There come occasions in life when you plan something to a tee, only for circumstances to change or for something to unexpectedly get in the way. To carry out your plans to the utmost detail, you require determination of the highest order. Compared to others, Union Berlin’s ardent support have the required trait in abundance. They also have the stories to show for it.
Back at the end of February, I visited the sublimely historic city of Berlin. On the cards was Union Berlin’s Saturday outing against SV Sandhausen at Stadion An der Alten Försterei. ‘Special’ is a word banded about too often nowadays, but the Union Berlin fan-base well and truly live up to the adjective’s meaning.
In 2004, the club faced bankruptcy and required €1.5m to avoid going out of business. Their support rose to the fore by setting up a “Bleed for Union” campaign where fans gave blood and forwarded the money to the club. Another hardened fan, Dirk Zingler, stumped up the rest. He remains their owner to this very day.
Then in 2008, Union were faced with being thrown out of 3. Liga due to their infrastructure being at breaking point. The club couldn’t afford the sums required to bring Stadion An der Alten Försterei to the required standards, yet this is when the Die Eisernen once again showed their determination and backing for the club.
2,400 fans helped modernise the stadium in less than 300 days. Overall, a majestic 140,000 hours was offered by the volunteers and Union had a fresh new home. Regardless of their own areas of expertise, these fans managed to pull off the spectacular and that season, Union Berlin rewarded their support by being crowned champions of 3. Liga and being promoted to the 2. Bundesliga where they’ve stood since.
When standing on the terraces with the Union support, the sense of togetherness is unique. They know the sacrifices they gave to the club made a true difference, as they can see it all around them in the refurbished stadium. Yet, more improvements to the Stadion An der Alten Försterei are in the offing.
Plans were announced in June 2017 to increase the capacity of their alte Forsterei from 22,012 to around 37,000 by 2020. The €38 million reconstruction work, due to begin in 2019, will mean the stadium will hold a standing capacity of 28,692.
Seating capacity, meanwhile, will be increased to more than 8,000 seats to meet German Football League requirements for top-flight football. Union want the alte Forsterei, built in 1920 and set in the mesmerising woods of Kopenick, a Berlin suburb, to “keep its character and remain unique.”
In a statement on the club’s official website at the time, president Dirk Zingler said: “It was important to us that this historic place for our club grows to meet future requirements. We want a tight stadium with standing terraces.”
Jon Darch, avid Union Berlin fan who heads the Safe Standing Roadshow in the UK, believes the club are preparing for a push for promotion.
“With the stadium currently bursting at the seams,” Jon Darch told Football Foyer, “almost always sold out at 22k and the new rule from the German Football League saying that stadia in the top flight must have at least 8,000 seats (the alte Forsterei currently has only 3,600), this expansion makes a lot of sense – given that Union naturally hope to get promotion one day.
“Given that average crowds have increased from under 10k to over 20k in less than 10 years, I don’t think there will be a problem in growing the average attendances again… at the very least, I can see the 28.5k terraces being sold out regularly, though maybe a few seats will be left unsold (at times).”
Still it’s worth bearing in mind that with extra capacity comes extra noise. This has potential to further strengthen the fortress-like atmosphere for the home side.
“Of course, as Unioner,” Jon Darch explained, “we don’t like being told by the authorities how we should enjoy our football and as standing is a core part of the club culture, the expansion will be almost exclusively additional terracing. From just over 18k standing capacity now, it will increase to 28.5k, which is 500 more than even BVB have in Dortmund!
“With 28,500 Unioner standing, I can’t see the atmosphere suffering. Hopefully we will just be even louder!”
Loudness is something the Union faithful see as the norm and, with the season just underway, they’ve sprung out of the blocks in confident fashion. Now coached by the experienced Urs Fischer, who holds two Swiss league titles and UEFA Champions League experience from his time at Basel, they seem to be laying out their ambition to knock it with the big boys of German football.
Having beaten Erzgebirge Aue 1-0 on the opening day, they earned a respectable 1-1 draw at recently relegated Köln, before disposing of Carl Zeiss Jena 4-2 in the DFB Pokal. Up next at the alte Forsterei is FC St. Pauli, who began the season in even better fashion with consecutive wins against Magdeburg and Darmstadt 98, respectively, before a disappointing exit in the DFB Pokal to Wehen Wiesbaden.
Having visited both the alte Forsterei and St Pauli’s Millerntor-Stadion back in February, I’ll be keeping a close eye on their upcoming clash. Both teams offer unique elements of fandom, bouncing atmospheres, warm welcomes and wealth of character. True patrons of German football. Teams I long to revisit again soon.