By CIARÁN FAHEY Associated Press
BERLIN (AP) — Union Berlin players were hoisted high and carried around their stadium after securing promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time on Monday.
A scoreless draw at home to Stuttgart in the second leg of their playoff was enough for the Köpenick-based club, which finished third in the second division. Union defended for almost the whole game and progressed to the top flight on away goals after their 2-2 draw in Stuttgart in the first leg.
Thousands of fans covered the pitch in scenes of unbridled joy at Union's cozy stadium after the final whistle, lighting flares, hugging, jumping and cheering, with many capturing the occasion on their smart phones.
The fans savored their club's biggest achievement, arguably bigger than winning the East German Cup in 1968.
Coach Urs Fischer was promptly drenched in a beer shower. Union president Dirk Zingler was unable to hold back the tears.
"I've been in this club for 40 years. I've waited for this day for so long," Zingler said.
Following its best ever campaign in the second division, Union is the first club from East Germany's Oberliga to play in the Bundesliga since Energie Cottbus was relegated in 2009.
Union, which traces its beginnings to 1906 as Olympia Oberschöneweide, weathered financial difficulties and a spell in the fourth tier after German reunification to become Berlin's second-best supported side after Hertha Berlin.
Fans helped it through the difficult times by contributing labor to modernize the stadium in 2008, while they donated blood four years before to raise money for the cash-strapped club.
Union prides itself on its resistance to the East German regime, in contrast to hated rival Dynamo Berlin, the club of Stasi chief Erich Mielke. Dynamo won 10 straight East German titles from 1979-88 amid allegations of match-fixing and politically influenced favors, but now it languishes in the fourth division.
Union is the 56th team to play in the Bundesliga, and the first second-division team to secure promotion through a playoff since Fortuna Düsseldorf in 2012.
"The whole club did everything for this success. It was a great team performance, even if we had our problems in the first half," Fischer said. "But I always believed we would manage it."
Stuttgart, which finished third from bottom in the Bundesliga, was relegated.
Hundreds of Union fans welcomed the team bus to the stadium with red flares of encouragement before the game. In the stadium, a choreography of two hands holding a surgically removed heart urged the players to take their hearts in their hands and give their all for "an end to the waiting."
Stuttgart had other ideas. The visitors thought they'd taken an early lead through Dennis Aogo's free kick, but Nicolas Gonzalez was offside and impeding Union goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz's view. Referee Christian Dingert ruled the goal out in the first ever use of video assistance at Stadion An der Alten Försterei (Stadium at the Old Forester's House).
Stuttgart's former Germany striker, Mario Gomez, came on for the second half, which was delayed as Union fans found some leftovers from the flares and pyrotechnics that greeted the team on its arrival.
The visitors maintained their assault on the Union goal but Suleiman Abdullahi struck the post twice for the home side, before Gikiewicz had the final say when he saved from Benjamin Pavard. Pavard will play Union again in the Bundesliga next season - the French defender is joining Bayern Munich.
"It's indescribable," said Union managing director Oliver Ruhnert, whose side missed the chance to secure automatic promotion by one goal. "The team took the most difficult path it could."