Berlin Cheers On Former East German Soccer Team

FC Union has faced decades of tough times during political and economic upheaval. In the late 1960s when it was an East German team, it developed a bitter rivalry with Stasi-sponsored Dynamo Berlin. Even after reunification, the team faced financial ruin repeatedly, but its fans refuse to give up.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

For people in Germany, Christmas means evergreens, "Silent Night" and mulled wine. In the city of Berlin, Christmas also means celebrating a scrappy group of athletes. The FC Union soccer team was formed by iron workers more than a century ago. During the Cold War, it became a symbol of resistance against the East German government. These days, despite mixed results on the field, FC Union remains a fan favorite.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson sent this postcard from a game over the weekend.

CROWD: (Singing) O Tannenbaum. O Tannenbaum...

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: More than 20,000 fans with candles singing "Oh Christmas Tree" pack this stadium they built with their own hands on the edge of Berlin.

CROWD: (Singing in German)

NELSON: It's the 11th year in a row the FC Union lovers are gathering for what has become a famous Christmas tradition. But even when it isn't a holiday, these fans are out in force, wearing "Where's Waldo"-looking hats and scarves. The team's colors are red and white.

UTE GROETZBACH: (German spoken)

NELSON: Ute Groetzbach has been coming to see FC Union play for three decades. She's part of a sold-out crowd that attended the last game of the year over the weekend. Groetzbach says this is about being a big family - I feel very comfortable here and it's fun.

She and other fans adore the players, who by German standards are hardly the best.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (German spoken)

NELSON: After the announcer introduces each FC Union player, the fans shout: He's a soccer god. But these deities quickly fall down on the job.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (German spoken)

NELSON: The opponents score a goal in the first minute of the game.

Matt Schofield, who is the Berlin correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, is a season ticket holder.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD NOISE)

MATT SCHOFIELD: OK. Well, that's pretty much par for the course. But it's a long game.

NELSON: The setback makes the fans that much more determined to cheer their team on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD NOISE)

NELSON: They sing non-stop during the 90-minute game. They also never once boo their opponents. Team spokesman Christian Arbeit says such courtesy is a time-honored fan tradition passed down from generation to generation.

CHRISTIAN ARBEIT: In other stadiums you often hear a kind of offending the guest team. This is not very popular here, so people are concentrating themselves on supporting their own team, to praise the club, to praise the players.

NELSON: Arbeit says it hasn't always been easy for fans to be so congenial, especially when they faced FC Union's arch-rival back during the Cold War. The team was called Dynamo. It was headed by the minister of the East German secret police, or Stasi. He made sure he hired all the best players and coerced referees into ruling in Dynamo's favor.

Some FC Union fans like Heiko Kulleng recall how they were followed by Stasi agents.

HEIKO KULLENG: (German spoken)

NELSON: He adds they fought back during the games with songs that were subtle but biting. Many had a double meaning. For example, fans would chant: The wall must go, which could refer to opponent players lining up for a penalty kick or to the Berlin Wall, built by the Communist East. These days, the songs are all about the soccer.

CROWD: (Singing in German)

NELSON: Like in this chant during the weekend game, calling on the team to shoot a goal. The FC Union players don't disappoint. They end up winning with four goals to their opponent's two.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin.

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