On Tuesday night, in Berlin’s historic Olympic Stadium where Jesse Owens broke records under Adolf Hitler’s gaze in 1936 and where Ravi Shankar and 70,000 other yoga enthusiasts gathered for world peace 75 years later, Robin Gosens faced the cameras, pursed his lips and reflected on the fact that his club, Union Berlin, had just lost their ninth consecutive game.
“Nine in a row,” he sighed after Union had lost 1-0 to Serie A champions Napoli. “You’re almost too ashamed to face the fans … it’s such a strange situation, complicated, hard to explain and hard to understand…”
Nine consecutive defeats — six in the Bundesliga, three in the Champions League — is a lot, in any context. It happens, of course it does, and there have been longer runs: Greuther Furth lost 14 in a row in the Bundesliga two years ago, Norwich City lost 11 on the bounce in all competitions in 2019-20, and Italy’s Brescia went as high as 16 in a row in 1997-98 despite having Andrea Pirlo in midfield.
But there’s a key difference: those were all really bad teams whose stated goal at the start of the season was survival. (Spoiler alert: none of them did.)
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Union Berlin’s objective at the beginning of this campaign was substantially higher. They finished fourth in the Bundesliga last season, while reaching the quarterfinals of the German Cup. What’s more, they believed in themselves, hung on to most of the players who got them there and spent big — by their standards — in the summer, recording the highest net spend in the entire Bundesliga. (The figure was nearly €30m: a modest sum by Premier League standards, but higher than Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and the other Germán sides, and a fortune for a club that plays their league football in an ancient ground that holds only 22,012 spectators.)
Their signings included Gosens, a regular on the Inter side who reached the Champions League final last season, former German International Kevin Volland from Monaco and French midfielder Lucas Tousart, a mainstay from crosstown rivals Hertha. On top of that, they rolled the dice on loans and free agents, attracting veteran defender Leo Bonucci from Juventus, Czech midfielder Alex Král from Spartak Moscow (via Schalke), USA international Brenden Aaronson from Leeds and Chelsea striker David Datro Fofana from Chelsea.
In other words, they were anything but complacent. And still … nine defeats in a row?
Adding insult to injury is the fact that they actually won their first three games — one in the cup, two in the league — scoring four goals in each of them. Then the clock struck September and it all crumbled.
Union lost to big teams (Borussia Dortmund) and little teams (Heidenheim). They lost to overachieving teams (Stuttgart) and underachieving teams (Napoli). They lost to teams owned by weirdo energy drink conglomerates (Leipzig), oddball software entrepreneurs (Hoffenheim) and the company that makes the VW Beetle (Wolfsburg). They lost to a team whose stadium looks like a cathedral (Real Madrid), and one whose stadium is known as “The Quarry” because it’s built into the side of a mountain (Braga).
All shapes and sizes — except since August, the only size available was an “L.”
The shock in all this — other than the fact that they ostensibly did things the “right” way by retaining talent and adding to it — is that most observers would have loved to see them thrive because Union Berlin are very much an underdog club, with a dollop of hipster thrown in.
The origins of the club date back more than a century. Shortly after World War II, they lost most of their players and coaching staff when they defected to West Germany. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Germany was reunited, they played in the third and fourth tier and nearly went bust on three occasions. They reached the Bundesliga only in 2019 and qualified for Europe the following year. And they did all this with a staunchly fan-driven club, with 45,000 dues-paying members electing a board that make decisions, rather than a local magnate, private equity fund or overseas billionaire.
Union are proudly different from their local, bigger rival Hertha, who had the good fortune of ending up in West Berlin after World War II — their previous controlling shareholder, Lars Windhorst (once dubbed “Germany’s Bill Gates”) was found to have funded a smear campaign against the club chairman when he was vying for control. Now, Hertha’s owners are Miami-Based investment fund 777 partners, who seem to accumulate clubs the way Taylor Swift accumulates sold-out shows: in addition to their stake in Hertha, they own controlling shares in Italy’s Genoa, Brazil’s Vasco Da Gama, France’s Red Star Paris FC and Belgium’s Standard Liege. If the Premier League approves the sale, they’ll buy Everton too.
This is the club whose fans literally rebuilt their stadium, “An der Altern Fursterei,” themselves in 2008; who dragged couches from their homes to the ground in order to watch the 2014 World Cup on TV; whose supporters donated blood to Berlin hospitals to raise money so they could pay the licence feet to play in the fourth division. This is the club who, when they had to decamp from their beloved ground to the Olympic Stadium for the Champions League campaign, capped ticket prices at €25 so that everyone could be a part of it.
Unless you’re a Hertha fan, or the Grinch, it’s hard to root against Union.
Indeed, their attachment to the team during these tough times borders on the fanatically supportive. They cheered — 74,000 strong — and made a ruckus throughout the Napoli game and even at the final whistle, when the Union players wandered over to applaud their supporters, as they always do. Given their run and the fans’ patience, it’s not surprising that Gosens felt embarrassed and “nearly ashamed” to receive so much love and support while offering so little in terms of results on the pitch.
Then again, maybe it makes a little bit of sense. Union fans love Union, first and foremost, and that comes way ahead of, say, seeing a winning Union side on the pitch. Especially if it comes at the expense of what they see as their club values. Especially when the club’s very existence has been under threat so many times in the past.
So yeah, you can think of the first club of their campaign as the “underdog Disney tale that wasn’t.” Or you can simply respect and be grateful for the fact that they exist.
As for dear Gosens: as long as you put in the effort, there is nothing for which to be ashamed.