- A new Bundesliga season kicked off last weekend
- Union Berlin made their debut in Germany’s top flight
- "Finally There" initiative sent shivers down the spine
Are you a football fan whose beloved club plays in the first division? Then you should consider yourself very lucky indeed.
After all, very few sides manage to reach the summit of their country’s footballing pyramid. For example, there are more than 27,000 teams in Germany alone, yet only 56 of them have played in the Bundesliga since it was founded in 1963.
The German top flight awoke from its summer slumber again last weekend, much to the relief of millions of football fans. Yet the return to action for the first division’s 66th season was very special for one club in particular, as capital city side Union Berlin contested the first-ever Bundesliga match in their 53-year history.
For comparison, record champions Bayern Munich are beginning their 54th season and have competed in 1,841 top-flight games since 1965. While Werder Bremen are second to the Bavarian giants on all-time points, they have more Bundesliga matches under their belt – 1,867 in all – and figures that the league’s newest additions can only dream of.
Union’s greatest sporting achievements to date were winning the FDGB Cup (East Germany's former cup competition) in 1968 and reaching the 2001 DFB Cup final to qualify for the 2001/02 UEFA Cup.
When the current side took to the pitch against RB Leipzig on Sunday, fans at Stadion An der Alten Forsterei created an emotional atmosphere by holding aloft images of more than 450 late supporters of Die Eisernen as the chant "Wir werden ewig leben!" ("We will live forever!") echoed around the stands.
After Union were promoted to the Bundesliga in May, the club’s fan groups created the "Endlich dabei" ("Finally There") initiative, which gave supporters the chance to upload an image of a late relative, former player or club member and have it printed on a 70x70-centimetre banner. As the promoted side’s anthem "Eisern Union" ("Iron Union") by Nina Hagen sounded around the stadium in the build-up to their first match in Germany’s top flight, many fans held up images of departed family members, friends and partners to allow them to be symbolically present for this historic moment.
"Countless Union supporters who have supported and followed the club on its way will no longer be with us to celebrate this iconic experience," the Berlin side wrote on their website. "All of them are sorely missed, and so the idea was born among the Union family to commemorate them with a special campaign."
One of the fans remembered on these banners was the late husband of Mrs. Henning, who was moved to tears as she held the black-and-white poster bearing his image. "This means everything (...) to the entire family," she told local news channel rbb. "He was a coach for Union’s youth teams."
Also present for this historic occasion was Reinhard Fink, who first watched a Union Berlin game at the stadium with his father 50 years earlier, aged seven. It turned out to be the first of many. "We always stood in line with the penalty spot," Fink recalled. "Everyone often chanted and sang that Union were heading to the Bundesliga, but it seemed completely inconceivable – particularly during the DDR years."
His father passed away 19 years ago. "It bothered me that my Dad didn’t live to see Union’s heyday, so I’m really pleased that we got the chance to go to the ground 'together' again for the club’s first Bundesliga match."
Although Union Berlin ultimately lost the game 4-0 to RB Leipzig, it did nothing to dampen the fans’ euphoria.