Union is special, if only for the reason that in the club itself, no one considers themselves special. Others have changed. Union is not. As a result, one of the smallest clubs in the Bundesliga has not only preserved a unique culture, but also excelled.
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First, in 2019, the Ironmen entered the Bundesliga for the first time. Then they settled in the top half of the standings. Now they are in European competition. Now they are the main ones in Berlin.
Many fans did not even have time to adapt to these new realities. For them, the team is still eternal outsiders. When the Berlin Wall appeared in 1961, Union became an opposition club against the establishment. All others were either the army or the secret police. But Union belonged to the workers. When they punched the penalty, in the stands, they say, songs with the words “tear down the wall” were often heard. This irreconcilable culture has not gone anywhere, and the team still cares more about status among the fans, rather than financial profit.
“Look at our budget or stadium, and it becomes clear that we are an outsider,” says Christian Arbeit. “We don’t wake up every day thinking how special we are. We are we. We are normal. And all the rest are different.”
Arbeit knows what he is talking about. He has been with Union since 2009, and his position is difficult to describe. “It’s easier to say who I didn’t work,” says Arbeit, who also acts as a stadium announcer.
He uses the microphone only 20 minutes before the whistle. “I greet the teams and represent the players.” That’s all – the rest of the time is dedicated to the fans. This is a chance for them to exchange a few words with friends and buy a snack or a glass of beer. Well, or drag on the song.”
“I don’t tell stories, we don’t show videos and we don’t give interviews. We don’t feel the need to fill the silence. People do it themselves. Let them talk. We are not trying to grab their attention. The focus is on people. If they are waiting for entertainment during the break, then they will be disappointed. We do not have advertising airships. Only football – and nothing else.”
According to Arbeit, people come to watch football, and nothing else. They get sick with pride and dignity. They don’t need ridiculous ads or sponsorship deals.
“Everyone thinks what else can be added to football to attract new viewers. What stupidity. On the contrary, we think what else can be removed. For example, we are the only team in Germany that does not include music after the goal. When your team scores, that is the best moment in football. Why drown it with music? People can celebrate as they please. They hug, throw beer glasses and sing. The less we interfere, the more unfiltered the emotions.”
As a result, the club abandoned many cash transactions. “Of course, we could earn more, but this is us. We are not interested in this.”
The tactics are working. Bayern are the only Bundesliga team to beat Union at An der Alten Försterei in 2021. She ended the 15-game streak unbeaten. According to Arbeit, this is no coincidence: the players admit to him that the support in the arena is very unusual.
“When children come home after a failed test, you don’t boo them, you support them. Our players are not just millionaires who are paid to entertain the public. This is not how we see the game.”
Arbeit himself recently looked at how others are doing. “I was recently in Cologne. If you teach people to go to the circus, they will just sit inertly and wait for their entertainment. Football becomes just fun, and if the team doesn’t win, the audience doesn’t know what to do. So they just sit. When we played against Cologne, the 50 thousand people in the stands were sometimes just silent. You could hear the coach’s instructions to your charges. And then they started booing the players instead of supporting them. At our stadium, we know that there is no victory without participation. Don’t look at a good game – make it good yourself.”
At Union, the stadium itself owes its existence to the fans. Two and a half thousand fans donated 140 hours of their lives to rebuild An der Alten Försterei in 2009, when there was no money to renovate it. Since then, many have partially owned it.