The last two years have been a dream for Union Berlin and everyone associated with the club. After earning promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time in 2019, they managed to stay in the top-flight, almost achieving a finish above local rivals Hertha along the way. Union may not have the most illustrious history in German football, but they are one of the country’s most fascinating clubs.
Eisern Union (Iron Union) as they are known for their reputation as a worker’s club, were first founded in 1906 as FC Olympia 06 Oberschöneweide, and their working-class image is what attracted many fans. Reborn 60 years later as Union Berlin, the club based in the middle of a forest in Köpenick are well-known for their fan culture and commitment to the purity of the game.
The last two years have given Union greater international recognition as they reached the biggest stage they possibly could, but it’s not the first time they played in a competition this prominent.
That came in 2001, when they qualified for the UEFA Cup and, in the process, made their European debut before their Bundesliga bow. At the time, Union were in the second tier having just been promoted from the third the season prior, and the story of how they got there is quite remarkable.
This unique club made their continental debut in September that year, but their journey to that point began eight years prior. Back in 1993, promotion to the 2. Bundesliga was denied by the DFB because Union presented a fake bank guarantee as they didn’t have the necessary funds. The same happened the next year. In 1997, the club faced bankruptcy, with 35 debtors wanting their money back and liability of 10 million marks due to the tax office. In 2000, promotion was missed by an inch.
Union were confident they could make it to the second tier and the 2000/01 campaign was arguably the most memorable in their history up to that point. In addition to their stunning league form, they were also doing well in the DFB-Pokal.
Union’s history in the Pokal wasn’t glorious. They first qualified for the competition proper in 1994 but didn’t do anything of note. With their eyes set on promotion, there wasn’t much expected that season, however cup competitions always tend to cause a shock and that is well evident in Germany.
In recent decades, second-tier Hannover went all the way in 1992; in 2004, Alemannia Aachen beat Bayern Munich on the way to the semi-finals, and even in 2020, fourth division Saarbrücken reached the last four. From a Berlin perspective, Hertha’s amateur team were runners-up in 1993. This was a competition with a history of upsets.
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Third division Union started their run in August 2000, comfortably dispatching Rot-Weiß Oberhausen, sitting a tier above them. Following that, another home tie against second division Greuther Fürth was settled by a 37th-minute penalty by Harun Isa. The Yugoslavian was at it again in the round of 16, scoring twice as his team came from behind to beat SSV Ulm 4-2 and put Union into the quarter-finals.
By now, many believed they were riding their luck and that it would come to an end at some point. All of their opposition were 2. Bundesliga sides and all their matches were contested at the Alte Försterei, their famous home ground.
However, when the draw for the last eight was complete, Union were jubilant. They did face Bundesliga opposition, but it was one of the weakest teams in the top-flight, VfL Bochum, who were fighting to avoid relegation – and, once again, it was another home game in Berlin. Suddenly, fans felt optimistic and thought they had the chance to cause another upset.
In the first three rounds, just over 10,000 fans attended the games, but for the quarter-final against Bochum, there were 11,000 in attendance and they were adamant on marching into the semi-finals. Union were also doing well in the league at the time as they looked to end their promotion hoodoo and climb into the second tier. The talk of the town, however, was the Pokal.
Union were aggressive from the start, with their intensity and wing play carving a couple of chances in the opening 15 minutes. Bochum were intent on being a resolute defensive unit and they were able to frustrate their hosts for most of the opening exchanges. At the half-hour mark, the visitors got an unexpected boost as Union goalkeeper Sven Beuckert was forced off with an injury.
The visitors didn’t make the most of it, though, sticking to their pragmatism as the home team continued to knock on the door throughout the second half. The tactic nearly paid off as they inched closer to extra-time, but Union had other plans. Defender Daniel Ernemann smashed home in stoppage time to book the Köpenickers’ place in the semi-finals.
The three teams joining Union were Ralf Rangnick’s Stuttgart, who were having an underwhelming Bundesliga campaign, Schalke, who were chasing the top-flight title, and Borussia Mönchengladbach, who were in 2. Bundesliga at the time and were strongly tipped for promotion. Once again, Union got the more favourable draw and, once again, they would have the backing of the home support: Gladbach were to visit.
This clash showcased the spirit of Union Berlin – the famous fan connection and their fervent support was needed well before the players stepped out on the pitch.
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The clash was scheduled for 6 February 2001, but due to the heavy snowfall that week, it was put in doubt. Two days earlier, a blanket of snow covered the pitch and club president Heiner Bertram told the local paper that the game was unlikely to go ahead. Warmer temperatures were forecast for 5 February, but it was a race against time to get the pitch ready.
The ground was set to be inspected on the morning of the match, so between 4 and 6 February, Union had to devise a plan that would see the match be played on the scheduled day. They couldn’t rely on the temperatures of 5 February for two reasons: one, it was uncertain how long it would take for the snow to melt away; two, the pitch swallowing the water would’ve been problematic. The snow had to be extracted from the stadium entirely and moving it off the pitch wasn’t enough.
Gladbach themselves were in trouble in the build-up to the semi-final. The snow cancelled a league fixture and getting to Berlin was difficult. They were forced to train in Stuttgart before arriving in the German capital, where they did some training in a hangar at Tempelhof Airport.
Union had the entire of 5 February, and that is when they requested the help of their loyal support. Out came a historic appeal form the club: “Unioners help us!” They used their website and the local radio to call fans to help them clear the snow off the pitch in order to get it ready in time for the 10am inspection the next morning.
“1. FC Union Berlin needs its fans and asks you for support in the snow removal campaign. The ‘Mission Impossible’ should start at 3 p.m.,” read the statement on their website. “The companies Siebert Oetzel Baugroßhandel GmbH and Hellweg Baumärkte spontaneously helped 1. FC Union Berlin with the procurement of the snow shovels. Mulled wine, beer and sausages are provided. Each helper also receives a free ticket for the game in the Regionalliga against Eintracht Braunschweig. So Unioners, help us, we want to move into the final tomorrow – all together!”
The fans arrived by 3pm and, around an hour later, the snow was off and the likelihood of the match going ahead increased. Club staff, including a few players, chipped in as well and the next morning, the referee gave the green light for the match to be played.
The match itself was a historic moment for the club. It was the first time the stadium had been sold out since Germany’s reunification, with over 18,500 fans attending. Additionally, it was also the first time Union were to be broadcast on national television: 6.8 million people tuned in to watch the semi-final, and they were treated to a spectacle.
The home side took the lead in the first half through Božidar Đurković, but that joy was wiped out in the second period. By the hour mark, Gladbach’s Arie van Lent scored twice in the space of seven minutes and all hopes of making it to the final were dashed.
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Union weren’t deterred in their surge, however. Despite not playing at their best, Georgi Wassilew’s team equalised ten minutes from time through captain Steffen Menze, and a dire 30 minutes of extra-time followed. In the penalty shoot-out, Union were perfect, scoring all four as Gladbach stumbled.
In May 2001, at the nearby Olympiastadion, the home of Hertha, Union Berlin were set to play in the DFB-Pokal final against Schalke.
In the run to the final, Union completed their promotion push, winning the Regionalliga Nord, while Schalke suffered one of the biggest heartbreaks in German football history, losing the Bundesliga title to Bayern Munich in the final seconds of the season.
As the Gelsenkirchen team qualified for the Champions League through their league position, Union were guaranteed to play in the UEFA Cup in the 2001/02 season regardless of the outcome in the final. Merely making it to this point was a miracle for Union – winning it would have been a bonus – but for Schalke, this was a chance to avenge their league disappointment and end a positive season with some silverware.
Despite local punk icon Nina Hagen fluffing the cues to Eisern Union, a famous club song in the pre-match ceremony, the team were far more coherent. Union dominated the early parts of the match and came close to scoring through Isa, who hit the bar, and Đurković. The first half saw Schalke struggle to make an impact as Union’s intensity was getting the better of them.
In the second, their skill and experience pulled through as Jörg Bröhme’s quick-fire double – one from a free-kick and the other from the penalty spot – led Schalke to victory. They were delighted with the win, but Union weren’t too disappointed. They now had the UEFA Cup to look forward to and President Bertram was certainly excited about that prospect: “It is of course sensational for someone who comes from hell and now ends up in football heaven,” he said.
Qualification for the UEFA Cup brought back memories of 1968. That was the year the Köpenickers, then based in East Germany, were supposed to make their continental bow in the European Cup. Earlier that year, Union beat Carl Zeiss Jena in the FGDB Pokal final, which was a symbolic success seeing as they were a privately-owned club; one for the fans who had overcome those supported by companies, the army and the police.
It gave them a chance to play in Europe, but that never came. Union were drawn to face Yugoslav side SK Bor. However, due to the Prague Spring – a period of protests in Czechoslovakia between January and August 1968 – the tie didn’t go ahead. Instead, Union were given a new draw as UEFA announced a shuffle of the format which would see western European clubs avoid their eastern counterparts for the first two rounds.
Dynamo Moscow were the Berlin club’s new opponents, but due to the political tensions and anger at UEFA’s handling of the situation, many socialist countries withdrew their teams, and Union’s dreams were crushed.
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Exactly 33 years later, they finally got their chance. With the possibility of drawing teams like Chelsea, Inter and Valencia, the Germans once again got a favourable draw: Finnish side Haka. Just like their previous European bow in 1968, this one was also marred by international tension. The first leg of the tie was set to be played in Finland on 13 September, but the attacks in Manhattan two days before that created security concerns worldwide and the game was postponed by a week.
At the time, Union had already made the trip to the Scandinavian nation but had to make alternate plans when they were there. Defender Ronny Nikol said, “We flew there with an uneasy feeling because it was previously rumoured that the game could be cancelled. After landing at the airport we found out: the game will be postponed. We then went on a city tour and flew back on the same day.”
A week later, they finally got their chance. For coach Wassilew, this was familiar territory. He had managed Levski Sofia in the Champions League before, knocking out Rangers in the first round before falling to Werder Bremen. He described that as his finest success and wished to emulate it with Union.
The rest of the squad, bar three, had no continental experience but against Haka, it never showed. They drew the first leg 1-1 in Finland, but, back in Berlin, trounced their opponents 3-0 to achieve a significant win. Đurković, Ferdinand Chifon and Hristo Koilov’s goals sealed a deserved win.
The home fixture was played at a neutral ground – the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Stadion, home of rivals Dynamo Berlin – as Union’s was unsuitable for UEFA competition, and they had to play at the home of the fiercest enemies from the time the wall still divided Berlin.
For the second round, the coach earned a trip back home to Bulgaria as Union were drawn against Litex Lovech. This would prove to be a step too far and, after losing the first leg at home, this time at the Olympiastadion, a goalless away game sent Union crashing out.
Despite the defeat, it was a grand journey for the club as it stabilised their finances, gave the fans a surprise cup run, and redeemed the misfortune of 33 years prior by making their European debut. Relative unknowns like Đurković, Tom Persich, who remains Union’s record appearance maker, and Koilov got to make a mark on the international scene. Most of these players had only witnessed a stage this big on their television screens. This was a period to remember.
How far this club can go after survival in the top-flight remains to be seen, but history will always remember that this modest side made their European debut before their Bundesliga bow – and that is just a small part of the allure of Union Berlin.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26