Photo courtesy of 1.FC Union Berlin
It's been a funny year at 1.FC Union Berlin. We have become used to a fairytale existence at An Der Alten Försterei and, judging by the reaction of the thousand or so fans that travelled to Cottbus last night to watch a thumping 4-2 defeat, the pride in the team and the fans themselves goes unabated - despite the fact that since before Christmas they have been showing precious little other than relegation form.
Well, let's start at the start eh? When Uwe Neuhaus took over as coach, he started to form the nucleus of a side that could actually play. This was of course in the homely, but decidedly ramshackle Köpenick stadium they call home today, but was in reality a different beast all together. In the face of intransigence from the city, the only course of action available was for the fans to pony up as much cash as possible, and then what they couldnt pay to get constructed they would build themselves. I recommend watching the film of the rebuilding just to see the old fella that went to the "most beautiful building site in the world" every single night for a year to act as an unpaid nightwatchman for the club that he has loved for 40 years. His was just one of hundreds of such stories.
It helped, of course, that the two main bosses of the club had made their money in respectively steel and concrete. Pretty handy things if you want to build a stadium, but the terraces which can hold 20,000 act as a beacon for all those disenfranchised by their football clubs. Anyone who was there will never forget the friendly on the opening night against Hertha, with those who had volunteered their time to build adorned with red hard hats. There wasn't a dry eye in the house that night, and the pride in what they had achieved was rightly held up as a modern day märchen. Certainly if you asked a Portsmouth fan if they would take a new stadium and a guaranteed future over two FA Cup finals and possible oblivion then I know which way they'd go.
The management of the club has been exemplary, knowing their place in the city and what was important. When the Slovakian company building the roof were simply not getting the job done in time for the grand opening they were jettisoned immediately. Dirk Zingler, the president, acted even more ruthlessly last year as it developed that the company with whom Union had just taken on with a five year, wallet busting, €10 million sponsorship comtract had a boss with close links to the Stasi. This was simply unnacceptable for a club who had suffered through Dynamo Berlins regime sponsored domination of the DDR Oberliga and had worn their opposition on their sleeves. The contract was immediately torn up in a case of principles over immediate financial rewards. "Fucking hell", we said to each other. "Are these guys for real?"
The dream of immediate promotion faded after an incrediable start to this year, not even conceding a goal in the first five games. New striker, the Colombian John Jairo Mosqera looked a very good aqcuistion and fit nicely with Karim Benyamina, who took his form from last season into the new one to become Unions highest ever scorer. Then the wheels fell off. Stupid goals were conceded at one and and dried up at the other culminating in a period whereby none of the strikers had scored in 10 games. A reliance on the dead ball skills of Torsten Mattuschka has been the most consistent thing and is reflected in the (usually pretty unoriginal) songsmithery of the Union faithful. The Berliner Kurier described "Too good to be true" (which the eponymous Mattuschka song is to the tune of) as being a Gloria Gaynor song, but I think that is more a reflection on their football reporter's disco dancing, Andy Williams hating, ways.
As the fourth Cottbus goal went in yesterday - which was, incidentally one of the nicest, most finely crafted goals I've seen at this level in a long time - the Cottbus fans were revelling in the fact that they were "East German Champions". For a team that were in the Bundesliga last year but have struggled this term, these bragging rights are pretty important, but the 15,000 last night was their biggest attendance of the year. Union have beaten that on 5 occasions this season. Also if he can stay fit Bjorn Brunneman looks like he could solve a perennial problem of width and pace on the right, Michael Parensen and Patrick Kohlman (both absent last night) have solved a similar problem on the left and Benyamina looks like he might have started bringing his scoring boots along again. The basis for next year's looking pretty good.