Union Berlin is still dreaming after a night of snow and St Gilloise punches
It’s one of the biggest nights in Union Berlin’s history and everyone is there.
On the train leaving downtown for Kopenick, the carriages are full of young and old, men and women, loud, quiet and crazy. Opposite me, an elderly woman wrapped in a red and white headscarf looks out the window and watches the suburbs of the city pass by. Behind her, near the doors, three young men all in black, each with a touch of red somewhere, slam the window and echo songs in the car.
“Union Eisern!” Eisern Union!”
Somewhere on the promenade between the station and the stadium, it starts to snow. Not in big soft flakes, but with a fine swirling gust that never seems to reach the ground.
Union’s Alte Försterei is nestled deep between the trees and the roads in the ground wind through terraced streets, over rivers and towards the floodlights. Outside it is freezing cold. The smell of wurst and gluhwein dances through the air, as smoke rises from the railings and into the night.
It’s football. It’s also all sorts of other things now. Sportswashing and waste of time. Managerial crises and NFT. Preferred media partners and disappointment. But, before each of them, that’s what it feels like on nights like this. In the cold, in the humidity, but with the warm promise of what awaits you inside.
Nights when, ridiculously, Union Berlin are within touching distance of a Europa League quarter-final.
When the game is ready to start, no one anywhere in the ground can see anything. Flare smoke has engulfed the pitch and the referee stops, waiting for him to clear. Then, like a curtain rising before an opening act, it fades away, leaving the players up and ready to battle on a night of extraordinary football.
Their opponents, Union St Gilloise, are a good team. They were in fact the last team to win at Kopenick and the match is played immediately and obviously between two groups of players who faced each other in the group stage and know each other very well. It’s messy and messy, even nasty at times. When two players go into a 50-50 close to the touchline in the first half, the sound as they collide is something out of a medieval battlefield. Both teams send crosses into the box and each time they do, the defenders clash with flailing elbows and a flurry of snow whips their eyes. It’s unpleasant in the stands, but it’s horrible on the pitch.
With the ball, Union works very hard. They must. Urs Fischer makes them take little risk in possession, meaning almost every pass they play is about protecting the ball and their position. Outside the attacking areas, players move in and out of their lines of position, providing options and outside balls and, with a defense in place, progress down the pitch is slow and chances are hard won.
They start well and they are the better team, but they suffer from a sucker. A long-range shot from Victor Boniface deflects off Frederik Ronnow and into the net. Far to the right, the visiting supporters are bursting with joy. At the other end of the field, the noise does not change, the ultras huddled under their capos do not miss a note.
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It’s such a curious part of German football. It’s not for everyone, of course, and some find the pace of Bundesliga matches monotonous. Everyone has their taste. What’s remarkable though is that it really exists independent of the action. It survives the punch of the concession and the few seconds most of us spend swearing at officials and moaning at our players. It continues.
It only takes 14 minutes for the EQ to arrive, and when it does, it’s a gem. Josip Juranovic blasts a free kick up and over the wall, causing the stadium to erupt with joy and the players pile into a heap of celebration on the near touchline.
At halftime, it’s so cold in the ground that everyone inside knows he’s been spending the weekend in bed. Most likely realize they won’t be going to work in the morning. When the game resumes, the night quickly becomes harder and less sweet. Christopher Trimmel is a galloping, unsightly winger who has been with the club since they were in the 2.Bundesliga, but has since proven himself at the top level. It’s a wonderful story but he suffers a terrible moment as a sloppy pass is stifled by St. Gilloise who slips away to score.
Again, the singing continues. Once again, Union returns. VAR spots a handball in the box and, on the second attempt, Robin Knoche hacks a penalty kick through.
Saint Gilloise are Really excellent. They are owned by Tony Bloom and their recruitment looks just as shrewd as the businessman’s other club, Brighton and Hove Albion. Yorbe Vertessen plays beautifully down the left from a front-three and, on the other side, Jean Armani has a first touch to die for. Their counter-attacks are shrewd and threatening, and when they find a third goal – bouncing off another mistake – Urs Fischer turns back to his bench, shaking his head.
Fischer’s team seems exhausted. The snow still does not settle, but the Alte Forsterei pitch becomes wetter and the ball does not circulate. The temperature is well below zero now and it’s been a long season. Bayern Munich couldn’t win here. Dortmund and Ajax lost. RB Leipzig have been beaten at home and away. Maybe it’s time for Union to come out on her shield and her fans to plod back into the forest.
With 89 minutes played, there is no more goal in the match. But Union is remarkably stubborn. Maybe the reason they’ve won so many hearts this season is because they don’t know when to stop – they don’t know when it’s okay to lose and when excuses are there to be made.
Another long ball is thrown towards the penalty area and a defender misses it, then another, before Sven Michel heads a shot into the bottom corner. Michel is a pest of an attacker with a one-line Wikipedia entry. He’s 32 now and has spent most of his career working his way around the second tier. It’s his time. It’s probably the biggest goal of his life and as he turns away to celebrate, he’s flattened by an accidental nudge that sends him staggering to the ground.
There is chaos around him. On the pitch, in the stands, everywhere in the Alte Forsterei. And, in the far corner, through the snow, a hand comes out of the brick cabin to change the score one last time. 3-3. When the sun rises in the morning, Union Berlin will still be within reach of a Europa League quarter-final.
(Top photo: Mathias Renner/City-Press via Getty Images)
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