18 November ~ Dirk Zingler, the chairman of 1.FC Union Berlin, addressed an extraordinary general meeting at the club last Sunday. Supporters were offered shares in the stadium, the Stadion an der Alten Försterei – 10,000 shares are available at €500 each to members and current sponsors. No one would be able to hold more than ten shares and all decisions about the future of the stadium would have to be voted on by a majority (two thirds in the case of the old place being given a sponsor's name). "FC Union sells its soul," they proudly announced: "To the fans".
It was typical of Union – a club whose own mythology revolves around being the working class, "anti-regime" club of the former East. They are keenly aware of the role their fans played in rescuing the club when it faced financial obliteration in the late 1990s. Fans devoted thousands of working hours for free as they literally rebuilt the stadium. They also ran the remarkable "Bleed for Union" campaign, where cash given to blood donors was donated to the club.
This was also a tidy piece of PR by Zingler at a time when German football is worried about rising levels of violence at all levels of the game, from the Bundesliga down to park level. Concerns have been raised about the safe use of flares and fireworks on the terraces, an issue that has been roundly dismissed by the German football association without a debate. Fans are also wary of the increasing commercialisation of the game in a country that many see as being the last remaining bastion of "old-fashioned football".
A hall flanking the stadium was packed with over 2,000 members who heard the club's plan to service the funding necessary for a new stand, a new "fan house" (including fan club headquarters, shop, and bar) and markedly improved access. The improvements would be built regardless – €15 million had already been raised – but the share issue would reduce the burden of outside borrowing.
Union's fans have a unique sense of ownership over their stadium that is unrivalled in Germany. The Bundesliga might be flourishing but its sold out grounds are increasingly adorned with names that bare no relation to football traditions. Hamburg's Volkspark Stadion, where Holland and Germany played this week, is now called the Imtech Arena, and was previously known as the AOL Arena and the HSH Nordbank Arena. It has also been given temporary names during the World Cup and for European matches, when the sponsor's names transgress FIFA and UEFA rules.
Union's plans have proved popular, but a few dissenters think it is a cheek for the club to ask fans to pay what is, for many, an awful lot of money for a new stand to house expensive VIP boxes in a stadium they feel they own already. The club have sought to allay these fears by making shares available on instalment plans.
The club have bombarded the city with advertising for their big idea, including a cheesy cinema commercial that features advertising executives trying to sell Zingler and his boardroom colleagues plans for a new "Always Ultra Stadium". Zingler dismisses their proposal and suggests: "Hey, why don't we sell it to the fans". To accompany the cinema advert, posters featuring those seen as the trio of football's evils – Blatter, Berlusconi and Red Bull – have been placed around the city. But the keynote speech on Sunday was from a different age. Honorary president Günter Mielis linked his 70-plus years of playing for and supporting the club with the new generation in charge. It was his support at the end that gave legitimacy to the plan. Most fans left content that the soul of their club would remain intact. Jacob Sweetman nodicemagazine.com