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Conference League: Union Berlin back in Europe

August 19, 2021

Union Berlin return to European football this week for the first time since 2001 when they face Finnish side Kuopion PS. UEFA's new Conference League has been derided by some, but the Berliners are taking it seriously.

Image: AFP via Getty Images

Bundesliga side Union Berlin will make history on Thursday night when they become the first team from the former East Germany to compete in European competition having qualified through the league in almost 30 years.

On October 2, 1991, Hansa Rostock, the champions of the final East German Oberliga season, beat Barcelona 1-0 in their European Cup first round second leg, but crashed out 3-1 on aggregate.

On the same night, the last ever winners of the East German Cup, little-known Eisenhüttenstadt, were beaten 3-0 by Galatasaray in the European Cup Winners' cup, losing 4-0 on aggregate.

It was the last time a club from the former German Democratic Republic would compete in Europe until 2001, when Union Berlin, then an amateur team in what was formerly the regional third division, qualified for the UEFA Cup having lost to Schalke in the German Cup final.

Union were a second-division club by the time they knocked out Finnish side FC Haka in the first round before losing to Bulgarian outfit Litex Lovech in the second. But they remain the only ever German third-division team to qualify for European competition.

Union Berlin back in Europe

This week, having finished seventh in the Bundesliga last season, Union return to the international stage and will again face Finnish opposition when they take on Kuopion Palloseura in the new UEFA Conference League playoff round.

"The whole club is determined to qualify for the group stage," goalkeeper Andreas Luthe told kicker magazine this week ahead of Thursday's first leg at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki. "We worked so hard for it all year … [so] reaching the group stage would be the cherry on the cake."

UEFA's new third-tier European competition has been derided in some quarters as an unnecessary extra tournament in an already bursting football calendar. But for clubs like Union Berlin and Kuopio, who can only dream of qualifying for the Champions League, it's a welcome chance to compete against international opposition.

"If anyone says they don't want to play somewhere in Europe on a Thursday night, then Union Berlin probably isn't for them this year," says 34-year-old Luthe, who has played in the Bundesliga, Bundesliga 2, the fourth-tier Regionalliga and the fifth-tier Oberliga over the course of a long career.

"We suffered for a whole year for a chance to play in the Conference League, so I won't tolerate anybody who's not looking forward to it."

Since Union's predominantly terraced Stadion an der Alten Försterei doesn't fulfil UEFA regulations, the second leg next week will be played in the Olympic Stadium, home of local rivals Hertha Berlin – although the Ostkurve, where Hertha's hardcore is usually found, will not be open.

German teams' struggles in Europe

In recent years, Bundesliga clubs with bigger and more experienced squads than Union Berlin have struggled to balance domestic duties with European competition. Bayern Munich's Champions League triumph in 2020 was the first time a German club had even appeared in a European final since the all-German final at Wembley in 2013, while the last time a German team won the Europa League / UEFA Cup was Schalke back in 1997.

Eintracht Frankfurt spectacularly reached the semifinal in 2019 but, otherwise, German teams have disappointed with Bayer Leverkusen and Hoffenheim losing to Young Boys and Molde respectively in the Round of 32 last season. In 2017, Hoffenheim, Hertha Berlin and Cologne all exited in the group stage, the latter even going on to get relegated, as the burden of competing on two fronts took its toll.

But Union goalkeeper Luthe isn't worried. "Last year, everyone was talking about how difficult the second season in the Bundesliga supposedly is, but we said from the start that we didn't want to let it become a problem," he says.

"If you discuss the three competitions to death, you talk yourself into a losing mentality. My approach is: enjoy every competition because you've earned it!"