Monday, 3 March 2014
We walk towards the ground through the drizzle. Union Berlin at home to FSV Frankfurt. We trudge along wet streets into the woods - that's an odd one: don't think I've ever approached a football ground through a forest before, but then the stadium is called An der Alten Försterei, which I suppose is a bit of a clue.
The first thing that strikes you is the scarves. Everyone has one. At an English game, a few kids might have scarves, some will have team shirts, but quite a lot of people won't wear colours at all. Here there is a much more open display of allegiance by virtually everyone in the crowd.
We are still outside the stadium. Groups of people stand round talking, drinking beer and eating sausages (this is Germany after all). There is a sociability here that is unfamiliar. People have arrived a good hour before kick-off, to spend time gathering in a way that is rare before an English league match.
Having duly eaten our brotwurst, we climb up into the stand and make our way to the front. It is still a good 45 minutes before the start and already the area behind the goal is packed, and the singing has started. Eventually, as the players emerge, the entire home crowd holds scarves above their hearts while singing the club anthem. My arms ache. It's hard work holding scarves aloft.
As the game starts it quickly becomes apparent that the relationship between the crowd, the game and the players is totally different here. In England, what happens on the pitch tends to determine what happens in the crowd. At home games especially, if the team is winning, the volume goes up. If it is losing, or the game is dull, the crowd tends to fall into sullen silence. The crowd has come to watch a game of football, and might sing some songs if it's going well. Here, it seems, it's the other way round. The crowd has come to sing some songs and happen to watch a game of football while they are doing so.
The game, which to be honest was a little dull, seems to have little impact on the singing, which continues virtually non-stop until the final whistle and beyond. And it's at the end that you most notice the difference. In England, some fans always leave before the end to miss the traffic. Most make for the exit as soon as the final whistle blows. A few stay behind to clap the team off the pitch, but the ground is usually empty within 15 minutes of the end of the game. Here, there is a lap of honour, the players saluting all four sides of the ground, gathering before each stand doing the continental thing - lining up, holding hands, raising and lowering them in time, as if they had just won the Champions' League. The crowd stays put for a good half an hour, singing and celebrating - following the lead of the Vorsinger, an entire stand bounces up and down at the end of the game. The sense of unity and mutual feeling is palpable. In England the crowd celebrates a win. Here, they celebrate the club.
And it is the club, das Verein that matters. The focus is not the players, the team, the game, or even the result that matters. The crowd is almost disengaged from the game, even to the extent that the Vorsinger, the two cheerleaders who conduct the singing and leading chants, have their backs to the game and face the crowd, not the pitch. Songs are focused not on the players (apart from one song for club talisman Torsten Mattuschka) nor the opposition (there is not one single anti-Frankfurt or anti-Hertha Berlin song all game, or '"who the f****** h*** are you?" songs at the away fans), but Eisern Union, The club. It is all about das Verein. The German word for club, Verein, literally means a 'making one'. And that is exactly what happens here. The crowd acts more as one than any English crowd.
This has its downsides too. You don't tend to get the witty banter of an English crowd, with songs made up on the spot in reaction to the opposition mascot, events on the pitch or figures in the home crowd (at a recent Bristol City away game, a home fan in a red and white bobble hat was the object of endless ribald songs - 'Wally, Wally, give us a wave...' - it didn't seem like this was likely to happen here.)
The game? A routine 2-0 win for the home team. The Union midfield bossed the game and with a decent striker would have won more comfortably than a first half penalty and a defender's late run into the box allowed. The standard seemed around English League 1, which, seeing as this was the top half of the second tier of German football was a bit of a surprise. In England, the football tends to be better, but the experience as a whole less rich.
It felt a bit like the past - standing on terraces, scarves held above the head, endless singing - all reminiscent of the 1970s back home (without the violence, mind). At the same time it felt like the future. Or at least what the future could look like. Union is 100% fan owned, which goes a long way to explaining the sense of unity and belonging. English clubs owned by oligarchs or local businessmen in suits offer a product, entertainment for customers, rather than an experience of belonging for fans. I did miss the element of intense interest in the game and the result, but maybe that's just because Union are not quite my team. At least not yet.