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Football fanatics

More than a game: Meet the Berliners whose lives were changed by football

Football is more than a game. For these Berlin fanatics, it's a way of life that has had a huge impact, both on and off the pitch.

Photo: William Bertoni

Jacob: The one who got a job

When Jacob Sweetman arrived in Berlin in 2007, he didn’t have grand plans for his future. He was just happy to be here, working alongside his wife at a friend’s art shop at Kunsthaus Tacheles. Having left school at 16, the Ipswich-born Englishman spent his twenties working at record shops and playing the drums for a popular Brighton band, The Mutts; he says he had a wide range of interests but “not anything solid”.

A few months after arriving in Berlin, he found himself feeling dissatisfied with the social life and parties of his English-speaking bubble. He was searching for something familiar, so – coming from a culture and family of football-lovers in England – decided to crack open a newspaper and look up the next game in the city. Union Berlin had just started their season on the July afternoon when he left the shop and ventured out to Köpenick. “I told my wife that I need to get out for a couple of hours and came out here,” he recalls. “I was lost when I got off the tram, and a German guy asked me if I was looking for the Union stadium. He showed me the way while telling me all about the team. I felt immediately welcome, even if I only spoke very little German at the time, and from then on I just kind of imposed myself upon them and became a curiosity – the Englishman coming to their games.”

No football team in Berlin has a more commanding mythology than Union, the fanatically well-supported underdog club from industrial Köpenick that stuck it to the Stasi-favoured BFC Dynamo in the DDR and is currently sticking it to the corporate Westerners at Hertha. Shortly after his first Union match, Jacob began chronicling the club’s unfolding story as a sports journalist – first at Exberliner and then for other publications. In this way, he has followed Union Berlin’s incredible rise from Germany’s fourth division to the very top, witnessing the renovation of the club stadium and the growth of its English-speaking fan base.

I don’t now if I would be in Berlin without Union.

Since that July day, being a Union fan has radically shaped Jacob’s life in Berlin. It helped him integrate, learn the language and see a side of Berlin he would never have seen otherwise. “I met wonderful people,” he says. “And to be honest, I don’t know if I would be in Berlin without Union.” A few years ago, there was informal discussion about him taking over the team’s English language press, but nothing came of it – plus Jacob had enough on, with two small kids at home and his work as a tour guide, freelance sportswriter and editor of football magazine No Dice. Throughout, Union have occupied a special place in his heart.

“Union are different from other clubs because of the community around them – they are really a representation of their people. The roots are the locals, the former East Germans of the area, but they are also very inclusive. Union do a lot with the local community, like sheltering refugees in the fan house next to the arena, and they are involved with the homeless. There is no booing when the team loses, we still cheer them. No one leaves before the end of the game, ever. It’s the little things.”

Union Berlin’s fanbase are also unique on account of some not-so-little things moments that have captured global attention. When the club finally decided to modernise their beloved homeground, the Stadion an der Alten Försterei, shortfalls in Union finances meant that fans swept in to literally build the stadium themselves by donating money and time: some 2000 fans ended up contributing 140,000 hours of hard work. As Union’s star has risen, so too has their need to communicate with a wider (English-speaking) public.

In June 2022, Jacob was offered the press rep position again. This time he took it, thanks in part to the encouragement of his wife: “She said, ‘Are you an idiot? Just take it!’ So I did, and it’s the job of my life! I am the luckiest boy alive!” Jacob’s responsibilities now include running the team’s English-language Twitter account, doing interviews in English, translating German content and creating new videos. “I have huge freedom to write what I want. Our Twitter is not like another teams’ – it’s like my own, full of poetic stuff! I get to travel with the team. But I also experience the deep emotional roller coaster that comes with it, and that’s a huge difference – I don’t just go home after a loss and get on with my life.”

On the World Cup in Qatar

“Football was a big thing with my dad ever since I was eight years old. My daughter is the same age now, and I am sad that she doesn’t see me more excited about the matches – but this is the first World Cup I am not really interested in.”

Paola: The one who got a husband

Photo: William Bertoni

Football has always been a big part of Paola Murcia’s life. “In Colombia, you breathe football!” she explains. “It has always been my common language with my father and brother: the three of us always used to watch games together, and we would talk about football all the time.”

Paola even has material proof of her long connection to football. She boasts: “I’ve been collecting Panini World Cup stickers since 1986.” When Paola left Colombia for work, her loyalty was to a local Bogotá team, Millonarios FC. Over the course of an international business career –Paola has travelled the globe working for global fruit company Dole – she has opened her heart to other clubs, always taking an interest in the local side.

On the international arena, she’s long had a soft spot for FC Bayern Munich, which escalated into a passion after a chance meeting with a fellow Bayern fan in Costa Rica, where she was living in 2005.

“My roommate was dating this German guy, so we would hang out with his friends,” Paola explains. One evening, they went to a bar to watch the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League, a tournament for clubs in North and Central America. “I hate when people talk while watching the game – that’s not what we’re there for,” Paola laughs. “And there was this one guy trying to make conversation. He was cute – but I just wanted to watch the game, so I didn’t pay him much attention until afterwards. But then, I thought he was interesting. That was 17 years ago.”

Now my son is the biggest Bayern fan.

That man, Sebastian – now Paola’s husband – was a native Bavarian from a small town close to Munich and temporarily in Costa Rica for an internship. The two met up again at a beach party a few days later, and then once more at a home match for local San José team Deportivo Saprissa. “It was only, like, five days since we had met, but we hugged like we hadn’t seen each other for years,” Paola says. They have been together ever since. “Sometimes life brings the things you need into your path. My company was just then opening an office in Belgium, and I could get myself transferred there, in order to be closer to Sebastian.” Five years ago, the couple and their two children eventually settled in Berlin.

“When my son Matias was born, I lost interest in football for a while – I had other things to do. I couldn’t go to matches, or even watch them in bars, and it made me sad,” Paola says. “But then Matias’s best friend at school turned him on to football, too, and now he is the biggest Bayern fan. He knows everything about the players, and we are always talking about their games.”

Matias, now nine, is playing soccer himself. He’s getting very good – although he does get embarrassed when his mother screams from the stands. Football has become a whole-family affair. “We go to all the Bayern games we can now,” Paola says. “In March, my husband took Matias to the Allianz Arena for a Bayern home match. In August, we all went to Munich; even my six-year-old daughter Emilia was there. In September, we went to Bremen for Claudio Pizarro’s farewell and then saw the game against Hertha in Berlin.” This year, Matias is getting a Bayern Munich advent calendar along with some other club merch. “But I won’t let the kids touch my Panini sticker albums,” Paola says, smiling. “It was too frustrating when they tore one of them, so I said, these are just for me.”

The mother of two has since left the corporate world and started teaching Spanish at one of Berlin’s business universities. Even there, she finds a way to express her love of football: “Just a couple of weeks ago, I was talking to my students about passion. I decided to play them a video where the commentator of the Colombian channel gets so excited seeing our women’s team win, and I told them: ‘This is passion!’”

About the World Cup in Qatar

“There is a lot of controversy around this World Cup, but I don’t think it’s right to not watch our players – it isn’t their fault. I won’t watch all the games but I will definitely watch at least half.”

Isabella: The one who found a future

Photo: William Bertoni.

As a young girl, Isabella Renner Jones would often tell people that she would become a professional football player when she grew up, even as they kept replying that she should find a different dream job, one where she could actually make a living.

These days, Isabella – now 18 years old – is still hoping to have a life within sport, although not necessarily on the pitch. “My plan is to study Sports and Politics in France,” she says. “I definitely want to work with sport. For a while, I was thinking about becoming a sports journalist or a broadcaster. I’m not quite sure, but I still have time.”

Isabella started kicking the ball at the age of four. After trying out horseback riding and breakdancing at kindergarten, she joined SV Blau Weiss Berolina Mitte 49 e.V. – better known simply as Berolina – when she was just seven. She loved it at the club and particularly enjoyed being part of a team. For the better part of her young life, she attended three trainings a week plus a match on the weekend, no matter what.

Berolina helped me through the roughest patches of my life.

The consistency of Berolina was a boon to Isabella when her parents got divorced and she found herself having to shlep all of her books, training gear and clothes across town as she swapped between her parents’ separate homes every few days. “I was nine then, and football practice was a stable point in my life,” she reflects. “I was always happy to arrive and talk to my friends and listen to music in the changing room. My coaches were also all amazing. So it definitely helped me through the roughest patches of my life.” The pandemic put a temporary stop to Isabella’s regular football practice.

During these lockdowns, she picked up skateboarding because the skateparks remained open, offering a way to meet her friends and stay active. “For the first time in my life, I had time,” she says of this football-free period. “It was very strange. I could just do whatever I wanted after school. Or I could do nothing. Until Covid, I never really knew how football had changed my life, because before then, I had never really had a life without football.” When the lockdowns ended, Isabella ultimately decided not to join the Berolina women’s team. She still plays with her friends, and plans to join a new team once she has enrolled in university.

Her dedication to football remains undiminished. Isabella speaks passionately about gender inequality in the sport: “There are women playing the world cup and still having other jobs to support their families, whereas some men can be amateurs and still make enough to live just from football. They say there is no money in women’s football because it’s not broadcast and people are not interested in because it’s too new. But that’s not true! Women were playing football for a long time before the 1960s, when they were officially allowed in.” Combining her passion and her principles, Isabella has recently been busy organising stalls that will pop up at public screenings of the 2022 World Cup to collect money for the families of victims of Qatar’s infamous building site.

On the World Cup in Qatar

“The venue is highly problematic, but for legends like Manuel Neuer and Lionel Messi, this is likely to be their last World Cup. I came up with these donation stalls because I wanted to find an ethical way to watch the games and say farewell to my favourite players.”

Josef: The one who learned principles

Photo: IMAGO/HJS

“I grew up in Wilmersdorf, I am a West Berliner by birth.” Josef M. is a tall, balding, well-built man in his late forties. He lives and breathes Hertha – but this blue blood did not come from his family. “My father never really liked football,” Josef explains. “He didn’t have a lot of interests apart from work. He worked as a printer, and then he would just come home and drink beer. He was a very quiet man.” Josef was 15 when he attended his first football game. “My friends were Hertha fans, so I became a Hertha fan too.”

Initially Josef went to a Realschule, hoping to train as a printer, but he changed his course to plumbing and now runs his own business in Wilmersdorf. The road to becoming an Ultra (hardcore fan) was less straightforward. “At first, attending the games was a way to let steam off and be with my friends,” he says. “But then I met others there and started spending time with one of the more radical fan groups.” Talking to them, Josef got the feeling he had missed a lot of things during his school years. “For the first time, I started really understanding how and why things work the way they do here in Germany. Understanding how immigration has been so negative for our economy. It was like a belated history lesson for me.”

I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it wasn’t for Hertha.

Josef is part of a right-wing group of Ultras. But he insists that he is not racist or homophobic – he is “proud that Hertha even has a growing gay fan base”—and stresses that, while he doesn’t support immigration or Germany’s Wilkommenskultur (welcome culture), he would never practice violence over it. On the topic of rival fans, however, Josef strikes a less peaceable tone. “I take it very seriously if someone is talking negatively about my team,” he says. “Then I lose my cool, and I scream and shout, and I used to be in for a few punches too, if necessary. Now I can control myself better. But in the late 1990s we were fearless, we would light fires, and if someone was wearing a rival team’s jersey, we would chase them down the street and beat them up.”

To Josef, being a Hertha hardcore has been a morally formative experience. “If it wasn’t for the team and the fans, I would have never learned how important your peers are,” he says. “It is because of Hertha that I have knowledge, integrity and principles. Rooting for them is a religion. Being in the stadium, with so much past and history around, is something sacred. Just imagine, this arena has been around since World War II. So many great sportsmen have set foot on that pitch. You can feel it all when you are there – it’s magnificent.”

Josef says he is a much calmer Ultra now that he has kids. He stills tries to go to all the games, including away days around Germany – but he tries to stay out of trouble. His eldest son, 16, is also an aspiring Ultra, but Josef’s wife made them both promise to keep it civil. “My wife is not on board with my love of Hertha, she thinks it’s too extreme,” Josef says. “I think I have grown a lot softer because of her, though. I didn’t want to scare her away. What she doesn’t understand is that I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it wasn’t for Hertha.”

On the World Cup in Qatar

“I will not watch a minute of it. How dare they take it to a country like Qatar? How dare they sell football out like that? They should listen to us fans: we make football what it is.”