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Union Berlin fans display their fan scarves as they cheer for their team prior to the German first division Bundesliga football match between 1 FC Union Berlin and RB Leipzig in Berlin on Sept. 3.ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images

An hour before kickoff, the stands are packed shoulder to shoulder at Stadion An der Alten Försterei, the home of FC Union Berlin, a soccer club in the German capital. The fans are singing and chanting to a set list that seemingly everyone knows by heart, and they rarely stop until it’s time to leave, hours later. The air smells of grilled meat, spilled beer and cigarette smoke. (Yes, you can smoke in the stadium.)

It’s a late August afternoon and the opening weekend in the Bundesliga’s top division. Union Berlin doesn’t waste any time in setting the tone for the season: They take the lead within the first minute of play, en route to a 4-1 victory.

A win was, perhaps, expected. The Berlin side is riding an incredible run of form. After several decades of toiling in the backwaters of the German soccer system, Union Berlin has gradually risen the ranks, culminating in a fourth-place finish in the Bundesliga last season – enough to qualify for the Champions League for the first time.

When their tournament opens on Wednesday, Union will get thrown into the proverbial deep end of European soccer, squaring off against 14-time champions Real Madrid in Spain.

The matchup is comically David versus Goliath. Real Madrid is the deep-pocketed juggernaut that showers money on the world’s finest players. Union, by contrast, was so financially strapped in the early 2000s that fans donated their blood for money that was shared with the club.

Long-time supporters of Union seem almost shocked their club is playing in Germany’s top league – let alone the European championships.

“We’re the dirty children at the big table with white tablecloth and silverware,” says Andras Ruppert, a fan.

The turnaround doesn’t follow the typical playbook for soccer in 2023. There is no outside investor pumping money into the club as a vanity project, or to “sports wash” a country’s reputation.

Under the “50+1 rule” in German soccer, club members have a majority of voting rights. (There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as VfL Wolfsburg, which is owned by auto giant Volkswagen.) Essentially, fee-paying members have ultimate control over how the team is run.

“One of the things you have to understand is that sport in this country is not part of the entertainment industry,” said Uli Hesse, the author of several books on German soccer.

“This all comes from a typically German mindset. Our clubs are public clubs,” he continued. “We’re not a business. We serve a local community.”

Union is based in the Köpenick area of Berlin, in what was East Germany before reunification; it was favoured by anti-establishment types who opposed the Communist regime. The club has a scrappy, blue-collar vibe that emanates from its members. When Union had to make significant upgrades to its stadium about 15 years ago, more than 2,300 members donated their time – and skills – to the project.

“I have never seen anything like the undertaking the fans took here to rebuild this place,” said Jacob Sweetman, a British expat and long-time fan of Union, who’s now in charge of the club’s English-language communications. “It was simply astonishing.”

Ask Union supporters about the club’s hot streak and you rarely hear about the roster. (Great players are frequently poached from German clubs by wealthier peers in other countries.) Instead, they point to the steady leadership of its personnel. Urs Fischer, who joined as manager in 2018, is known as a defensive tactician. The scouting team is credited for continually finding undervalued players who are ready to contribute.

At the opening match of this season, fans were particularly delighted that Kevin Behrens – a German forward who made his debut in the top division at the age of 30 – netted three headers in the win.

As the club has achieved more success, and because of the raucous environment at home games, it’s drawn more support. Union Berlin now has more than 55,000 members; in 2006, there were around 4,000. Annual fees run up to €120 (about $175).

John Richter of England immediately fell for the club when he travelled to a match in 2018. He recently moved to Berlin, in large part to attend more games.

“I fell out of love with the game in England, because there was just so much money in it,” he said. “You feel like a customer, rather than a fan.”

This surge in popularity is making it tougher to get tickets. The home stadium has a capacity of around 22,000 – the vast majority is standing room only – making it one of the smallest venues in the Bundesliga.

Union has opted to play its three home matches in Champions League group play at Olympic Stadium, which normally plays host to crosstown rivals Hertha BSC. The capacity of that stadium is roughly 75,000, allowing more fans to join in the festivities. And much like for Bundesliga matches, entry is quite affordable: Many supporters have purchased tickets to all three games for a total of €75.

“It can’t be a money-making exercise. This is such a heroic occasion for the city, as well as the club,” Sweetman said. “Football should be affordable. Tickets here are affordable.”

Union supporters aren’t necessarily expecting much in the Champions League. They would love some wins, sure, but their commitment to the team is unwavering.

“It doesn’t really matter to us at the end of the day,” Richter said. “If we were back in the second division, we’d still be going and we’d still be supporting the team.”

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