Union Berlin make their Champions League debut at European royalty Real Madrid on Tuesday just four years after a first ever promotion to the German Bundesliga.
The date with Real, who own more Champions League trophies (14) than the rest of Spain and Germany combined, is the next stop on a soaring rise as unlikely as it is meteoric.
Union’s history has become the stuff of legend; an inspiring tale that anything is still possible in a sport dominated by legacy powerhouses and new money behemoths bankrolled by nation states.
That Union have overcome their hurdles — they are just the sixth club from the former East Germany to play in the top division since reunification in 1990 — is a credit to the club’s shrewd and ambitious front office, along with one of the loyalest fan bases in the league.
The fans’ reward is a Champions League group featuring Italian champions Napoli, Portuguese side Braga and of course Real, who Union will face at the Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday.
‘Bleed for Union’
In the third division as recently as 2009 and having undergone periodic financial crises, Union’s passionate fans in the eastern Berlin district of Koepenick have repeatedly revived the club.
In 2004, with the cash-strapped side needing funds for a fourth-division licence, Union fans gave their club a literal transfusion, donating their blood to raise money.
In 2008, with their Stadion An der Alten Foersterei home ground crumbling, the fans of the club again rolled up their sleeves and set about rebuilding it themselves.
After a relatively stable decade in the second division, Union won a two-legged promotion tie against first-division Stuttgart in 2019 under manager Urs Fischer, giving them a first taste of the Bundesliga.
Despite being tipped for immediate relegation, Union finished 11th, and,, with Fischer still at the helm, then seventh, fifth and last season fourth, earning Champions League qualification.
Fischer’s defensive, counter-attacking playing style may not be the most eye-pleasing, but it has brought him consistent success.
The coach won two Swiss league titles and the Cup in his native Switzerland in charge of FC Basel.
He was later let go, with the hierarchy preferring a more attractive style of football, a decision which local newspaper Basler Zeitung described in 2022 as “perhaps the biggest mistake in the club’s recent history”.
‘We can’t be spectators’
Union added several top quality players over the summer in a bid to inject more creativity into their attack.
The club broke their transfer record to bring in Germany international Robin Gosens for 13 million euros ($14.5 million), along with Kevin Volland and Premier League talents David Datro Fofana and Brenden Aaronson.
Two-time Champions League finalist Leonardo Bonucci also came in on a free transfer from Juventus and will bring with him the experience of decades at the highest level.
The additions have created a few teething problems. Union travel to Madrid having lost two straight league games for the first time in 18 months.
Real, conversely, are flying, starting the season with five straight wins on the back of some stellar performances from former Borussia Dortmund midfielder Jude Bellingham, who already has five league goals.
Bellingham boasts a strong record against Union, having won four of six matches against the Berliners during his time in Germany.
Fischer denied his side “were thinking about the Madrid game” during their loss to Wolfsburg on Saturday, saying “the players are just as upset as I am”.
Gosens, who played in last year’s Champions League final for Inter Milan, on Saturday urged his team “not to travel to Madrid to be spectators and just marvel”.
“We have to try to get the best possible start to the Champions League season” Gosens said, explaining “awe and fear are exactly the two things we don’t need.”
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