It takes about half an hour on the prepare to get from the middle of Berlin to Köpenick, and the journey is a recreation of two halves. The second half is a delicate rumble by way of the commercial, residential and woodland heartlands of Bundesliga membership Union Berlin. The first half is a sight-seeing tour of Berlin’s world-famous nightlife.
After Alexanderplatz, the prepare pulls into Jannowitzbrücke, the place an enormous energy station towers over the financial institution of the river. Behind it lie Tresor, an elder statesman of town’s techno scene, and the KitKatClub, well-known for its fetish events and strictly kinky gown code. As the prepare approaches Warschauer Strasse station, the tracks and river half methods and an imposing grey constructing looms within the open sky over a low-build retail park. This is Berghain, essentially the most well-known of all Berlin golf equipment and a byword the world over for town’s taboo-free, 24-hour social gathering tradition. Its notoriously scrupulous door coverage is an attraction in itself.
All these venues are shut to the place the Wall as soon as stood and all of them have been based within the decade or so after reunification. They are locations which grew out of that distinctive interval in Berlin’s historical past, when historic trauma and a sluggish financial system meant town was nonetheless stuffed with unfilled areas.
Nowadays, the areas are disappearing and the golf equipment are surrounded by constructing websites, shiny new workplace blocks and procuring malls. Berlin has modified radically within the final 30 years, however few areas have been remodeled fairly as a lot because the central districts of the previous East. More than another, they’ve been topic to that acquainted cycle of gentrification: a depressed space turns into a cultural hotspot, the tradition brings money and improvement, and slowly however absolutely folks start to be pushed out.
Union, whose dwelling lies out within the leafy suburbs of the previous East Berlin, are a world away from all of this. Yet as they’ve risen from lower-league obscurity to the Europa League during the last decade, they too have come to face the identical issues as town’s different main subcultures.
“If you’ve gotten too many people who find themselves solely right here as spectators, then ultimately it will not be that nice any extra,” says Christian Arbeit, the membership’s well-known, long-haired stadium announcer and spokesman, once I meet him in September 2021 He is speaking about Union, however he may simply as properly be speaking about Berghain.
Arbeit has been the face of Union for greater than a decade, and he has seen each his membership and his metropolis increase in recognition throughout that point. He meets me in one of many stadium’s beer gardens, and for the center a part of the interview, we’ve to shout at one another. It is the day earlier than a match day, and behind us, somebody is testing the loudspeakers within the stadium. At one level, they play a widely known commercial for a model of Berlin beer that additionally occurs to sponsor Union. A quickfire collection of clips displaying ravers, mechanics, dominatrixes and DJs is overlaid with the 2003 track Berlin, Du Bist So Wunderbar. With its slickly synthesized organ notes, hip-hop beat and scratchy vocals, the track is an anthem for Berlin’s Twenty first-century self-image. It was launched in 2003, the identical 12 months that the then mayor, Klaus Wowereit, famously described his metropolis as “poor, however horny”.
When Arbeit first took the microphone, Union have been extra poor than horny. They have been nonetheless within the fourth division and reeling from the monetary and soccer woes of the early 2000s. After their fan-led stadium renovation and promotion to the second division in 2009, nevertheless, they established themselves because the undisputed second power in Berlin, behind their western rivals Hertha BSC. They, too, turned extra affluent, and footballing success rapidly started to dovetail with town’s cultural cool. As the beloved German DJ WestBam put it in an interview with FAZ newspaper in 2016: “Union are extra techno than Hertha.”
For a very long time, Arbeit was a part of that picture. A guitar-playing, bearded rabble rouser with shoulder size hair, he was a membership spokesman tailored for a cult membership. But the look has modified in recent times. When his hair was shaved off within the wild promotion celebrations of 2019, he determined not to develop it again. He wears shirts extra typically now, and appears extra cautious of over-romanticizing Union.
“We do not do something particularly to please different folks. We can not help it if folks like us,” he says, and admits that it was not all the time comfy when Union’s recognition hit new heights within the mid-2010s. “There have been loads of folks within the fan scene who noticed that with a whole lot of skepticism.”
By the time Union have been promoted to the Bundesliga in 2019, the followers had lengthy since expressed their disquiet. Two years earlier, when Union first challenged for promotion, they raised a banner on the terraces studying: “Shit! We’re going up!”
They have been solely half joking. Success had by no means been a part of Union’s DNA, and there have been real fears about whether or not they may preserve their identity as a fan-led, group membership within the high flight. What if an excessive amount of cash and success modified the membership? What in the event that they modified it for the more severe?
As properly as concrete questions on sponsorship offers and ticket costs, that additionally meant considerations about who was coming to Union. Once you hit the mainstream, in spite of everything, being cool is a double-edged sword. As the areas have stuffed within the city panorama across the nightclubs, so too have they stuffed across the lifelong followers on the terraces on the Alte Försterei. In 2010, the Union had 6,500 members. In the last decade since, they’ve grown exponentially to attain nearly 40,000.
So, at what level is it now not the identical membership; now not the identical metropolis? At what level does “poor however horny” stop to be an outline of actuality, and begin turning into a nostalgia journey, or perhaps a plain lie? Do Union, like Berlin, threat dropping their soul the extra profitable they turn out to be? When I ask Arbeit, he narrows his eyes and chooses his phrases rigorously. “The membership won’t ever cease altering,” he says. “But hopefully it does so slowly sufficient that it could possibly nonetheless acknowledge itself.”
As with the techno scene, meaning sustaining a steadiness between the vacationers and the locals. Those for whom the stadium or the membership is a bucket-list expertise, and people for whom it’s a lifestyle. At Berghain, they make use of the world’s most well-known bouncer to filter out the voyeurs and preserve the social equilibrium inside. Union could not have fairly as strict a door coverage, however Arbeit explains that additionally they don’t actively court docket new followers. Unlike different golf equipment from Europe’s high leagues, he says, they haven’t sought to widen their fanbase within the Far East or the USA. “If we focus our energies on issues like that, then we are going to lose our core goal.”
Whether for Union or for the membership scene, that restraint can also be an train in self-preservation. The extra seen you’re in Berlin, the extra doubtless you’re to be overrun by vacationers and thrill-seekers. Ideally, you need to be cool sufficient to thrive, however well-hidden sufficient to survive.
“It’s a bit like Sleeping Beauty,” says Arbeit. “To get to her, the prince first has to know the place she is, after which he has to reduce his manner by way of the thickets. With us, folks know the place we’re, however you continue to have to stroll by way of the forest earlier than you possibly can kiss us awake.”
Scheisse! We’re Going Up! by Kit Holden is printed by Duckworth Books (£14.99). To assist the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com for £13.04. Delivery expenses could apply