Saturday 1 June 2019

East Berlin's Team From The Forest Finally Get The Promotion They've Been Craving.

Supporters of 1. FC Union Berlin have probably never before celebrated a 0-0 draw as wildly as they did last Monday night. After a 2-2 draw away at VfB Stuttgart four nights previously, a 0-0 home stalemate saw Union win a promotion/relegation play-off that saw them secure promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time in their history. All hail the away goals rule.

Union Berlin, a team from the German capital's south eastern suburbs had once upon a time been regulars in the DDR Oberliga, what had been the top tier of football in the former state of East Germany, but their post unification story until now has not included top flight football, consisting of years of toughing it out in not just the second tier 2. Bundesliga, but at one point a stint at level four of the German football system.

Nearly thirty years of lower division struggles have now, however, finally been ended with the promotion to the top flight that they've been craving for, and a promotion that also means a derby with city neighbours Hertha BSC will now be on the cards. Whereas once upon a time former East Geman titans turned Regionalliga minnows Dynamo Berlin were the clubs fierce rivals, now they will next season face off against the capitals number one side, bringing together two clubs who since unification have only played each other four times in competitive fixtures when Hertha spent two separate seasons in the second tier some six years ago and eight years ago.

Head out of the centre of Berlin through Alexanderplatz and about 9 miles to the south east you will eventually find the suburb of Köpenick, home to Union Berlin's Stadion An der Alten Försterei where this season the regulars on the terraces have seen their club lose only once in 17 home league games. Situated in the middle of a forest and dating back 1920, much of the stadium was redeveloped during the 2008-09 season and it was the fans who helped complete most of the work with some 2,300 supporters putting in an estimated 140,000 man hours. Crumbling terraces were replaced and new roofs installed as the stadium was modernised to create a suitable venue for second tier football. Further expansion took place in 2013 to leave a 22,012 capacity mostly terraced stadium with only 3,617 seats in place, giving a rather unique experience in the modern day world of professional football. 

In these East Berlin suburbs, the locals have been revelling in the success of their team this season. Under the guidance of manager Urs Fischer, a solid defence has seen Union concede fewer league goals than anyone else in the division, and this is in part down to the clubs formidable centre back pairing of Marvin Friedrich and Florian Hübner. Union were unbeaten in their opening 17 league games, conceding only 12 goals in the process. However, drawing 10 of those 17 games left them in third place and a 3-0 defeat away at Erzgebirge Aue in their final match before the winter break saw them drop to fourth. One other moment of note in that first half of the season was goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz' last gasp equaliser against Heidenheim when he headed the ball home from a free-kick in the dying moments. 

A 3-2 win away at MSV Duisburg on 16 February saw the club move up to second place, but as the season headed towards the final straight, however, the club never really looked like finishing in one of the two automatic places, and 17 points from a possible 36 in their final 12 games saw them finish in third to claim that place in the promotion/relegation play-off, two points ahead of Heidenheim in fifth.

A lack of firepower up front is arguably one reason why Union missed out on automatic promotion. Sebastian Andersson, a Swedish number 10 signed from Kaiserslautern last summer has played in every single league game during the campaign, but in those 34 league games has only scored 12 goals. Regularly featuring alongside Andersson up front has been Sebastian Polter who Queens Park Rangers fans will know well from a two year spell with the club which ended in 2017 after he'd featured 51 times for the West London outfit. Polter has scored 9 goals this season. Solid statistics from the pair I suppose, but not quite championship winning form.

Despite a few slight failings, a third placed finish in the second tier was still, however, a fantastic achievement, and the club's highest finish since unification and what has been a 28 year period of at times toil and trouble in Germany's lower league hinterlands. Union Berlin's story is one that can be put into two parts, the first part is the tale of an Easter German team who found life difficult in the shadows of their regime backed city rivals, whilst the second is one of that lower league struggle post reunification.

Despite a few cup triumphs and regularly appearing in the East German top flight before the Berlin wall came down, Union Berlin never actually won a league championship and were overshadowed by city rivals Dynamo, the team of the Stasi (secret police) who between 1979 and 1988 won ten consecutive Oberliga titles, albeit with arguably a little helping hand from the state. Union may not have had the success of their city rivals, but because of Dynamo's obvious association with hated Stasi, it was actually Union who were the people's team in East Berlin. Although appearing regularly in the East German top flight Union did, however, have spells in the second tier, including the final two seasons of East German football before reunification. This came after a last place Oberliga finish in the 1988-89 season and meant lower league football after reunification. Losing out in a play-off competition to determine which division they would play in post unification saw them miss out on a place in the second division and have to start life in a unified Germany as a third tier side.

Ten straight seasons in the third tier after reunification included a spell of financial trouble and near extinction, but the club fought back to reach the 2. Bundesliga in 2001, the 2000-01 promotion season also included a fantastic cup run which saw the club reach final of the DFB Pokal where they lost 2-0 to Bundesliga side Schalke after a run that had seen them beat another Bundesliga side in VfL Bochum en route to that final. That final place saw them qualify for the following season's UEFA Cup where they lost in the second round. Although Union's stint in the second tier only lasted three seasons, ending with two consecutive relegations, five years later and they were back in the second division, sitting their for ten long seasons before this week's historic play-off victory and the ensuing promotion it brought. 

When Christian Gentner put VfB Stuttgart 1-0 up in the first leg of this seasons Bundesliga Promotion/Relegation Play-Off, most probably thought the inevitable would happen. Since the Promotion/Relegation Play-Offs had been reintroduced for the 2008-09 season, only twice had the second tier side won the tie and after all, why should this time be any different? But if those watching had come to see a comfortable Stuttgart victory then they were to be sorely disappointed!

Gentner finished off a superb run down the right by Anastasios Donis to put the home side in front on 43 minutes but the visitors were level 2 minutes later when Suleiman Abdullahi beat the keeper after latching onto a Sebastian Andersson flick on. Ex German international Mario Gomez came on at half-time and quickly put the home side back in front when he ran from inside his own half before firing a shot that took a heavy deflection off Marvin Friedrich's foot and then his face to wrong foot the keeper. Stuttgart could not hold on however as Friedrich made it 2-2 in the 68th minute when he smashed home a downward header from a corner.

2-2 was the final score in the first leg and Union took two vital away goals back to East Berlin with them. Needing a goal in the second leg Stuttgart had an effort disallowed for offside early on but try as they might they could not find a way in front during the first half and once again had to turn to Gomez at half time. Union looked the better side in the second half, however, with Abdullahi twice hitting the post, but no one found the net and the game finished 0-0. A goalless draw which meant the tie finished 2-2 on aggregate and Union winning on the away goals rule to secure promotion to the Bundesliga for the very first time in their history. 

Wild celebrations followed and the beer was flowing, 28 long years since unification and 1. FC Union have finally hit the big time. After spending years in the East German shadows of their Stasi ran neighbours, and then many years in the footballing backwaters of a unified Germany, this time in the shadows of West Berlin's Hertha BSC, Union can now stand tall in their own right with a seat at Germany's top table.

This piece has been published on Pundit Feed and can be viewed here

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