This season, Athletic Union Berlin, the former East German club of the Bundesliga, has been playing football at the regional level for 20 years.
It’s a long way from the fourth place in German football to the fifth place at the Bernabeu.
At Real Madrid’s giant home, in the Red Sea of Gods, 4,000 fans want their voices to be heard at the end of the trip.
“Aizen!” (Iron) One side of the far end screams.
“Union!” He answers the other.
The game ended 10 minutes ago and the stadium is now filled with a team, a group of fans, and the Real Madrid pitching staff with their lawnmowers.
The Berlin players of the Urs Fischer Union look up and join in the chant, punching the air each time.
No one is in a hurry to leave. Not on the field. Not in the constants.
They are never with Union Berlin.
Mark Wilson craned his neck to look around the Barnabas: “It wasn’t meant to be.”
It’s the day before the game. Wilson traveled from Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, where he now lives. He grew up in Sunderland in the northeast of England. His adopted home is Berlin and ten years ago he fell in love with a second-tier football club.
The smile on his face can be permanent now. Every minute he looks over his shoulder, checking that Barnabas is still there, that this isn’t a dream and that he won’t wake up, it’s a mixture of joy, excitement and disbelief. They went home after a 3-0 defeat to Kaiserslautern in Partizug (by disco train) – ticked that box before.
No need to worry. Seven thousand tons of steel — and that’s just the frame of Madrid’s renovated stadium — aren’t going anywhere. Union play at the Barnabas. It is true in every way.
“Funny,” Wilson says, shaking his head.
The excitement is infectious and you can’t help but wonder what it will be like tomorrow night when the Champions League anthem kicks off.
“Oh, I mean, you got to Madrid and you’re talking to a guy standing outside the club’s megastore with Mickey Mouse and that’s when I got goosebumps,” he laughs.
Madrid have won 14 European titles and are in the Champions League group stage for the 27th year in a row. The Union had never played in UEFA’s top club competition before last night. They have never played in the Bundesliga’s top division until the 2019–20 season.
In that context, it would be easy to imagine that this game is being seen as something of a freebie for Union fans.
“You ask people in Köppenick (the district where the club is based, southeast of Berlin), and a league game against (half-Bundesliga club) Augsburg is a free success,” replied Wilson, matter-of-factly. They are not worried about the result.
He is correct. Pursuing an alliance is more than winning or losing. The fans talk about them so passionately that their relationship with the club feels spiritual.
His mind goes back to a conversation last week in Berlin with Oliver Zaire, a lifelong Union supporter.
“When I meet new people, they say, ‘That’s Oliver, he’s a Unionist.’
“I’m always jumping up and saying, ‘No, I’m not a fan, I’m a Uniner.’
We are active or I am active. Even though I’m like a very small part[of the club]it’s like who I am.
If that sounds deep, that’s because it’s deep in the union. It’s their club with their rules: never boo, don’t be a goat, don’t leave early, and sing until your voice is drunk.
New players will be shocked by what they see and hear.
“It’s the same,” said Germany international winger Robin Goossens after the Bundesliga Union’s 24-match home unbeaten run ended at RB Leipzig in the last game before this month’s international break.
“I can’t think of another club that has the same approach. We’re losing 3-0 at home (in that Leipzig game) – I think we deserved it because of the second half – and then we’re celebrating that we’ve won the Champions League. This is very funny. It makes me want to tear myself apart for this club and these fans.
Wilson, a member of the Union in English group of about 30 members, including people from Germany and other parts of Europe, smiles as he listens to Goossens’ comments.
“A 3-0 defeat and the place was electric – that makes no sense. But it’s a union. Yes, they stand and wait and they don’t have goal music. But they have something that other clubs don’t have and unwavering support is their hallmark.
“When they were mediocre, it was always a badge of honor. But it’s almost more of a badge of honor now that they’re the best. So they enjoy the wins. But you don’t know if you’re going to win or lose when you’re blindfolded in a game. Which is incredible.”
The Bernabeu is still an outdoor construction site.
24 hours before last night’s game, there were workers walking around in hard hats and jackets, racing against time to complete a project that started four years ago. Once complete, the stadium will have a completely new facade, retractable roof, 360-degree video scoreboard and new stands, at a total cost of more than €1 billion (£868m, $1.1bn).
It’s hard not to smile in contrast to the redevelopment of the Union’s own stadium, especially for project manager Sylvia Weichette to Keith Holden at Sheisey! We’re going up! About the budget given to her by the board. Staff costs: Zero. Equipment costs: Zero.
The monument outside the more than atmospheric 22,000 capacity Alton Forestry home to 2,333 men and women – mostly volunteers – who worked more than 140,000 hours makes it one of the most unique stadiums in Europe.
Hans-Martin Sprenger, a nurse, was among those who worked for nothing, the 50-year-old sipping a cold beer in the center of the Spanish capital this afternoon before watching Union take on Real Madrid in the sun. At the Bernabeu, qualifying for the Champions League feels like a reward.
“I started in February, I remember we had to dig holes and the ground was still frozen,” Springer said. “Some of them were very hard work. I’ve done a lot of things — I don’t know all the technical terms in English. But we were digging holes… and we were filling the hole because it was the wrong trench. You know, construction site junk. There were a lot of untrained workers, as opposed to a foreman as you would encounter with an amateur, so it was a bit wild and chaotic.
“I have to admit that I only went there because I couldn’t do it. Then I went inside – it was really a special atmosphere and I wanted to go again.
“I don’t know how much of an impact I made. I painted some of the handrails – and after they brought in the giants (girders) I repainted them and took them off the newly painted stuff. A lot of stool, basically – pulling strings. But I loved it. It was really a fellowship thing for me to do and it helped me become a stronger member of the community and my club. We needed them.
Springer describes himself as a “late bloomer” in football fan parlance.
He was 24 in the late 1990s when he started following Union. “I’ve just started going to the odd game and I’m infected,” he said, referring to a mistake many Union fans cite.
And what about when they play Real Madrid tonight?
“When you look back to 2004, when we were fourth, it’s crazy,” he says. “At the pace of the last four years[UnionwonthetopdivisionoftheBundesligain2019]… what are we doing here now? Real Madrid has won 14 Champions League titles. We have the Pol-Rusch-Pokal – the Berlin Cup (which they won five times)! Well, we won the East German Cup once (1967-68) and were the first champions of the new Third League (2009)!”
“It couldn’t be more different in a way, but we still play here. Regardless of the outcome, we will have a great time.
It’s after 3pm at the Puerta del Sol in the heart of Madrid and it’s time for the Union fans to put on a show.
They’ve been in shorts and t-shirts enjoying the warm weather and drinking beer for a couple of hours, but now they have to be called across the square behind the giant Uniburn Berlin banner. 50 meters and more.
One holds the club’s ultra megaphone and blares up and down in front of the crowd.
Steel like granite (Steel like granite) Just like Real Madrid once did (Just like Real Madrid once did) And we moved to the Bundesliga (And we got into the Bundesliga) And one day we will be German champions (And we will be) And one day they will be German champions) FCU , FCU, German champion, you will be.
He sings loudly and in unison. Spinal cord sprains as well. But the ‘Capo’ doesn’t seem impressed with the local police grabbing the microphone.
After a few songs, the fans dispersed and immediately arrived at the crowded metro station.
The three of us – Springer, Daniel Rossbach, a political journalist and union supporter, and I – decided to walk to the stadium. It’s an hour or so away, but it will be a nice walk in the late summer sun.
“Steel like granite. Just like Real Madrid once did…”
A special atmosphere here in Madrid with @fcunion_en… pic.twitter.com/Bpag5XZhN6
— Stuart James (@stujames75) September 20, 2023
Except the cops come back with other ideas.
Basically, there is no way out of the Puerta del Sol. We are trapped and forced to queue for the metro.
Kick-off is more than three hours away, but police tactics mean the journey turns into a slog with lengthy hold-ups and detentions after we leave Plaza de Castilla metro station less than a mile from the Bernabeu.
We talk about anything and everything, including the white baseball caps that the ultras were selling in Puerta del Sol and what every fan in front of us was wearing. “Reisekader” is engraved on the front, which according to Rossbach translates as “travel squad”.
“In (former) East Germany, the ‘Ressekader’ designated sportsmen, artists or political organizers as trusted to travel to capitalist countries,” Rosbach said.
“So at the moment we are reisekader because we are allowed to travel through Europe as a small club from East Berlin,” Sprenger added.
Union identity is complex. In the year They spent three decades behind the Berlin Wall as an East German club before the country’s reunification in 1989. “There is a misconception that Union would have been the biggest club in East German football,” Rosbach said. But they weren’t.
Last night, Rosback said that the Union support could be “a bit of a shock for Madrid” and how “the commitment on the pitch and the commitment on the balcony can be special.” Now, it feels like a culture shock to police.
Another line awaits us when we get to the Bernabeu where there are long queues for the ticket checking area. In fact, we had been moving for a little over an hour and it became clear that a significant number of Union fans, including the 3 of us, were not going to be inside for the club’s Champions League debut.
The fans are surprisingly patient with the situation, but frustration is growing.
Hundreds of fans are still outside when the Champions League anthem starts playing. At that time, the feeling is tense and some people start to push. A young boy, no older than 10, is crying behind us. He looks scared and is being comforted by a woman he thinks is his mother. Others, who remained motionless, began to shout at the police.
Finally, five minutes into the game, the police move out of the way and we move forward to the ticket inspection – a bottleneck at its worst and unsafe at its worst. Now it seems to be a free-for-all.
It turned around.
There are 10 minutes in the clock when we all set our eyes on sound for the first time.
We thought we would be there two hours ago.
The word “Eclig” was the word chosen by the captain of the Union, Christopher Trimmel, to describe their style, and that – so terrible to play – they can always be in the Bernabeu.
It’s one of those nights where small victories are everywhere. There was a big cheer when Kevin Behrens blocked Lucas Vazquez’s pass, although it happened on the halfway line.
The Italian captain made his debut for the club following his summer move from Juventus, as Union were expertly armed with a black shirt against the wall.
On the stage, Union fans are performing their song. But something is not right. The drummer, the capo leading the chorus and the ultras are all gone.
Word in the stands is that the police did not allow the ultras to bring one of the banners. Whether that is true or not, no one conducts the orchestra.
“It’s like being in a disorganized crowd,” Union supporter Arne Riebeck, standing in the row in front of me, explained at halftime. “It’s not that we don’t know the hymns. we will do. But at the bottom there must be someone who says ‘raise all your arms’ and then on ‘three’ the drum starts and so on. It’s something I miss today.
But I can understand it, because the ultras are a very close-knit group, and if one of them says, ‘No, we’re not going in,’ most of the time they all walk away.
Behrens had a shot into the side netting early in the second half, but that was a rare Union attack. The 36-year-old Bonucci, who was defending bravely at times, was kept scoreless in the 80-minute game.
If the Union fans watch the clock, they’re still singing and waving their drunks at the next chant. It’s a beautiful sight.
We fight at dawn So we march against the wind We practice everything until we’re champions of Germany FC Union Shines (like a bright halo yer) And echoes everywhere (And everything echoes) FC Union Our club (FC Union, our soccer club) Shallalalala Shalaalalala …
In the fourth five minutes of added time, Real won a corner kick. Crucially, the Union fell asleep as soon as it was taken. Federico Valverde stepped in and hit a shot from around the penalty area. The ball fell to Jude Bellingham and the England international headed into an empty net after goalkeeper Frederic Ronno dived in response to Valverde’s first-time effort.
My heart sank. I put my head in my hands. But there’s no one else with me – they’re singing again.
Just like they always do at Union.
As they always are.
(Top photo: Eduardo Parra/Europa Press via Getty Images)