There is a rhythmic, enchanting, impulsive song which reverberates around the dark pine forests of Köpenick, a borough nestled deep into the East of Berlin. It arises spontaneously and once started, will continue relentlessly. ‘FC Union, unsere liebe, unsere mannschaft, unsere stolz, unsere verein’ goes the chant, hardly Lennon and McCartney stuff but words which define a club at the very forefront of German fan culture – ‘our love, our team, our pride, our club’.
Tucked away in the former GDR during the Cold War years, 1.FC Union Berlin have forged a reputation for being a ‘Kult’ club, with fans often voicing dissent towards the Soviet satellite regime on the terraces of their Alten Forsterei ground. In more recent times, however, the club has attained a reputation for more innovative fan practices, cited as the epitome of the fan-ownership model.
When promotion to the Bundesliga II was compromised by ground regulations, the fans rallied round, volunteering their services in order to renovate the crumbling terraces as the stadium was transformed into the modern, sleek arena it is today. This summer, fans will do the same to renovate another stand, as the club aim to bring the last remaining remnant of the Soviet era into the modern realm and up to standards that meet the side’s Bundesliga ambitions. Only the roof installation was carried out by contractors; the fans being the literal foundations of the club.
Essentially, the club is a model of everything that is seductive about fan culture in German football – fans have direct involvement with the club’s decision making process, a democratic system seldom seen in England, and the football watching experience is far excelled from the sterilised environment found at the majority of Premiership grounds. You can stand and have a beer without the threat of ejection; a luxury English fans pine for yet are unlikely to ever enjoy again. As such, the German experience is proving too hard to resist for disillusioned Englishmen in search of an authentic recreation of the English game before the moneymen arrived.
One such fan is Mark Wilson, who swapped a Sunderland season ticket for one at Union Berlin for the coming season. Having joined a growing legion of expats in Berlin two years ago, Mark spoke to us about his experiences and why the Germans do it best.
On why this was such an attractive proposition, Mark said that “FC Union Berlin are a community club. Being a Sunderland fan I identified with this. Union fans take it to a whole new level though. Being a true supporter of a club has to be about more than simply the football and the results. I have made friends for life due to football and choosing Union rather than Hertha appealed to me due to my love of the underdog. The terraces were a big pull also.”
Terracing is a divisive issue in English football – yet in Germany, the introduction of safe standing is one which has been implemented with minimal fuss and minimal hazard. Mark tells us that “terracing is critical to atmosphere. The cost is affordable and this means that you get a good cross-section of German society attending matches. Subsequently, the atmosphere is better. It reminds me of standing on the terraces at Roker Park in the 90’s when the crowd was mainly working class.” However, Mark believes the prospects of standing areas being reintroduced to British grounds is wishful thinking: “I personally think
you’ll never stand at an English ground again. I support safe standing areas but I support drinking a pint whilst watching the game and both will never happen in the UK.”
For all the laudability of German fans, they have not been without controversy recently – pyrotechnics causing great concerns for the authorities, whilst unsavoury scenes in the relegation/promotion play-off between Fortuna Dusseldorf and Hertha Berlin raising the specter of more a sinister side to German fandom. Mark, however, believes this is not representative of the wider football supporting population. “The scenes in Dusseldorf were great for the media, a good opportunity to sell papers and I think the Hertha players response during the hearing last week was embarrassing. The two issues are pyrotechnics and crowd control. On the subject of the former I’d advocate safe areas where they can be used – they look awesome. The Hertha fans who threw missiles at 4-2 down on aggregate were guilty and have unfortunately given the authorities a stick to beat fans with. It’s a stick they’ll use as well.”
As a football fan on foreign shores, Mark has found a welcome home on the German terraces. “One fan described Union as a club who are “multi-kulti” and at another game I was given a Union pin-badge by the trumpet player. The official Union site posted my blog and loved the fact that an “Auslander” (foreigner) was following Union.”
Additionally, Mark highlighted the stinging disparity in tickets and treatment of supporters. The price of tickets in England are a disgrace. I lived in London for nearly 10 years and never once went to Stamford Bridge. It was almost fifty pounds for a ticket. Although football is run as a business true fans are different from consumers. How many businesses have customers that did not even choose to become customers? In Sunderland you are born a supporter of the club.” On the standard of the German leagues, Mark implies that “the crux for me is not the quality that is on offer but how competitive a league is. The Bundesliga is arguably more competitive and this is largely to do with the ownership rules.”
Evidently, English clubs are falling into a terminal process of alienating supporters: Many are being squeezed out the game by spiraling ticket prices whilst the fatal decline in atmosphere at games is severely compromising the soul of English fandom. The case of Union Berlin and other similar models in Germany provide the ultimate demonstration of fan ownership reaping beneficial rewards. Following a football club in England can often feel like a chore, a burden or an obligation as opposed to a joy. Unless this is reversed, the core ideological essence of the English game is at threat; a move towards the German model would be forthright step towards addressing this.
Finally, given the choice between England and Germany, which would Mark choose? “England, but only because of Sunderland. However the match day experience here in Germany – standing on the terraces with your mates quaffing a pint – can’t be beaten.”
Have your say – are you disillusioned with English fandom or are things better nowadays? Tweet me @acherrie1
You can also follow Mark Wilson’s exploits following Union Berlin @UnionBerlinMan