Union are, as the name would suggest, a solid club that today is built on stability and sensible prudent leadership.
The club has come a long way from when the club’s fans banded together to rebuild the crumbling home stadium in Köpenick. Such is the modern day success of the former East German side they are a blueprint to be copied.
Loud chants of ‘Stadtmeister! Stadtmeister!’ rang out from the away end at the start of the second half of this huge Berlin derby – a statement in itself. Alongside the tens of red flares, the red and white smoke bombs and hundreds of flags that flapped from the away section the Olympic Stadium was for once on this cold afternoon a sea of red rather than blue.
Hertha Berlin v 1. Fußballclub Union Berlin
Olympic Stadium, Berlin
Saturday 28th January 2023
Life behind the wall is still something of a mystery. Now a former state the DDR was famous for its Trabant cars and tower block buildings. In terms of football there existed some of the most famous names in East German football from Dynamo Dresden to 1.FC Lokomotiv Leipzig and Carl Zeiss Jena.
Then there was Berlin.
Owing to its status and political power 1.FC Union could never have overcame Dynamo Berlin on or off the field during the era of East German football. A solitary FDGB Pokal win in 1968 over Jena tells the tale of the all powerful Dynamo club both backed by a dangerous ideology and state patronage – the Stasi.
Dominance came thanks in part to mysterious refereeing decisions with referees under direct instructions from those in positions of power and administrative influence. Moreover, BFC Dynamo were able to draw on playing talent from all parts of East Germany and performance enhancing drugs were almost certainly used and the clues hidden. The exception to that success is the titles Dynamo Dresden could lay claim to thanks, of course, to powerful patronage from Stasi Mayors and regional Stasi administrators. All had the power and influence through a role on politburo committees and links to the state machinery.
1. FC Union Berlin, while a recognised presence in the state sport system in the Soviet sector, was founded during the reorganisation of East German football in December 1965. The club were built on the initiative of a powerful state-controlled national trade union the FDGB with wider politburo influences thrown into the mix.
But while Dynamo Berlin and Dresden were associated with the paramilitary wing of the DDR, Union Berlin gained its identity from being a “civilian sports club” for working people in East Berlin.
Crucially, Union were never a member of the unofficial ‘upper tier’ of privileged East German elite clubs.
The state sports political system favoured the clubs from Dresden and BFC Dynamo domestically – a set up that explains why clubs like Magdeburg, Jena and Leipzig traditionally did consistently better in UEFA competition football. All of these clubs reached UEFA finals or in the case of Magdeburg even winning the ECWC in 1974.
With the fall of the communist border wall in 1989 the balance of power changed in German football particularly for those clubs once backed by the various arms of the socialist state. By 2000 Union were moving up the divisions and become quickly the capital city’s second most popular side after Hertha; Hertha themselves a club who struggled in the late 1980’s and 90’s.
Despite dropping to the fourth tier (NOFV Oberliga Nord) by the time the FIFA World Cup came to Germany in 2006 Union were a club progressing. Eventually a play-off win in 2019 saw 1.FC Union parachute themselves into the Bundesliga for the first time since unification.
The Berliner Derby
Encounters between Hertha Berlin and Union Berlin have become a regular event on the footballing calendar since the latter’s top flight promotion. Before then derby matches involving sides from the capital were those featuring Tasmania 1900 Berlin, Blau-Weiß Berlin, Tennis Borussia Berlin ‘TeBe’ and Hertha – essentially ‘West Berlin’ derbies. Union meanwhile had to make do with East Berlin derby matches versus old foes Dynamo and SV Lichtenberg 47; matches which by 2006 had become miserable affairs lacking in fans, the rivalry of the DDR era and played in dreary surroundings.
Yet despite producing more Bundesliga clubs than any other city, only 11 matches have ever been played between capital clubs in the top flight and these matches are notoriously tight affairs.
With both clubs now on a level social and economic playing field parity has at last been attained between west and east Berlin. While once large scale sporting and ideological differences existed between Hertha and Union, Die Eisernen are now the capital’s top club and politics (left or right) is a thing of the past.
This season sees Union challenging Bayern at the top of the Bundesliga table a feat Hertha have been unable to achieve for many years.
On the U-bahn heading out to the sacred Olympic Stadium there was little sign of any tension between the two sets of fans. It was said that when the clubs played each other in friendlies just after reunification relations between the clubs and fans were only friendly – the pain of being divided by a wall saw new friendships and rivalry be built against a backdrop of unity. This cultural context was in contrast to the hatred Union fans felt towards Dynamo Berlin seen as a legacy of the system so many sought to leave behind.
But with BFC Dynamo now a pale shadow of the club that ruled East German football, success for Union today is measured against Hertha Berlin. And where better than in a Bundesliga clash at Berlin’s most famous sporting venue.
While of course there are underlying historical and political facets that make a Berlin derby a unique fixture beyond football there is very little that divides these two now that could see it fester into real dislike – with Berlin now a truly unified and progressive city. Neither has reparations to pay to the other side.
When Felix Brych blew his whistle to conclude this fixture the 0-2 home loss Hertha suffered saw barely a glass smashed.
The Hertha v Union derby fixture is now a chance to celebrate the city’s hard fought unity and rebuild. The backdrop of east v west Berlin division is almost a forgotten era to the current generation most of whom were born after 1989.
With huge progress made in Berlin over the last three decades this derby is now a true rivalry measured only by football rather than via any ideology, politics or history.
Referee: Felix Brych
Images from the derby can be seen here.