Wow! We got an early bird here!

'You've got to try to enjoy it' Union in Europe 2022/23


It all starts with Taiwo Awoniyi’s 88th minute goal against Bochum on the final day of the 2021/22 Bundesliga season.

It was 2-2 as Kevin Behrens wrestled with defender Anthony Losilla to reach a ball from Christopher Trimmel that toyed with the defender’s idea of vertical space. It hung in the air, but Behrens had created a small gap in the 18-yard box through the force of his will and the strength of his upper body; he’s an old-fashioned number nine, from his haircut to his boots and he was as if born for this job.

Awoniyi brought the ball down with his instep and cut inside, letting it cross his body and finished with his left foot to send the stadium into raptures. Union had come fifth in the Bundesliga. It all seemed so implausible, at least from the outside.

Urs Fischer's co-coach, Markus Hoffmann remembers that goal like it was yesterday. He and Fischer, their co-coach Sebastian Bönig, physio Martin Krüger and goalkeeping coach Michael Gspurning came together instantly in front of their dug-out, their foreheads locked together, bouncing in tight whirlpool-circles.

“Hoffi” has been by Fischer’s side for a long time. They started together back in Basel when the pressure could have been overwhelming, were he not as sober as he is. He has dark eyes, a bald head, and a thoughtful, deep voice that, when he leans in to make a point, could be intimidating were it not often balanced by a suddenly flashed smile. Importantly he also has a curious ability to focus on what is important at almost any moment.

Hoffi is good at putting all things in their right place.

He loved that goal, mostly, not for what it meant in the future – and its ramifications were huge - but what it said about the past. Because it was the culmination of a long-conceived plan.

“As a trainer,” he says, “your greatest pleasure is when you see something come off that you’ve been working on, week by week.”

Importantly, it is only at the end of a season when he really gets the chance to reflect on any successes at all, so Hoffi usually tries to keep himself in check. “I’m not the kind of guy who will be punching the air, that’s not me.”

Not usually, he means.

But there was still a tingling in his belly when he went on holiday, borne of all 1. FC Union Berlin had achieved that year. He was once a striker. He talks vividly about the adrenaline rush when you score, but he had to put that aside a long time ago. This was a completely different feeling, he says.

But things were already moving onwards at pace. He wouldn't have much time to stop and smell the roses. The signing of Danilho Doekhi would be announced in two days.

Doekhi, a tall, lithe, sharp central defender with great teeth, an astonishing combination of skill, power and bravery, and an intricate golden thumb-ring that flashes when the light hits it, was watching meanwhile at home in Rotterdam, getting constant updates from friends and family.

He had signed for Union, not knowing they would qualify for Europe at all. But now, through Awoniyi’s parting gift to the club, they had qualified for the Europa League.

Fischer, Hoffmann, Bönig, Gspurning and Krämer, their heads locked together in a whirpool of joy


People tried to make sense of what this all meant for a club whose participation in the 2021/22 Conference League had already seemed like a leap, especially looking at where Union had come from. They had only been promoted to the Bundesliga two seasons before.

The president, Dirk Zingler, did the rounds. He talked of how participation in the Europa League would “touch and affect everyone associated with the club”. But, presciently, he also mentioned the “great challenges” that it would surely bring.

Little did he know.

He talked of one hundred years of history at the Alte Försterei; of how it had existed through different countries, different regimes, different systems. He said that Union had “difficulties in the ‘90’s and difficulties in the 2000’s,” downplaying their parlous state back then, before continuing with “how much it means to so many people”, downplaying that, somehow, too.

Journalist Mathias Bunkus invoked the name of Falkensee-Finkenkrug from the Oberliga - the fourth flight - two games Union had played in what feels like an impossibly far off place and time, though were actually only 17 years ago. Curiously, their's would be the same name used by Christian Arbeit, Union’s head of communications and stadium announcer, at a press conference many months later, for the Brandenburg club have become a byword for the bad times endured, and a symbol of how far Union have come.

People talk of having been at those games in the same way others talk about seeing the Sex Pistols in Manchester in '76.

Arbeit laughs deeply when he thinks back, shaking the prickles of his Castro beard,

“Now look at us.”

1. FC Union Berlin versus Falkensee-Finkenkrug in the Oberliga, 2006. They had become a byword for the bad times © E. Gärtner | Archiv des 1. FC Union Berlin
Christian Arbeit and Ritter keule as Union were in the 3. Liga, when all of this seemed impossible.

The first draw (Of three)

Zingler invited the staff of the club to watch the draw in the stadium. So, a bar was opened, and maybe 30 or 40 people - from the men and women who clean the concrete terraces to those who clean the toilets, to the president, himself - sat in the main stand to see what awaited them.

Admittedly, it didn’t look that much like a grand occasion. Few places are as disconnected from reality as an empty football stadium, but this one especially so. When devoid of its people, the Alte Försterei sits as cold and bloody lonesome as a Hank Williams cast-off.

The people there chattered. Some wanted Juventus, Manchester United, Roma. Everyone agreed they should avoid Feyenoord, with whom Union had developed a new and unexpected enmity since the previous year.

Michael Parensen was at the draw itself. Union’s technical director - who played 249 times for the club and is as embedded into the Alte Försterei’s mythology as the trees are into the ground that flanks it to the north had flown to Istanbul to join the great and the good of European football, from the president of PSG, to his bodyguards. 

“What was important,” he says, “was to get out of the group.” Who was in it, was not. “It was a bit different to last year, when you hoped for the bigger names.”

He wasn’t alone. Many others in the Alte Försterei did not want to be there to make up the numbers, to become another notch on Jose Mourinho’s worn out bedpost.

It was only when he sat down that Parensen says he felt nervous, caught up in the possibilities of what could happen, of who could come.

Hoffmann, meanwhile, paid it no real mind. “You cannot try and affect things you have no influence over,” he says, wisely, a philosophy that would come in more than helpful later on.

The former Hungarian international, Zoltan Gera, rummaged around in a goldfish bowl, and the people in the stadium cheered when Parensen appeared briefly up on the screen.

But eventually there they were, four small pieces of paper with black and orange UEFA branding and two folds across the middle.

Group D: 

SC Braga. Malmö FF. Royale Union Saint-Gilloise. 1. FC Union Berlin.

Later, Union’s captain, Christopher Trimmel, was asked for his reaction. He smiled conspiratorially when he talked of Malmö. He said they would be “interesting... I mean, everyone knows their fans are connected to Hertha.”

There was also talk of Saint-Gilles. Of how they had just come up from the second division, how they came from a district on the edge of Brussels called Forest, how they weren’t allowed to use their own stadium because UEFA didn’t deem it up to standard to host their competitions. How they were called Union, for God’s sake. 

Parensen spoke to the press, and the people in the stadium drifted back off to their offices in the belly of the stand, or in the Foresters Lodge from where the stadium gets its name, or in the old containers that once upon a time hosted the press conferences for games against the likes of Falkensee-Finkenkrug - to chatter away about flights and hotels, and the lightness or difficulties of the task now at hand. The players got themselves together for that afternoon's trip to Gelsenkirchen, and their coaches put the whole thing to the very back of their minds.

And then a bank of bruised purple and black clouds moved malevolently over Köpenick. Lightning lit up the sky, thunder clapped and a torrential storm opened out onto the forest.

The Alte Försterei became the living room for the staff at the Alte Försterei, the scoreboard their TV
The European football world poured into Istanbul's grandest hotels for the Champions, and Europa League draws

Football where it belongs

It was still raining a month later when the group stage could finally start, coming down in torrents on the police outside, hanging around smoking in the way that Berlin police often do when it's too cold for ice creams. More killed the time in vans with their feet up.

The previous year Union had to play their Conference League games in the Olympiastadion, but, for 2022/23 UEFA had agreed to a trial of standing stadia (though they had sent a letter to Alexander Ceferin, Arbeit concedes that the pressure from clubs like Borussia Dortmund was far more instrumental in moving the sporting Gods to their favour).

Union had to rush, a European season ticket had been planned for the Olympiastadion, it was all in hand, but they had to work out how they were going to get every member to see at least one game each.

For, now, they were actually at home in serious European competition. It was to be a celebration of all Union had achieved. But despite all the security meetings, all the preparation; no one knew what would happen. 

Zingler wanted the official tournament anthem to be played as loud as possible - he wanted the fans to revel in it - so, they tried it out, blasting it through the PA out of nowhere, catching people off guard, hitting them like the coming of the apocalypse.

Banners the height of the main stand hung down either side of the entrance, and journalists from all over the world arrived with question after question about the club and the fans and the stadium, as they asked about Hertha BSC and BFC Dynamo and Falkensee-Finkenkrug and all points in between.

They wanted to know about outsiders and self-builders, and blood donors and Christmas-Carolers, of course, and the cost of unprecedented success against all the odds to their own closely guarded values.

But all they got in return was more of that proselytising message that everything here was possible.

“You can see it if you just look around,” they said.

Arbeit says, “we wanted to show our pride.”

Trimmel said, “you just have to breathe it all in.”

Excitement was high. The fans from the Waldseite busied themselves, preparing their tifo that ran the length of the terrace, and that summed up the whole thing better than anyone else who had tried managed. It simply read,

“Football where it belongs.”

Royale Union Saint Gilloise (h) 0-1

Parensen felt something in the air before kick off, almost like a weight, a natural consequence, he says, of a night like that. There was so much attention, you can find yourself wondering, even if only for a second, if you’re ready. Doekhi agrees, but only in part. “It was a good tension, a special feeling.”

“You need it, to be ready for the game, you have to be a little bit...” He pauses, because “nervous isn’t the right word,” he says. But a bit of an edge to keep you on your toes is important. “You could feel the whole atmosphere, that it was something special for the club.”

The day after the draw in Istanbul Union had beaten the famous Schalke 04, 6-1, to go top of the Bundesliga. The week after that they drew 1-1 with the even more famous FC Bayern München. But Saint-Gilles were better than both. Arbeit says that there were those who assumed that they were the weakest side in the group, “but it turns out they were the strongest.” They embodied a belligerent footballing intelligence, they could improvise at speed within an otherwise rigid, immaculately drilled system.

In fact, of all the similarities, the most striking was that they played a lot like Union, too.

Victor Boniface - elusive and quick and a thorn in Union's side for months to come - set up the only goal of the night, providing Senne Lynen an elegantly simple pass for him to finish off in front of the Waldseite.

It's not that Union had played badly, but Parensen says he was disappointed, Doekhi was too. “Because it was at home, you must get the points, especially in European games. Also, we didn’t feel we deserved to lose, they didn’t play us off the pitch... but still we knew it was early, there were still five more games to go.”

Hoffi is more circumspect, he knows Saint-Gilles are good. “They aren’t there by chance. We had seen enough videos, and we knew we’d have problems with them.” He says they were “ice-cold” in the way they took their chances.”

Fischer agreed. “When you spend a bit of time around football,” he said, “you know...”

But the fans wandering off into the gloom of Köpenick through the sodden forest talked it over endlessly, wondering where this would all end, and if it would really be this humbling all the way.

It was if the rain hadn't stopped in the month since the draw, and now, on the night of the first game, it came down harder than ever
The Waldseite. Football where it belongs
The players take their leave of the gegengerade, following the 1-0 loss to Saint-Gilles
Danilho Doekhi takes on...

Killing time

On September 14th they flew to Braga. Parensen fussed around the squad, carrying bags, making sure everybody knew what they were doing, always on his way somewhere, a slip of paper in his hand, his eyes flitting towards his next task.

Later he went out in the rain, across the road and over the traffic island in front of the hotel to check out the training pitches for the following morning, to get a feel for what was awaiting them. He says he had to, but he may also have just been killing a bit of time.

Because you’ve got to do something - even just a bit of fresh air in the rain - to stop you going insane in those hours between training and mealtimes and matches, spent in  comfortable beige, rooms with plain walls and deep sofas, and bland, pointless artwork on the walls. The hanging around can wipe you out, and they weren’t just doing this for Europe, it was for away games in the Bundesliga too. Doekhi talks of the long days, of the repetitive nature of it all, but also of the isolation.

“When you’re away from home, from your family, friends... you get used to it... but it takes a lot of energy.”

Parensen, working
The Unioner came from every corner, from all over the city. but they marched to the ground as one.

The Unioner

The next day the one-and-a-half thousand travelling Unioner congregated in the Praca Conde de Agrolongo, lolling around in the welcome sunshine. Union had chartered a fleet of five planes for the occasion, the first time they’d ever done such an undertaking. Many hadn’t slept, most were drinking. It was utterly peaceful, and the mood was as high as the sun in the sky.

They called themselves the Reisekader.

Locals ignored them, tourists took photos of them, a German family in matching shorts of pastel colours rolled their eyes, wondering “why they waste their time and money on football” at all. And the police found a shady spot around the corner so they could continue to keep a lazy eye on them in comfort.

The fans then marched together, along cliff sides and spindly roads to the stadium, bored literally from the earth in a former quarry, whose two main stands are spanned by enormous steel wires, that has a solid rock face behind one of the goals, and whose intertwining internal steel staircases look like an Escher optical illusion painting.

The Stadio Communale has a darkened room full of trophy cabinets just inside its subterranean front door. SC Braga are a bastion of European football, lesser to the likes of Benfica or Porto, but of an infinitely higher standing than Union. They had been in the Europa league – or its predecessor the UEFA Cup – for pretty much every one of the last fifteen years.

Hoffmann spoke in wondrous tones. Or at least as close as this former Oberliga striker gets to them.

“Not many get to do this,” he said.

Lit up by the burning red flares of the Unioner as the second half kicked off, and as the sun went down over hillsides pockmarked with the spires of small churches, it looked majestic. Grasshoppers the size of sparrows danced in front of the floodlights.

The Stadio Communale, bored out of the earth, held together by great, spanned wires

SC Braga (a) 1-0

But though they played well, Union were all out of luck. Diogo Leite hit the post with a thumping header. Sheraldo Becker had a shot finger-tipped wide. Jordan Siebatcheu - the top scorer in the Swiss league the previous year who had already begun a menacing partnership with becker, and who prefers to go by his mother's name of Pefok, or just Jordan to make things easier for those who need these things to be just so - played all 90 minutes, pushing and pulling the portuguese defence. Creating gaps, not giving them a moment's peace. But it mattered little in the end. 

Because, out of nowhere in the second half, Union’s goalkeeper, Frederik Rönnow, palmed a swerving shot from Andre Horta only as far as Vitinha, his trajectory timed just right to meet the ball as it reached the top of its bounce.

And as the Portuguese fans who’d been so quiet for most of the evening, suddenly now came together to roar as one, the striker finished without breaking stride.

Union lost one nil again, and it had all come from one small mistake, a single moment of fallibility.

Leite, who had endured a year at Braga on loan from his beloved FC Porto, found himself after the goal with his legs out in front of him, sat opposite a Rönnow in almost the same position. Their faces told a story of hurt and bewilderment.

Then, after the final whistle he did a lap of the pitch alongside Becker, Julian Ryerson and Jordan. They clapped the fans up in their corner but did not stop to salute them again. They ran around and around as if it was a penance to make up for their misfortune, trying to sweat the disappointment out.

Fischer and Hoffmann rarely speak to the team after a game, and they didn’t now either. It makes little sense, says Hoffi. “You need to watch it back again. Because you get a different feeling from it, a different impression. The next day the emotions are gone. And you can analyse it soberly.”

Diogo, a bright, charming, tall man with a disarming smile, looked crestfallen. He had so wanted to impress. It was probably a coincidence, but while the other three were in red, he was in black.



Some of the fans had grown angry before kick off. They had been stopped from getting into the stadium on time through officious checks and a single gate being opened. Their frustration grew. The majority of the Unioner inside refrained from singing until everyone was in.

Then, after the final whistle, they were locked in, no drinks, no toilets. People were tired. They’d come all this way. A few said later that if this was European football, then they could really do without the aggravation.

A couple of plastic chairs were lit, acrid smoke pouring off them into the night.

None of the players really wanted to talk after the game, either, but someone had to, and that someone was Rani Khedira, Union’s vice-captain, whose control over the space between the penalty boxes is unimpeachable, and who has played more Bundesliga games than almost anyone else in the squad.

“Zero points, no goals, it’s definitely a shit night,” he said, not pulling his punches, the second part of his sentence strangely echoing his boss’s words when he was fired from the job as head coach of FC Zurich. “That was just shit,” Fischer had said back then. "Shit" is the word Arbeit uses too about that game against Braga, as it also the word that appeared ironically on a famous banner in the stands when Union threatetened to be promoted to the Bundesliga. 

Parensen says losing 1-0 is the hardest of all, because it always leaves the question of what could have been, with a quicker tackle, a better finish, a bit of luck at either end.

Hoffi laughs grimly when asked if he sees it the same. “Er, yes and no...” he says, before dismissing the point as an irrelevance. “But Braga hurt. We did nothing wrong. Of course, you could say we conceded the goal. But we did everything that we had planned, and still left empty handed.”

He knows that’s football, as he knows there’s been times where things have been the other way around and Union have won undeservedly. He let out a noise. “Heh.”

“You cannot let your life be dominated by wins and losses. Your daily life must still function...” he says.

The dining room at the hotel post-match was silent apart from the occasional accidental clanking of cutlery, as pinkish meatballs were pushed around matching plates. Fischer stared at his spaghetti, before sloping off. He’d said in his press conference that every loss makes you angry, “...but especially this one.”

The highlights of the night’s ties were beamed onto on one of the walls, unavoidable, before they eventually settled onto those of Union vs Braga. If anyone had much to say - as Union still lost 1-0 in a game they had played so well in - they kept it largely to themselves.

Fortunately, most of the players had already filed off to bed, to lie in the darkness and consider. It’s hard to sleep after a game, the adrenaline is still pumping too fast, and it’s not like the old days, as Parensen says, “Back when you could have dinner, a beer, and then another, and then by the fourth it was all as if you’d won anyway.”

Diogo Leite, all out of luck.
When the sun went down, it was a sight to behold. but the Unioner had been treated badly
Rani Khedira is booked near the end of the Braga game. They'd done everything right but score.


Fischer did not make it at first to Sweden for the Malmö game, he was stuck at home after a positive Corona test whose ill effects were as nothing compared to the knowledge that might have to sit out the match. He did not feel sick; just sick to the back teeth with being stuck inside, his team in Sweden. Hoffi had to take the reins, he’d have to do the press conference too. He was fine with it, but it was never a role he’d searched out.

“I could have decided years ago to become a head coach, but I never wanted it. I know what I want to do, what I can do and what I cannot... So, I made a clear decision, to be a co-trainer.”

He is, of course, not alone by Fischer's side. There is Bönig, the ex-Unioner, who had been down in the Oberliga, and who was kept alongside to add continuity and, like a fishing guide who knows this pool better than anyone, local knowledge. There is Oliver Ruhnert, masterminding the squad in the background, his phone in his hand, a frown on his brow. Parensen, of course, always doing something. As there are a dozen more in the shadows, making all of this happen. 

But Hoffi is the closest to the gaffer. 

He says it “wouldn’t have been the end of the world” had Fischer not made it, they were in constant contact anyway, but that’s not really the point. They have this common experience so few others can understand, they’ve been through so much, from Basel to Berlin.

The two of them, sunday driving, not arriving. They fish together, they play football together. A striker and a defender; they balance each other out.

“We’ve been together for so many years now. We see each other more often than we do our families. We understand each other.” He smiles, touchingly. “Yeah of course it’s nicer when he’s there.”

Hoffmann conducts the press conference, with Fischer still in berlin, struck by the coronavirus
Rarely has an arrival made so many so happy. Urs gets to Malmö in the nick of time


Malmö’s medieval Lille Torg has restaurants flanking its four sides, cobblestones on the floor and potted trees standing where the drunks should be - were it Berlin - but now it was filled with the Unioner, spread in small groups, dressed largely in black until the Szene Köpenick lads turned up with the printed white jackets to be worn for the evening.

Many of them had travelled by ferry through Rostock, others by road; a few had flown but not many. Some had a golden ticket for the away block, others still clutched ones for the home sectors, wondering aloud if they were going to get in at all.

It wouldn’t sell out. Malmö had only played in front of more than 20,000 twice at home that season. Even in the time of their greatest triumph, the run to the European Cup final in 1979, only 12,000 were there for the semi-final against Wisla Krakow.

Two helicopters buzzed overhead, and a kid in a replica 80’s Arsenal shirt looked out of his window with a smile on his face a mile wide.

Tension had been building all week. Malmö’s reticence to allow more Unioner in than was absolutely necessary had become a sticking point between the clubs, if a curious hand of solidarity between the fan-blocks. The accord wouldn’t hold for long.

Union had made offers through official channels, they had tried to buy a chunk of tickets for those they knew would be there, but the Swedish club stood firm.

The reports on the ground had been dramatic, suggesting that Unioner shouldn’t be out in colours in the city; maybe there would be trouble from Hansa fans before they even made it onto the ferry, something threatening was always there in the background, like a bad memory from the night before.

Outside the stadium the police - all military helmets and stomping boots - parked their vans in a line to separate the fan blocks as they arrived from different sides. But, as Arbeit says, there was actually too little control going into the stadium. He and Zingler strolled in and wondered where the stewards were in the away block.

They called their own team, instead. “It was not really well organised,” he says carefully. “We don’t really know why...”

The tension in malmö was palpable, but the streets were calm all day

Malmö FF (a) 0-1 (Part one)

On the pitch, Union were good, but lacked an edge in front of goal. Janik Haberer – an almost ever-present on the left of midfield since his arrival from Freiburg - flashed a volley just over the bar, but it was Andras Schäfer whose luck, on the pitch, was out. The irrepressible Hungarian with the puppy dog run had been a revelation since Ruhnert had picked him up playing in the Slovakian first division. He’d had his eyes on him since long before he scored against Germany in the European Championships.

Schäfer was the last man back as Malmö took a corner – as the smallest, he always was – and the ball worked its way back to him. There was under a minute of the half left to play, and there was no immediate danger.

He allowed it to roll past, turning back towards Rönnow’s goal as he went, trying to control it with the inside of his heel as he’s done a thousand times before. Something, though, went wrong; his touch was just too heavy, his balance was just off, his attention maybe wavering for less than a second. But less than a second was all Anders Christiansen needed, and he appeared at Schäfer’s shoulder, darting on to the suddenly free ball.

Schäfer didn’t think, for there was no time to. He threw his right hand out and caught the back of the Swedish striker’s shirt.

He held his head in his hands as the referee showed him the red card, barely mustering an argument, turning one final time before he left the pitch, his mouth open. Hoffi says he was angry - of course he was at first - but his thoughts moved immediately on to the things he could affect.

So, he asked himself, “what do we do now?”

“You have to stay positive,” he says, using one of Fischer’s favourite phrases, one fundamental to their vision of football, and their method of management. “You have to be quick in the head. You can’t spend time thinking about what has happened or why. It’s already over.”

Robin Knoche would become one of the best centre-halfs in a land full of them


There had been flares on both sides, from behind both goals, throughout the first half, but then, with an hour played - one after the next over the longest of minutes - three rockets flew out of the Union end onto the pitch.

Another went up into one of the home stands. A banger went off, then another, huge this time, a guttural blast, like a bomb. The players were taken off, and boos and whistles rang out from all sides. A flare came out from the Malmö end onto the pitch. A message was read out saying that game would be temporarily suspended.

Some Malmö fans took their kids out. It was heartbreaking.

A line of riot police came out to create another barrier between the Union and Malmö fans in the corner. A tense kind of half-silence fell over much of the stadium; all you could hear was the nervous chattering, disappointed muttering, and pissed-off chuntering. An Unioner smoked a fag in defiance of the rules to kill the time and take the edge off the stress. A Malmö fan took exception to it. Tempers were fraying to the point of breaking.

Some other Malmö fans held up a banner saying Berlin is Blau-Weiss.

Parensen was sat to the side of the dugout. When the first rocket came he hoped it was a one-off. He’s been in and around football a long time, he has seen it all before, and was still relatively relaxed.

So, there he stayed, powerless. There were frantic conversations going between the clubs and fan representatives, UEFA, and anyone else about, down in an office in the bowels of the stadium, about how to get the game restarted. Or at least there were once they’d managed to get everyone together.

A cautious compromise was reached. UEFA wanted the game to go on, but all it would take was one more rocket, one more provocation and it would be stopped. Arbeit tried to get this across from the edge of the pitch to the Unioner. His counterpart from Malmö did the same at the other end.

Swedish police march over the pitch in Malmö as an uneasy stillness hung over the stadium, and the players tried to regain their focus down in the belly of the stadium

Malmö FF (a) 0-1 (part two)

Down in the changing room, meanwhile, there was talk of nothing other than the game. Hoffi and Fischer knew they had to keep their focus.

“If they shoot one rocket, or they shoot none, there is nothing I can do,” says Hoffmann with typical clarity. It was just, “what do we do from here? We never once discussed if we would play on or not. No. There are people who do that, it’s not our job.”

It was just another thing that he couldn’t influence, so he put it all aside.

“So, we said, “Okay we’ll play a 4-4-1. And what do we want to do when we win the ball?" And then at some point word came that we’d play on.”

Becker said the week after that he had only one thing on his mind when he re-appeared for the second half.

“We wanted to do it for Andras.”

“It shows what kind of team we are, we want to fight together, when we make a mistake or something happens like that, we want to fix it for them,” agrees Doekhi. And he says that the deficit brought the best out of them, they were ultra-concentrated, aggrieved, and flying on adrenaline. “Sometimes,” he says, “it’s not as easy to play against ten men, when they want to fight for every ball, to run more than normal.”

It was notably his first major appearance alongside both Leite and Knoche, a back three that would become such a solid fixture in a season defined by their parsimony. Paul Jaeckel and Timo Baumgartl played their part, too, but that trio had a connection, they knew when to give and when to go, when to cover and what each other were doing at all times. And they were stepping up just when Union needed them.

Actually, the whole team did.

Arbeit says he thinks that the way Knoche conducted the game was astonishing, that he “rose up to become something really big, like a Lothar Mattheus...”

Becker, now on his own up front, created a kind of feedback loop with the Unioner in the end he was now attacking, they were dosing up on each other’s manic energy.

It culminated after 68 minutes when he broke through into the inside right channel. There was a certainty in the way he ran onto the ball, how he hit it ahead of him with a touch, daring the keeper, Ismael Diawara, to come out, as there was an easy confidence in the way he looked up at the same time as he shot the ball across Diawara’s body, bending outwards, but inside the far post for the winner. He was in the form of his life, and the ball was going in long before he’d hit it.

Becker’s goal – the only one of the night - added a new edge to the tension already fizzing and hissing and whistling inside the stadium, it was electric.

Fischer on the touchline following the break in play, Genki haraguchi behind him, ready to come. Everybody knew what they had to do already.
Sheraldo Becker having scored the winner against Malmö after the longest of breaks, the tensest of second halfs, and Schäfer's sending off


The post-match press conferences took place in a sort of fever dream.

The veteran Malmö coach, Age Hareide, was raging (though a visiting Danish journalist remarked that this was not entirely uncommon). His shirt unbuttoned, his hair out of place. His voice rose in pitch as he looked the German print journalists in front of him in the eye. “I know you are good people,” he said, “but this ruins the game for everyone.” He said the behaviour of the fans was “disgusting”.

He then said that the break in play had only benefitted Union, but Hoffi disagrees.

“We were both in the same situation, both teams had to leave the pitch. We used our time to focus only on what would happen when we go back on the pitch. Maybe he was focussing on if they went back on the pitch. I don’t know. But in hindsight, it sounds like that, like he dealt with his team about the situation. We didn’t...”

Fischer was shaking when his turn came at the mic. His side had just done something remarkable; they’d dragged themselves out of the mire when down to ten men for over 45 minutes. They had given themselves a lifeline - a chance! His voice was cracked as he gave his players his “greatest compliments”. He said the win was well deserved. But then he had to shake his head.

“It’s madness, actually,” he said, his voice hoarse, his eyes tired and frustrated. “You win your first ever game in the Europa League and the first question is about something else. What should I say? It is simply not acceptable. To aim fireworks at people...”

He rocked his shoulders and he sucked his top teeth with his top lip, and he played with his hands behind the branded board in front of his table-top microphone, and he said “yes, yes, yes... well, what should I say” over and again, because there really was nothing else he could say, before he settled on a single word that fit better than most.



Zingler gave an impromptu interview too. He said that he was “stinksauer”, which barely needs translating at all.

Urs Fischer, after the game in Malmö

Old Country for new people

Much of the rage had somehow dissipated as the Alte Försterei readied itself for the return leg against Malmö the following week. The police of both nations, both clubs, the public transport company, the city, and anyone else who had a vested interest met, and were all assured that the Malmö fans were coming in peace, and that there would be no repeat from the Waldseite.

Neither side could risk a single thing going wrong.

A small group of fans in black North Face jackets spread out orange-red strips of paper on the floor where the beer garden meets the Waldseite before the gates opened. They worked meticulously, artists preparing an exhibition.

Each game had its own branding, designed by the fans, to be worn on jackets, scarves, T-shirts, or held as banners. For Malmö it was a ferry, Saint-Gilles was a bus, Braga was a plane, and it came back here as a glorious tifo that filled the Waldseite. The strips of paper formed  a spectacular sunset backdrop, framing a red on white branded Ilyushin IL-62 roaring into the sky.

In large letters, the same typeface as the GDR’s state airline, Interflug, spread along the bottom, was written,

Buckle up. Union are playing in Europe.

The plane was significant. The Ilyushin was not only an icon of East German engineering, but also a symbol of its ultimate collapse; the Interflug IL-62 flight 102 had crashed at Schönefeld just five months before the fall of the Wall, killing 21 people.

Their deaths spelled the end of one of the country’s last tangible dreams.

But the irony is unavoidable. Arbeit, a man who grew up in East Germany, explains.

“In the GDR Reisekaders were made up of people allowed to travel to the west, and not everyone was, of course. The authorities had to trust in you.” He says how the pressure on anyone who did go abroad, whether sportsman or scientist, was huge, and the overwhelming feeling left on their return was often one of relief that no-one had bolted. “Because you would be the first one asked, how did that happen, did you know?”

Union’s relationship with the former GDR is complicated. They are bound by its myths and often hemmed in by its stereotypes. Though the country ceased to exist over 30 years ago, it’s as if Union are at times not allowed to leave. They are one of its very few successful institutions in the modern world. 

And here were these bunch of young men and women, most of whom were not old enough to remember the place - let alone to have grown up in it - celebrating in its iconography (if not its brutality). It’s done with a certain detachment, of course, but Arbeit says that there were older Unioner who saw it “with a twinkling in our eyes. It was somehow really nice.”

It wasn't the first time Union had met Malmö, they had done so in 1975, when the Alte Försterei lay in a different country

Malmö FF (h) 1-0

Again, Union were the better side against Malmö in the first half, but apart from the battle scars on Leite’s face, they had little to show for it. First, he was floored after a clash of heads with Kiese Thelin that needed treatment, then ten minutes later, Thelin again cracked him on the cheekbone with a thrown elbow.

Becker shot just over from outside the box, Trimmel had one he snapped at saved at the near post.

But there was a moment, near the end of the first half - as Malmö’s Jo Inge Berget laid down hurt on the turf, the lights above him hanging bright in the night sky, the rain, as ever, coming down upon him - when Fischer’s players came together by the bench. They drunk from their bottles as he meandered around the fringes, hands in his pockets, barely even saying much, as if this was just a game in the park. He didn't have to. His unshakeable confidence in his charges was as clear as day.

Around this time, in a rare interview, he said to 11Freunde, "You are allowed to dream," but he's not a man prone to outward flights of romantic fancy, he leaves that to the fans, and this is where he knew that he could give them something to revel in. He allowed them to dream in the calm he exuded. He was allowing the Unioner's imaginations to run wild in the times he knows his plans will come to fruition. 

Because he can trust his players with everything, the Unioner have the space to fly.

With five minutes to go, Kevin Behrens went down in the box, pushed over from behind by Emmanuel Lomotey. The referee checked if he had been offside and the wait was endless. Union had already had one such chance waved away, but not this time. It was in front of the Waldseite.

Hoffi was a striker, he knows what it is to take a penalty. “I never thought about what the keeper was doing. Some players look at his movements, but I wasn’t interested. I knew that if I hit it in the right place with the right power, there’s nothing he can do, he can’t stop it.” He makes it sound so easy.

Knoche stood up to take it, he had already become one of the best central defenders in a land full of them.

He is a serious looking man with the bulging, broken nose of all good centre-halves, and he had blossomed under the tutelage of Fischer (Urs was a superb defender, himself, who played over 600 professional games in his career and whose “quickness in the head” would always make up for the lack of it in his legs) since his signing from Wolfsburg in 2002.

He held onto the ball while all hell broke loose around him, keeping his head, waiting to step into the box. He took a couple of paces back - whether heeding Hoffi’s advice or not, he knew already which way it was going to go - before hitting the ball hard to Diawara’s right.

He and his team-mates poured as one to the fence separating the Waldseite from the pitch, the volume almost inconceivable, all that tension suddenly set loose.

His goal ensured that, whether in the Europa, or in the Conference League, Union would be playing in European competition after Christmas.


The challenges ahead

Union still had to win at home against Braga to continue in the Europa League, and before the game Fischer had prickled when asked about his side’s ability to come through those final challenges. They had come through against Malmö twice under the toughest conditions, hadn’t they? Hell, what about Stuttgart a couple of years before, when promotion hung on two games against a side from a league above them? What about Max Kruse scoring in time added on in the last match of the season against Leipzig to qualify for the Conference League? Or Taiwo’s goal against Bochum?

It mattered little what they thought - or even what he thought they thought. Because he knew that it all adds up to a well of knowledge to be drawn from. In European football, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and all that. And he and Hoffmann have managed at every level of it.

Indeed, as Hoffi says, there is nothing more important than experience. “When you’ve played 20, 30, 40 games in international competition, you get a feel for it. How to go up against a side who have no name, but who are good.”

It comes only from those years, from all those matches and, yes, even all those disappointments from losses. Even when looking at the weight the players have to deal with, on their bodies and on their minds.

“You have to have the courage,” he says, “to know that less is more.”

The loss to Slavia Prague, meaning being knocked out of the Conference League had hurt more than anything, but in European football, experience is everything. They would build upon that campaign
He has managed in the UEFA Cup, the Champions League, the Conference League, and now the Europa League. Fischer gets his point across
Union had been in the predecessor to the Europa League, the UEFA Cup, but it was over 20 years ago they lost to Litex Lovec, and there's nothing that counts more in Europe than experience.

SC Braga (h) 1-0

Braga were grimly determined, playing with two deep lines of four, daring Union to try and play through them.

And they did. Julian Ryerson, a livewire up and down the left hand side; Jordan an ever present danger with hidden subtleties, his neat little backheel almost setting up Haberer; and the substitute, Andras Schäfer, turning the game on its head. 

It was the keeper, Rönnow, who made the difference in the end, his memory still going back to the first leg and Horta’s shot that he could only palm out as far as Vitinha.

He is spindly and youthful. He plays the piano with thoughtful, deliberate movements, and likes to cook, none of which really sets him apart. But what does is that he is both tall and wonderfully mobile - his reflexes are something else - as are his guts, and his wit. You only need to see the way he flicked Thomas Müller’s shot away with his head in the middle of a blizzard in the Allianz Arena to know that.

He punched Ruiz’s wickedly struck shot away with the minimum of fuss, his footing secure, his balance perfect, and his concentration never wavering. But goalkeepers live on the finest of margins, and for a second it looked as though Horta’s free kick had slipped through his hands with only a few minutes to go; but he had got just enough on it.

Then there was a Portuguese hand in the box, following another impish Schäfer attack, and another resort to the video assistant to decide what it meant. And fearless Robin Knoche scored his second penalty in two in European competition that night to beat Braga 1-0; the hardest of all the scorelines.

Frederik Rönnow had been superb, the best keeper in the land, and Union's series of clean sheets was heavily indebted to him

A legal discussion

UEFA kicked back following Malmö, banning Union from selling any tickets to the Saint-Gilles game at Leuven’s King Power Stadium. It was predictable, inevitable as soon as the fizz of that first rocket rang out, and the club took the blow on the chin. But what came next was almost inexplicable. The mayor of Leuven announced a decree; any Germans found in the district on the day of the match would be locked up, held until the following morning.

Zingler wasn’t happy, calling the decision “an incomprehensible collective punishment... Once again," he said "they are not punishing the perpetrators, but many peaceful football fans.”

For many it would mean another day of hanging around, climbing the walls of the hotel's comfortable, beige rooms with plain walls and deep sofas, and bland, pointless artwork on the walls, waiting for a decision in the high court, to see if any of the fans who had made it to Brussels could even head out as far as the stadium.

The court only got around to hearing the case just before kick off, and that was only to back up the original decision. It had been a waste of time.

Yet, still, there were Unioner to be seen floating all around the Belgian capital in red and white, taking photos like normal tourists, just ones with Christopher Trimmel’s name on their backs, offering their metaphysical, if not their physical support. Some had tickets, secured by well-wishers and friends in Belgium, but the passport checks at the stadium were stringent and thorough this time.

While the courts meandered through their day, everyone else waited... and waited..
Sebastian Bönig takes the balls out for warm-ups in an empty Den Dreef stadium

Royale Union Saint-Gilloise (a) 0-1

Union still needed a win to ensure second place in the group; Saint-Gilles having sealed top spot already with their own win over Malmö as Union beat Braga. But the players knew that they’d have to do without the support of the Unioner, the Reisekader, who had driven them on so far. So, if the second half against Malmö had been played for Andras, this one was for them.

Jack Charlton, the English world cup winner, and Republic of Ireland boss, said once, “I like big events. I like loads and masses of people, I like loud noises, it’s the only way to enjoy a football match.” There is a great universal truth to the cliché, football without fans is nothing.

But instead of being raucous and loud, it was cold and echoey, and of course, a storm came in, a fine rain that seeped into every crevice and every gap. It made the pitch slick, but deprived of the zip that characterises the best surfaces. The ball rolled sullenly instead, a recalcitrant teenager on its way to its room.

Rönnow never made it to the second half. Having stood up to push Simon Adingra’s shot wide, he went down, wincing, having given more of himself this time than even he could afford. He limped through to the end of the half but was replaced by Lennart Grill at the break. He’d be joined on the bench by a heartbroken Schäfer, off having sustained the injury to his foot that would ruin his season.

Grill had a moment of terror almost immediately, having raced out to punch a ball that was just out of reach, but Boniface, for once, failed to take advantage. The keeper would make up for his moment of doubt later with a superb stop from the full-back Bart Nieuwkoop.

The defining image of the game, though, was in the way that the whole side came together to celebrate with Sven Michel after his sixth minute goal – the winner, it would turn out - their collective joy lighting a flame in the vacuum that was the half-empty King Power stadium. It was a demonstration of what everyone says about this side; the ties that bind them together are almost inconceivably strong.

Parensen says, almost in wonder, it is that togetherness that gives them the strength to retain their sense of purpose. They have “this self-confidence to do their jobs... But it’s not about the opposition, it’s the way they focus on what they have to do, it doesn’t matter if the game is going well or is going badly...” They have this mindset, “we’ll keep on playing”.

It was a superb finish from Michel - the measure of his goal against Schalke the day after the first Europa League draw – and was a fine summation of Union’s football; an intervention from Rani Khedira, a header down by Christopher Trimmel, a touch and quicksilver moment of inspiration by Sheraldo Becker, a defender caught in a cloud of existential dread.

Michel watched the ball drop over his shoulder while stretching to guide it with his toe past Anthony Moris, imparting enough pace on it, while keeping it on target in a demonstration of improvised technique and balance.

Lennart Grill had to replace Rönnow at half time, the satdium was eerily quiet, and he had only a slender lead to protect.
Sven Michel reaches impossibly to score against Saint Gilles

A brief away end

Though strictly forbidden, there were a handful of fans who had slipped in, and they emerged from their individual little pockets of resistance around the ground in the empty stand behind the goal Union were attacking in the second half. Scarves came out of the sleeves they'd been stuffed up, their outermost layers removed, one by one, to reveal familiar fire engine red shirts closest to the skin.

“We noticed them, of course” says Doekhi. “To hear them, it gave us a boost, knowing how they’ll do everything, just to be at the game.”

They had made their point, appearing suddenly, as one, joyous looks on proud faces. But as quickly as they had arrived, like Mayflies, they were gone, scattered back to their positions in exile around the stadium, their colours now showing, their tireless support for the team irrefutable.

They appeared like mayflies, and then they were gone. but the players noticed. The Unioner that had smuggled themselves in had helped

A moment of deserved joy

When the bus rounded the corner of the Place de Luxemburg, in the middle of the EU’s parliament quarter in Brussels, there were maybe fifty, maybe a hundred, Unioner waiting out on the cobbled streets for their heroes to arrive.

At first the players didn’t seem to know what to do, they looked out of the windows as the crowd sung a refrain that still appears on random mornings in the heads of everyone who witnessed this astonishing story progress.

FCU, FCU in Europa,

FCU wir sind da na klar.

FCU, FCU in Europa,

FC Union international.

But first Trimmel came out, and then his mate and vice-captain, Khedira, and then everyone from the limping Schäfer to the black-eyed Behrens and the stricken Rönnow, out into the tumultuous mess. There was a guy drumming with his fists up on the bus stop and a hundred young and pretty looking Belgians on the other side who wondered what in God’s name was this all about.

They sung and they danced, and they cheered because few of them had reached so high into the heavens from so low down. Later, Julian Ryerson just said, “It’s weird” with a smile on his face, and that was more than enough. Doekhi calls it “crazy,” but it showed him how much this had meant to everyone from in and around the club. “It was really nice to celebrate with them.” he says.

And it really was, for these are the moments footballers live for, the justification of all their years of dedication, of all the work put in. Just as it was the payoff for the fans. They'd all come so far. 

The morning saw Big Kevin Behrens, who laughs louder than most and who projects an image of the blustering, care-free, stereotypical footballer of the world’s imaginations better than almost anyone else alive, tenderly helping Schäfer from the hotel to the bus, an enormous arm under his shoulder for support.

And then, as the players roll out, one by one by one, the square erupts

The Draw (part two)

There was another draw, in another empty Alte Försterei that January, with the same people that had been there before. Again, they chattered about who they wanted, and again they got excited when Parensen appeared on the screen. Again, they held their collective breath.

The players watched from within the stadium, some in the dining room, some in the changing room, some with the physios. Doekhi was sat on a bench with Sheraldo and Andras and a couple of others.

The first draw had been held in Istanbul alongside that of the Champions League, so everyone was there shaking hands, slapping backs, rubbing cheeks. But this one was different. It felt a bit more like everyday business, somehow.

Zoltan Gera drew the name of Ajax out of his goldfish bowl first. Then that of Union.

Asked if he was happy to play his countrymen, Doekhi says, “to be honest, no. And yes. No, because over the last four years I played them a lot, so it’s not that special, and there were some other nice teams to play against. And, yes, of course, because it’s nice to play in Holland and your friends and family can come.”

Everybody wants to show off sometimes, to let people know how well you’re doing in your new country with your new life and your new team.

About the draw, Parensen says he never thought “shit, we’ve got no chance,” not for a second. “Ajax were going through a bad phase at that point, they weren’t doing so well in the league themselves. That it would be hard was clear, but that we didn’t have a chance... Never.”

By now, Union were scared of no-one.

It was inconceivable somehow that it would be Ajax. But, then it seemed impossible that Union would be in the draw at all.

(The existence of) Giants

There was fog in Berlin as they left the Alte Försterei the day before the first game against Ajax, like a scene from a semi-lucid dream. A dream of mythical creatures and their four European Cups, and a palace named for the biggest of them all. Parensen looked around when he arrived, starry eyed, it echoed with memories of his youth – he talks of watching them play Dortmund in the 1996 European Cup quarter-final on TV and being transfixed.

Hoffmann echoes this. “For Union to play one of the biggest clubs in Europe. I was so young when Ajax won Champions Leagues, when you look at the players they had... maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe the youth don’t understand so much what they represent. But for us... They are giants, giants.”

Fischer had ensured that every member of the squad had travelled. Everyone was to be a part of this, for they were fans too, after all.

“You’ve also got to try and enjoy it a little,” he said, smiling.

The Union players could see the Arena from their comfortable beige, rooms with plain walls and deep sofas, and bland, pointless artwork on the walls. It loomed over the skyline that had itself been reclaimed from the North Sea, bulging out of the endless flat landscape that the English writer, David Winner, once wrote was partly responsible for Cruijff’s mastery of space.

The Johan Cruijff Arena rises up out of the reclaimed earth, it looms over everything, even when its backdrop is a permanent shroud of grey
New signing Josip Juranovic boards the bus at a misty Alte Försterei, bound for Amsterdam
The Johan Cruiff Arena. Goalless. But flawless.


The ghosts of the past are not haunting the Johan Cruijff Arena, they are integral to it, and behind every stairwell you to expect bump into a Blind or a DeBoer, a Piet Keizer or a Rinus Michels, rattling their chains.

But, strikingly, there was a picture on the wall of the press room, not of a star, but of a little kid in a familiar white shirt with a red band down the middle, in tears. Not because his side had lost a final, though they had, but because he’d been reprimanded for it. He had been told in no uncertain terms that if you wear those colours, you had better perform.

Doekhi’s uncle, Winston Bogarde, had played for Ajax – as had he, of course – and they had talked about the club, about their impossible standards.

“Everyone feels it. I came from Excelsior Rotterdam, a small club, and went to Ajax where you have to win, playing nice football... It can be a negative if you’re a person who cannot really deal with that pressure, or if you have a bad period. It can affect you - the crowd, the people around are really critical - but it depends on the person.”

Doekhi’s cool enough to have let it roll over him, and some might say lucky enough to have found another way.

Johnny Heitinga, the new Ajax coach, was asked what would happen if they lost. Not if they won, but if they lost. To look at him there was already as if he had gone down to a great depth in a submarine and you could hear its rivets creaking and cracking under the colossal pressure.

Hoffi saw it. It’s the same as what he and Urs had to put up with at Basel - if on an intergalactic level - for they too are a club weighed down by a sense of their own grandeur, held back by their own domestic domination. And he was there a lot longer even than Fischer.

“I was champion five times at Basel and that was in a run of eight or ten times in a row. You must win every game. And no-one questions that you’ve been playing every three days. No-one’s interested. You just have to deal with it.”

But he has little sympathy for Heitinga. It is what it is.

“It has been the same for the last twenty years. There is only one thing for them, there is no other thought, everything else is wrong. There is only winning.”

The press room at the Johan Cruijff Arena. You can feel the pressure, it's everywhere.

Ajax (a) 0-0

The steepling stadium went dark before kick off, and though the roof was open letting the rain cascade in, it was like a big top. They played Three Little Birds at half time; this was a show, not a game. And for much of the match, particularly towards the end, the impression was really that there were more than a few among the 46,000 Ajax fans there who were bored of all this stuff, because if they weren’t swatting someone aside with grace and swagger, then, really, what was the point of it at all?

But they hadn’t been allowed to do so. In the goalless draw, Union had risen gloriously to the occasion. They were the better side, they didn’t give Ajax a sniff.

“We were superb,” says Parensen. “It was totally deserved... the most convincing performance of the whole campaign.” Hoffi agrees, but there was a slight niggle, a worry that they hadn’t won when they could have - should have - and he hoped that the players didn’t have that at the back of their minds as well.

“After the game that was my first thought. When you look at the shots on goal...”

Doekhi hit the bar with another huge header. And Morten Thorsby was even sure he had scored the winner, only to see it chalked off for a handball as he chested the ball down in the box before rifling home in the second half. He had reeled away in delight, his teammates around him, but it wasn’t to be. He said it left a bitter taste; as he also blamed himself for not having done better with a diving header in the second half that he placed too close to the Ajax keeper, Geronimo Rulli.

Sebastian Bönig, speaking after the game distractedly, his eyes flicking to someone or something else in the background, said how much it had meant just to be there. He said as a football fan it was amazing.

Then he smiled beatifically, wondering if this was really happening at all.

Morten Thorsby was sure he scored.

a fitting parable

On the steps of Köpenick town hall where Union celebrated their promotion to the Bundesliga, as well as their winning of the 3. Liga a decade or so before, stands a statue of Wilhelm Voigt - Der Hauptmann von Köpenick - the main character in the greatest underdog story this city has ever told; one of a forger, a former inmate, ensnared in Berlin’s endless circles of bureaucracy who came across a captain’s uniform and used it to empty the city's coffers, held right there in Köpenick town hall. 

He'd said he was under orders from the king, so the story goes. And everybody believes the word of a man in uniform.

He found fame and, ultimately, freedom for the Berliners loved his story like few others. He was a chancer whose charm and wit had allowed him to come good in the face of intransigent powers that be.

The play based on his great heist is read in Berlin’s schools to this day, as his image has accompanied Union for decades.

And when Ajax came to the Alte Försterei for the second leg a tifo was there to greet them; a vision of Voigt, as high as the Waldseite itself, asleep at a desk, dreaming of infinite possibilities... of cups and league titles and the ludicrous notion that a club like Union could be even playing Ajax at a place like this at all.

Then there was a second chapter. He awoke, his fists clenched, a wild look in his eyes. His dreams, it seemed, had come true all along.

The Union squad of 2005/06 on the steps of the Rathaus Köpenick, next to the statue of Wilhelm Voigt. The Hauptmann of Köpenick

Ajax (h) 3-1

It rained, of course, a grubby mixture of sleet and snow, and Ajax were better than they’d been in Amsterdam, released from that crippling pressure to perform.

But Knoche opened the scoring with another penalty, struck to the keeper’s right this time, and even though Rulli got a hand to it the ball had been hit with such power it kissed the inside of the post and went in.

Josip Juranovic then hit a shot hard and true through the crowd in the box, it took a deflection along the way, sailing past a flat-footed keeper. Juranovic had arrived with Aissa Laidouni in the winter - joined by the effervescent Jerome Rousillon at left-back - fresh from successful World Cups. Laidouni had been integral to the Tunisian side who beat France 1-0 in the group stage. Juranovic equally so in Croatia’s defeat of Brazil in the Quarter Final.

If Juranovic's goal was vital, Laidouni's sliding challenge on Steven Berghuis beforehand was instructive, a masterpiece of timing and controlled agression that laid down a marker for the honoured guests. 

Ajax pulled one back immediately following the break, as Union’s back line were suddenly frozen - cast in stone, they stared at each other, mouths open - but it was an aberration, and they wouldn’t allow it to happen again. It was Doekhi who settled things with a powerful header from a corner that led to explosions of delight around the Alte Försterei, just as deafening as when he’d scored a similar goal with the last touch of the game to beat Mönchengladbach a couple of months earlier.

Doekhi has watched it back in his mind a few times, he still gets sent videos of it from his friends, remembering the times he played Ajax at their peak and hadn’t won.

It wasn’t best game they’d played, certainly not compared to the one in the Cruijff Arena. Nor was it their greatest achievement, for that lay in the very fact that Union were here at all, when the city and the game itself had given up on them a long time ago.

But it was certainly the biggest result in the history of the club, and the people of Köpenick will be talking about the night that Union knocked Ajax out of the Europa League for decades to come.

“I think that in twenty years, or more, this experience, to come through against Ajax, will still be a highlight,” says Hoffi. “I came here five years ago, and there’s people here who had only ever seen European football on TV. And now we’re here... it’s surpassed all expectations.”

Doekhi had never scored against Ajax before. But even compared to the bedlam he induced with his header against Gladbach... well, this was something else.
Aissa Laidouni had arrived following a succesful World Cup with Tunisia.

The draw (part three)

Parensen says he was a little disappointed when once again Union drew Saint-Gilles, having flown to Nyon for the draw first thing in the morning after the Ajax win. Many others had too after their own respective games. They had puffy eyes and five o'clock shadows.

But, as he thought about it, the more he came around to the idea. “We’d beaten them there, and it was really possible that could go further.” He flew back to Berlin in a good mood, despite the tiredness and the fuzziness in his head.

Doekhi wasn’t even sure if it could happen, and then when their name came out? “It wasn’t my dream draw,” he says dryly.

“I don’t think that you should be able to meet your opponents in the group in the next round. I think it’s funny that it is even possible, and I don’t like it,” says Hoffmann before rounding things off with a shrug of the shoulders. “But that is just another thing I can’t influence.”


Royale Union Saint-Gilloise (h) 3-3

Union hadn’t conceded a single goal now in six Europa League games. That back three of Doekhi, Leite and Knoche were impenetrable; their iron shield ahead of them, Khedira, spent his time snuffing out any flicker of an attack coming through the middle; their bulwark behind them, Rönnow, cleared up anything that made it that far. Their collective will made conceding impossible.

In many ways they had reduced the game to its most compelling, elemental basics; we will score a goal and you will not. The rest, we can leave up to the footballing Gods. 

So, it is fair to say that nobody expected the wild 3-3 draw that was played out in the heavy snow at the Alte Försterei.

Having conceded an early lead, Union came back once through Juranovic. If his shot against Ajax had needed a slice of fortune to go in, this one didn’t. He hit his free kick hit perfectly with his right foot, bending it over the wall, through the eye of a needle.

Parity didn’t last for long. Loic Lapoussin capitalised on a moment of chaos, catching Union outnumbered with the greatest of ease, and squaring for Yorbe Vertessen who made things 2-1 for the guests.

Union hit back with 20 minutes to play through Knoche, again from the penalty spot. But though his spot-kick this time was saved by Moris, he could only palm it ahead of himself. Knoche didn’t break stride. He let his momentum carry him on to the ball, the coolest, sharpest man in the building; never stopping to think about what misery might have befallen him, just continuing on to finish what he had started.

He roared as he thumped the ball into an empty net, the keeper still on the floor. His joy lasted exactly four minutes until Boniface broke again to make it 3-2.

But with the clock winding its way towards the final whistle, it was Michel’s chance to shine, just as he had in Leuven. He’s a man for whom patience is more than a virtue, it’s a way of life, and he had spoken honestly of how tough it was waiting for his chance to lead the line. The substitute striker has a shitty role, caught between the need to be ever ready, but missing the adrenaline shot of the goal that has always spurred them on.

He waited for the ball to drop between two defenders in the box, somehow having the time to pick his spot, finishing with his right as the ball hit the freezing pitch, before being floored with a blow to the head as he reeled away in celebration, a sole finger pointing towards the darkened skies over Köpenick.

He’d played Saint-Gilles three times now, been sent off once, and scored twice. And he was looking forward to the next one. He said after that he was confident Union would still make it through the second leg.

“Very confident,” he said.

Juranovic claws back parity, his free kick through the eye of a needle, through the snow
Knoche. The coolest man in the building.


Asked about the 3-3 at the Alte Försterei, Parensen just puffs his cheeks out, and lets out a slight whistle. “What happened? That’s a good question.” He says it was those uncharacteristic mistakes – the absence of which had defined Union’s season so far - that had changed the game. “If we hadn’t made them, we’d have won, and everyone would think it had been amazing.”

Hoffmann says that this is one of the hardest things about his job. “Players never make them on purpose. They always try to do their best. You have to remind yourself of that sometimes... It was a bit difficult to deal with after the game because we did a lot right, and then, there they are. You just have to deal with it.” He uses the word Fehlerspiel.

For football is chaos, organised. It is through occasional errors that some teams get opportunities, while others miss out. Like unexpected mutations in the gene pool, it is through unintended consequences that the game is unpredictable. That the game is, to use a phrase, beautiful. Without them football would be nothing, robotic, devoid of joy.


The Slog

Arbeit says that it had actually been a surprise how well the team dealt with the added pressures and the extra games, both the previous year, as in this one. How they enjoyed it. But the endless slog - the travelling, the missing your kids, waking up alone in a foreign bed. The eight weeks of game after game, every few days - had pushed everyone to their very limits. It grew hard to concentrate at times, to focus.

There was a point, one afternoon, when Hoffmann couldn’t remember his room number. He had no idea.

”I just didn’t know. One day I was in 615, one day 215, and one day 420... It felt like every day I was in a different one.” He laughs at the ridiculousness of it, but it’s an important point. “I had to go to reception and ask, “I’m sorry, but...”

Airports and hotel rooms and dining rooms and waiting rooms and coaches and pitches.

Royale Union Saint-Gilloise (a) 3-0

So, it all had to end somewhere.

At Anderlecht’s Lotto Park – a real English-style football stadium, with high banks close to the pitch, nestled in the middle of a neighbourhood with pubs on the corners and people all around – Union were outplayed by Saint-Gilles at the fourth time of asking. They were cut to shreds.

There was no shame in it. The Belgians were clever, letting Union have the ball. Parensen says, “we had too few ideas, and those we did have weren’t very good,” chuckling ruefully as he does so.

Hoffi continues. “To be honest, we weren’t prepared for this game. Maybe there had been just too many weeks where we hadn’t trained...” He’s cautious about the next sentence, his words are slow and precise. " It’s hard to say... But we deserved to go out. I think it was our worst performance in Europe, clearly, in both seasons.”

He trails off, alighting upon a simple point in the end. “Losing always hurts,” he says.

Teuma had returned from injury to pull the strings again, he scored the opener after Knoche’s misplaced pass to Leite. Lazare Amani and Loic Lapoussin added the second and third goals.

They were just the better side. Sometimes it happens, sometimes you just get outplayed. Khedira said “we weren’t there, from the first second to the last... We weren’t agile, weren’t aggressive.”

There was a final meal with wine on the tables for the first time, and a man in a crisp white shirt stood dutifully behind a beer tap that had been set up for the occasion. But it was already well past midnight by that point, and nobody really fancied a party.

Parensen says that he still hasn’t had time to stop, to reflect on everything that has happened at Union over the last six months. He’s still too busy, still got that laser-guided focus on the next opponent, on making sure that the whole thing can be repeated, and then repeated again.

It is like when he was playing. “You finish the game and then you put it behind you.”

He says that pride isn’t really the right word for what he feels. “When you’re so close to something like that, it’s different how you see things.” No, pride may not be the right word. But it comes pretty damn close.

They sung until the bitter end. The Reisekader's last waltz in Anderlecht

Yesterday’s News

Football is a brutal business. It forgets its losers quickly, they are cast out of the collective consciousness, banished to the pages of yesterday’s papers without a second thought for those who had given so much for that fleeting moment of glory.

In the morning a different black waistcoated, crisp white-shirted waiter stood at the reception to the same hotel dining room. It served as the headquarters for the Belgian national team and their pictures were everywhere. He smiled a curious, cat-that's-got-the-cream smile.

Things had changed overnight, if even barely perceptibly. Union were no longer in Europe.

Sheraldo and Danilho ate muesli in silence. A couple of board members stood waiting for the coffee machine to whirr into life. Fischer padded softly into the room.

The waiter explained that the hotel had “important guests” in today, gesturing with a slightly smug flourish towards where Dominic Tedesco, the new Belgian national head coach, was stood wearing a white roll neck and the confident gait of a manager who had the impossible luxury of having not yet played - and thus not yet lost - a game in his new job.

Union were out. They did not matter anymore; they were just another group of people in a hotel, killing time before check-out.

Thousands throng the car park of the Alte Försterei following Bremen on the last day of the season. Union had done the impossible. they had qualified for the Champions League.

The Champions League

You know the end to this story. Needless to say, it didn't peter out there. This Union side are too well-schooled, too bloody minded, too well managed, and their feet are too close to the ground for that to have been allowed. 

But that doesn't mean there was a lacking sense of narrative when it came to rounding things off. The history of this club is bound up with the idea of living on a knife-edge. And, with that in mind, Rani Khedira’s goal to make it 1-0 against Werder Bremen on the last day of the 2022/23 season is every inch the measure of Awoniyi’s the year before.

He had scored only once before all season, yet deserved another more than almost anyone did; the vice-captain, the star around whom everyone and everything else had orbited for this entire, wondrous season. But as the clock wound down, people had started to get edgy in the Alte Försterei. Freiburg were winning, and here, it was goalless with nine minutes minutes to go. 

Becker controlled the ball on the right, he found Michel in the box who's almost last ever touch for Union was another sign of his inimitable calm when it was most needed. He half turned and simply rolled the ball - he breathed on it, he barely even touched it -  for Khedira who side-footed home first time, the ball kissing the inside of the back post on its way in. 

The roof came off the Alte Försterei. It was an explosion of joy, as if nobody knew how much this meant until it happened... But then it really had happened, and the Reisekader could prepare itself for the biggest stage of all.

Union had qualified for the Champions League.

The roll of honour. Union's 24 man squad for the 2023/24 UEFA Europa League. They all contributed, they were all vital. Eisern!!!
Rani Khedira wheels away in delight, having scored the winner against Werder Bremen