Union Berlin make their Champions League debut at European royalty Real Madrid on Tuesday just four years after a first ever promotion to the German Bundesliga.
The date with Real, who own more Champions League trophies (14) than the rest of Spain and Germany combined, is the next stop on a soaring rise as unlikely as it is meteoric.
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Union’s history has become the stuff of legend; an inspiring tale that anything is still possible in a sport dominated by legacy powerhouses and new money behemoths bankrolled by nation states.
That Union have overcome their hurdles — they are just the sixth club from the former East Germany to play in the top division since reunification in 1990 — is a credit to the club’s shrewd and ambitious front office, along with one of the loyalest fan bases in the league.
The fans’ reward is a Champions League group featuring Italian champions Napoli, Portuguese side Braga and of course Real, who Union will face at the Santiago Bernabeu on Thursday (AEST).
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WHY UNION FAITHFUL LITERALLY BLED TO SAVE CLUB FROM DEATH
In the third division as recently as 2009 and having undergone periodic financial crises, Union’s passionate fans in the eastern Berlin district of Koepenick have repeatedly revived the club.
In 2004, with the cash-strapped side needing funds for a fourth-division licence, Union fans gave their club a literal transfusion, donating their blood to raise money.
In 2008, with their Stadion An der Alten Foersterei home ground crumbling, the fans of the club again rolled up their sleeves and set about rebuilding it themselves.
After a relatively stable decade in the second division, Union won a two-legged promotion tie against first-division Stuttgart in 2019 under manager Urs Fischer, giving them a first taste of the Bundesliga.
Despite being tipped for immediate relegation, Union finished 11th, and, with Fischer still at the helm, then seventh, fifth and last season fourth, earning Champions League qualification.
Fischer’s defensive, counterattacking playing style may not be the most eye-pleasing, but it has brought him consistent success.
The coach won two Swiss league titles and the Cup in his native Switzerland in charge of FC Basel.
He was later let go, with the hierarchy preferring a more attractive style of football, a decision which local newspaper Basler Zeitung described in 2022 as “perhaps the biggest mistake in the club’s recent history”.
THE UNIQUE RULES THAT FANS ABIDE BY INSIDE THE STADIUM WITH STANDING ROOM ONLY
The stadium, situated on the edge of a forest, got its name because an old forester once had a house next to it, which explains why it gained it’s English translation of ‘Stadium next to the old forester’s house’.
It also hosts the club’s yearly Christmas carols where even supporters from other teams attend to drink mulled wine, light flares and sing a mix of football chant and carols.
Inside the venue, there are three standing terraces and only one stand with seats.
The fans also have a number of strict rules they must abide by during games.
Fans cannot boo or whistle at the team, cannot scapegoat a Union player, cannot leave before the final whistle and they must sing until they can’t sing no more.
However, they will not play their home games in the Champions League at the Stadion An der Alten Foersterei.
Instead, they will play at the stadium of their cross-town rivals, Hertha Berlin.
The decision was made by Union president Dirk Zingler because the Olympic Stadium in Berlin has a capacity three times the size of Union’s home ground, giving as many fans as possible the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch their team play against Europe’s elite.
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For some of the players already at the club, they are fully aware of what the club means and the magnitude of a maiden Champions League campaign.
Union’s captain Christopher Trimmel has been with the club since 2014 and is a tattoo artist in his spare time, while reserve goalkeeper Jakob Busk joined in January 2016.
Their lengthy stints at the club makes this Champions League experience all the more special and unique for Trimmel and Busk, with every other player in the team joining on July 1 in 2019 or after.
Union added several top quality players over the summer in a bid to inject more creativity into their attack.
The club broke their transfer record to bring in Germany international Robin Gosens for $21AUD million, along with Kevin Volland and Premier League talents David Datro Fofana and Brenden Aaronson.
Two-time Champions League finalist Leonardo Bonucci also came in on a free transfer from Juventus and will bring with him the experience of decades at the highest level.
The additions have created a few teething problems as Union travel to Madrid having lost two straight league games for the first time in 18 months.
Fischer denied his side “were thinking about the Madrid game” during their loss to Wolfsburg on Saturday, saying “the players are just as upset as I am”.
Gosens, who played in last year’s Champions League final for Inter Milan, on Saturday urged his team “not to travel to Madrid to be spectators and just marvel”.
“We have to try to get the best possible start to the Champions League season” Gosens said, explaining “awe and fear are exactly the two things we don’t need.”