnostic Front could alleviate my despair. I started drifting away from Cologne, not only because of the club’s downslide but also because my new passions: writing, journalism, and reading about the history of Eastern Europe. Yet I never would have thought that one day I would leave Cologne. What you have to understand is that among German fans, abandonment is seen as betrayal. An unhappy marriage may end in divorce, but dissolving the bonds with your soccer club is taboo. A club stays with you till death. This fidelity is rooted, I reckon, in the tribal formation of ancient communities, when your tribe was your family, your home, your identity, defining the physical and existential boundaries of your existence. But I hadn’t inherited a link to Cologne, so I never had felt the mystical bond of belonging. Perhaps this made me open to something new, like Union.
Union was founded in 1966, but its origins date to the beginning of the twentieth century when industrialization rocked Berlin and the German Reich. Oberschöneweide, framed by the green woods of the Wuhlheide and the gray waters of the Spree, started to hum with factories, steel plants and metal workshops. In 1906, workers and their children founded a soccer club called FC Olympia Oberschöneweide. After some turmoil and several renamings, the club, then called SC Union Oberschöneweide 06, won a few regional titles and in 1923 managed to reach the final of the German Championship. Legend has it that around this time a baker coined Union’s most famous chant: Eisern Union! (Iron Union!). Whether shouted by two or ten thousand people, the chant invokes the spirit of history and can awaken the dead.
After World War II, Union weathered some chaotic years until it was reborn under its current name, thanks to the chairman of the FDGB, the main body for all unions in East Germany, which thought that East Berlin should have a soccer club for the working class. Union notoriously lacked funding, because most of the money in the GDR soccer system was funneled to BFC Dynamo, the beloved team of Erich Mielke, the head of the Stasi. The other big club in the capital, ASK Vorwärts Berlin, was thought to represent the soldiers of the National People’s Army.