…Or how I watched Berlin’s second club outplay Middlesbrough…
This is an article I wrote in August last year for the ‘Geordies Here, Geordies There’ feature in True Faith which was never published. It is a match report on the pre-season friendly between Union Berlin and Middlesbrough.
After nearly 18 months in BerIin, I still hadn’t managed watch one of the city’s two professional clubs. In fact, I only started to force myself to watch German football in March or so this year. I had been to both the Olympiastadion (Hertha Berlin) and the Alte Försterei (Union Berlin) before, but only for a concert (the former) and to have a look around (the latter), so, when I was asked if I wanted to go see the Smoggies play against Union Berlin, I jumped at the chance. When I moved here in March 2009, Union were well on their way to winning the German Third Division, despite not being able to play at their home ground as it was undergoing reconstruction. They finished 12th in the Second Division last year (comfortably mid-table), and, following Hertha Berlin’s emphatic relegation a few months ago, Berlin’s two biggest clubs will play in the same division this season.
Just to clarify, there are actually two Union Berlins, one in the east, and one in the west of the city. SC Olympia 06 Oberschöneweide was formed in 1906, and was one of the city’s top clubs (early German football consisted of regional championships, followed by a cup competition for the winners, which determined the national champions). They originally played in blue, which led to their nickname ‘Schlosserjungs’ (‘metal-worker lads’) as their shirts resembled those traditionally worn by metalworkers, and to the cry from the fans of ‘Eisern Union’ (Iron Union), which is the club’s nickname today.
After the Second World War, the club fell into the Soviet sector of the city, and was renamed SG Union 06 Oberschöneweide. During the ’49-‘50 season, against a back-drop of escalating Cold War tension, the club finished second in their league and qualified for the National Championship. The ruling Soviet authorities, however, denied the team permission to travel outside of their zone to play, causing many of the players and coaches to flee to the West of the city, where they re-formed the club as Sport-Club Union 06 Berlin (this club would remain popular until the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 before falling into the lower leagues – it now plays in a local Berlin league). The remnants of the team that remained in the East went through many name changes, finally becoming 1. FC Union Berlin in 1966, which is also when they adopted their current colours of red and white.
After the formation of the East German state, all football teams were affiliated with an area of industry (teams with ‘Dynamo’ in the name, for example, were linked to the police or secret police forces). Union was affiliated with the East German Trade Union (the FDGB), which is why it was, and is, seen as a club for the working class. It was during this period (and especially so in the 1980s) that Union’s rivalry intensified with city-neighbours Dynamo Berlin (whose ten consecutive East German titles up until the wall fell were tainted by corruption), and the club came to be seen as a voice against the increasingly unpopular communist East German state and the all-powerful Stasi. It was, and still remains, more than just a club to its fans and, despite its lack of success (it has never won a national championship, although it won the East German Cup in 1968), it is one of Germany’s ‘Kult’ clubs.
In fact, the stadium’s recent reconstruction was completed primarily due to the efforts of over 2,000 fan volunteers, with paid labour only used for the most complex parts of the process. The rebuilt stadium holds 19,000 fans, but there are only the bare minimum of seats (there are plans to expand the seated section from 1,500 to 3,800 seats once the club has finally stabilised both its finances and its league status). One of the most striking features of the lopsided stadium (from my perspective) are the two giant nets behind each goal, separating the stands from the pitch. Each is emblazoned with a slogan – one reads ‘Eisern Union’, and the other ‘Niemals Vergessen…’ (‘Never forget’ – although I have no idea what they shouldn’t forget).
I went to the match with two mates (one Bayern fan – it’s the same as England, everyone has one Man Utd ‘fan’ as a mate – and one Kaiserslautern fan). I tried hard to explain my ambivalence towards Middlesbrough to them in German (although I failed in my translation of the term ‘nappy-muncher’). I’d been out earlier in the morning for beer, and due to the heat (high twenties without wind), shorts were the order of the day – along with a Motörhead t-shirt (it has an umlaut in the name, and I have nowt red and white), and a cool beer for the journey into Köpenick. If you’ve never tried it, Beck’s Gold is a perfect summer beer…
The Alte Försterei (the Old Forester) is located in the middle of a wood in East Berlin. We wandered slowly through the trees as part of a sea of red, white and black (lots of German fans wear black, but I have no real idea why), and paid 11 Euros on the turnstile for a place on the terraces (it seems the prices are the same for league games – not bad. Programmes were 1.50, although very text-heavy).
As with the only other German Stadium I’ve seen a game at (the Rudolf Harbig Stadion – home of Dynamo Dresden), there is not much in the stadium itself. There are a series of beer and food points within the barriers, but there isn’t actually an ‘indoor’ section to the stadium (at least not for us ‘normal’ people on the terraces).
The previous week, Union had come back from 3-0 down to draw with Deportivo (the team Luque looked like a good player for), but it was still hard to imagine that a team that had been in the UEFA Cup Final just four years ago (Middlesbrough! They really did! Google it!) would fail to overcome a team that have never played in the top division of a unified Germany. However, Union got off to a flying start, with Ede getting the wrong side of Hoyte in the third minute, and looping a header over the stranded Jones and into the net.
Union controlled the majority of the first half, with only Arca (who was the best player on the pitch), Flood and Robson impressing for Boro (although Robson has no right foot at all, and his permanently twisty attitude didn’t endear him to any of the fans). Felix (the Kaiserslautern fan) went to the toilet after half an hour (the toilets were portacabins outside the stadium), and missed Union’s second goal when a mishit shot fell to Brunneman, who put it beyond Jones and into the net in the 35th minute.
He also missed the Smoggies waking up after Union’s deserved second, with Bates almost immediately cracking a shot from outside the box against the bar, which bounced down over the line, seemingly, although it was hard to tell. Germans call such goals ‘Wembley goals’ after Geoff Hurst’s second in the ’66 final (which explains why they were so happy Lampard’s ‘goal’ against them was disallowed over the summer). The referee, faced with a tough decision, took the easy way out – he gave a non-existent offside. Union still had a lot more of the ball during this period, and it was only the physicality of the Smoggie strikers that they seemed unprepared for (although, based on this performance, I’m glad we didn’t sign Kris Boyd).
Seemingly there is a three-way battle over who will be Union’s first choice keeper this season, and the giant Höttecke, a new arrival from Dortmund, did himself no favours by diving early and then somehow flapping through McDonald’s long-range effort, which gave the Smoggies some undeserved hope in the 41st minute.
Felix missed that goal also, as well as the next.
Four minutes later, McDonald took a long ball in his stride beautifully, before rounding the hapless Höttecke and putting the ball in the net, sending the Smoggies in at half time on level terms. Felix returned from his ‘business’ during the interval with a big smile on his face… until he realised he’d missed three goals. Stubbornly, he refused to leave the terraces again until full time. We should have realised then that the second half would be shite…
And it was.
There was little excitement apart from the substitutions (it seems every Union player deserves a chant of ‘Football God’ after their name is announced, although whether the keeper will still be granted that privilege remains to be seen. He was applauded when he caught a ball in the second half, but I took that as being more sarcastic than supportive), and a few altercations towards the end, when both Robson and Lita got a ‘little too involved’ with members of the home team. In fact, neither team were very ‘friendly’ in their behaviour, which was typified by both teams giving the ball back as deep throw-ins, which they then pressured, after the other team had put the ball out following an ‘injury’.
Boro came into the game a lot more in the second half, showing the quality of some of their players, but without managing to really threaten the Union defence or the shaky-goalkeeper. The quality of the pitch did not help, it seemed heavy and slow throughout. I remember watching a Union game on the TV after the frozen winter, when players dribbled with the ball at their shins. I’ve played on dire pitches in Brunswick and Hazelrigg, but they were better than the Union pitch was in February. Since then they have replaced the turf, although it was still causing problems: at one point, Brunneman made a tackle, picked up the fistful of turf that came loose and struggled to stick it back into the gash he’d created.
Despite the ground only being a third-full (or two-thirds empty, depending on your viewpoint), the crowd were noisy throughout the game, creating a greater atmosphere with just over 6,000 fans than you would find at a lot of Premier League games. For a friendly. Although the nappy-munchers in attendance were largely silent.
It was a canny day out – as well as the atmosphere, it was relatively cheap and the game was very open (probably due to a lack of real quality on both sides). A season ticket for Union starts at 150 Euros (in the terrace behind one of the goals), and I am seriously considering it. First, though, I should check out a Hertha Berlin game in the interest of fairness. Perhaps when they play Union in the fourth game of the season…
Union Berlin: Höttecke, Polenz, Madouni, Göhlert, Kohlmann, Younga-Mouhani (Menz 60), Mattuschka (Peitz 81), Brunnemann (Quiring 60), Ede (Sahin 60) Kolk, Benyamina (Savran 60)
Smoggies: Jones, Hoyte, Bates (Bennett 75), McManus, Wheater, Flood (Luke Williams 75), Thomson, Arca, Robson, McDonald (Lita 75), Boyd (Miller 79).
Crowd: 6375 (plus about 100 Smoggies)