Union Berlin surprised itself last season when it prospered in the Bundesliga and clinched Champions League qualification.
The players had a hard time believing their success as they soared past their preseason target of mere survival to finish fourth and reach Europe’s premier competition for the first time.
“It’s surreal,” Union coach Urs Fischer said after the last game of the season.
“We can really be happy about finishing fourth, but it’s important we stay true to ourselves,” Fischer said in typical manner. “Yeah, Champions League, it can change things a little bit. But I believe we have to keep this humility and stay modest.”
With Union in the Champions League, few know what to expect from a club that has been exceeding expectations and improving every year since Fischer’s team won a playoff for Union’s first ever Bundesliga promotion in 2019.
But excitement is building in the German capital, where Union is the only team playing top-flight soccer following city rival Hertha Berlin’s relegation.
Union’s own stadium, Stadion An der Alten Försterei (Stadium at the Old Forester’s House), holds only 22,000 fans, so the club opted to play its Champions League games in the 75,000-capacity Olympiastadion traditionally used by Hertha.
Union’s website crashed and all 40,000 season tickets for the group stage were sold out in a day, long before anyone knows which opponents the team will face. The Champions League draw takes place on Aug. 31. Members who didn’t get a season ticket will be able to get individual match tickets after this date. Demand is again likely to exceed supply.
Union is the only team in Germany’s top division to have played in the DDR-Oberliga, East Germany’s Bundesliga equivalent. Its biggest achievement before promotion was winning the East German Cup in 1968.
The Köpenick-based club has thrived since reaching the Bundesliga. It finished 11th in the 18-team league in its first season in 2020, then seventh in 2021, fifth in 2022, and fourth last season, when it was leading up until the 13th round. It also reached the last 16 in the Europa League and the quarterfinals of the German Cup.
While Union was been trying — and failing — to keep expectations down despite its success on the field, managing director Oliver Ruhnert’s transfer dealings reveal an ambition that appears beyond the club’s modest resources.
Ruhnert saw off competition from Eintracht Frankfurt and Wolfsburg to sign Germany international Robin Gosens in a club-record transfer from Inter Milan on Tuesday, then followed up Thursday by signing former Germany forward Kevin Volland.
Among others this summer, Union signed American international Brenden Aaronson on loan from Leeds, Ivorian forward David Datro Fofana on loan from Chelsea, French midfielder Lucas Toussart from Hertha, and Czech midfielder Alex Kral from Schalke.
In January, Union signed Croatia right back Josip Juranović, Guadeloupe right back Jérôme Roussillon and Tunisia midfielder Aïssa Laïdouni. All three have become key players.
Union was also linked with Spanish star Isco but that transfer broke down amid disagreement on the last day of the transfer window.
Missing out on the technical brilliance of Isco may have proved to be a stroke of fortune for Union, which profits on its hard-working team effort and less on the increasing quality of its individual players.
Defense has always been a key factor, but Union is no longer content to cede possession and hit on counterattacks. Fischer, who has built his team on getting the basics right, constantly pushes his players for improvement, even after a comfortable win. The team has become increasingly proactive, forcing the initiative in games.
Meanwhile, it has turned its tightly packed Stadion An der Alten Försterei into a fortress. Union is unbeaten in a club-record 23 consecutive Bundesliga games at home.
Fischer’s team warmed up for the season with a 4-1 friendly win over Italian club Atalanta before a 4-0 victory at fourth-tier team Astoria Walldorf in the first round of the German Cup.
It begins its Bundesliga campaign at home to Mainz on Sunday. If Union makes another good start, fans will again sing about winning the league — no matter how much Fischer and his players try to keep expectations down.
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