Supporters of Berlin’s FC Union have been demonstrating their loyalty by rolling up their sleeves to help the soccer club build a new stadium.
The volunteers turn up after work or on their day off to pour concrete, weld metal supports or lay electric cables. Some have even sacrificed their holidays to ensure the ground is ready on time.
“About 75 percent has been completed,” said club spokesman Christian Arbeit, surveying the efforts of 1,600 fans and a small team of professional construction workers and engineers on site.
“We never imagined so many fans would get involved,” he said. “We’ve had doctors, nurses and teachers as well as craftsmen and unskilled workers helping out. They all found it a great idea.”
The hours put in by the volunteers have saved the third division club around 2 million euros (US$2.6 million) since work on the new stadium began last June.
Among the volunteers is Engelhardt Rami, a 59-year-old shift worker who has been a Union supporter since his youth and this year spent two weeks of his holiday on the building site.
“I come and help whenever I can,” he said, sweeping the dust from the newly laid concrete steps. “Union are the most important thing in my life, after my wife.”
FC Union were forced into action when German soccer authorities deemed the Alte Foersterei (Old Forestry) ground they had been playing in since 1920 no longer met safety requirements.
Club officials decided to erect a modern 23,500-capacity stadium on the same site in the East Berlin suburb of Koepenik.
A traditional working class club founded in 1906 as SC Olympia, FC Union underwent nine name changes over the years before adopting their present title in 1966.
The club enjoys cult status dating back to their time as a non-conformist team during the East German communist dictatorship when fans often shouted veiled chants against the authorities.
After German unification in 1990 FC Union initially fell on hard times and barely avoided bankruptcy. Their biggest success came in 2001 when they made it to the final of the German Cup, narrowly losing to Schalke 04.
They are now poised to gain promotion to the second division after languishing for five years in the lower league. They have opened up a 10-point lead at the top of the third division with just five games of the season remaining.
Ironically, while the new stadium is being rebuilt FC Union are playing all home matches across town at the Jahnsportpark, once the venue of bitter rival BFC Dynamo, a club closely associated with East Germany’s dreaded secret service, the Stasi.
Not everyone is happy with this arrangement. Some die-hard fans have refused to set foot in the interim home.
The club hopes to inaugurate its new stadium on July 8 with a friendly against the German capital’s top club Hertha.
“We’ll use this occasion to give our loyal supporters a treat,” Arbeit said. “They have been absolutely amazing. Never before has such a major undertaking been carried mainly with the work of fans.”
“It is also a great motivation for the players who know that they have to repay them by giving a good performance on the pitch,” he said.