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.
Union’s first team won only a single major title, in 1968, and at that as an underdog. Existing on the edge created a strong bond between the club and its fans. Union attracted people struggling to eke out a decent existence in a corrupt authoritarian system. Although not dissidents per se, its fans were strong-willed and reluctant to play on the same field as the mainstream and the authorities. They were more suspicious about the prying eyes and ears of the Stasi. And whenever an opposing team formed a human wall to try to obstruct a Union free kick, Union fans would chant, “The wall must fall!”—a clear jab at Eric Honecker’s beloved Berlin Wall. Even the club’s name was an alternative to the programmatic spirit of other club names: Dynamo, Vorwärts(Forward), Aufbau (Construction).
After reunification, Union became a symbol not of hope but of decay and disorientation. It was unable to cope with the new challenges of a more professional, commercialized game. Fewer and fewer fans visited the stadium, but those who did poured their energy into helping the club survive. In February 1997, with the club yet again facing severe financial problems, fans collected money and organized a protest march. On the famous Berlin boulevard Unter den Linden, three thousand Union supporters walked towards the Brandenburg Gate shouting “Save Union!”
After that first Union game, in 2005, I became interested in the club’s fans and culture. I went to away games (which introduced me to the most devoted and therefore respected fans), dropped my membership with Cologne, became a member of Union, and purchased a season ticket.
In Germany, sports clubs are not companies per se. They are registered NGOs, community-based member associations that are organized and run by ordinary people in villages and smaller towns as well as in cities like Berlin, where there are more than four hundred soccer clubs. (There are nearly twenty-five thousand registered clubs in all of Germany.) Club members have the legal right to influence a club’s policies. They elect the steering committee and the chairperson from within the assembly of members. The parent organizations of the clubs in the first three leagues, which count as professional soccer, are pure community clubs.
Before 1998, clubs were exclusively nonprofit member associations; private ownership was not possible. But since then clubs have increasingly formed limited companies with the help of sponsors and investors, public or private. They are concerned not only with the success of the team or with the club’s relationship to its fans, but also with the revenues and profits generated by merchandising and television rights. Soccer has become a business.
There’s no question that to compete in the world of professional soccer, a club must count on people who can run the club efficiently. But managing a soccer club is not like selling cars or lemonade. A club’s constituency is devoted fans ready to sell their last shirt for the team. The crucial question facing a club is therefore how to combine the demands of business with those of a member association. Union sees itself as an alternative to clubs that value profits over fans. Dirk Zingler, Union’s president and a successful businessman himself, puts it this way: “For whom do we organize soccer? We play for those who are in the stadium. We can also broadcast, but with TV we get consumers but no attachment… We mustn’t destroy the core.”
Although soccer clubs cannot be bought in Germany, as they can in Poland, England and the Ukraine, investors still try to dodge legal restrictions and form clubs that primarily serve their own commercial interests. The most controversial example is RB Leipzig, which is playing in the Champions League this season. In 2009, the energy-drink company Red Bull purchased the rights of the Leipzig club SSV Markranstädt in the fifth league. The club’s name was changed, as were its emblem and uniforms. Then, with the help of a rumored 130 million Euro investment from its new owner, the club was transformed into a successful soccer and talent machine. Legally RB is still a registered member association, but becoming a member isn’t easy: the annual fee is around 800 Euros, a high hurdle for all but the rich that is designed to keep the number of club members low. At Union, the annual membership fee is 120 Euros. RB has only around eight hundred “supporting” members, nearly sixteen thousand fewer than Union. Of those members, only seventeen can vote.
Fans at Union and other clubs in Germany have taken to calling RB Leipzig the “club of cans” because management sees fans purely as consumers: they might as well be drinking cans of Red Bull. Although Union’s fans are also the club’s economic foundation, they don’t think of their self-interest in purely economic terms. In 2004, they rescued the club when the Irons had to find 1.46 million Euros to secure a license to play in the lower leagues. Under the slogan “Bleeding for Union,” fans literally sold their blood to save the club.
It is unconditional love in its purest form that cements the relationship between fans and their club. This spiritual bond enables fans to go beyond themselves, not only in the scale of support but also in the level of self-organization and self-determination. As we Irons like to say, “You go to soccer, we go to Union.”
In 2011, a few years after Union had been promoted to the second division, I moved to Oberschöneweide to be close to the stadium and the fans I had met over the years. Times of struggle had shaped the lives of my new neighbors but Union remained a lodestar through communism and reunification. As one of my friends—a Union fan since the Eighties—has said:
You work hard all week. You have a shitty boss and your salary is low. At Union you cannot only get rid of all the frustration by turning it into some wild support for the team, but you also feel yourself being respected as a fan when you use your energy for the club. People don’t find that kind of warmth or respect at their work or in our performance-society that often anymore, where you are treated like nothing if you have low qualifications or no money.
My friend is one of those grumpy and headstrong Berliners. He grew up in the GDR and had to change professions a couple of times after reunification because of disruptions in the labor market. He hated the GDR because it repressed anything that didn’t conform to the norm; he became a lover of punk and subcultures. At Union, I have found on average more people like my friend—people who love being, and try to be, somehow different. (With fans like these, even my father might feel at home at Union.) Ours is a collectivism driven by free-minded and strong-willed individuals who have a knack for resistance and doing things differently. You need to have opposing and contrary ideas to feel alive.
Several years ago I witnessed Union’s spirit of suffering and struggling during a match against St. Pauli, a Hamburg club famous for its leftwing fan base. Saturday games in the second division start at the unholy hour of 1 p.m. Even though you may still feel drowsy or fried from the previous night’s entertainments, adrenaline is pumping through your veins. A very rude awakening came in the sixth minute: St. Pauli scored for the second time. When an opponent unexpectedly scores, Union fans usually vent their anger by shouting “Eisern Union! Eisern Union!” or “Kämpfen und Siegen!” (Fighting and Winning!). But on that day the terraces were mostly quiet as Union’s fans seemed sedated.
A guy standing beside me started swearing at the team, behavior that’s usually verboten at our stadium. I stared hard at him, and in that moment I could see the embarrassment in his eyes, even though I hadn’t meant to shame him. My reaction was intuitive because he had crossed a line. He abruptly stopped swearing. He nipped at his beer, stared at the field, and then raised his voice: Eisern Union! Eisern Union! Eisern Union! Fans around him, me too, started shouting, louder and louder. If a fan could convert anger and frustration into hope, then everybody could, the players included. I sung and shouted like never before. Union ended up winning three to two. I hugged that guy when Simon Terodde scored the winning goal in the 86th minute.
When I drive home after a game, past the run-down brick facades of the old factories in Oberschöneweide, I feel connected to this culture of suffering and struggle. It makes me happy. It’s easy—too easy—to boo and vent frustration. But that stops with the realization that you are not only a consumer complaining about a bad performance but also part of an organism greater than yourself. I remember: During my first visit to Union the team lost yet the fans kept clapping and singing after the final whistle, for twenty minutes. “Unsere Liebe! Unsere Mannschaft, unser Stolz! Unser Verein! Union Berlin! Union Berlin!” (“Our Love! Our Team, our Strength! Our Club! Union Berlin! Union Berlin!). In Cologne such fan loyalty was unknown.
About a decade ago, Union’s field had become so run-down that the German soccer authorities threatened to withdraw its license. The routinely indebted club responded by asking fans to help with renovating its stadium. More than two thousand people volunteered, and dozens of them came to the building site every day: not only professional electricians and construction workers but also doctors, lawyers, and IT specialists. Some even took holidays from their day jobs in order to pitch in at the stadium. Fans who had moved away from Germany traveled on their own dime to Köpenick. Today, at one of the stadium entrances, the names of all those who volunteered are engraved on metal plates.
Because of fans like these, Union can be understood as a rebellion against the idea that a single life is senseless and absurd, and that philosophically there is no system we can trust. Being part of a community and collective decision-making provides a sense of meaning. It’s why a victory on the field can illuminate a fan’s own insignificant existence and make him or her feel happy. The Berlin writer Imran Ayata puts it this way: “At Union living soccer means: helping out, doing it yourself, throwing it all away, and starting everything over from scratch again.”
Since 2014, my friend and I have organized an exchange seminar that explores fan culture and community responsibility. We invite sports journalists and active soccer fans from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia to come to Berlin for a week, where they meet fans, social workers who specialize in fan projects, journalists and representatives from the police, soccer clubs, and other organizations responsible for regulating and controlling public space in the world of soccer. Our guests come from a different kind of society, one that’s more authoritarian and undemocratic, more male-dominated and violent, where conditions make people reluctant to compromise, engage in dialogue or trust in a collective. With soccer we try to reach those who are wary of politics, which is being discredited by the likes of Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko. Our goal is to attract young people (most of whom are men) and sports journalists who have not already been contacted by international civil-society projects in Eastern Europe. We also take them to Union. I am not objective enough to have a sober judgment, but going to the stadium and meeting Union fans is usually an inspirational highlight of the workshop. “I never would have thought that a soccer like this is possible,” a participant from Minsk once told me.
Union is unique but no longer alone. Fan culture in German soccer has become very powerful in the past fifteen years. Fans, sometimes considered by ordinary Germans to be criminals, hooligans and marauding mobs, are organizing themselves as registered NGOs to promote fair ticket-prices and better kickoff times, or to provide themselves with legal aid when they get into trouble with state authorities. Clubs also use soccer as a way to draw attention to socially relevant topics like racism, homophobia, violence, political extremism, the Holocaust, refugees or integration. Despite all its problems, Germany’s democratic culture has grown more mature, solid and progressive in the past twenty years, thanks in no small part to soccer fans.
I can imagine what some of you Americans must be saying to yourself. What is it with Germans? They always take everything so seriously. Must every aspect of life, from Nazi skeletons in the closet to Saturday afternoon kickoff times, be turned into an exercise in self-interrogation that’s eventually sanctified with a long compound noun like Vergangenheitsbewältigung?
You know what? I agree. Soccer should be fun, too. And Union is fun, a lot of fun when you are standing on the terraces together with your mates, singing the club’s anthem until its end. Whenever a Union player scores, the stadium becomes a dome for lunatics: people jump up and down, hug each other, throw beer, shout their happiness to the sky. It’s even fun when you lose, but in a philosophical sense. To be a Union fan is to develop a more realistic understanding of life. You learn to cope with stress and disappointment. In my opinion, soccer can only be fun when there is enough freedom for self-realization in pursuit of shared dreams and goals. When soccer becomes so commercialized that fans have no choice but to behave like a solitary consumer—I swear, that will be the day that I stop going to soccer.
This past season Union had a chance at being promoted to the Bundesliga, but we failed after slipping to fourth place in the final weeks. Earlier in the season Union had climbed to second place with a win over Würzburg. Some Union fans in the terraces started singing “Scheiße, wir steigen auf!” (“Shit, we’re going to get promoted!”), which perfectly expressed their ambivalence about the fancy first division. Many Union fans fear the introduction of new rules that would restrict their freedoms. They worry about fresh faces coming to the stadium only to gaze at soccer stars, about higher ticket prices and a new level of commercialization that would threaten the club like a fire or a flood.
Constant change and the desire for renewal are integral to soccer, and success is naturally the goal of any club. I personally don’t need Union to be part of the Bundesliga, except perhaps for the promotion party, which would turn my corner of Oberschöneweide into a madhouse for three weeks. But I’m pretty confident that Union’s fans are strong enough to adapt their core principles to new challenges. Our culture of maladjustment and communitarianism will continue to help us cultivate and defend the openness of our space, so that at the end of a game we can stand in the terraces and sing at the top of our lungs “We will live eternally,” as our smirking souls fly into the sky.