The rise of ‘Die Eisernen’
Union Berlin are a club on the up; and the fans have literally bled for their side
The 21st century has been a rollercoaster for Union Berlin. Before the millennium, the club had never even played in the second tier of German football.
Now, 20 years later, they are enjoying only their third ever season in the Bundesliga and their first European campaign since 2001.
The club, nicknamed the Eiserne (the Iron Ones) or Eisern Union (Iron Union) as a nod to the industrial past, have become a sort of cult club given to the way they have been run over the past two decades.
Perhaps unusually for European football, Germany’s capital is slightly on the outskirts when it comes to top sides. Hertha Berlin are the more established club in the city, partly down to their home ground being the iconic Olympic Stadium which hosted the 1936 games.
Despite this, Union are enjoying their moment and the way things are going, it will be a moment not ending anytime soon.
Although they formed in 1906 as FC Olympia Oberschöneweide, the club in its current form came into existence in 1966.
During the Cold War era, Union Berlin was on the east side of the Berlin wall. A side regularly fitting into the ‘anti-establishment’ category, they made a point of singing in favour of bringing down the wall.
Due to the nature of the wall and it’s separation, Union and Hertha only met for the first time 90 days after the fall of the wall in January 1990.
The fans are the heartbeat of the club. An example of this was in 2004 when the fan base raised funds to buy the club’s license for fourth division football.
The name of the campaign was ‘Bleed for Union’, and this resulted in being a very literal name. As part of the fundraising, fans donated blood to Berlin hospitals and then donated the money received from this back to the club.
On the pitch, Union slipped back out of Bundesliga II in 2004 and into back to back relegations. However, this was the low which they steadily bounced back from and 13 years later, they were in the big time.
Their stadium, Stadion An der Alten Försterei, has a capacity of just over 22,000. In 2008, when the ground was in need of modernisation but funds were still low, the fans simply rebuilt the ground themselves.
Around 2000 fans put in 140,000 hours or work in rebuilding the stadium. Completion signalled the next step in the fans truly being part of the club.
On the pitch, the fans continue to be thoroughly rewarded for their hard work off the pitch. Finishing 11th in their first ever Bundesliga campaign, ‘Eiserne’ registered their first ever Bundesliga victory against none other than Borussia Dortmund.
Their first top tier games with Hertha were a mixed bag. A 1–0 home win was followed with a 4–0 thumping at the Olympic Stadium at the back end of their campaign.
Not wanting to rest on their laurels in the following season, Union sealed a 7th placed season which was enough to qualify for the newly created Europa Conference League. So far, it’s a win and a loss, with victory coming at home against Israeli outfit Maccabi Haifa.
The rise of Union Berlin would be impressive for any club. But their explosion into the Bundesliga feels more deserved, for the fans if nobody else.
Few groups of supporters have put in tens of thousands of hard work to literally rebuild their ground; even less will have literally bled to fund the survival of their football team.