This season, The Athletic is following Union Berlin, a Bundesliga club from the former East Germany who were playing regional-level football less than 20 years ago, on their inaugural Champions League journey for our series Iron In The Blood.
Urs Fischer, Union Berlin’s coach, shakes his head as one last attack fizzles out down the left. The final whistle sounds seconds later and forward Sheraldo Becker responds by angrily thumping the ball into the night sky.
Elsewhere, a couple of Union players collapse to the floor. Others stare forlornly into the distance, shaking hands with opponents almost without even realising. There is hurt and disbelief everywhere you look.
Against Napoli there was no repeat of the injury-time winners that broke Union hearts against Real Madrid and Braga, in their two previous Champions League group matches, but the outcome was crushing all the same.
Union played with fight and spirit, in particular in the first half, only to be undone by a moment of brilliance from Khvicha Kvaratskhelia. The goal that followed, courtesy of Giacomo Raspadori’s left foot, carried a sense of inevitability with it — there would be no way back for Union.
The pain of defeat has become all too familiar for this group of players now. This was a ninth successive loss in all competitions — a wretched run that has already cast a shadow over a landmark season for the club and, at the same time, raised questions about where Union go from here.
The simple answer is Werder Bremen, their opponents on Saturday and, on the face of it, a game that Union dare not lose. Fifth from bottom in the Bundesliga, Bremen are one place above Union with a near identical record. They are, to put it another way, both as bad as each other this season.
At most clubs there would be anger in the stands and calls for the coach to be sacked on the back of such a miserable sequence of results. But Fischer is no ordinary coach – his five-year reign has delivered astonishing success up until now – and Union are not most clubs.
Where else does a team that keeps losing week after week get treated like heroes by their supporters long after the final whistle?
Yet as that scene played out once again in the Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, and the last cries of “Eisern! Union!” echoed into the night as the players turned on their heels and drifted back towards the dressing rooms, it was hard to escape the feeling that something has to change soon.
“The word crisis is a big one,” Dirk Zingler says. “If you take a look at the world at the moment, it feels hard to use the word crisis in terms of a football club. We are not in a crisis when we lose games. Losing games belongs to football, that happens. We are in a crisis when the existence of Union is threatened, because our aim is to bring people together, to give them a social home.”
It is the day before the Napoli game and Zingler is talking to The Athletic in his office, just across the way from the Alte Forsterei, where Union lost 3-0 against Stuttgart in the Bundesliga on Saturday, their eighth successive defeat.
The last time that happened was in 2004, when Zingler had not long taken over as Union’s president, stepping in to help rescue the club he had spent the previous 25 years following as a fan. In a mess on and off the pitch at that time, Union had just slipped into the Regionalliga Nord, the third tier of German football. Twelve months later Union suffered another relegation.
Perspective is easy to find in that respect, both inside and outside the insular world of football but especially at Union, where small things are still big things, even if the Champions League anthem is the soundtrack to this season.
“There was a situation yesterday when the team went to the training ground and outside a group of elderly Union fans were cleaning up the forest, picking up cups and all that stuff from the match-day,” Zingler says. “They were saying hello to the coach and to the players, and this is what we feel Union is about, to come together as a group, to join us, to have a short chat with the head coach, to say, ‘Hey Urs, come on, let’s go.’”
If all of that sounds very Union Berlin — a club with a personal touch that cherishes old-fashioned values — it would be a mistake to think that what happens on the pitch is incidental or some sort of side-show.
Some Union fans might see the club that way — “always look on the bright side of life” has been sung a lot this season already — but Zingler certainly doesn’t.
Indeed, a question about a comment that Fischer made in a press conference last Thursday, in relation to the difficult run, prompts a fascinating response from Zingler about the importance of winning and inspiring similar clubs.
“In the last years we needed the words ‘surreal’ and ‘crazy,’” Fischer said. “Maybe now we need the word ‘reality’ for where we are.”
But what is reality for Union now? Where, in football terms, do the club belong these days, bearing in mind the speed of their ascent?
“Two years ago you would have got another answer than you will get now!” Zingler replies, laughing.
The first point that Zingler wants to make is that a Europa Conference League play-off tie in 2021, against the Finnish club Kuopion PS, was regarded as “the greatest game in the world for us and an even nicer experience than the match at Real Madrid (last month)” because it felt so surreal for Union to be competing on that stage.
But after three successive years of European football, playing at a higher level season after season, the narrative starts to change.
“The surreal of today could be the reality of tomorrow, and that’s what we have to have in mind,” Zingler says.
“It’s a really difficult task not to get it wrong because the people in the stadium seem to — seem to — not care too much about a defeat or a win. But too many defeats put the whole thing in danger,” he says. “So, on one side, it is good that we have this atmosphere. But we still have the task to not say ‘it doesn’t matter’. A result does matter. Every defeat is bad for the club. Every win is good for the club.
“So we, as the people in charge, have to make sure that we do everything that is necessary to get better results and to work on a steady improvement and development of the club because that’s what it’s all about in the 120-year history of football in this region, to try to be successful in football – that’s the core of a football club, that brings the people together in the end.”
Zingler pauses for a moment, before adding: “There’s another aspect and that’s our idea of football culture — how should football feel, how should it look. And our idea of football for people, football not as a property of somebody or some company… we kind of see ourselves as a certain role model for this kind of football, and what we know is that the people listen to us, and look at us, the more successful we are. If you are not successful, then you are just in the corner of the so-called cult clubs.
“This is the annoying thing about the eight defeats, that they just happen in this very moment where more people look at us than ever before,” Zingler adds, smiling at the irony. “It’s like, ‘Ha! It just happened out of the blue that they finished fourth!’”
The part that Fischer has played in Union’s rise is impossible to overstate, and Zingler’s remarks about the importance of results are not in any way a sign that the coach is under pressure. That is not the way that Zingler operates.
When Braga scored a 94th-minute winner against Union in their previous Champions League game, Zingler could sense that everyone around him at the Olympic Stadium was looking to see how he would react. He didn’t show a flicker of emotion and made his way straight down to the bowels of the stadium to give his support to Fischer.
Nothing has changed three weeks later.
“You need a strong and undamaged head coach, to be independent and to make his own decisions in the dressing room,” Zingler says. “If you start to show any other direction, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because you damage your own head coach. Trust in each other is the foundation of success. He’s a very good head coach in a very stable club.”
One thing that Zingler and Union can’t control is the noise from outside. In the wake of the Stuttgart defeat on Saturday, the former German intentional Dietmar Hamann talked about how signing high-earning players can create animosity. “I think they’ve lost that team spirit with the new additions,” Hamann said about Union.
Zingler smiles and shakes his head. “Ich liebe experten,” he adds, his voice laced with sarcasm.
“The problem about experts and people commenting from outside is that the gap between what they talk about and what actually happens becomes bigger.”
Zingler sighs. “Most people at the moment try to find usual answers to a completely unusual situation, because the development we made in the last five years, nobody made it before and maybe it will never happen again.
“It’s not that we are patting ourselves on the back all the time about that. We don’t really have the answer to the question as to why it was so successful in that short period, and actually we don’t really have an answer as to why we lost eight games in a row now.
“To find out explanations for everything somehow destroys the magic of the moment. And today’s explanation can be wrong tomorrow.”
Football being football, there will be no shortage of supporters in Germany taking pleasure in the sight of Union being given a bloody nose this season. Hertha Berlin, their cross-city rivals, will be at the front of the queue but they are not alone.
“There are a lot of people who are very happy to see Union struggle. There are a lot of people who have a lot of general antipathy towards the club, born from lots of different things,” explains Kit Holden, the author of Scheisse! We’re going up!, which tells the story of Union’s journey to the Bundesliga.
“I think the club are quite frank about how they’ve got to where they are. But there’s a tendency to be like, ‘Oh, there’s this fairytale idea of Union’, and people like to pour cold water on it and say none of it’s true. I think that’s wrong because you can have both (storylines). It’s true that the investor’s money (Michael Kolmel, a multi-millionaire cinema magnate) has helped, and it’s true that what the fans have done with the stadium and the fan scene is really amazing. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
“Part of what I try to communicate in the book is there are misunderstandings about Union from a lot of the people from my generation, if you like, who have come to them in the last 10-20 years, who wanted to see them as a Berlin St Pauli, and wanted to see them as the cool club and a different club, and they projected that onto Union. And there was enough there that you could project that onto Union, and so there’s a tendency to romanticise them from that side.
“That creates a certain reaction from people who never wanted to romanticise them because they saw something totally different in Union, which is also there. And they’d be reasonably happy for Union not to be everyone’s darling anymore.”
Holden smiles. “You either drink the Kool-Aid or you don’t. And for those who don’t, I think there’s a certain gratification, like, ‘Ah, see, you’re just normal, you’re just gonna be the next Mainz or Augsburg – you come up, have a little bit of fun and then back into mid-table.”
Back into mid-table sounds pretty good right now and Holden, who was talking prior to the Napoli game, suspects that is where Union will finish this season.
In his eyes there isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with Union right now. He reels off some of the tough opponents they have faced so far, talks about the lack of stability at the back (which has been such a pillar of Union’s success in the past) being undermined by injuries to key players – the centre-back Robin Knoche and holding midfielder Rani Khedira have only just returned — and the knock-on effect for the new signings who have had to be integrated into the team sooner than the club would have liked.
“You can kind of explain it all away a little bit,” Holden adds. “But, like Knoche was saying after the game on Saturday, at some point the run is the run and it gets in your head, and it doesn’t matter if it’s deserved or not, it still freaks you out.
“I think the Bremen game will be massive because nobody really expects (anything against) Napoli.
“You’re looking at Bremen going, ‘That’s the one.’”
Janik Haberer’s disallowed goal, the left-footed shot that Brenden Aaronson scooped over, David Fofana’s drive that was turned behind — Union had their moments before a sliced clearance landed at the feet of the wrong Napoli player.
Kvaratskhelia, who has magic in his boots, glided around the outside of Christopher Trimmel before scurrying along the byline and expertly cutting the ball back for Raspadori to give Napoli the lead. Except it felt like — and looked like — much more than the lead.
Khedira dropped to the ground. Knoche waved his arms in exasperation. Aaronson looked to the heavens. Robin Gosens stared at the floor. Union were broken. Perhaps already beaten too.
Fofana, who is on loan from Chelsea, was withdrawn five minutes later and refused to make eye contact with Fischer or acknowledge him as the coach reached for his arm. Clearly disappointed with Fofana at the time, Fischer was also annoyed afterwards when it was the first thing he was asked about at the press conference.
Fofana later apologised for his behaviour on Instagram. “This gesture was not intended and in no way does it represent my attitude. All this was generated as a result of frustration because I wanted to continue helping the team to obtain a positive result,” he said, after saying sorry to the club, his team-mates and the supporters.
Leonardo Bonucci was another topic afterwards, after reports emerged during the game that the Italian was unhappy to be left on the bench. “It surprises me a bit because I spoke with Leo this week,” Fischer said. “I decided for Robin Knoche and not against Leo. Of course he is unhappy. I hope all my players want to play.”
If those incidents make it sound as though fractures are starting to appear, and that Fischer is losing his grip on the dressing room, that is not how Union’s coach, or those close to him, see things. If anything, the grit and determination that Union showed for long periods against Napoli encouraged Fischer to fight even more.
“We didn’t allow (Napoli) anything over 90 minutes, apart from one action,” Union’s said. “It’s incredibly bitter, but somewhere I’m also proud.”
(Top image: Getty Images)
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