This week our resident blogger Alice paid a visit to Union Berlin’s stadium to learn more about the rich history behind the football club, their current training routine and their new cooperation with USC.
It’s not every day you get an inside look into one of the world’s most well-loved football clubs. Today there’s a special energy in the stadium. Maybe it’s being in a space so huge that’s empty of people. Or maybe it’s because, just recently, Union Berlin have been promoted to the Bundesliga. This is the first time in history that Union has played in the top tier of German football – and for many of their die-hard fans it means the fulfilment of a lifelong dream.
So it feels particularly exhilarating to be here today. Christopher Busse, Union Berlin’s rehabilitation coach, leads us through the media entryway where TV interviews take place, through a set of double doors and around the side of the building until we emerge blinking in a corner of the gargantuan stadium. The grass is pristine as carpet and red chairs tower above us, the proud colour of Union. It’s a beautiful late summer afternoon and half the pitch is bathed in sunlight giving the stadium a kind of holy, other-wordly atmosphere. And, as I soon learn, this feeling of religiousness isn’t too far removed from the history of the club itself.
Union Berlin’s fans are arguably more die-hard than any other club. In 2004 the club was in such desperate need of funds that the fans launched the ‘bluten für Union’ (bleed for Union) campaign where they donated and sold their own blood to save the club from extinction. In 2008 the stadium was in dire need of restoration – but with no money to fund the repairs 2500 fans rolled up their sleeves and set to work on it themselves. Despite a promotion to Bundesliga the Club refuse to increase the price of their 14€ tickets. And as we stroll along the green carpeted grass Chris explains how, out of disdain for Leipzig’s cash injection from Red Bull, the Union Berlin fans were silent for the initial 15 minutes of their first match of the season.
And that’s just scratching the surface. Unfortunately for Union the GDR picked Dynamo Dresden as their football club of choice, meaning Union fans were forced to navigate spies, informants, even occasional imprisonment from the republic’s secret police. Union Berlin is a football club by the fans for the fans and, despite their underdog positioning, pride themselves on being firm loyalists with fierce moral traditions. They will not leave the stadium early no matter how badly they’re losing. No wonder their motto is Eisern Union (Iron Union).
So where does USC fit in to all this? Christopher is Union Berlin’s rehabilitation coach. He’s in charge of getting the players back on their feet after catastrophes such as torn ligaments or sprained ankles. “In the early stage of rehab I don’t train much with them,” Chris explains. “They’re in physio learning to move again and do general conditioning to stay as fit as possible. But I get involved when they’re allowed to go biking or running. When they get back into training – that’s my area.”
That’s where USC comes in. “I might have to work with a player every day for nine months – and we get bored. The gym here is very small – we only have two rooms. So at some point you want to do something different. I could work with other gyms but it’s a lot of managing and contracts and it’s just too much bureaucracy. And then two friends of mine were using USC in Cologne and I thought it would be a cool thing to do with the players – to try lots of different things.”
The partnership means that Union Berlin won’t just be confined to the small gym in their stadium – Christopher can take them spinning, bouldering, swimming; Ninja Hall is just round the corner. “I’ve tried some stuff out myself,” Christopher says. “Kanuliebe is perfect for someone injured – we can go stand up paddle boarding.”
Christopher has packed a lot into his 29 years on earth. He started his career playing professional basketball until he injured his knee from overuse which motivated him to train as a rehabilitation coach. “Some injuries you can’t avoid, they just happen and that’s part of the game. But many injuries you can definitely avoid and that’s why I studied sports therapy and injury prevention,” he says.
By the time he turned 24 Christopher had worked alongside the German Olympic rowing team, an American Football team in Minnesota and with Adidas in the 2014 World Cup in Sao Paulo. After Christopher graduated he worked for two years with fourth division football club Energie Cottbus until they got promoted to the third division. Then, feeling ready for the next level, he signed a contract with Union Berlin. He’d been with them for one year when they got promoted to the Bundesliga. Coincidence? “Yes,” he says laughing.
Now Christopher is in the stadium six days a week from 8am – 6pm. Each morning he maps out the details of the days training with the coaching team, analysing video footage from past training and matches to see where the players need improvement. The squad arrive at 9am, warm up in the gym and train from 10am – 12pm on the grounds just behind the stadium. “It’s about tactics,” Christopher says. “After every match we have the data for how much they’re running in kilometers, their accelerations, decelerations and we can compare that to the other team. It’s very complex. It’s not just what you see in the ninety minutes on the field.”
And training isn’t the only thing Christopher has to manage. “You have to manage between the head coach, the players’ interests, the team physician and your own interests. And everyone has a different opinion about how or when an injured player should return. The head coach thinks they should return as soon as possible, the doctor says play safe. So you have to find a medium between all of that.”
But Christopher adores his work. “It’s a dream job for me. Because I can do what I love. Here you go from the worst times to the best times together – as a team. And that’s a very fulfilling job. I enjoy coming to work every day.”
So next time you you pay a visit to one of our East Berlin partners like Kanuliebe or Seebad Friedrichshagen you might just see FC Union drifting by on their SUPS. And if you do give Christopher a wave and shout EISERN UNION!
We’re so happy that USC can provide institutions like Union Berlin a varied and effective form of rehabilitation. If you want to run, climb, canoe or swim like the Bundesliga football team then sign up for membership at www.urbansportsclub.com.