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Fans sing in trees as Union Berlin seals Bundesliga survival

BERLIN (AP) — A small group of Union Berlin fans cheered their side on from the trees outside the stadium on Tuesday as it secured another season in the Bundesliga. The supporters couldn’t see inside, but they sang and chanted anyway as Union defeated fellow promoted side Paderborn 1-0 to move 10 points clear of the relegation zone with two games of the season remaining.

It wasn’t quite a party to match the occasion as Union secured one of its biggest achievements since winning the East German Cup in 1968. “It's no small thing that we've managed,” Union coach Urs Fischer said.

The final whistle was greeted by shouts of relief from Union’s players and team officials after a forgettable game in which Ben Zolinski’s own goal in the 27th minute was the difference between the sides.

Union players remained standing around the field wearing commemorative T-shirts, congratulating each other with hugs and claps, but otherwise they looked like they didn’t quite know how to celebrate. “We’re happy, but it’s a strange feeling. You don’t have this feeling of joy from coming from outside,” Union midfielder Robert Andrich said. “But we’re very happy. We’ll celebrate a bit.”

Fears of the coronavirus meant fans had to stay away from Union’s 22,102-capacity Stadion An der Alten Försterei — Stadium at the Old Forester’s House — in the eastern borough of Köpenick. Fireworks in the distance suggested they were celebrating elsewhere.

Just over a year before, Union fans shed tears of joy when the side earned promotion with a two-legged playoff win over Stuttgart. It became the fifth team from Berlin to play in the Bundesliga after Hertha Berlin, Tasmania Berlin, Tennis Borussia Berlin, and Blau-Weiß 90 Berlin.

Union had weathered financial difficulties and a spell at fourth-tier level. Few imagined that the modest club could survive its first season in the reunited Germany’s top flight. “We knew we were relegation candidate No. 1 for most people,” Union captain Christopher Trimmel said. “We did brilliantly over the whole season and caused a few surprises. I'm very proud of the whole squad.”

Paderborn was playing to stay up, too. Steffen Baumgart’s team needed a win to keep its slim hopes alive. But neither side shone in a game of few chances with both sides battling it out in midfield. Zolinski headed Trimmel’s free kick into his own net under pressure from Keven Schlotterbeck.

The closest any other player came to scoring was Andrich’s shot against the right post in the 73rd, when Sebastian Andersson sent the rebound wide. Those who were allowed to attend the game had to adhere to strict hygiene measures. Media representatives had their temperatures taken and were asked to disinfect their hands on their way in. Masks were provided for those who had none. Journalists were asked to sit with two empty seats in between. All the stadium stewards wore masks, too.

Union is the first side that formerly played in East Germany’s Oberliga to play in the Bundesliga since Energie Cottbus was relegated in 2009. It still prides itself on its resistance to the East German regime - in contrast to rival Dynamo Berlin, Stasi chief Erich Mielke’s club. Dynamo won 10 successive East German titles from 1979-88 amid allegations of match-fixing and politically influenced favors.

But that's in the past and Union is firmly focused on the present. “The end. Finally. 2019-20 season survived,” read a message on the screens in Union's empty stadium. Next year, Union will want to do it again, with fans.

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Ciarán Fahey on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cfaheyAP

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