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  • Writer's pictureKai Abbott

Union Berlin and Bayern Munich: Germany's David and Goliath Story

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

It was May 2012 at the Olympiastadion in Berlin. Borussia Dortmund had just clinched the Bundesliga title, sealing their first-ever league and cup double. Robert Lewandoski scored an incredible hat-trick, and coach Jürgen Klopp got so drunk during the celebrations that he claimed to have no recollection of the game. While players like Marco Reus and Mats Hummels celebrated on the pitch, the chief executive of the club Hans-Joachim Watzke gave a pessimistic interview after the match. Watzke said, “the echo will be dramatic,” potentially a wake-up call to the rest of Germany.

Ten years later, in April of last year, Bayern Munich clinched their 10th consecutive Bundesliga title, cementing a decade of dominance not just domestically, but continentally too. In the past ten years, Bayern Munich has had a combined margin of victory of 137 points in their title races.

This past summer, Bayern were devoted to strengthening their team with financial resources that no other club in Germany can come close to. The signings of the Senegalese forward Sadio, Dutch center-back Matthias De Ligt, and Dutch midfielder Ryan Gravenberch were over $140 million dollars combined; close to half of second-best German club Borussia Dortmund’s revenue in 2022.

For all the silverware that Bayern has won, and the star-studded line-ups they never fail to come up with, a sense of surrealness and boredom has swept across Germany. Teams from all over the country ask themselves, what is the point of even competing, if Bayern will forever have more fans, money, and trophies than the rest of us together?

Step in the overachieving yet underappreciated Union Berlin. This season, Union Berlin has kept Bayern Munich at a knifes edge, sitting three points below them in third place as of February 28th. Ahead of teams such as Wolfsburg, RB Leipzig, and Eintracht Frankfurt, Union Berlin has made a name for itself not only in the Bundesliga but in Europe too. Just last week, Union Berlin beat the Dutch side AFC Ajax to progress to the round of 16 of the Europa League. With one of the smallest stadiums in the Bundesliga, standing proud at 22,000 seats, and in the bottom half of the most valuable teams in the league, how exactly did Union Berlin get to where they are today?

Union Berlin was founded in 1966 in formerly Soviet-controlled East Berlin and belonged to the Eastern DDR-Oberliga league. In 1968 Union won the East German Cup, but during the 1970s and 1980s, when East Germany was still under communist rule, Union Berlin was mainly known by the public as a symbol of resistance and defiance against the government. The club’s fans were often subject to harassment and intimidation by authorities, and were referred to as the “skinheads of Berlin”.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Union Berlin found itself in a new world, with new challenges and opportunities. They settled into a regional third-tier league after reunification, and during the majority of the ‘90s, as Bayern won its 12th, 13th, and 14th Bundesliga titles over in the West, Union constantly flirted with financial ruin and extinction.

In the 2000s, financial ruin nearly destroyed the club, until 2004, when fans queued up to donate blood to help fund Union Berlin’s registration fees with the German governing body for football. The next few years saw ups and downs between the third and second tiers of German football. In 2009, when the Stadion An der Alten Försterei nearly had to shut down due to safety concerns, 100,000 fans committed over 140,000 hours of free labor in order to restore the stadium and reopen its doors.

In the past five years, those who have poured so much into their club, have not just seen the fruits of their labor but reaped them. In 2019, Union ascended to the Bundesliga for the first time in history and made $58 million in revenue that season. Union Berlin qualified for the Europa Conference League in the 2021-2022 season, and this year, are battling it out in the Europa League. They have also ripped their bitter rivals Hertha Berlin’s flag right out of the ground in Berlin, claiming five derby wins on the bounce in all competitions to assert dominance in the capital.

Meanwhile, head coach Urs Fischer has made Union Berlin a destination choice for many, due to the incredible culture felt among the players. Their exciting and fast-paced brand of football allowed them to summit the Bundesliga on matchday seven at the beginning of their campaign, before tumbling back down to second after a loss against VFB Stuttgart.

Either way, considering Union’s recent rise and year-on-year improvement under the meticulous yet understated Fischer, one gets the impression that the good times experienced over the last five years have not been a cheap thrill, and very well may be here to last. At this point in the season, one would need a crystal ball to see if Bayern Munich, Dortmund, or Union Berlin will lift the Meisteschale trophy at the end of the season, though, with the combination of their electric fans, explosive players, and bleeding passion for the sport, Union Berlin could very well rise to the occasion.

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