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Crisis at Union Berlin: Biedermeier in Köpenick

The Union Berlin football club had a left-wing image for a long time. Now it becomes clear: it’s just about success. It will be difficult if that doesn’t happen.

Union Berlin fans celebrate promotion to the Bundesliga

Alte Försterei, Berlin, May 27, 2019: Celebrate promotion with the lawn in hand Photo: Cathrin Müller/imago

Union Berlin is reeling. Since the club achieved promotion to the men’s Bundesliga four years ago, every step forward has been a success story. The small eastern club that shows everyone, manages things cleverly and always annoys the big boys in terms of sport. The Champions League participation crowned this run – but things are no longer going smoothly on the field. Coach Urs Fischer, who stood for Union’s success and positive image as a down-to-earth club like no other, is history. And Union is also increasingly being sidelined socially.

Union’s rise came with a lot of emotions. At that time, only one club from the eastern federal states played in the upper house of football: RB Leipzig, which does not exactly represent an anti-capitalist football tradition. The Alte Försterei stadium in Berlin-Köpenick, which was partly built by fans, contributed to this, as did the stories of the resistant, non-conformist club during GDR times. All of this made the club extremely likeable for everyone who was actually unfamiliar with the commercialized nature of the Bundesliga. Union became an alternative model and thus also the hope of left-wing football fans in particular. The Köpenick team advanced to FC St. Pauli of the East. People sympathized with the underdog.

President Dirk Zingler recently vehemently rejected this interpretation. In conversation with the Time He rejected the comparison with St. Pauli – especially because of the Hamburgers’ clearly left-wing political agenda: “In our stadium, the focus should not be on social conflicts; people can meet in their differences.”

Last fall it became clear what he meant by that. At that time, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visited Berlin and also appeared at the Alte Försterei. There he met the Hungarian national player András Schäfer, who signed a jersey for him in a media-effective way. The response from fans and the media was unanimous incomprehension. How can it be that a club that is fighting against the sell-out of football is courting a right-wing politician?

Apolitical – that means, above all, staying out of things where the actual point is to take action

One answer to this question lies in the discrepancy between self-image and external perception. In October 2022 it became openly visible for the first time that Union never claimed to represent left-wing values. In Köpenick you probably can’t do too much with the image of being an underdog either. “Everything in this club is geared towards playing football at the highest level and as successfully as possible,” said President Dirk Zingler, describing the club’s goals in the interview.

So there is actually little to the image of the St. Paulis of the East. Union Berlin and its fans always had the feeling of being a purely sporting outsider. The “World Cup winners” still celebrate a 2-1 victory over FC Bayern Munich in 2002 like a championship. Of course, the desire to win is inherent in sport, but at St. Pauli the position in the table was always in the background.

Sporting and political ambitions do not have to be mutually exclusive. But if fans expect an attitude that doesn’t exist, the potential for disappointment is great. “But the Union does not stand for a particular political direction. We are committed to basic humanistic values,” says Zingler. If two people who otherwise have little in common in life stood next to each other in the stadium and cheered on the same club, that would be something right.

Orbán at Union

Here a dangerous positioning in the apolitical becomes clear, which can also explain the Orbán scandal. Describing yourself and your actions as apolitical sounds like a simple thing at first. You remove yourself completely and act as a supposedly neutral stage. As such, you can then also receive a head of government who massively restricts human rights in your own country. FC Union apparently saw this event as just a place where a private meeting took place.

But with a guest like Orbán, this strategy no longer works. In any case, it seemed strange to assess the visit of a head of government as apolitical. Because he exploits every appearance politically in order to prove to his voters at home that his politics are successful. International recognition, such as a visit to a popular Bundesliga team, has a particularly strong impact on this account. Images emerge that no Unioner statement or self-image can capture.

In addition, the supposedly apolitical self-assertion almost always limits one’s own actions to the left. The fight against right-wing extremism is important, but has no place in the stadium, says Zingler. A Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, can already take place there, including everything he stands for in Hungary and Europe: restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, oppression of minorities, disregard for human rights. Apolitical – that means, above all, staying out of things where the actual point is to take action.

Underdog ticket is a thing of the past

But what remains of it? Union Berlinif the image of the left-wing Bundesliga rebels disappears? Still a club that aims pretty high with a fairly small budget. But he is also being measured more and more by his successes. But they don’t happen: you could easily get over the defeats in the Champions League – if you had the self-image that you got into it like that.

In the first four years of the Bundesliga, Union played very well on the underdog ticket. It is now clear that such an image is largely created off the pitch. And also how much it matters on the pitch.

Henning Schneider works as a freelance journalist and podcaster (“Doppelspitze”). He primarily deals with social and sports policy issues.

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