A brief history of Union Berlin

ahead of the return leg of the relegation\promotion playoff

The last time two teams from Berlin faced each other in the Bundesliga was in 1977 between Hertha and Tennis Borussia Berlin. Yet, it’s the oft-forgotten 1.FC Union Berlin, who have been buried in the lower tiers of German football with a chance to change that after a 2-2 draw away to VfB Stuttgart in the first leg of the relegation playoffs. In part one of today’s newsletter, we’ll quickly touch on the history of Berlin’s “other” club, Union Berlin

Union, though that name has been a source of difficulties, always forged their own path as Berlin’s independent football club. Founded in 1906 as SC Olympia, and not to be confused with 1905 German Champions Union Berlin, the team from the working class district of Oberschöneweide, has always been different from the mostly middle class Berlin football clubs. SC Oberschöneweide were a successful club not only on the level of Berlin in the prewar era, but made it all the way to the 1923 German championship, losing to HSV eventually. By then they were known as “die Eisernen” (steelers) and had already opened their stadium, the picturesque Alte Försterei in Köpenick. The metal-worker boys or Die Schlosserjungs would open their new ground in August of 1920. Nürnberg the legendary national champions, who went unbeaten in 104 games between 1918-22, were by then being referred to as “der Club”. Their dominance was such that football fans were calling them THE CLUB and they did beat Union 2:1.

Union under Nazi Germany and in the Cold War

1933 saw Hitler come to power and Union playing in the newly formed Gauligen, the highest level of German football from 1933 to 1945. The Nazis, as the great Uli Hesse points out in his legendary book “TOR” were not huge fans of the word Liga or league, because it wasn’t German sounding enough and used the word Klasse instead Union got relegated from the Berlin-Brandenburg Gauliga in 1934\35, but had a successful end of the decade: losing to the great Rapid Vienna (who later beat the mighty Schalke 04 to become the only non-German champions of Germany) in the quarterfinals of the 1939/40 championship rounds. In the confusing aftermath of WW2, the Cold War and the formation of the DDR split not only countries and cities, but even Union. Such was the disarray, that although the team finished the 1949\50 season as runners up and qualified for the playoff match, a rupture ensued: SG Union 06 Oberschöneweide continued and would get relegated by 1951, while SC Union 06 Berlin split off to West Berlin and promptly lost 7-0 to HSV in the playoff match. After a number of iterations as Union Oberschöneweide, BSG Motor Oberschöneweide, SC Motor Berlin, TSC Berlin, etc 1966 is the next memorable date. This marks the reformation of the club as Union Berlin and brief success: Intertoto Cup in 67, and a dream cup run in the FDBG Pokal of 1967/68, knocking out the holders Zwickau, local rivals and the army’s team, Vorwarts Berlin (4 East German titles between 1958-68) and ultimately winning it 2:1 against then East German champs, Carl Zeiss Jena.

(the telegram announcing Union’s withdraw by the German FA of the DDR in protest)


Yet, once again politics did not favor Union, as due to the Prague Spring of 1968 escalating tensions between East and West, the DDR decided to withdraw its teams after learning that Union would face Dynamo Moscow, a considerably tougher opponent than Yugoslavian side FC Bor in the redraw. Though a stable period ensued in the early 70s, the DDR era was not one that favored Union, which became a Fahrstuhlmannschaft, an excellent word for “yo-yo club”. In Facing certain relegation in 1984 they even won 2-0 against Chemie Leipzig on the last match and were tied on points and goals with Chemie. For the first time in Oberliga history, they needed a two-game playoff to determine who would drop down, but it was Chemie Leipzig that emerged victorious. The 1986 cup run, beating the excellent Dynamo Dresden side was a high point, but the 5-1 loss to European Cup Winners finalist Lokomotive Leipzig was convincing - Lok and Dresden won most of the cup titles in that time period. Another Dynamo side (Dynamo was of course always the “police team”), this time in Union’s backyard in Berlin would dominate the league, with NINE consecutive titles from 1979-88. The biggest reason, was that Stasi chief Erich Mielke had chairman of BFC Dynamo Berlin since the early 1950s when he pretty much transferred all the Dresden players to his own team had finally decided “it was our time to win”.

From reunification onwards

Despite a miracle win against Karl Marx Stadt (Chemnitz) in 1988, Union would drop down the following year. The German reunification actually found Union Berlin, who would play a symbolic friendly in January 1990 against Hertha, in the third division. They began to assume the “Unaufsteigbar” or unpromotable moniker for their failure. Yet, despite winning the Oberliga Nordost Stadt Mitte league and appealing for a 2.Bundesliga license they were denied a couple of times and forced to partake in the amateur championship. The most egregious of these came in 1993 when they led by Frank Pagelsdorf on the sidelines, and hometown boy Martin Pieckenhagen in goal and Sergej Barbarez in attack. After beating Bischofswerda Union were already celebrating promotion to die Zweite Liga, but the DFB withdrew the license 48 hours later, which it would repeat the following season. Pagelsdorf, Barbarez and Pieckenhagen would all leave the club (eventually reuniting at HSV in the 2000s) and the Union restart under Hans Meyer fizzled out. The club failed to gain promotion to the second division in 99\00 losing to Osnabrück on penalties, but would incredibly reach the DFB Pokal final a year later under Bulgarian manager Georgi Vasilev. They would lose 2-0 to the Schalke 04 side which of course in the same season lost the title in four minutes, thanks to Patrik Andersson’s legendary free kick for Bayern. Thanks to Schalke’s great season the loss in the final still meant an entry into the UEFA Cup for Union, losing to Liteks Lovech of Bulgaria in the second round. The club would meander its way down to the Regionalliga (then the 3rd division) before another promotion in 2009, but is as of today, yet to play in the 1. Bundesliga, making the great Nina Hagen and fans of die Eisernen yearn for a change.

Thanks to Union’s excellent club website, Uli Hesse’s “Tor” and the video “Das Ball-Haus des Ostens” for the material provided.

Stay tuned for part Two, where we look the 2-2 game in detail and analyze what is to come in Monday night’s return leg