Union Berlin hold cult status for many fans as a club that stands for more than just football. Yet before Union's historic first Bundesliga season, the balance between tradition and reality is already being challenged.
The Alte Försterei, Union Berlin's stadium, is rarely quiet on matchdays. A raucous atmosphere greets every visiting team, so a colossal party awaits the club's first-ever game in the Bundesliga on Sunday. Yet for the first 15 minutes of play, an eerie silence will blanket most of the ground.
RB Leipzig are in town for Union's debut and their presence is threatening to dampen the party atmosphere. Union's oldest ultras group, Wuhlesyndikat, has called for 15 minutes of silence to protest their opponent's ownership model.
"It hurts ... but there's a great opportunity to prove that we are a win for the Bundesliga — because we're ready to fight for our values, our club culture and make sacrifices," read a statement from the group.
The protests against RB Leipzig are nothing new, Union have regularly railed against the new club, but the timing of this boycott has split loyal fans.
Should they stay true to their beliefs and morals, at the risk of diminishing a momentous day in the club's history? Or take a step back and provide the players with the best environment to perform on the field?
The dilemma highlights the struggles Union Berlin now face as a Bundesliga club, especially when it comes to striking a balance between traditional values and the realities of modern football.
Cult or commercial?
Whether or not you buy into the idea of Union Berlin as a beacon of light in the fight against commercialization, it's difficult to deny the club provides a unique matchday experience.
"Union is not just football,” explains fan Sven Dobberstein. "Union means family, solidarity. That's the most important thing here.”
It is inevitable that people won't buy into the 'fairytale,' as one German journalist recently quipped, especially after Union signed a new shirt-sponsorship deal with Luxembourg real estate company Aroundtown. After all, many Berliners harbor legitimate fears in a city where rental and property prices are skyrocketing.
"It's a problem for a lot of people," Dobberstein admits regarding the new sponsor. "We have to try to find a way between commercialization and what we have at the moment. It isn't easy."
It's a theme that will continue to rear its head across the next 12 months and beyond as the club aims to succeed in the unavoidably business-driven structures of top-level football, while still holding true to its values.
Many Bundesliga clubs have struggled to tread that path and the planned protest against RB Leipzig is just the first test.
To boycott or not to boycott
Fans are split about the 15-minute silent boycott. The club has supported the fanbase, while players have chimed in as well. New signing Neven Subotic understands the fans' actions, "because I also don't find these developments in football positive," while Rafał Gikiewicz asked them to reconsider in an Instagram post, saying it's "not good for the players."
“I’m against it, because I think it harms our team," Dobberstein says. "But on the other hand you can understand it."
"It was hotly debated," fellow fan Constantin Kramer says. "But I’m one of those in favor, because Union also boycotted [against Leipzig] in the second and third division.
"It's necessary. There will never be a game that attracts more attention. It's a chance for the fans to make a statement. It’s nothing against the players. It’s about standing up for tradition and values."
Even with the boycott, the fans are promising an eclectic, emotional show leading up to the first whistle. A big choreography is planned and many fans will hold placards with photos of deceased loved ones thanks to a club initiative.
"This is just another example of what we are - a Herzensverein (club of the heart)," says Dobberstein.
"And after the 15 minutes, the stadium will explode. Everyone will see what it means to be a guest in the Alte Försterei."
Union and their fans hope there will be plenty of reason to celebrate in their first Bundesliga season
On the field
Away from the tricky off-field dynamics, Union Berlin have worked hard in preseason to give coach Urs Fischer the best possible chance of keeping the club afloat in the Bundesliga. No less than 11 new signings have come on board, with three loan deals made permanent.
A backbone of Subotic (two-time Bundesliga winner with Borussia Dortmund), Christian Gentner (379 Bundesliga appearances), and Anthony Ujah provides vital Bundesliga experience, while Marius Bülter, Marcus Invargtsen, Sheraldo Becker, and Keven Schlotterbeck add competition for the starting XI.
The additions could be enough for Union to stave off immediate relegation, but much will depend on the team's attack and how quickly frontman Ujah adapts. Equally, Union's defense will remain decisive - they conceded just 33 goals in 34 league games last season. Utilizing that strength to grind out results throughout the season will be Fischer's main weapon.
With Paderborn likely to struggle, Cologne an unpredictable entity, and clubs such as Augsburg and Fortuna Düsseldorf lacking quality, it is no pipe dream to suggest that Union can seal a second season in the Bundesliga.
Walking a tightrope
"We have to be aware that we will not have the same role as last season," Fischer told the Berliner Woche newspaper. "The goal is to remain in the league. We all have to achieve that - not just the team and the coach, but the club as a whole."
Yet for 15 minutes on Sunday it will be just the players and coaches fighting to keep RB Leipzig at bay. The fans will be supporting in silence, unable to give their team a boost, but waiting impatiently for the boycott to end so they can set a fire under the cauldron.
The protest will likely draw disdain and ridicule from some quarters, but this is Union Berlin's way. They operate on their own terms and they'll be fighting to ensure the Bundesliga doesn't change a thing.