Berlin: Willi Lopatta’s footballing baptism happened just hours after he was born on a balmy summer’s day in May two years ago. His father, Chris, initiated his newborn, weighing just over three kilograms, into the faith he had practiced since 1977 ― the fandom of Union Berlin.
As he gushes with pride talking about that day, the senior Lopatta admits to having just one regret about the whole affair.
“I was very proud at having registered my son as an Unioner the day he was born,” he says. “But I later met another fan who had registered his son a few days before he was even delivered. I was so envious!”
Union Berlin have little to show in terms of silverware and have never played in the Bundesliga so far (a status that will change in the upcoming season), but there are very few clubs in the world which can boast of a cult-like devotion from their fan base as the team from the German capital.
Blood, sweat and tears
“Going to a Union game, no matter in which league they were playing, was always a special experience. It isn’t just about football. We Union fans always say, ‘We’re not going to a football game. We’re going to a Union game,’” says Torsten Schlüter, an artist who has supported the club since the mid-70s and has been a regular at games since the 90s.
Schlüter boasts about the Union fans’ ‘famous capacity for suffering’ which he says has been a part of their existence since the 1990s when the club was twice denied a license to play in the second division of the Bundesliga. Later, this capacity for suffering grew stronger due to the constant existential and financial crisis that the club had to overcome with help of the fans.
What Schlüter is referring to is 2004, when the fans started a campaign, called ‘Bleeding for the Union’, to raise funds for the cash-strapped club by donating their blood. Four years later, when the club couldn’t afford to pay workers to refurbish the stadium ― required in order to secure a league licence ― some 2,400 fans worked over 300 days putting in nearly 1,40,000 man hours to renovate the venue themselves.
“There’s just one word to explain why we do all of it: love,” says Lopatta, a man with a smile as vast as Berlin itself. “That’s why we gave our sweat when working to renovate the stadium, that’s why we gave our money to buy stones in the Tunnel of Fame, and that’s why we gave our blood to raise funds.”
An actor by profession, Lopatta was one of the 2,400 fans who helped renovate the stadium.
“It remained the best time in my life as an Unioner until recently. Then we beat Stuttgart in the playoffs to make it to the Bundesliga,” says Lopatta, who has been a fan of the club since it was in the East German league.
Things were much different back then. The biggest club in Berlin was BFC Dynamo, the plaything of Stasi chief Erich Mielke. Union, on the other hand, was a fahrstuhmannschaft. An elevator club.
Union’s fans gained reputation for going out of their way to stand up to the GDR regime, famously chanting ‘the wall must go down’ during free-kicks ― a cheeky reference to the Berlin Wall.
“We have always been an underdog club, a workers’ club. Even if you look at the political context, following the club was a statement against the state, the East German establishment, and the Stasi, since the Dynamo had links to them. But now, we’re in the Bundesliga, and Dynamo is in the fourth division,” chuckles Lopatta.
Over the decades, what has not changed for the elevator club is the fans’ feverish devotion to their club, which is dictated by five laws, called Boone’s Laws, named after a fan called Daniel Blauschmidt, who currently works for the club as a graphic designer.
The laws, roughly translated, go something like this: Don’t whistle at your own team; Don’t say only one player is ‘schuld’ (to blame); You should leave every game with a sore throat; Don’t leave a game before the final whistle; and say ‘eisern’ to other Unioners whenever you meet them.
“I wrote the last law myself,” brags Lopatta, who has been part of a fan club called Union Fan Club Die Schärfsten since 1986. “In the 80s, all of us sported long hair and looked like hippies. We looked a little bit…un-normal. That’s why all the other Union fans called us the Dirty Schärfsten. It was a crazy time. Now we’re all old men! But we’re still a little bit crazy.”
For fans like Lopatta and Schlüter the club still stands for much more than just football.
“During the FIFA World Cup in 2014, the club allowed us to bring our own sofas to the stadium to watch games on a big screen,” reminisces Schlüter, who goes on to add, “In 2015, the club opened the doors of its newly-constructed performance training centre for refugees to stay in temporarily.”
Lopatta adds: “Union is much more than the football. We have so many events, besides the football. There’s the traditional Christmas carols which happens a day before Christmas eve. And then there’s the ‘drachenbootrennen’ (boat race) where hundreds of Unioners meet at the end of August or early September. We have 40 or 50 teams competing since the last 10-15 years. It’s a great family party.”
The Christmas carol singing tradition started illegally 16 years ago, when 80-odd fans sneaked into the stadium to sing Christmas carols. In the following years, the tradition has grown to a ticketed event attended by over 28,000 fans. Unsurprisingly, other clubs around the country have taken a leaf out of Union’s book to host similar events. In 2016, the ritual also became a soothing balm for a city reeling under the terror attack on a Christmas market, which left 12 dead and 56 injured.
“The idea to stand together, sing together, and just be nice to each other was a good one. Especially when the world outside is a cold and unfriendly place, you need that,” says Stefanie Fiebrig, who has been a fan since the early 2000s and in 2006 started Textilvergehen, a fan blog for the club. “It´s a nice tradition. We first started this because of the winter break which gave us no chance to wish the friends you were watching matches with a merry Christmas or a happy new year. You didn’t see each other for weeks due to the winter break. The difference to other clubs is that it came from the supporters themselves. Our fans invented this ritual! So there are no big bands, no big names, just us along with a choir from a school in our neighbourhood.”
Who needs the Bundesliga?
The coming months will carry with them winds of giddy excitement that only playing in the Bundesliga can bring. But there’s also trepidation among Union fans about their club ― which until a few years back did not even pay transfer fees for players ― playing in the big-bad world of the Bundesliga against German footballing royalty.
This apprehension was perfectly captured in a chant and banner that the fans came up with during the 2016-17 season, when, after 25 games, the team was on top in the second division and promotion to the Bundesliga seemed within grasp.
“Scheiße, wir steigen auf (shit, we’re going up),” the fans sang.
"It was the first time that Union was on top, after eight years in the second division. It was an expression of surprise, but it was also an expression of fear: do we really want to go up? It might sound strange to you, but Bundesliga always felt like a thing for rich clubs. We were afraid that we would be forced to give up our culture," says Fiebrig.
The club didn’t end up earning promotion two years ago after all. But now it’s here, on the doorsteps of the Stadion An der Alten Försterei staring the feisty club and its fans in their face.
“There were some older fans among us who always said ‘once in my lifetime I want to see Union play in the Bundesliga’. This is for them,” says Lopatta. “Maybe it will be a hard time for us when we lose nearly every match this season. But it’s not a problem. I don’t need the Bundesliga. The Bundesliga needs us. When we go back to the second division, we’ll have a happy life!”
For now, the fans are making plans for the first game in the Bundesliga.
“We had an idea, but I don’t know if it will work. Some years ago, our club president Dirk Zingler said that when we get promoted, it’ll be like a holiday for us ― a holiday for which we have been saving money for years. So we thought we’ll have ourselves a holiday for the first year in the Bundesliga. That’s why some fans suggested that for games, we’ll go like people who are on a vacation ― wearing Bermuda shorts, snorkeling glasses, skiing shoes, a big camera hanging from our necks, a beach ball, and a water float around our waists,” reveals Lopatta.
“It’ll be funny. And a little bit crazy!”
The writer is in Germany as part of the Robert Bosch Media Ambassadors Program.
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