“It’s loud. It’s positive. You get none of that bulls***. There’s no half-time show. There is no this goal was brought to you by so and so. There’s none of that. You can’t win a car. It is football, football, football and that’s it.” – Jacob Sweetman
Union Berlin aren’t your typical Champions League qualifiers. They’re a football club doing things differently.
Or how they should be done.
One-hundred percent fan owned, low spenders and founded from the metalworking communities of Berlin, this isn’t a team meant to be challenging at the top of the modern monopoly of football.
Yet, that’s exactly what they’re doing. Rivaling the likes of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to the title for much of last season. Finishing a respectable fourth, a remarkable achievement for a club residing in the Bundesliga 2 just four years ago.
But it is not this success that has made them the envy of supporters seeking an escape from football’s money-driven realities.
It is the nature of the club. The support it receives. ‘Unconditional’ in all senses.
Union Berlin supporter Jacob Sweetman recalls this in the very first game he attended, back in 2007: “I remember we lost 1-0 and no one seemed to care. It was unconditional, the love they had for the team, no matter the result.”
A few weeks later, he’d bought a season ticket. And despite their rise from those third division days, he doesn’t see that support having changed. Case in point, he talks of their first ever Bundesliga game in 2019 against RB Leipzig. The corporate representative of everything Union are not.
“We hate those bastards,” Sweetman said.
The result was a 4-0 trouncing but that’s not what he remembers.
“They stuffed us. We didn’t get a sniff. But for twenty minutes after the final whistle, not a single person left the stadium. They shouted and they sung and they chanted for their team like you would never believe. It was jaw-dropping, the hairs on the back of your neck, all of that.”
This wasn’t an anomaly. In fact, to Sweetman, this was exactly who they were.
“It was so typical. Because that is what it is all about. That twenty minutes after the final whistle will stay with me, really, for the rest of my life.”
The fans, the myth and the stadium
Union are a club built on endless stories of mythical fanhood. Perhaps most memorable is the rebuilding of their ground, the Stadion an der alten Försterei.
In the 2008-09 season, 2,333 fans clubbed together and worked 140,000 hours to put their decaying stadium back into working order. Sweetman was at the re-opening. A friendly against Hertha BSC.
“There was barely a dry eye in the house. Everyone who helped in the building got a red builders hat to wear and every single person in a hard hat was being hugged and kissed, their backs were being slapped and they were being genuinely thanked by everyone there.
“It was astonishing. To see these people who had been supporting their club for 30 to 40 years do this, it was humbling.”
There is this spirit of determination and togetherness that sums up Union’s supporters.
It is a spirit embodied in the players too. None more so than captain Christopher Trimmel. At the club since 2014, the 36-year-old right back has proved all the logic of age wrong by reaching his peak in his mid-30’s.
Last season, he had the second most assists at the club, two years ago he topped it. This season, he will play in the Champions League, the biggest stage of his career.
But past the achievements on the pitch, it is his connection with the fans that stands out. Sweetman puts it simply, “Everyone loves Trimmel.”
A motorbike-riding tattoo artist, he has made his mark on dozens of fans. Literally. After promotion to the Bundesliga, he famously offered his services to supporters in celebration.
“I think I have given 40 or 50 fans tattoos. It’s a special story, we talked about the promotion; about that moment. A lot of them were in the stands,” Trimmel told the Bundesliga website back in 2021. Just one of countless stories that make the man.
Trimmel’s transformation, from a second division player to a title-chasing one, is the epitome of Manager Urs Fischer’s influence. The support from the terraces may be unique, astounding, but it is not an explanation of Union’s remarkable rise. Urs Fischer is.
Urs Fischer’s Union Berlin Revolution
Since his arrival at the beginning of the 2018/19 season, the club has been on a permanent upward trajectory. Promotion to the Bundesliga in his first year in charge; 11th, 7th, 5th and 4th places finishes in the respective years since; Taking a club that could previously only dream of European football to the last 16 of the Europa League.
Fischer has transformed the fortunes of Union Berlin. How?
“He made us difficult to beat,” Sweetman repeats throughout our conversation. He is not wrong.
They haven’t conceded more than 44 goals since their opening season in the Bundesliga. Letting in only 38 last time out, the joint best in the league alongside Bayern.
It is this defensive stability that epitomizes Fischer’s style. Conceding few and scoring just about enough on the counter. A fine-tuned art. It has to be. They are not exactly prolific up front.
The team only topping 50 goals for the first time since promotion last season. Their 51, in comparison to Bayern’s 92, even more extraordinary considering they only finished nine points behind the Bavarians.
There is a determination, a strong work ethic, that Fischer breeds in his players, something he noted in an interview for Don’t Play Play when discussing his ideal player.
“He must have desire and has to enjoy playing. He has to want to invest.”
For Fischer, it’s about the team, not individual talent. Not stars.
“There’s this sense of solidarity within them and they don’t give up and it’s about bailing each other out. It’s about sticking together,” Sweetman said.
That’s why many feared the arrival of Max Kruse at the club in 2020. Not exactly known for being a team player.
“He has fallen out with anyone he has ever played with before.” Sweetman said.
At Union, it was different. Despite turning up to training in his now infamous flashy Lamborghini, he fit right in.
“He never put anyone’s back up, he never annoyed anybody, he never said anything out of time, he was the perfect team player, he was a revelation.” Sweetman said.
A testament to Fischer and how he gets the squad to pull together, to fight for each other. He revolutionizes players often forgotten about or sitting on the bench at other clubs.
Rani Khedira is the perfect example of this. Previously thought of as just World Cup winner Sami’s less successful brother, Fischer has transformed him into a Champions League player sought by clubs across Europe., bossing the midfield week in, week out.
Fischer’s transformational ability is born out of necessity. The club’s transfer policy often representing a revolving door. Though not in terms of large expenditure. In fact, they sit 12th in net spend since their promotion and even lower when it comes to wages. But in terms of a squad that, through director of football Oliver Ruhnert’s active transfer policy, is constantly changing.
“Each summer Oli brings in a whole host of new players, leaving us wondering how on earth Urs will shape them into a functioning team. But the success of Oli’s recruitment is shown every autumn by Urs’ ability to get the players quickly playing as though they’ve been together for years,” explained Jon Darch, a loyal fan since moving to Berlin in 2009.
“You’ve got this incredible policy of signing players that have been overlooked, signing players according to character, signing players that fit your system.” Sweetman stated. Both clearly proud of how their club is run.
It’s why they don’t fear change or deepening commercialization with the club’s success.
“If you ask most people in the club, if you ask fans, we’re fairly confident that we’re going in the right direction with this,” Sweetman said.
Darch is in agreement.
“It’s a risk. But it’s one the club’s management team is conscious of and has so far avoided. The ninety minutes of the game are sacrosanct and not for sale.”
“I’m used to success now”
The next question is, undoubtedly, can they maintain this success?
A relatively low budget, the smallest ground in the league, it is not going to be easy to consistently compete with the big spending giants of Bayern, Leipzig and Dortmund.
“I’m f****** terrified. I’m used to success now,” Sweetman said. “The achievement in coming 4th in the Bundesliga is so incredible. I am absolutely terrified. Fortunately, I’m not in control of everything. We’ve got Urs Fischer.”
In fact, Sweetman reckons he can predict exactly what the ever-humble Fischer will say in his opening press conference:
“He’ll say ‘we’re going to play to our strengths, we’re going to be dogged, we’re going to be difficult to beat and we want to get 40 points and stay in the league.’ And he’ll say that almost word for word. And that is his strength. That’s his great strength. He’ll keep their feet on the floor.”
It is a club that feels like it has its feet firmly on the floor, from the fans to the players to the staff. No one is losing themselves in fairy tale predictions. Just enjoying the ride whilst they can, not focused on future possibilities.
“I know it sounds trite, but I really don’t mind because the ride they have given me so far has been so astonishing,” Sweetman said. “We joke about the Champions League. He tells me how they are playing in the Olympiastadion for their home games. A need to satisfy both their members and UEFA’s ticketing demands the reason why.
This is nothing new. The club won promotion to the Bundesliga 2 at a ground far from their own. The Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark, a stadium previously home to bitter rivals Berliner FC Dynamo in their most successful years. Forced into unfriendly territory as their own ground was being re-built.
Sweetman takes an unlikely positive from this.
“We’ve got the experience of a season in an unwanted stadium before and that went perfectly.”
Champions League winners then?
“We’re probably guaranteed the semi-finals at least,” Sweetman replied.
The fact that Union fans like Sweetman can joke about things so outlandish is because their story is just that. A team risen from a crumbling stadium, rebuilt by its own fans, now ready to fight on Europe’s biggest stage.
"“It is a club that lives off its own fantastic mythology whilst at the same time being grounded in its humble roots.” Jacob Sweetman"
A club for the people, from the people, now giving back to the people.