As Palace travel to Union Berlin for pre-season, FYP asked Andrew Cherrie, who helps run the Union in English website, a site for English supporters of the club, to give us a guide to the club and the area.
History, myths and traditions
The forerunner of the club was SC Union 06 Oberschöneweide, one of Berlin's most prominent pre-war teams who reached the final of the German championship in 1923. The club drew support from the metalwork factories nearby and thus attracted cries of 'Eisern Union' (Iron Union) - which is still the club's call-to-arms today.
The club continued their success in the immediate post-war years, but a disagreement with the occupying Soviet authorities saw many players flee to the more financially-lucrative west of the city, controlled by allied forces. SC Union 06 was founded at Berlin's Poststadion, near the current Hauptbahnhof (main station). Thousands continued to travel from the east to see 'their' Union throughout the 1950s, until the construction of the Berlin wall and subsequent division of the city in 1961.
East German clubs BFC Dynamo and Vorwärts Berlin were founded to represent the secret police and the army, but by the mid-60s there was still no civilian club to represent everyday working people. 1.FC Union Berlin was founded in 1966 (decent year for football, no?) to fill this gap.
The club won the East German cup in 1968 but it was to be their only success of note in a DDR football scene dominated by state-backed clubs. During this time Union developed a reputation as an anti-establishment club, not just against the crooked refs and rigged games but against the repressive Stasi regime as a whole. Long-haired hippies in short denim shorts were regulars on the terraces in the 80s as Union became a meeting point for free thinkers and dissidents - 'the wall must fall' was a popular cry when a free-kick was being taken.
After German reunification, Union and Hertha played a friendly at the Olympic Stadium in front of 50,000, both sets of fans mixing and displaying banners such as 'Union and Hertha play each other - and the whole of Germany celebrates'. The two clubs developed a 'behind the wall' friendship throughout the Cold War, with Hertha fans often travelling to the east for Union home games, linked by their shared desire for a reunited Berlin.
Like much of east Berlin itself, Union struggled to find their footing in the decade following the fall of the wall, and on occasion came close to disappearing forever. German society and football in general also had a problem with right-wing hooliganism in the 90s - a youtube video shows fans of Türkiyemspor, the club of Berlin's large Turkish community, being escorted from the Alte Försterei under heavy police protection from a barrage of missiles and vitriol. The club struggled with identity in a turbulent time of transition across the whole former DDR.
Union stagnated until 2001, when it reached the final of the German cup, losing to Schalke but qualifying for the following year's UEFA Cup. Despite going out in the early rounds, the foray into Europe revived a sense of pride and brought Union back into Germany's footballing conscience - and also coincided with a few seasons of relative stability in the 2nd division.
With relegation came near bankruptcy. The club had dropped to the 4th division and were in desperate need of funds for their playing license. The fans stepped in. Hundreds physically gave blood and gave their fee (German blood banks give a €20 cash reward) directly to the club, thus avoiding liquidation in a scheme called 'Bleed for Union'.
Since the stadium re-build the club have settled upon a mid-table position in the 2nd division, flittering between 7th and 11th place. The relative comfort suits Union - very few fans are willing to say that they want promotion. The general consensus is that a season being knocked around by Bayern and Dortmund and coming straight back down, along with all the riches and distractions that top flight football would bring, would corrupt the club and what it stands for.
This season, however, the club have made it clear for the first time that promotion is the goal, and seem set to make a very strong challenge.
The Alte Försterei is the biggest attraction for us expats and is a perfect example of a how modern football stadium should be. Tight to the pitch, compact, a low roof offering good acoustics, terracing across 3 sides. Many women and children choose to stand, you can move freely between groups of friends. It can get packed, the stairwells overflow a bit and there's always someone taller than you blocking your view, but you never feel unsafe - and the atmosphere it creates is indescribable.
Union are a fan-owned club who play in a fan-owned, fan-built stadium, in a forest in the former German Democratic Republic (DDR). This fan-built ground in a forest in the former DDR is comprised of 3 sides of terracing, where you can smoke, drink, move around and even stand up. The fourth side is comprised of around 3,000 seats, where you can also smoke, drink, move around and even stand up.
The current state that you'll find the ground in is a far cry from how it looked 10 years ago. With Union on the brink of bankruptcy, the stadium was a dilapidated East German relic, with weeds sprouting from beneath the concrete and crush barriers rusting slowly away. Crowds dithered around 5-6,000, the club hopping between the 2nd, 3rd and 4th tiers for much of the early 21st century.
Years of wrangling with local authorities had halted any progress of ground redevelopment. Groundshares were mooted, new sites more central to Berlin itself earmarked for a new stadium. But the club and its fans were clear that moving away from their home over 80 years, away from their core fan base in the deep east, was not an option.
The arrival of current president Dirk Zingler around this time marked a vital turning point in the club's history. Zingler is a lifelong fan, and a businessman. With little support from the local council, his vision was clear: we'll do it ourselves.
The decision was made in January 2007 to totally transform the stadium using predominantly volunteer labour. Starting in June 2008 and over a 13 month period, over 2,000 fans gave 140,000 hours of their time to lay concrete, install light fittings, build fences. Only the roof required a specialised building firm. A permanent tribute to the stadium volunteers sits in the beer garden near the away section - a plastic hard hat sitting atop an iron column.
For the 2008/2009 season the club moved temporarily to the traditional home of fierce rivals BFC Dynamo, the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn Sportpark. Many fans boycotted, but missed a successful season on the pitch, the club winning promotion from the 3rd to the 2nd division. Thousands returned to the almost-completed building site to celebrate promotion.
The stadium was opened on the 8th July 2009 with a friendly match against Hertha BSC. Work on the current main stand began in the summer of 2012 and upon its completion in early 2013, saw the capacity rise to just over 22,000 - with 18,395 standing places. For the club's 'Weihnachtssingen' - christmas carol service - the capacity is around 27,000, with fans flowing onto the pitch.
The stadium is located in the borough of Köpenick, about 20km south-east of the city centre. Köpenick itself boasts an historic old town and is surrounded on either side by lakes, waterways and forests and was independent from Berlin until 1920.
Getting there is easy enough. Take any of the central S Bahn lines to Ostkreuz and change. Follow the throngs of red-scarved beer swillers to find the platform you need (S3, direction Erkner). Drinking on public transport is actively encouraged so make sure you're well stocked for the journey.
From Ostkreuz to Köpenick takes around 20 minutes. The walk between S Bahn and stadium is lined with places to grab a beer and a sausage. Directly at the station is the Hauptmann von Köpenick, a traditional old 'Kneipe' decked in years of Union memorabilia. A litte further up the road is the Union Tanke, a makeshift outside bar and grill that is more suitable if the weather is better. Further up the road after the railway bridge is the Abseitsfalle (offside trap), the usual haunt of Union's English contingent. Pints are €2.50.
It's very important when visiting for the first time that you approach the ground through the forest - no other approach does it justice. Getting into the ground around 1 hour before kick-off is advised. Beer is of course available in the ground and on the terrace itself - instead of burly men in fluorescent jackets milling around the away end trying to take beer from you, burly men in fluorescent jackets mill around the away end with backpacks of cold beer, doing all they can to thrust a pint in your hand.
Things get interesting around 15 minutes before kick-off, with the team line-ups and club hymn. Performed by East German punk legend Nina Hagen, the hymn is a aural rollercoaster, dipping between soft-rock ballads and heavy metal riffs, with lyrics about never selling your soul to the west and burning up the turf. Naturally you have to hold your scarf above your head for the 5 minute duration (many Union fans have hand-knitted beer cup holders around their neck to assist them during the song).
After this you're free to enjoy the atmosphere, the terracing, the beer, the sausages and hopefully a half-decent game of football. The stadium remains open for an hour or so after the game for a beer, and the bars around the ground will stay lively well into the evening.
There is also a page on the official Union Berlin website which shows the away end - which is entirely terraced. http://www.fc-union-berlin.de/stadion/gaesteblock/