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Champions League debutants set for biggest stage

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Union Berlin's journey, taking in all three UEFA club competitions, is nothing short of a fairytale, while Antwerp's revival also offers inspiration to every European club as both prepare to make their UEFA Champions League bow.

 Union Berlin acknowledge the home fans in celebration  following victory over  Mainz
Union Berlin acknowledge the home fans in celebration following victory over Mainz Getty Images

Union Berlin's rise to the pinnacle of European football started in Germany’s lower leagues, reached the heights of the Bundesliga, before soaring to the stratospheric levels of the UEFA Champions League group stage via the UEFA Europa Conference League and the knockout rounds of the Europa League. Their feat is nothing short of extraordinary.

Throughout the journey, the close bond between club and supporters has proved a defining characteristic for success – a relationship forged in Union’s traditional values and humble beginnings. Whether creating an electrifying atmosphere at the Stadion an der Alten Försterei (they will play Champions League matches at Berlin's Olympic Stadium) or helping their club deal with economic hardship, fans have played a critical role in overcoming numerous challenges.

Rebuild, repair

In the late 2000s, the stadium had fallen into a state of disrepair. Money was tight and the city of Berlin could not afford the renovation costs. Cue a remarkable act of solidarity. For months, around 1,500 fans – among them locksmiths, welders, painters and builders, but also nurses, teachers, bakers and doctors – worked tirelessly to get the Alte Försterei back in shape.

"If you pay money and receive a key for your house, that is one thing," said Union president Dirk Zingler, recalling the day all the efforts came together, "but it cannot be compared to the intensity of the people who built and put in blood, sweat and tears here."

The club's leadership under Zingler has consistently upheld principles which have earned so much admiration. "We have made it from the Oberliga to the Champions League; the way we are going is incredible," he said.

Patience and style of play

A commitment to preserving their humble origins has also driven Union’s ascent on the pitch. Since 2018, coach Urs Fischer has stood at the helm, forging a path to the top based on a clear, effective playing philosophy. The former Switzerland international, who previously won two Swiss league titles with Basel, has been given time to refine and evolve the team, season after season. His ideas are not only visible to anyone watching Union's matches; they also earned him Germany's 2023 Coach of the Year award.

 Urs Fischer has maintained steady progress at Union
Urs Fischer has maintained steady progress at UnionAFP via Getty Images

The success of Fischer and Union has largely been built on a solid defensive foundation. The team works cohesively to reduce space for the opponents in their own half and often operates as a well-oiled machine, enabling them to compete against top-tier opposition in the Bundesliga and beyond.

Union's style of play favours a direct approach, prioritising quick transitions and incisive passing and movement rather than prolonged ball possession. It is an entertaining brand of football, which has won both matches and admirers.

However, Fischer knows full well that, in football, a lack of progression can quickly be followed by a downward momentum. Hard work, precision and constant tactical evolution have contributed massively to their rise. Since Fischer observed that "Set pieces can decide matches and we still have some potential here", his team have consistently shown a knack for capitalising on dead-ball situations, particularly corners and free-kicks, to score goals.

Napoli, Braga … Real Madrid

It will be fascinating to discover if Union can apply the same successful formula to their Champions League group stage matches. What other aces can Fischer and Co pull out against Napoli, Braga and their opponents on Matchday 1, none other than 14-time champions, Real Madrid – a befitting twist in their fairytale story?

"When you get a group like that, it just makes you happy," said Fischer. New signing Robin Gosens added: "It's a really beautiful group with three great away trips. Napoli, I can speak from experience, a beautiful stadium with really awesome fans and a top team. Real Madrid speaks for itself."

Whatever the result, recent history suggests that Union Berlin and their loyal fans will take the challenge in their stride.

 Robin Gosens brings experience to Union
Robin Gosens brings experience to UnionAFP via Getty Images

Fellow debutants in dreamland

Union are not the only club making their Champions League group stage bow in 2023/24. When Belgian champions Antwerp travel to Barcelona on Matchday 1, they will be writing their own remarkable chapter in European club football history.

Antwerp sealed their first domestic championship since 1957 in injury time on the final day of last season, when hometown hero Toby Alderweireld struck from outside the area to rescue a 2-2 draw against title rivals Genk. Alderweireld is the only member of the squad with extensive Champions League experience, having played in the competition with Ajax and reached finals with Atlético de Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur.

Toby Alderweireld on the Champions League anthem

"The expectations are not big," he says, assessing a group that includes Champions League regulars Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk. "I have to be realistic about that. It is the first time for a while and we do not have the experience as a team, as a club in the Champions League, but there is also a positive in that. We can play more freely and there is less pressure on us.

"Everyone wants to show what they can do and, for sure, as a team, we want to show what we can do – you have to go for it 100%. And if it doesn’t work out, then at least we have experienced it."

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