Monday, January 02, 2012
Berlin football club sells its soul – but only to fans
Source: The Guardian
FC Union is selling shares to survive but has limits to avoid them being bought en masse by investors looking to make money
Standing in the mud outside FC Union's woodland stadium, Frank Fritz reflected on the sacrifices he has made for his favourite football club. "I spent a hundred hours here pouring concrete," he said, pointing to the steps on the western stand. "Two weeks' holiday it took, including weekends." But it was worth it, said the 45-year-old Berlin refuse collector. Fritz was one of more than 2,000 Union fans who gave their time to rebuild the club's worse-for-wear ground when it became clear the team could not afford the renovations itself.
Now, Berlin's "other" football side, the down-at-heel rival to footballing heavyweight Hertha Berlin, has gone one step further and is asking fans not just for their time but for their money. The club has been selling 10,000 shares in the Alte Försterei (Old Forester's House) stadium in the east Berlin district of Köpenick, allowing fans to have a say in how the ground develops in the future. The shares cannot be bought en masse by an oil-rich sheikh or an American family looking for a neat way to juggle billions of dollars of debts. No one can buy more than 10, and to invest, you have either to be a club sponsor, or a club member.
Letting fans own a piece of their club is not a first. Several British clubs, including FC United and Ebbsfleet United have experimented with fan ownership, and German clubs have historically required a minimum 51% ownership by members – the 50 plus 1 rule. But what makes Union's stance rather unusual is the way it is soliciting for shareholders.
"We're selling our soul – but not just to anyone," proclaim posters on billboards around former east Berlin, featuring pictures of unwelcome investors, including Red Bull, Silvio Berlusconi and Sepp Blatter.
Each share costs €500 (£418) – a snip for a Glazer or a Sheikh Mansour, but a lot for Fritz, who queued up in the cold to become one of the first fans-turned-shareholders. "I'm paying in instalments, five lots of €100," he said.
Tobias Hellweg, a 21-year-old electronic engineer, said he had blown an entire month's spending money on his share. "But it's worth it. I wanted to be a part of what makes Union Union (and not Hertha) – its togetherness with the fans."
Talk to any Union fan about what makes their club special and they are likely to draw an unfavourable comparison with Hertha BSC, which competes in the top flight Bundesliga. Comparison between the two clubs illustrates perfectly the chasm which still exists in many walks of German life between the east and west of the country, 21 years after reunification.
In the leafy far reaches of west Berlin stands the Olympic stadium, built by Hitler for the 1936 Games and now home to Hertha. After extensive renovations, the ground seats 74,500 fans, protected from the elements by a state-of-the-art glass roof.
Thirty kilometres east in working Köpenick, second division Union play in the Alte Försterei, which resembles a pre-Hillsborough second division ground – mostly standing room only, with an eight-foot wire fence to deter pitch invasions. Fans drink pints of Berliner Pilsner and chainsmoke while chanting and singing continuously for 90 minutes; at halftime men urinate against the perimeter fence before buying €2 Eberswalder sausages – a local brand which sponsors the scoreboard.
But most Union fans want to keep things lowkey. "In England, football isn't football any more," said Nils Ludewig, 24. "You can't stand any more, you can't wave big flags. It's all about the money." Even Hamburg's St Pauli – a Bundesliga team with a punk rock attitude usually held up as the ultimate example of a football club with soul – is dismissed by many Union fans as "too commercial".
"At Hertha, fans are happy only if they're winning. At Union, we celebrate whether we win or lose," said Hellweg. Fritz said that a game at Hertha is all about the "event" – "At Union it's all about heart and soul".
Union has long prided itself on its outsider status. In communist times, it positioned itself as a fiercely anti-Stasi team, in comparison to its rival, Berliner FC Dynamo, which was openly favoured by the East German secret police – Stasi boss Erich Mielke used to manipulate the outcome of the team's games and ensure its dominance.
But this pariah mentality can have its downsides: for years, Union has been saddled with a reputation for hooliganism, particularly by the Ultras, who sit in the Waldseite (Woodside) stand during home games.
At a recent away match in the northern city of Rostock, they defied a ban on fireworks and earned the club a hefty fine after putting on an impromptu pyrotechnic show inside the stadium. At the game against Dynamo Dresden on 2 December, one skinhead deliberately pushed over the Guardian – "Piss off media bitch" – and another spat in the photographer's face. After the match, the press spokesman apologised, and said he had never heard of such a thing happening before.
Helen Pidd in Berlin
guardian.co.uk, Monday 2 January 2012 15.52 GMT