Union Berlin: The Cinderella story of the Champions League

Real Madrid beat Union Berlin 1-0 Wednesday afternoon with a last-minute goal from Jude Bellingham. When the young English midfielder turned in the penalty box and smashed home the winner, Union’s players were disappointed, but this loss was no heartbreak for the German team

This squad managed to hang on against Madrid, the winningest team in Europe, for 94 solid minutes. Union Berlin made it.

Fifteen years ago, Union Berlin was struggling in the fourth division of the German soccer pyramid. Four years ago, it was fighting through the second. Wednesday, it went toe-to-toe with one of the most famous teams in the world, in front of millions of global viewers. 

Union’s journey from semi-professional soccer to the Champions League has been swift, steady and, in the words of German newspaper Der Tagesspiel, “absurd.”

Union’s roots stretch all the way back to 1906, but the club was dissolved during the Second World War and was not able to reform until 1966. Based in the Kopenick neighborhood of old East Berlin, Union played exclusively against East German opposition until the reunification of Germany in 1990. 

Shuffled in with better-funded West German teams, Union struggled, falling all the way into the fourth division. It begged fans for financial assistance and, as The Athletic reported, rebuilt its stadium for free with the help of more than 2,000 volunteers.

With strong fan support, Union bounced back and became regulars in the competitive second division of German soccer. In 2019, it became the first club from the old East Berlin to appear in Germany’s top division, and it’s stayed there ever since.

Few expected Union to compete in the Bundesliga, but it didn’t just compete — it won, decisively and with plenty of personality. Coach Urs Fischer implemented a defensive 3-5-2 system that allowed Union to strike quickly and directly while giving up possession of the ball to its opponents. When played correctly, it allowed Union to cede possession to its opponents while striking quickly and directly with the few ball-playing opportunities it received. 

Union is now infamous for winning games with 30% ball possession or less; it defends resolutely and scores decisively, frustrating top-tier opponents and clawing its way into bigger and better positions.

But Union has never forgotten its history — it’s a club that refuses to take its fans for granted. It will host at least three Champions League games this winter at the Olympiastadion in Berlin, and while tickets could easily sell for hundreds of dollars, Union capped prices for fans at $80 for all three games. It’s a lovely gesture of support for the fans who put their literal backs into supporting Union, rebuilding the stadium it still uses today.

Wednesday’s game against Real Madrid was Union’s first Champions League appearance in its history, and its notorious 3-5-2 worked brilliantly against the Galacticos. Union looked comfortable and competent throughout the match, and in many ways, it looked like it was finally home, competing against the very best at the top of the European soccer pyramid.

“We took a different path, a special path, with Union Berlin, where big money was never an issue,” captain Christopher Trimmel said. “If you look across the city [of Berlin], hundreds of millions have been spent and it’s all gone wrong. Then you see this small club from Kopenick and what we’ve achieved.

“I think that’s just a wonderful story for football. And that’s why I love football — when small clubs mix it up with big clubs.”

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