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Bundesliga season preview: Union Berlin face stark challenge in historic campaign

for the first time since German reunification almost three decades ago, Berlin will have two top division clubs, with both the centre of attention on the opening weekend of the Bundesliga season

Union Berlin will be compete in the Bundesliga for the first time since Germany's reunification. Getty Images
Union Berlin will be compete in the Bundesliga for the first time since Germany's reunification. Getty Images

London has five clubs in the Premier League. Madrid has four in the top flight of Spanish football. Rome has its pair of heavyweights, and perhaps Italy’s most combustible derby. The capital of Germany, by contrast, has for a long time looked almost marginal to the nation’s favourite sport.

Now, for the first time since German reunification almost three decades ago, Berlin will have two top division clubs, with both the centre of attention on the opening weekend of the Bundesliga season.

Hertha Berlin begin a seventh campaign since their last promotion at champions Bayern Munich. Two days later, a little piece of history for Union Berlin, as they play their first ever fixture in the upper tier of German football, against RB Leipzig.

Actually, that’s not quite the case. Union have been a top division club, though that was in a different country. That’s because they come from the east side of a city once divided by its notorious wall, East Berliners who were part of the former DDR, the German Democratic Republic. Their local rivalry then was a fierce one, against a dominant Dynamo Berlin, a club that enjoyed the explicit support of state institutions in what was a neo-communist country.

Union developed an anti-establishment image through that era, and some of that identity lingers. The fans are famously committed, actively involved, and willingly rallied to a cause. In the mid-2000s, a mass blood donation initiative by Union supporters raised money for the club when it was threatened with bankruptcy.

In 2008, supporters turned up in their thousands to help out with construction work on an urgent project to ensure the stadium would meet licencing standards: some 140,000 hours were given up, laying bricks, lugging equipment.

In those times, Union struggled for survival, for relevance, like many clubs from Germany’s eastern regions. After the Berlin Wall came down, an epoch-defining moment, two distinct football cultures had merged.

Hertha had a head-start, because they came from the west of the new capital, a passport to becoming the undivided Berlin’s dominant club. East German football had entered the joined-up structure as a minor partner, and felt its economic disadvantages keenly.

Union Berlin are the first former members of what used to be the DDR Oberliga to reach the top division of the Bundesliga since Energie Cottbus a decade ago. Cottbus survived for three seasons.

RB Leipzig are the modern success story from East Germany, although their foundation happened long after the Berlin Wall came down. Getty Images
RB Leipzig are the modern success story from East Germany, although their foundation happened long after the Berlin Wall came down. Getty Images

But there is one soaring modern success story from the East. RB Leipzig are about to begin their fourth season in the Bundesliga top flight and their second in the Champions League.

Yet traces of the old East would be hard to find there. The club came into existence only 10 years ago, propelled up the hierarchy by the backing of their Austria-based patrons, Red Bull. Though RB Leipzig have gathered a significant local support-base, their conspicuous corporatism is jeered wherever they visit.

So there will be only flag-bearer for the old East, with its distinct history, when RB Leipzig go to the German capital on the first Sunday of the season. Union have been given a piquant fixture for their debut assignment as one of the elite 18 clubs, and intend to make some theatre of what makes then unlike their opponents.

Union versus RB. Or, as a statement from one Union group of ultras puts it, new money versus old values. The Wuhle Syndikat, a leading voice of Union fans, declared in a statement: “Leipzig, our first guests, are an institution that has nothing in common with our idea of football, which is characterised by loyalty, emotion, financial fair-play, tradition, transparency and independence."

Union Berlin manager Urs Fischer. Getty Images
Union Berlin manager Urs Fischer. Getty Images

On the pitch, they face stark challenges, and have armed themselves with a handful of players with top-tier knowhow: Defender Neven Subotic, a Champions League finalist with Borussia Dortmund in 2013 has joined.

In midfield, there’s a representative of perhaps the last great footballing family produced by East Germany. He is Felix Kroos, younger brother of Real Madrid and Germany’s Toni Kroos. The siblings were born in Greifswald, one either side of that city’s 1990 transition from a place in the DDR to a part of the formally united Germany.

The likes of Subotic, Kroos and striker Sebastian Polter provide experience through the spine of the team, and recognise the size of the task simply to survive at the top. Union achieved promotion at the last opportunity, winners on away goals in the relegation-promotion play-off against Stuttgart in May.

Their transfer spending this summer totals well under €10 million (Dh41m). That’s less than 20 per cent of RB Leipzig’s outlay, and not even a tenth of what Bayern have invested even without capturing some of their main targets.

Updated: August 14, 2019 01:56 PM

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