Ten years ago, a tight-knit group of fans of an always struggling professional soccer team watched their club lose at home, 2-1, to a club, called Wacker Burghausen, that was no more impressive than it sounds.
As the losing fans slogged home in the twilight of a day that never got much above freezing, a number realized that the dismal performance of their team, Union Berlin, had made them forget momentarily that this was the last match before a winter break – a five-week span without games before the season resumed. The loss had left them too down even to share Christmas wishes with each other.
But these weren’t just any fans. They were a group bound by a friendship that was tied to supporting this second-division team _ think AAA baseball _ from the old communist East Germany, the sort of bond that only really comes of living and dying on weekends with a team of lovable losers.
So these fans started calling around and trying to convince people to return to the stadium on the night of Dec. 23, 2003. The idea was to bring some cookies and maybe some gluhwein and share a good moment during this pause in play.
In all 89 fans showed up at the team’s dark, locked stadium, affectionately known as Alte Forsterei (the old forest keepers’ hut). They scaled the fences, with their cookies, and met at midfield. In the dark, someone had brought candles, so they lit those and sang some Christmas songs.
It was such a good time they decided they should do it again. And they did, though it did get a bit more crowded.
Dec. 23, 2003, was hardly the first time the fans of F.C. Union Berlin (nickname “the Iron”) gathered to sing. As is the case with most European soccer clubs, their fans start singing before each game begins and finish shortly after the final whistle. Union fans, though, have a reputation around Germany for how their songs aren’t necessarily about soccer.
Between the club’s official beginning in 1966 on the east side of Berlin and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, its fans were known to sing about free speech, democracy and their dreams of a united Germany.
Club officials insist there was never anything too overtly anti-communist state.
“Standing up to the state directly was not possible,” explained club spokesman Christian Arbeit. “They had to be subtle.”
Still, Union fans were such a strong voice for democracy that East Germany’s feared secret police, the Stasi, listed being a fan of Union as one of their top warning signs of dissidence. Or, as the oft-repeated saying goes: “Not every Union fan is an enemy of the state, but every enemy of the state is a Union fan.”
And that dissidence was always expressed in song.
As longtime fan Heiko Kulleng, 49, explained, before the Berlin Wall fell being followed by Stasi agents was normal.
“There were two meanings to what we’d sing, talking about the wall between West and East, but it could also refer to the wall of players in a free kick.”
And that, he said, unified the fans: “We are a family.”
As fans admit, the club hasn’t always inspired on the field, so they find their sense of community in each other. It’s about being a club, not just about soccer games. As one song they sing several times at each game goes, “Iron Union, it’s my love, Iron Berlin. It’s my team. It’s my strength. It’s my club. Iron Union.”
In 2008, in what Arbeit describes as “that very special year,” the fans actually took that to an extreme. Union Berlin was told by the German soccer federation that it could no longer play in its ramshackle stadium on the edge of Berlin’s Koepenick district. Koepenick is a sleepy part of Berlin, away from the famous club scene, and far enough from the wall that it was clearly and totally in the east.
The district is best known for the Captain of Koepenick, an unemployed shoemaker who in 1906 dressed up like a Prussian military captain and marched into the town hall, ordering around the lower-ranked police around him, and eventually demanding the town treasury be handed over to him for safekeeping. That he got away with it is seen as a cautionary tale for Germans that their love of the trappings of power can cause problems.
In 2008, the fans of Union learned from the officials of their club that they either had to move to a new stadium or build one, and that the club had money for neither option. So the fans, a total of 2,500 of them, donated more than 100,000 work hours and built an updated and legal stadium on the Alte Forsterei grounds.
Just years before that, in 2004, when yet another mediocre season reached the winter break, the 89 fans who had organized the Christmas sing in 2003 returned and again crawled over the fence to share some holiday joy. This time, though, they were joined by a couple hundred others.
The following year, on hearing that the Christmas sing crowd would approach 1,000, they finally approached city and team officials, asking if perhaps a gate could be left open for them. Union fans are dedicated, but they are not necessarily spry, they noted.And, as simply as that, a tradition was born.
As the years passed, the size of the crowds grew. Last Dec. 23, 22,000 fans filled the new stadium they’d built, as well as the field. For reference, the stadium held about 20,300 for a game last weekend and looked packed. As three-quarters of the stands are actually “stands” _ meaning without seats _ people pack in pretty tightly, but it’s tough to know what capacity might be.
It’s a happy fan group these days. The team is hardly champion caliber, but for second-division mediocrity, it’s not bad. In fact, Union Berlin won 4-2 Saturday, and that left it in fourth place in its 18-team league. And while the fans won’t pretend to be the Soweto Gospel Choir when they sing (during Saturday’s game they attempted to sing “Winter Wonderland” with an F.C. Union theme, but clearly most of the many thousands enthusiastically joining in were repeating “la-la-la-la-la” for lack of knowing the words.)
Still, at 7 p.m. Monday, the stadium lights were switched off and 27,000 packed into the stadium, with thousands more turned away. After 27,000 candles were lit, the fans sang, with all their love, all their strength, all their friends.
“It’s impossible to look at that without tears,” Arbeit notes. “So Frohe Weihnachten.”