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HISTORY MAKERS How Union's Women Won it All in 2023/24

The Decision

Ailien Poese said before the 2023/24 season started that one thing was important to her and her players at 1. FC Union Berlin. 

This year, promotion is the clear goal,” she said. 

There was no obfuscation, no messing around and certainly no false humility, but when speaking to her and her players throughout the season, what was remarkable was the way they kept their focus, unremittingly on this single task. Nobody knew back then that their season would be quite so laden with success - because, frankly, who could know? But this is the story of how they got there.

Ailien Poese masterminded a season of unprecedented success for Union's women. A league and cup double, and promotion to the 2. Bundesliga

The First Day of Training

10.07.2023

The monday had a significance that didn’t really shine through. 

But it was 3pm, and this was 1. FC Union Berlin’s women’s first team's first day as a side made up entirely of professionals. For many it meant the realisation of their greatest fantasies, just a couple of years ago, they had never even imagined it even possible.  

Lisa Heiseler, captain, spearhead, and identity figure was effusive, “It’s what you dream of as a little girl, just once in your life to be able to play football professionally.” 

Her old friend, Elisa "Ernie" Schindler, who had been at Union since she was six, had a smile on her face a mile wide. There was talk of pride and of joy and of utter disbelief that this could happen to them.  

It was a big step, though, and Ailien Poese, Union’s head coach, the mastermind of the club’s success, betrayed a hint of the seismic shift this step could mean. That they had previously sacrificed so much to play amateur football, wouldn’t make this development any less fraught with potential dangers for many of her charges. 

“On one hand you’re proud, but on the other it is also a risk. You are going to give up a part of your life, one that you’ve worked for, for football. You’re going into to something that is so uncertain, that could either go well for a decade, or be over after a year.”  

“Football is a dirty business sometimes,” she said later, and Ailien knows. It’s been her life for almost all of it.

But none of the players asked betrayed a hint of fear for the future, let alone regret. Smiling soberly, centre-back, Marie Becker, still seemed stunned a few months later. “It took a while to sink in,” she said.

The time of day was significant. Last season they would do this in the evening after work, with tired legs, distracted minds and hungry bellies, but not now. Everything was to be geared towards kick off time.  

If Union now had the greatest advantage in the league - and they did - they would make damn well sure they used it.  

Ailien looked on, all in black, a baseball cap, her blonde mop of hair poking out from under it, as did her assistant, Sven Gruel. She put out stakes and markers, as Gruel and athletic coach, Markus Liebig, guided the players through their first stretches, shuttles and sprints, calling – not barking - out the occasional instruction as they shook out the collective dust accumulated over the summer.  

Later in the season they’d laugh a lot more at training, but here they were concentrated, focussed, sweating in the sun. 

Lisa looked on, pedalling miles on an exercise bike she’d had placed between the dugouts. She could have stayed inside, but it was hot in the old changing rooms, and though injured, she could not miss out, not on this.

“You could tell that everyone was up for it, and when you looked at the quality of training you knew, 'okay, there’s no joking around…'” said Katja Orschmann, Marie's partner at the back and a player described by Latoya Bach later as ‘the heart of the team.’  

“You just knew… this could be a really good season.”

Ailien gives her first team talk to the now fully professional squad back in July, 2023.
Their first stretches on the pitch at the Fritz-Lesch Sportplatz
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The squad splits into two for the first of probably hundreds of inter-team games over the course of the season. Sarah Abu Sabbah would later say how competitive they'd be. "Everyone wants to win them."

The First Derby

Hertha BSC vs. 1. FC Union Berlin | 20.08.2023 | 1-6

The fixture list had thrown up a gem on the first day of the season, an auspicious sign; Union were away at Hertha BSC. This was the first ever encounter between the sides, and expectations were high. But Marie was quick to correct the implication that somehow this wasn’t a proper derby.

“Of course it’s a derby,” she said. “For the fans, for the club. It was a kind of historic event, right?... As soon as they [the Hertha players] pulled on their shirts, they were playing for one of the fiercest opponents Union has.”

There were 1,500 people in the shallow stands of the Amateurstadion, a stone’s throw from its colossal, big brother, the Olympiastadion.

There had been so much talk in the build-up - of Union going pro, of Hertha absorbing Hertha Zehlendorf and taking their first steps in the league – so maybe Union just needed a little kick, to get things moving, like a vintage car before it purrs away into the distance.

It came after barely three minutes had been played, as the former Union player, Anouk Westphal, hit a deep free kick towards the back post where Svenja Poock somehow managed to sneak in round the back and stab it home. 1-0 Hertha. This wasn’t the plan.

But Sarah Abu Sabbah equalised within three minutes. She had signed only a month previously, and was still working things out. 

“I knew I had to find myself within the team, I came from the 1st division, I didn’t know this league at all, or what all the teams are like. But I had no worries at all that we’d turn it around quickly. We had a couple of minutes of playing the ball around nicely, then I got it…”

She makes it sound so simple, but her's would be a season with an unprecedented number of goals. It was as if Abu had a problem with the nets of the Regionalliga. She struck them with terrifying regularity.

She is not one for existential angst – Abu says she never has sleepless nights ahead of games – but, still, it was a bit of a weight off her shoulders.

“When you get an early goal as a striker, you have no pressure anymore. And if you’re in a new team, a new league, it’s good to break your duck.”

She would add a second and Union won at a canter in the end. They hit the bar three times in the first half alone, and the febrile atmosphere helped them get into their stride.

Marie was right. Of course it was a real derby.

Nasi and Abu

1. FC Union Berlin vs. Fortuna Dresden | 27.08.23 | 6-0

The crowd of almost 500 showed that something was happening here out at Union's home, the the Fritz-Lesch Sportplatz; a snowball was picking up momentum.

“I feel like the part of it that’s growing is there’s a lot of families,” says Marie, “and that’s the best feeling, because it's inspiring kids, and especially girls, to stay with football and maybe play themselves.”

They stood spread out along the hill that flanks the touchline, on fold-up chairs and on the patchy grass. They stood in groups and chatted, drinking beers and juice.

Little kids rolled down the slope over and over again when they got bored of watching the football and nobody minded. It was a fine day’s distraction.

Fortuna were new in the league, and accordingly were pulled apart with considerable ease – a task that took on greater significance when one looked across the city where Viktoria, Union’s biggest rivals in the race for the title, were demolishing Türkiyemspor – and it soon became the Athanasia Moraitou and Sarah Abu Sabbah show.

Both had come from SV Meppen during the closed season. The former paving the way for the latter; a technician with Greek roots in midfield with rolled down socks and time on the ball; a striker with Jordanian roots with a smile on her face a mile wide who scores goals for fun.

When they look at each other, they laugh. Abu said in an interview for AFTV, “finding a friend like her these days is difficult.”

Well, Nasi played a picture perfect through pass to Abu who danced over the ball, letting it do the work, guiding it, lulling it silently into submission like a snake charmer, as she went between two defenders, before she rounded the keeper to make it 1-0.

Then Abu got clattered right on the edge of the box, dead centre. She fancied it, herself, but Athanasia wasn’t going to let this chance pass her by, and she didn’t so much as strike the ball over the wall, past the keeper and into the net, as clip it, her left boot used as a sand wedge.

The Union fans, fantastic all season long, prepare for their first game proper, away to Hertha BSC, on the other side of Berlin.
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Zita Rurack takes on Hertha's Clara Dreher
Central defender Charleen "Lotti" Niesler on the ball against Hertha BSC.
Having both arrived from SV Meppen, Athanasia Moraitou and Sarah Abu Sabbah immediately made an impact at Union.
Abu and Nasi celebrate during Union's 9-0 win over 1. FFV Erfurt in October, 2023

Home is Where the Heart is

Fritz Lesch was a contemporary of the likes of wrestler, Werner Seelenbinder, and an integral member of the Worker’s football movement between the wars. He died at 39 years old fighting the fascists in the Spanish civil war, and now his name is remembered in this small corner of Adlershof, the tatty but warm place that Union’s women call home.

Typically, Abu loves it. “It doesn’t matter how many people are there – though of course the more the better – but the atmosphere is just amazing.”

The click-clack-clack of their boots on the concrete between the changing rooms and the pitch bounces off the four and five storey buildings flanking the large perimeter as they come out onto the pitch. They are always first off after the warm-up, and first back on. 

The players admit that it’s far from perfect, but Union’s head groundsman now makes sure the pitch is one of the best in the league. Katja also points out the job that team manager, Kathleen Jurczyk, does in making sure that everything is prepared immaculately on match days.

Readiness is one of their greatest strengths.  

“We’ve played there for a long time, we love playing there, we feel at home there, and we know the pitch,” says Lisa, and typically she sees the disadvantages of the ground not as to her, but to the spectators.

But it belongs to everyone. Union wouldn't charge entrance to the games. On the last day of training before the crucial game away to Viktoria, later in the season, a local ran endless laps of the brownish running track. Around and around he went, oblivious to the action on the pitch.

The changing rooms are basic; hot in the summer and cold in winter, but what it lacks in state of the art gear, it makes up for in different way. “Its main advantage is its size,” says Marie. “Because large fields mean you can play a lot of football, and we’ve had our worst games on cramped spaces, when it’s easy for the opposition to try and make it super tight.”

If you’re the fitter team, and if you’ve got wingbacks like Naika Reissner and Fatma Sakar and Latoya Bach and Anna Weiß and Pia Metzker - ones with miles in their legs and, as the old phrase goes, chalk on their boots - then it’s worth exploiting every single inch of its well-worn width.

They don't come to watch either men's or women's football. They just come to watch Union.
Mel Wagner, warming up on the well tended pitch of the Fritz-Lesch Sportplatz
The Unioner massed on the bank that flanks the near touchline of the Fritz-Lesch Sportplatz. Their support would be invaluable throughout the season.

A Little Luck in Leipzig

RB Leipzig II vs 1. FC Union Berlin | 04.09.2023 | 0-1

This was a struggle to watch, as it was to play. Leipzig had little intent but were resolute; Union were full of verve but too often the final ball was missing, too often they would find another body piled up in the box. It is to their credit that though they clipped a couple of hurdles, they never stumbled.

Marie though said it was “annoying”. “We were getting so impatient and so unfocussed. Like, ‘we can’t be just winning a game 1-0, we have to beat the crap out of every opposing team’… We kept forgetting that we also have to defend, and that we have to win the game - and that 1-0 is better than 1-1.”

She is of course careful to point out that this the defender in her talking, but it’s the closest you’ll come to hearing criticism from within the team.

“There were some situations when it was just me and Lotti [Charleen Niesler] at the back and it was just like ‘where the fuck is everyone else?’”

She smiles, because Marie places as much joy in a well-timed tackle as any other action on the pitch (she talks vividly of playing on a wet pitch where you can really slide into a challenge, and toys with a scar across her chest, the evidence of a tussle with a player with long nails).

She relishes the fight against the bigger, better strikers, is always the last one back, and in some ways is the pragmatist behind the artisans. Marie was, of course, within her rights. It is often her left behind to clean up the mess after the party.

And even Ailien said Union were lucky that Leipzig didn’t score.

It turned out that, in the continued absence of Lisa in midfield, Celine Frank would score the only goal of the day after 22 minutes. It was superb finish, volleyed from Anna Weiß’s deepest of crosses into the top corner.

Celine has been at Union since almost as long as she can remember, and her aggressive, elbows out style is the perfect foil for the more glacial Athanasia (she would also be vital in filling in at the back later on in the season), and her left foot can spit like a cobra.

She would score again this season, notably one drive that went in off the bar from distance against Türkiyemspor, but probably none more important.

Pia Metzker tussles for the ball away in Leipzig. She would be well missed for much of the season through injury, but returned in time for the play-offs
Celine Frank, a vital figure in either midfield or at the back. Her goal in Leipzig would be among the most important scored all season.
Marie Becker, so often the last player back, on the ball in Leipzig

Reasons for Revenge

1. FC Union Berlin vs. Viktoria 1889 Berlin | 18.02.2023 | 3-4

Marie said back before the season started that she was glad Viktoria hadn’t gone up (they lost in the relegation play-off to HSV over two legs), even when their absence would have made Union’s chances of winning the league far greater. No, she wanted to beat them. She wanted revenge for last season, and the 4-3 loss at the Fritz-Lesch. They all did.

It all ended after Elisa Spolaczyk’s 91st minute own goal with the Union players slumped on their backs on the sodden grass, but they were only on the floor because they had nothing left to give.

As Nour Youssef, who had scored an almost implausible equaliser with practically her first touch of the game, was dragged back up by a helping hand she grimaced. The towering Zita Rurack, who got two, held her head in her hands.

But it was after the game, that they realised its worth.

According to Katja, “Ailien is the kind of person that, after a loss, says there is something to be learned," echoing a recent interview with chess Grandmaster, Maurice Ashley, when he said, "It’s the losses that you really remember – the things you didn’t know.”

“We realised, it’s not enough," she says. "We needed to do more."

This season, they would be ready.

Dina Orschmann, devastated after Union's loss to Viktoria last season, in her first game back for the club

Ailien is an Unioner

Ailien has photographs taken by her grandfather, Kurt Köpping, of her playing, dwarfed by her Union kit, her hair bleached as vividly as the sun.

He accompanied her throughout her footballing life, and was her greatest supporter until his death in 2006.

Köpping played for SC Union Oberschöneweide (as Union were still known) after the War in the divided, but still un-walled-in Berlin. But then he had marched along with the general strike on 17. June 1953 when the Soviet tanks rolled in. Told by a friend that his name was on a blacklist, he had to leave overnight, and would ultimately join Union’s successors in West Berlin, Union 06, who had relocated en-masse under coach Hannes Sobek in 1950.

Yes, though she rarely talks about it, Ailien’s roots at this club run deep. She is more Union than almost anyone you could care to mention.

She played for Union for over 12 years. They’d play in the Alte Försterei, back before it had a roof, and she talks of playing there before the men's side kicked off a Landespokal game one day in 2006. 

"It was against Lichterfelder FC, the predecessors of Viktoria, and as we went 2-1 up you realised for the first time there were 8,000 people there."

But back then women's football was an afterthought. 

“When I started in the girl’s team, there was little positional training,” she says, leaning back in the lounge next to her office in Union’s new HQ, a flawless, state of the art training pitch visible behind her as a reminder of how far and how quickly things have come.

The first time she became aware of tactical thought was when she was away with national sides. “It was there my interest in it developed, that there was something else to the game, other than somehow all trying as one to score a goal.”

She describes herself as having been “fast, technical, two footed,” was often a winger or a full-back, but played in pretty much every position.

“I could cross and shoot with both feet, that was an advantage back then because not many could.” Yes, before she learned to train others, Ailien learned to train herself. She did it in the garden and on the five-a-side pitch, spotting the possibility of improvement and working on it for hours.  

Asked if her tactical flexibility comes from her own years wandering across the pitch, from libero to centre-forward, Ailien shakes her head. She had to strike out on her own to learn the nuances of the game. To give her side the advantage they now have in every game.

It may have been "a very different time,” as she says. But she remains grateful for all the opportunities Union would give her. She's family, after all. 

Ailien Poese on the pitch at the Alte Försterei in a photograph taken by her Grandfather, Kurt Köpping
Poese with her team-mates at the still un-roofed Alte Försterei, back when women's football occupied a different world.
From utility player to head coach. Poese, now Union's mastermind, in 2024.

Dethronement

1. FC Union Berlin vs. Viktoria 1889 Berlin | 17.09.2023 | 1-0

Union and Viktoria were level on points at the top, but Viktoria had a four-goal advantage.

It was the first time they met this season, and Union were the better side at the Fritz-Lesch, rising to the occasion, relishing the battle against stronger, bigger opponents, but it was a game notable first for the chance that Katja’s twin, Dina Orschmann, missed, when she bent one the wrong way with the outside of her boot past the gaping top left corner after half an hour. It was a chance not dissimilar to the goal that got her nominated for goal of the month when she scored for Germany’s U-20s in the 2017 World Cup against South Korea.

She’d leave Union after that, first to the States - as did Katja - then Glasgow. But they both came back, and their signings last winter were arguably the start of this quiet revolution.

Dina is nine minutes older than Katja, and in an interview while at Rangers she described how the competitiveness inherent in being a twin spurred them both on, but also of the deepest connection one can have with a person.

“She’s my soulmate."

Now, Katja says that she’s never really had that stereotypical symbiosis - like she’s found herself hurting when, somewhere else, Dina is too - but that doesn’t mean she can’t spot her when she breaks.

“I can read her, I know her runs very well. Against Viktoria I just looked up, saw her and had to react immediately, it took a second, milliseconds.”

Katja hit that ball perfectly, it traced an arc through the grey skies over Adlershof. In American football they’d call it a Hail Mary, were it not so refined and honed over the years that it flew with utter certainty towards its goal; for only this one twin could find the other so perfectly.

The ball dropped ahead of Dina, as Viktoria’s defence, ill-advisedly stepped up - an offside trap sprung like a cheap safe - and the only people she had left to beat were Inga Buchholz and Abu, her own striker's-eyes trained hungrily on the same prize as the elder Orschmann.

Abu, however, let it be, drifting right. “Who scored it in the end didn’t matter”, she says.

Dina lifted the ball over Buchholz’s head with a gorgeous touch, simply adding a bit of momentum to the bounce, shepherding it home for the only goal of the day.

Dina and Katja Orschmann. Scorer and provider of the only goal of the day against Viktoria
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The Union team, joyous following their 1-0 win over Viktoria in the 4th game of the season.

The System

FC Carl-Zeiss Jena vs. 1. FC Union Berlin | 24.09.2023 | 0-3

Ailien wanted to get things organised first, before the shackles would naturally come off.  She was still largely playing four at the back, leaving the back-line in the hands of Katja and either Marie or Charleen, another Berliner, and former Unioner who would excel, tempted back from exile.

“It wasn’t a thought that at one point it all clicked, it was more just like it was getting better and better,” says Marie. “It was like we’ve clicked and now we just keep clicking even more.”

Abu agrees. “We understood each other so well so quickly, also the coaches. We all want it, we have the same goal... but that it happened so quickly…”

The system is always the same. Ailien will give a quiet team talk before they go out. Katja says she can always find the right words, about the opponents, about what’s important, what they need to remember. Then it’s neuron activation, hand-eye stuff.

Before kick off they'll put their gear on, stand in a circle and sing Nina Hagen’s anthem to the club. “That’s the first thing the new players always have to learn,” Katja says, laughing.

Suitably adapted, their parsimoniousness was notable, but at the other end things exploded. Union scored 51 goals in the next six games, conceding just two, with Abu bagging the first against an obdurate Jena side, and another new arrival, Maria "Nina" Cristina Lange scoring two.

Lisa Heiseler, Celine Frank, Dina Orschmann and Sarah Abu Sabbah celebrate the opener in Jena
Full time in Jena, in front of the away block

Nina Starts to Leave her Mark

1. FC Union Berlin vs. Berolina Mitte | 08.10.2023 | 13-0

Nina had signed from Turbine Potsdam during the summer, with a point to prove. Union's director of women's football, Jennifer Zietz, the woman who signed her, called Nina “goal hungry”. Little did we know... she was actually playing it down.

She scored five in under 70 minutes against Berolina, the first, the pick of the bunch as she volleyed a Lisa Görsdorf cross home, guiding the ball with her left foot artfully on the turn.

Lange was a menace to a side stretched beyond all recognition almost as soon as the game kicked off. She popped up on the left and the right, she drifted like the sands of the Gobi Desert in the milky Adlershof sunshine. She set up two of Lisa's four goals - the skipper had that look in her eye, too.

But though it was a demolition of a performance, it wasn't as much fun as it might have been, it lacked satisfaction. Abu barely mustered a celebration after being gifted her goal on a platter following a horrible mistake at the back from the hosts. She just stood there, not wanting to twist the knife too much.

Lange said that it had been a good performance “but we could have scored a couple more.” She wasn’t being cocky and she wasn’t being flash. She was just reflecting the attitude that Ailien had drummed into them. There was to be no respite.

Asked if they would celebrate the win? “No” she said, this time a smile playing across her lips. “There’s another game next week. We’ve got to focus on that”.

"Nina" Lange. Few in football can claim to have made the impact she did, in such a short space of time
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Abu Scores Goals (She Always Has)

1. FFV Erfurt vs. 1. FC Union Berlin | 15.10.2023 | 0-9

Abu is a goalscorer, and it comes as naturally to her as it does a bird does taking to the air. She talks happily about her first, immediately on being asked. She smiles broadly, but then you get the impression with Abu that she’d smile while doing her tax return, her eyes scrunch slightly, and brilliant white teeth are unveiled, like a curtain has been drawn back to reveal them.

It was, as so many of these stories are, while playing for a boys’ side.

“I played at FC Tannenhof and we played against TSV Urdenbach. They were rivals. It came from a corner, the ball bounced into my foot, and I just had to roll it in the bottom right corner."

She always wanted to be a striker. There was no other option. She could hold herself against the boys in a way that many other girls couldn’t, which she says gave her an advantage, but she also had that innate, unteachable knowledge, that indefinable understanding of the universe, and where to be in it at the right time when the ball comes.

Abu scored four goals, two in each half, against Erfurt. One with her right foot after seven minutes, one with her head 80 minutes later. She was relentless, a constant whirr of action, a permanent presence on the scoresheet, a mosquito like figure, whirling around, always buzzing in the referee's ear.

When asked if she puts herself under pressure to score, she is equally immediate with her answer. “No. No, not with scoring or anything else. I don’t care who scores the goals. I only care that we go up. Of course, as a striker you want to score, but as long as I help... I want to be in the 2. Liga with this team, but putting pressure on myself? No.”

She doesn’t worry, and never lets a missed opportunity weigh her down. For when the next one comes around, as all strikers know, everything starts anew.

Sarah Abu Sabbah wheels away in delight having scored her third goal against Hertha BSC at the Alte Försterei
"I came to Union to win." Abu and Heisi celebrate another goal for the newcomer

Union are Devastating

1. FC Union Berlin vs. Magdeburger FFC vs. | 22.10.2023 | 5-0

If Katja is the engine of the side, then Dina is its pistons. She is constantly in motion, whether playing up front, at full back, at sweeper, all of which she has done at Union over the last year. She never gives up, her voice constantly there, not hectoring, never belittling or complaining that other players don’t have the exquisite and multifaceted skill sets that she occupies. But encouragement, advice, instruction. The foreword of her book concludes with the line “You have this chance. Use it.”

“What’s important about Union,” she said to the in-house TV not long after she re-signed from Glasgow FC last winter – “is that they always see the person. Not the player or the fan, the trainer or the physio. That’s why I always come back with a smile on my face.”

Dina played at left back in the 5-0 win over Magdeburg that would see Union establish a six point lead over Viktoria, a performance gilded by the gorgeous, darting run that saw her sweep past one stunned Magdeburg player, turn another inside out with a beautifully simple drop of the shoulder, and tear back past a third, turning them inside and out, before hitting the byline and cutting the ball back into the box.  

It would culminate with Lange’s tenth goal in three starts. 

From Joy to Agony

Sadly, Lange's last goal in Magdeburg would also be her last of the season. 

“That shit rattles you,” says Marie. “When you have people leaving practice screaming, you often know something is wrong. And over the years you get the feeling for, a) the people in your team, and b) the type of movements or interctions that cause serious injuries [as opposed to] those that are only painful.”

There is a growing sense watching women’s football that every time a player lies down hurt, it could be bad. It's not all-permeating, just a diquieting thought at the back of yoru mind, and it must also be in those of the players.

According to the British journal of sports medicine the chances of a cruciate ligament injury happening to a woman is three to six times higher than to a man. 

It's not just the cruciates though. Women's sport science has been underfunded, compared to the opposite sex, for decades. We are just learning why, now.

Union had already lost Anna Weiß this season. Pauline Wimmer would retire at only 22 at the end of it.

It's better on grass, at least. Marie describes astroturf as being “scary as fuck. It hurts, people get hurt and you feel like shit the next day.”

But it was on the grass of the Fritz-Lesch she would take her biggest knock, heartbreakingly, in the last game of the season. Having done so much to help them get there, she would miss out on the play-offs entirely. 

Dina and Katja Orschmann on the training pitches of the Alte Försterei
Flying the flag. All the players spoke of their gratitude towards the fans who came out, week in, week out to support them
A bittersweet farewell to Pauline Wimmer before the last game of the league season. The 22 year old was forced into retirement through injury
Anna Weiß, a new signing with a great start, had to miss much of the season through injury

Captain Fantastic

1. FC Union Berlin vs. 1. FFC Turbine Potsdam II | 29.10.2023 | 8-0

Pia was brought down by a clumsy, if not entirely malicious, foul just on the edge of the box. Truth be told, it could have gone either way, but the referee pointed to the spot and Lisa - who’d been loitering with intent just by the penalty spot anyway - went to take it immediately. She took four brisk steps and hit the ball to the keeper, Laura Droz's right. She guessed right, the shot didn’t have enough power on it, and she palmed it away, but only as far as Dina.

Dina shot and Droz blocked that one too, but Lisa was still there. This time she hit the ball with righteous anger, as if she wanted to decapitate the stopper with the same movement. There was no question about it, she would not miss this time.

Lisa Heiseler has only ever played for two football clubs, Weißenseer FC - when she played with the boys team – and, since 2012, 1. FC Union Berlin. She has to cast back a little, but when prodded can remember coming for a trial session, as she can remember the excitement she felt, “because I’d never really played in a complete girl’s group before. It was a also the first time I had to show what I can do to be accepted." She chuckles nervously, sweetly, as if she’s back there again.

But she’s not. She doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone any more. Against Erfurt she scored her 100th competitive goal for Union, many of them from the top of midfield, and many more from even deeper.

“Of course I’m proud to be the captain,” she beams. “That Ailien has put her faith in me for the last two years, but also to have the team behind me and to have that support every day.”

She is the leader. It is undisputed.

“I’m always there as an open ear and the whole team know that I do it gladly, it’s my best problem.”

Marie can’t hide her admiration for the skipper, five years younger than her, who is willing to carry everyone on her shoulders, though she sounds a note of almost maternal caution.

“I do feel like sometimes Heisi has to play a quite big role, people come to her with their worries which compliments her social, emotional qualities, and how much people trust in her. It’s also a load for her, and I don’t know whether a captain should have to bear that, whether that’s beyond the job description.”

But Lisa merely sees it as something to be proud of. 

Asked who she turns to when she has worries, she looks across the kitchen of the TZO training centre where Elisa is trying to pretend she’s not really there. There’s a lovely film of the two of them where they detail their friendship, how they’ve been through so much.

“We’ve known each other forever, she was here when I joined the club, and we also went to school together. Naturally we have a special connection.” They were both members of the Union side who got promoted to the 2. Liga eight years ago.

Now they were on the verge of doing it again, the skipper leading the way.

Lisa, the skipper, on the balcony of the Alte Försterei, the night Union secured promotion
Last season Heiseler scored three at Türkiyemspor. This season it was four

Once Rivals

1. FC Union Berlin vs Türkiyemspor | 12.11.2023 | 11-2

Türkiyemspor were supposed to be one of Union’s most dangerous opponents, and their 3-0 win last season in Kreuzberg was largely through a titanic performance by Lisa, who scored a hat-trick.

"Give me the ball," she'd said back then.

This time it was her, again, who opened the scoring, but Sophie Trojahn, in her tenth consecutive appearance, would nervelessly finish, adding to Dina's second, so unselfishly set up by another of the new arrivals, and one who would soon become one of the first names on the team-sheet, Anouk Blaschka. 

This was where Ailien says she thought for the first time, “yeah, now we have established something, in the way we understood the game, where how we played was a little like we’d imagined.”

Union were rampant, again. Abu got another hat-trick (the second of which was a beauty, a volley, hammered in under the bar), while Anouk also claimed one for herself. Athanasia converted a penalty and Nour Youssef joined in the fun.

But they switched off a little having reached double figures, and Lena Pflanz rolled the ball into the net after the otherwise superb Melanie Wagner had uncharacteristically spilled a rare free kick.

It was the first goal Union had conceded since the second minute of the first game of the season. It had been 872 minutes. They could let that one slide.  

The Boss

The best present Jenny ever got – she says only her mother calls  the six-time Bundesliga and twice European Cup winner Jennifer - was a football when she was a little girl back in Rostock, back when it was still part of the GDR.

She took it to bed every night, football was her obsession, and she still has times when she misses playing. You’ll see her occasionally move a ball distractedly on the sidelines before a game with her toe, betraying an expert touch that will never leave her. But she has had to largely still those urges, her love of the ball.

Union's director of women's and girl's football doesn’t get involved in training, and rarely offers unsolicited advice to the players. She's just there if they need her.

Instead she watches games from the top of the hill at the Fritz-Lesch, not alone, but as if she's in a bubble, saying little, giving away few emotions; she’s not a puncher of the air, but she says that she couldn't be a coach. It means too much.

Her English is superb, but she says she is also misunderstood.

“I’m funnier in German,” she says, and her smile comes out from one side of her mouth to the other, making its way across her face like a stop motion film of the passing of the sun.

But occasionally something will slip out.

She turned and directed a kick at a stick on the ground when another chance was missed with her side a goal down well into the second half against Jena II, as she seemed almost shocked at her cheers, catching herself, when Abu scored her superb goal, Union's important second, away against Viktoria.

“Yes! A striker’s finish” she said to no-one in particular.

But you can see the respect she is held in when people approach her at games, to shake her hand and say hello.

For Jenny, loyalty is everything. She was once received by a packed-out San Mamés in Bilbao as she was inducted into Athletic Club’s 'one-team-player' club. She had stayed with Turbine Potsdam for 17 years, her entire playing career, and she was out of the game she loves for six years before the call came to bring her the short hop to Berlin.

She had to know that Union were serious, but she couldn't avoid destiny. The ball still brings her too much joy. 

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Sophie Trojahn, another vital squad member, played the full 90 minutes against Türkiyemspor, and scored her third goal of the season
European Championship, European Cup, German league and cup winner. Union's director of women's and girl's football, Jennifer Zietz on TV
Jenny looks on during the first half, away against Viktoria

In the Darkness

1. FC Union Berlin vs. Türkyiemspor (Polytan Cup quarter final) | 16.11.2023 | 3-0

Only four days later, Union were hosting Türkiyem’ again, but this time in the cup, out on the farthest training pitch on Bruno-Bürgel Weg. It was dark and cold - well into the minus figures - and the milky floodlights barely made a difference at all. They were like fireflies in a far-off field.

This time their guests were determined, they wouldn’t be humiliated again, and everyone said how much more fun it was to play against a side fighting for their very lives. It's no fun winning by double figues, after all. 

It was tight and it was intense. Anouk took a blow to the back of the head; then Abu got a yellow card for a rush of blood to hers.

“There was a shot from us, and I had a one-on-one with a defender who hit the ball with her foot to the keeper. I saw it, it was a backpass... We should have got a free kick, but the referee didn’t see it. I was a bit angry, so I went in with a little speed and force into her." She smiles, again.  "A bit of body contact.”

But you can’t remove this side from her game. Any striker who has scored as many goals as she has this season needs to have a bit of an edge about them, a bit of bite. It comes with the territory.

“It was a bit rough, that’s true, and maybe it was unnecessary, but… I am a bit aggressive in the game. I’m a really nice person, but when I’m playing, I’m a bit different.”

Her friend, Athanasia, was there right away to lead her away out of danger. “Nasi knows my character from the time we were together in Meppen. That sometimes I’m at 180, but it's also just the emotions of the game. So she’ll come to me, and she knows just the right words.”

Ten minutes later she and Laetitia Scheunemann, Türkiyem's unflinching keeper, had a horrifying clash as they both raced onto a 50-50 ball near the right-hand side of the Türkiyemspor box, reaching it at the same time, neither backing down, and both paying the price. They required lengthy treatment as their coaches worried and their team-mates came together to compose themselves once more.

Hello darkness my old friend. Before kick off in the cup against Türkiyempsor
Katja Orschmann strikes a free kick in the Cup quarter-final

Dealing With the Pressure

This isn’t an underdog story, not really, or at least not yet. Union enjoy greater resources than their opponents, they have more support staff and coaches than many sides have fit first team players. While the Union players get to have a little light training on a Monday after the game, maybe a rubdown, their opponents will be dragging their aching limbs off to work. This cannot be forgotten.

Everybody knows the score and every single Union player will be careful not to humiliate nor patronise their opponents. They scored 11 goals in a half against Erfurt because they had to, not because they wanted to see them broken on the pitch after the final whistle.

But just as everyone expects Union to win, in some ways it means they cannot, it places them under their own unique set of pressures. One of the more impressive feats of this season full of them, is they way that they have dealt with it all. 

“There are as many different types of player as there are types of person,” says Ailien. “The one performs better under pressure and says, ‘Ja, geil, I’ll show everyone I have reached this step, I’ve given everything, and now I just need to perform,’ and they’re completely convinced of that. That can work well, but it can also lead to you being too convinced, and a certain arrogance can come in – not that I’ve seen that from any of our players.

The other says, “Boah, I’ve given up so much, I must, must, must [win] now.’ Then you get a mental block. I think what has become more obvious in football over the last few years, is that mentality is such a key factor."

But she too is under pressure. There is a bottom line that comes with professionalism - that weight of expectation, like the president saying that the clear goal is to reach the Bundesliga - that lies behind the resources she enjoys.  

“I must say I love the pressure. When you are a sportsman or a trainer, then you want it, you want to do something... But last season was also fun - it sounds absurd - also in the phases when things didn’t go so well."

"I take the pressure as a positive,” she says.

Abu and two mascots walk out onto the Fritz-Lesch pitch
They dealt with everything thrown at them. The captain at the heart of the huddle

The First Half Comes to a Chilly End

Bischofswerdaer FV08 vs 1. FC Union Berlin | 25.11.2023 | 0-5

For Union, the first half of the league season ended in Bischofswerda, with a 5-0 win in heavy snow in front of a double-digit crowd, huddling together for warmth on the small concrete platform that acts a the main stand. The game was an allegory for much that had come before.

Facing a side with their backs to the wall it took a bit of huffing and puffing before Union could blow Bischofswerdaer’s house down.

Anouk smiled after the final whistle. “You couldn’t even see the lines,” she said. Lisa and Abu made the difference, with a pair each. Dina chipped in with a fine, unstoppable volley for their third of five.

But, fittingly, the final flourish, with two minutes of time almost cruelly added on - at least for the magnificent handful of travelling fans, if not the players - it was the skipper who smacked the ball over the line after Zita's header crashed off the bar and fell at her feet.

Union were nine points clear at the top of the league, but Lisa said they were careful not to get ahead of themselves.

“I don’t think we celebrated much on the way back. There were a couple of drinks on the bus, and we toasted each other, but it wasn’t a big celebration, because we knew that the whole second half of the season was still ahead of us, and you always know what can happen in football... anything is possible, even with a nine point advantage.”

"You could hardly see the lines." Anouk Blaschka, having arrived from Hoffenheim, became a stalwart of Union's intimidating attack
Let it snow. Abu Sabbah and Bischofswerdaer's Sarah Müller in the last league game before Christmas

Fatma Comes on Board

1. FC Union Berlin vs. ATS Buntetor | Friendly | 18.02.2023 | 6-0

The new Oberspreee training centre was being broken in, and the first game that Union's women would play there was marked largely by the wind coming in spitefully off the Spree, and Fatma's first goal for Union.

Latoya Bach talked of Fatma and the impression she’d made, they roomed together during the training camp, and was keen to help her out, even though she would take Latoya’s place in the starting eleven. Latoya grew up in Britz, she was going to the Alte Försterei and standing on the Ealdseite before she even played football, let alone for Union.

"She's just a nice person," she said. But nice people don't always make the best signings. Fatma also made a difference.

With hair past her waist and pace like that cruel wind, Fatma had been superb as the right wing-back but in the second half against Buntetor Union switched to a back four, and she moved up to the wing, constantly hitting the byline, beating her opposite number, inside and out, always keeping her guessing –  even when her next move was as if telegraphed, there was nothing she could do to stop it - and causing an own goal after an hour through sheer determination.

“Fatma reinvigorated our right wing,” says Lisa. “Through her athleticism, her speed, she gives us so much on the right. She is super-fast, she wins so many sprints.”

It was Union’s sixth and came from Celine's hard work in midfield. The goal itself wasn’t spectacular - Fatma stabbed it home from ten yards - but it was the reward for all she’d brought the side already, as the way the players came together as one to celebrate with her showed the ease with which she’d adapted.

Fatma Sakar quickly established herself as a tireless, ever-present fixture on Union's right-hand side

Measuring Yourself

Hamburger Sport Verein vs. 1. FC Union Berlin | Friendly | 11.02.2024 | 1-3

Hamburg were sitting top of the 2. Liga, a position made possible by their defeat of Viktoria in the play-off at the end of the last season. Hamburg are good. They finished the season only five points off the top.

What it showed, and Latoya said this not long after the game, was that Union were made of stronger stuff than many on the outside had realised. HSV were bigger, better and faster than most Regionalliga opponents, and tactically they were on another level. “They had a way of getting out of our press,” said Bach admiringly, before coming back to her own side's many strengths.

For so are Union, she said. They weren’t to be underestimated. Lisa agrees, “we knew that we could beat them.” Ailien used it as an opportunity to see what they’d been working on in Spain. She was increasingly leaning towards three at the back. They had all been working on that blessed adaptability, shape-shifting.

While Abu talks of her coach's willingness to take ideas on board from the team, and the way she harmonised a newly put together squad so quickly, Lisa talks of her tactical nous – they all do – and how much she has allowed and helped this side to develop in such a short time.

Her strength is in that she leads a coaching team that is, according to Katja at least, not beholden to their structures, but who know how to be flexible. “They try to give us space on the pitch so we can be more flexible, so we can use it.”

“We tried out a couple of new positions,” says Lisa. “You try things out, and it works, and then you beat the team at the top of the second division… it can’t be bad for your self-confidence.”

If the winter dragged on – and Union had a break of over three months between competitive fixtures – they were going to make sure they used it. 

Two of the unsung heroes of the campaign. Nour Youssef and Latoya Bach celebrate in Hamburg
Fatma Sakar and Marie Becker in action against the 2. Liga leaders at the time, HSV

Dina's Ghost Goal

1. FC Köln II vs 1. FC Union Berlin | Friendly | 25.02.2024 | 2-6

There is a plaque at the Maracanã commemorating a goal of Pelé's, the greatest one ever scored there, or so the story goes. But there is no footage of it. It is just a memory, passed down; his masterpiece is a ghost of a goal.

Although the setting may not have been as grand, there is a similarity here. The only footage of Dina's first of five against Köln II doesn't show the finish, or even the exquisite poise that lead to it as she set off into the air. Indeed the camera is set on the halfway line; when she scores she is out of shot entirely. But everyone who saw it talked of it in awed tones.

A free kick, smartly taken out on the left by Anouk, was hit long into the box where Dina was already running into space, having slipped her marker like the devil would his pursuers. A lone Köln player caught on, coming in from the left, but she was already too late.

She stretched as the ball dropped, her head up, her technique well schooled. Reaching with her right foot, she hit it back across goal first time with the outside of the boot, beating a keeper now off her line but rendered irrelevant. It arced artfully inside the back post.

Dina scored four more that day against Köln, and they could belong to the team, but this, her goal that exists only as a memory, her masterpiece, was hers alone. 

Those who saw it spoke of her goal in hushed tones. Dina Orschmann against Köln II

Meanwhile, on the Other Side of the World

Jordan vs. Palestine | West Asian Women’s Championship Semi-Final | 27.02.2024 | 5-0

“The invitation came a month before,” says Abu, “but it was decided that I’d travel later, because we still had games here to play. We had the semi-final on the Tuesday lunchtime, and I arrived at about 5am on the Tuesday morning itself. I thought I could get two hours sleep, have breakfast and get in the rhythm of the whole team. So, it was stressful, but worth it.”

Many people didn’t even know that Abu was going to Saudi Arabia to represent Jordan in the semi-final of the South Asian Women’s Championships, until she got there. She was to line up against Nour Youssef’s Palestine.

This was a big occasion, arguably the Palestinian women's greatest achievement since they played against Jordan in this very tournament in 2005. It would be churlish to rule it off as an irrelevance, and Nour was unendingly proud to be there, you could see it written all over her face.

The brace she scored on her debut against Iraq in the quarters was astonishing for a 17-year-old. That they came within a minute of each other, the stuff of dreams.

“It was very, very cool,” says Abu. She’d never played against a team-mate before, even though it’s been the best part of a decade since her international debut. “It was a highlight, just sad that she got injured in the first half an hour.”

They spoke during the game, but Abu would come in handier than she thought soon enough.

“When she got injured, I ran over to her, and helped because her Arabic isn’t so good, so I did a bit of translation”

Abu won out in the end, scoring after an hour in a 5-0 win for the favourites, but the final against Nepal would be tighter than that. Having gone a goal down, she scored again with a minute to play to make it 2-1.

“We just needed to play out the time, but we made a mistake in the 92nd minute and conceded an equaliser. It was funny. I thought we’d just play another half an hour… We were all stood in a circle, and the coach asked, ‘who wants to take a penalty?’. I said to him, ‘hey, can we not sort this out when we’ve played extra time?’ and he said, ‘er, what extra time?’ He said there isn’t any."

They were going straight to penalties.

"But because I didn’t think they were coming, I couldn’t get nervous." 

As champions, Abu celebrated into the night, but Nour would have her moment too, when Palestine played in front of thousands against Bohemians in Dublin a few months later. Football, once again, was the finest of distractions.

She might not have known the exact rules, but she put her penalty away anyway. Abu Sabbah in the final against Nepal (Photo courtesy of the West Asian Football Federation)
Nour Youssef in the semi-final against Jordan. She scored two in two minutes for Palestine against Iraq to get them there. (Photo courtesy of the West Asian Football Federation)

The League Returns

1. FFC Fortuna Dresden vs. 1. FC Union Berlin | 10.03.2024 | 0-8

Ailien looked at the pitch, a patchy, browning mess that bobbled and undulated, that had patches of meadow and patches of mud.

“Ah, the Regionalliga,” she smiled, shaking her head slightly.

Having used it against HSV, and tried it all long winter long, this was when Ailien really settled on three at the back, starting Charleen, Katja and Marie, with Naika and Fatma given the punishing role of wing-backs. It was to reap dividends almost immediately.

Though Katja says she is more used to a four, a three gives you more room to go forward – and she loves a charge up over the half way line, her close control given the chance to shine.

“You must use your brain, to use the space, to always think about where you are.”

Zita had scored against Fortuna in the first game of the season, and she did so again here. She had been so important, always willing, happy to wait her turn. She filled in at centre-half later in the season, too, but here she was up front where she feels happiest, scoring a 15 minute hat-trick.

Marie however, remembers mostly only the pitch. “Jesus, it was bad,” she says, laughing. “You really couldn’t play on that.” But they could. And the back three she commanded was imperious. 

Back to the business of the league. The Union players away in Dresden
Fatma on her league debut. This was when Union made the near-permanent switch to a back three

A Perfect Ten

1. FC Union Berlin vs. RB Leipzig II | 10.03.2024 | 10-0

It was chilly despite the sunshine and Dina had the bit between her teeth. She had family there, as ever, in the stands in matching shirts with a picture of Dina and Katja, the name Orschmann printed on the backs.

They winced as Katja got winded. Abu stayed with her while the rest of the team went to the touchline during the hiatus, a worried look on her face because Katja doesn’t just go down without reason.

But Dina had missed chances the week before away in Dresden, chances she would usually take, and she looked angrier by the minute; you just knew it was going to be taken out on someone.

She scored four in the end, but the first, following Anouk's run and lay-off to Abu (Jenny, stood wearing dark sunglasses on at the top of the hill, seemed to think she should have taken it on herself), who then laid it off in turn, square to her left, to Dina. She belted the ball with ill-concealed fury, with enough bend so it beat the keeper and clattered in off the back post into the top corner. It was a superb strike.

But she’d scored a better one two weeks before at home against Hertha in the cup, in front of 1,500 people, when she hit the ball on the clockwise turn, falling backwards all the while, using her right leg as a lever  - this was an almost mechanical goal - and hitting the ball with enough pace to beat the keeper, off her line, and enough dip for it to scrape in off the underside of the bar.

But the crowning glory was in the eighth, a vicious strike out of nowhere from Fatma's cross, hit from the byline, back across the keeper and almost bursting the side netting. She let her hands fall to her side and looked up to the sky.

If she hadn’t meant it, she did a fine job of hiding it.

16-9
The Orschmanns, represented on and off the pitch

This is The One

FC Viktoria Berlin 1889 vs. 1. FC Union Berlin | 24.03.2024 | 0-3

This the game that showed how far Union had pulled ahead of their rivals in such a short time. Lisa, as ever, broke the deadlock but it was Abu’s superbly taken second that illustrated Union's new superiority. Jenny punched the air when it hit the back of the net.

“That’s a striker’s goal” she said to no-one in particular, and it’s not like Jenny to celebrate goals like that.

But on this grey, damp, miserable day, Union had lit up the loam of Stadion Lichterfelde. They relished the battle, and raised themselves for it. You could see it in the last day's training ahead of the game on the Friday, the focus from that first day as professionals was obvious, it was there for all to see.

The captain says that this was her best performance. “It was a game where I had that feeling, where I had a lot of influence in the middle, for 90 minutes long.” 

“It was a game that was full of emotions,” she continued in her understated way. Emotions? She wasn't even close. The win over Viktoria hadn't won them the title, but the crushed home players betrayed as much with their slumping shoulders and downcast eyes.

Derby Winners!!! Following the 3-0 win over arch-rivals Viktoria, Union had confirmed their dominance in the league
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Dina Drops the Mic

1. FC Union Berlin vs. FC Carl-Zeiss Jena II | 07.04.2024 | 2-1

Katja had cramp and was down on the Fritz-Lesch turf when her sister put the icing on the cake. Union had been probing and striving, chasing and harrying Carl-Zeiss Jena II for the whole of the second half, and most of the first, too.

But they just couldn’t break through as the guests tried to hold back the tide, to preserve their rare lead. Union’s former right-back, the brilliant Luise Wildner somehow hoicked a Dina shot away from chest height on the goal-line. She hit a wicked strike from the right that bent past Mel, too, but it clattered off the post to safety.

Union pressed on. Penalties were denied, woodwork was struck, challenges were launched into as if their very lives depended on them.

Union had switched things around in the second half, and Katja moved into the base of midfield. As the clocked ticked by it seemed as if their 100% record was history.

It was her sister, though, who would turn things around, almost implausibly, scoring two, both coming after 90 minutes had been played up; as Ailien and Sven and Markus stood coolly, looking at their watches as one. 

“I heard it from the floor,” smiles Katja. “But Dina is incredible, mentally.  She fights to the end of every game – against Viktoria she ran almost 15km, she is always on the run – so I was very proud of the way she scored those goals.”

Anouk and Naika were on the pitch almost before the ball had hit the back of the net for the first; the crowd exploded, they could barely believe their eyes, but Ailien remained a model of composure.

“We knew that they were a good team,” she says, “... and then you’re behind. But despite that – and it sounds absurd – for the whole 90 minutes I was convinced that we would still win.”

"What time is it?" Markus Liebig (sitting), Sven Gruel and Ailien Poese check their watches as time runs out against Jena.
They take a Polaroid together after every game. The one after Dina's two goals against Jena II would bring back wild memories
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A shoeless Dina Orschmann meets the fans following her two astonishing comeback goals

Can You be Unhappy with a 7-0 win?

Berolina Mitte vs. 1. FC Union Berlin | 14.04.2024 | 0-7

Katja says Ailien’s not really a shouter, she says that there are positives to be taken from every situation. That you can always learn from your mistakes.

Nevertheless, there was a certain disquiet after the final whistle on the small pitch in the shadow of the Ludwig-Jahn Sportpark.

“I’d say it was unhappy," says Abu. "We all were, because in the first half we had applied the things we’d trained on really well. I mean we’re professionals and we want to improve, and we want to play 100% in every game for the full 90 minutes. But in the second half, you could see that in a few positions, this wasn’t there.”

Union were five nil up at half time, against Berolina, but only got two more - own goals at that - after the break. They felt they'd done themselves a disservice, that their standards had slipped. 

“Through the season we’ve actually scored most of our goals in the second half,” she says now looking back – though it seems implausible you could be unhappy after a 7-0 win.

Those standards are of the very highest.

“We’d played a very good first half, but I personally thought the second half was not good, as a team. We had chances - I did personally, but I didn’t take them as efficiently - I don’t know what the problem was there, but that shouldn’t happen."

There was that drive again, "We have the quality; we have to play well. That cannot happen."

In the end she left with a smile, she had made her point. Ailien said later that she sometimes think that they should go a little easier on themselves, but they know you can’t switch off, not for a second. That’s what they’re all waiting for.

A Reminder to Never Take Your Eye off a Wounded Tiger

1. FC Union Berlin vs. Stern 1900 | Polytan Cup Semi-Final | 18.04.2024 | 10-0

Well they said there'd be a response.

With five minutes to play and Union already eight goals up, Stern’s keeper, Antonia Härtel, rushed towards the edge of her box and assaulted Abu. It's really the only word for it.

Union’s striker had already scored three on another cold Cup night by the Spree and was bearing down on goal when the keeper came out and crashed into her. It was borne of the frustration at the hammering Union were giving them, but it was reckless and wild. Abu cried out, but the referee waved play on. No penalty. No red card. Nothing. Abu stayed down, writhing in pain.

Everyone loves Abu. Marie describes her as being “so kind and so humble.” But, bluntly, she was also the top scorer of all the five German regional leagues at this point. Yes, they loved her, but they also didn’t want to lose her to a moment of insanity. Her team-mates bristled.

“It was a clear foul to us,” says Lisa. She was straight onto the referee. “Sometimes you have to get used to decisions like these,” she says and the skipper knows that their privilege will work against them at times. 

“But we’d rather score from play than penalties anyway,” a hint of righteous rage still bubbling out some months later.

“When the pack is attacked from outside, the pack gets visibly angry,” Marie says, unconsciously quoting either Kipling or the Shangri-Las. “I understand it must be frustrating to be losing 8-0 or whatever, but it’s absolutely unnecessary to go out to try and hurt your opponent.”

Ultimately, Abu struggled up to her feet, was led off the pitch and got gingerly, at first, back into the game. Time was almost up, but she didn’t care for niceties. Had Härtel not hit her, she may have let the game peter out. She could have also gone off there and then, but now she had a glint in her eye.

She says now that the ref apologised later, admitting the mistake, but by this point it was too late. She was hurt, and was fuming.  

“I was so angry I wanted to play on. Sometimes it really hurts but then you get going and it goes away a bit.”

She scored again almost immediately with a pulverising finish, a strike borne of pain and anger, and she roared into the night sky. But she wasn’t done.

Her next was even better, this time she taunted Härtel, like she was hustling three card monty on the street, but with a ball - it was there one minute, gone the next. She scooped it with delicate, brilliant cheek over Härtel’s head and rolled away laughing, the smile on her face a mile wide again.

She didn’t look back at the keeper. She didn’t need to.

“Scoring," she says, "it’s the best revenge a striker can have.”

Naika Reissner shows a defender her heels against Berolina
A less exultant photo, a shot that proves their determination. Union had won 7-0, but knew they could have done better.
Athanasia Moraitou and Lisa Heiseler in the second half, in the shadow of the Jahn-Sportpark
Abu Sabbah, ahead of kick off against Stern on a night she won't forget. For several reasons
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The Union fans in the cold April air of the new TZO training centre, during the cup-tie against Stern

Fifteen Love

1. FC Union Berlin vs. 1. FFV Erfurt | 21.004.2024 | 15-0

There were times, still, that Union were, in Lisa's words, “a little hectic” on the ball. They would push too hard, try too much, and you’d see that when they would rely too much on long balls “as opposed to passing through the middle, using combinations.”

But she had to be probed to have that dragged out of her. “Of course,” she says, “there’s always things you can improve”, but they were becoming less obvious as the season wore on. Against Erfurt, Union were rampant, scoring 11 in the first half alone.

“I think it was this game,” she looks across to where Elisa and Anouk are sitting, for reassurance, “where the trainer was speechless at half time for the first time… But then, among us, we said a couple of things. Otherwise… we were just hungry for the next goal.”

No-one there, from Ailien to Heisi, to the few hundred fans on a cold April day, that inexplicably saw flakes of snow in the Adlershof air, could recall seeing anything like it. The goals were coming in torrents. 

Dina got five, Lisa, three, Anouk, Fatma and Abu got one each. For what would be the second of three times in the season the opposition would score two own goals, not through inability, but just the natural consequence of Union's crippling pressure. 

The pick of the bunch, though, came from Union’s left wing-back, Naika. She found herself in a pocket of space after just over half an hour, driving a brilliant left-footed shot from outside the box past Melanie Jorcke and inside the far post.

The Stadium Belongs to You

1. FC Union Berlin vs. Hertha BSC | 28.04.2024 | 5-0

“It’s moments like that we live for," says Lisa. "On the Thursday or Friday we knew that there had been 10,000 tickets sold, and that another 2,500 would go in the next two days, I don’t think anyone imagined that.”

In the end there were over 12,000 people in the Alte Försterei for the derby. It was spine-tingling, an affirmation of everything that they had said about the fans, and how it didn’t matter if it was men or women wearing the red and white shirt.

“The game was simply, ‘wow’, says Abu, rendered almost speechless with the memory. She had played in front of 25,000 people before at the opening game for the U17’s World Cup in Jordan, Katja had too, in the under 20 World Cup, but both say they'd never heard anything like it from the pitch either. 

It might have helped, but neither are the type to get nervous before a game anyway, no matter who’s playing or where it is. 

"There’s no fear," says Abu, "because it should be fun, I’m just happy to do it.”

“People were treating it like the Cup Final,” says Marie.

And it was bigger than just a game. She recognises the derby's importance in transmitting to the city - the world, for it was live on TV, too - what Union were doing out here in Köpenick.

“It was such an honour, and I have such belief in this team… In other games we have needed a couple of minutes to get into the game, but not here. We were there from the first minute, and I knew it straight away 'Today’s a good day.'”

Everyone agreed that the first half against Hertha BSC at the Alte Försterei was easily among the best football Union have played in the last year or so. 

“Oh,” agreed Katja, later. “That was the best game so far. Really, I get goosebumps.” And not just because she scored, her season's personal target; at least one. But she knows that's not why she's here. Katja's clever. 

"They had obviously done their research and seen I like to hit long balls,” she says, “there was a player who just stayed with me. So I closed off some spaces intentionally, I’d take her into the middle to open up gaps for others.”

It’s as perfect an example as any other of what Ailien gives them. Like a good jazz band leader, she just provides the structures for them to improvise on the pitch.

Maybe it’s the last woman back in her talking, but Marie would rather leave that to the others. She’s rarely allowed a solo, so what’s important for her are the basics.

“They do give us some core concepts that we try to stick by, that if things aren’t going well at the beginning of the game, or if you’re nervous, you can stick by.”

But they didn’t need anything else to do it on that stage. “Guaranteed, that had something to do with the support,” says Ailien. The crowd were fantastic, a sight to behold, and they thronged the Waldseite and the Gegengerade. Like they all say, Unioner support Union, not just one of the sides, all of them. 

A quartet of players who were all there the last time Union were promoted to the 2. Liga; Frank, Heiseler, Niesler and Orschmann
Making themselves at home. The players' joy at playing in front of the huge Alte Försterei crowd was palpable
The finest of stages. Over 12,000 people filled the Alte Försterei for the return match against Hertha BSC
Everyone agreed that the first half against Hertha was among the best they'd played
16-9

Champions at Last

1. FFC Turbine Potsdam II vs. 1. FC Union Berlin | 12.05.2024 | 1-7

Marie said that they hadn’t got nervous when Turbine capitalised on an uncharacteristic mistake to make it 1-1 in the first half – only the fifth goal of the season they’d conceded - but “what was important was the way we reacted.” Union blew Turbine II away, as if affronted.

And with the 7-1 win, Union were finally crowned as champions of the Regionalliga Nordost.

At the final whistle, as the players came together in the gorgeous sunshine in front of the hundred or so fans scattered along the six-stepped stand that ran the length of one of the touchlines, a couple of the players had mischievous looks in their eyes.

Athanasia, so dependable, so classy in the middle all season long, was the first, getting a bottle of ice water and letting it spray all over Ailien. The coach took her dousing generously, if reluctantly, knowing it was a sign of respect. Jenny looked less happy with her's later. But still she smiled. They all did.

When congratulated later she was reluctant to accept the plaudits, however. “It’s not done yet,” she said.

Naika and Anouk meanwhile ran riot in the background, their smiles betraying  the menace of the showerings to come, but it wasn’t until the bus ride back that they really started to celebrate.

They opened a load of beers and would take turns jumping out of the front of the bus with the boombox in hand, doing a lap of the vehicle, before it would roll off again, all the other cars either “finding it really funny”, says Marie, “or really annoying.”

But they didn’t care and were allowed to indulge themselves this once. “You’re just so locked in on the team, celebrating together.”

The coaches would allow that. They’d earned it.

“There were songs… You don’t want to know the lyrics… I think the classics you hear in Majorca…," says Marie, her lip curling in mock dismissiveness. But she is happy to laugh at herself. She was caught up in it too, after all.  

“They also work very well," she said, "on a bus ride celebrating the championship.”

The chance to become champions. The players take to the pitch against Turbine II
The players all waited for the last one out before they took to the pitch in Potsdam, together.

Becoming a Team

Magdeburger FFC vs. 1. FC Union Berlin | 05.05.2024 | 0-9

Naika was self-effacing when talking of her second goal of the season, saying she hadn't really meant it, looking at the floor.

But she needn’t have been, and she deserved it. She had made herself indispensable on the left-hand side, where her turn of pace and technical ability on the ball were causing problems to full-backs across the league, at least when she wasn’t away with Austria's under 19's.

She was joined on the scoresheet by Lisa and Celine, who got a pair each. Their ultimate goal was so close they could smell it. They had forged astonishing bonds in such a short space of time. They were one.

It took them a few weeks to fully settle in, but Katja says she’s never seen new players integrate into a squad so fully, so quickly. “They are part of the team now, but there’s also some real tight friendships that have come out of it. I’ve never seen anything like it. Of course, that’s also to do with the success, when you’re successful…”

But it helps that there was already such a solid core. Dina and Katja, Heisi and Lotti, Celine , Lisa Görsdorf, Elisa and Sarah Hornschuh were all in or around the side that won promotion to the 2. Liga in 2016. They are tight, but open enough to let the others in, to let them bring their own skills and abilities to the party.

“They are such a kind group of people, they are so open-hearted,” says Marie. 

Of course there are conflicts. They are sportswomen, and you don’t get to be a professional athlete without drive and an ego. But they seem to deal with them with relative ease, they figure it out between themselves.

But she was keen to point out that one of Jenny's greatest strengths wasn't just signing good players, but good people, too, players who fit

An Austrian under-19 international, a flashing presence on Union's left wing; Naika Reissner in full flow
The players come together after another goal against Erfurt, this time away in the league

The Double

1. FC Union Berlin vs. Viktoria 1889 Berlin | Polytan Cup Final | 19.05.2024 | 2-1 (aet)

This was the fight they all needed, they all wanted. And not just the Union players. Viktoria, too, had been stung, knocked off their perch in the league; so they weren’t willing to give up the cup so meekly as well.

“You could really see that they wanted to win this,” says Katja. “I thought they were much better than in the league games…” It was 1-1 at the end of 90 minutes that hummed and throbbed with competition. Thunder clapped and lightning crackled in the distance at kick off. 

Ailien called it, "absolutely amazing... an absolute cup game, even if one or two say, yeah, you could have won by more, no, I didn’t think that. I think that the two best women’s football teams in Berlin met each other and served up that so well."

“It was exhausting. I don’t recall having played 120 minutes in a long long time,” says Marie. “That’s a lot of minutes”, she says slowly, exhaling the words as if she’s reliving the slog against fresh-legged strikers in the strength-sapping heat on that dreadful, daisy strewn, long-grassed pitch. She also doesn’t remember having had a cramp, as she did in the dying moments of the game.

“It’s so much more gratifying than having won 10-0. We also showed we can win games through our mental toughness,” says Marie.

Though Union won by two Viktoria own goals, it wasn’t to anyone they owed this victory more than Mel, the woman who had to do so little this season, but who always had to be ready.

It is hard to be a goalkeeper at the best of times, but especially when you spend so much time alone back there, maybe just with a back-shot of Marie up near the halfway line, keeping warm, staying concentrated, keeping her focus, because you never know when you might suddenly have to fly into action.

Her moment came in the second half with Kim Urbanek bearing down on goal having got in ahead of Marie in the inside right channel. She crashed her shot goalbound, but somehow the keeper, flying to her left, got enough on it to tip the ball onto the post from where Katja somehow hoicked it away to safety, somewhere into the earth’s lower atmosphere.

Lisa stares in wonder at how her stopper can drag moments like that out, but it’s easier when you’re playing Viktoria. What about when you’re up by double digits?

“She works a lot with her coach about how you deal with a situation like that, how you stay awake and focussed. I notice it on the pitch, and there’s a lot of coaching, just to keep her there in the game…” It can’t be easy though. “No, I don’t think so.”

A couple of players celebrated afterwards, long into the night but Marie didn’t. “I just went to sleep," she says, but the most heartening sight was at the end.

Nina hadn't been banished to the fringes. She was walking laps of the Fritz Lesch running track on crutches as they trained before Viktoria. She is at every game. And as Union celebrated the double she was carried around, her crutches thrown to the floor, piggybacked into the melee by Elisa.

Pressure. What pressure? Lisa Görsdorf cracks up ahead of the cup final.
Celine Frank, after the final whistle in the cup final. Marie Becker lies on the floor, shattered, next to her after almost two hours of football.
Elisa Schindler carries Nina Lange as they celebrate the cup win in extra time
Athanasia Moraitou and Marie Becker on the megaphone, leading the crowd in Mariendorf

The Yellowing Grass of Kreuzberg

Türkiyemspor vs. 1. FC Union Berlin | 26.05.24 | 5-0

Ailien was talking of the length of the season, of how it had dragged on and on, and how even the freshly crowned champions couldn’t take a minute’s pause for thought.

“You are champions, you’ve won the cup final, but you’ve still got two league games to go. Of course you want to go unbeaten, and you can see that in every player, but then you come to Türkiyemspor, which one year ago was a real derby - they had this great pitch, really - but I’ve never experienced a pitch that was in a condition like yesterday.”

It was patchy, yellowing and rutted and as hard as concrete. But she was careful not to attach any blame to the club. Türkiyem’ are a fine institution, and the playing surface was more a reflection of the financial imbalances of the city.

“Everyone who works in sport in Berlin knows where the responsibility for the pitches lie, and it’s not with the clubs. I have to say, as I arrived I was really sad that it’s turned out like that. But as it wasn’t easy for us, it wasn’t either for them, so it is how it is."

She also needed to balance the needs of her team, while keeping them fresh for the imminent play-offs.

“We are in a difficult phase. You know you want to stay in rhythm, but you also have to let people have a little break. You saw it in the changes, and in the squad. On one hand it’s a chance for one or two of the other players to show again what they can do, on the other, you don’t want to take your main players out of competition.”

One who was never going to miss out was Lisa. Following her hat-trick here last year, she scored four this time out, the third laid for her on a plate by an Abu who could easily have finished, herself.

The pitch be damned.

Lifting the Trophy

1. FC Union Berlin vs. Bischofswerdaer FV | 02.06.2024 | 6-0

“A bit of the pressure has fallen away, because of the title,” said Lisa in the build up to the final game of the Regionalliga season, and she wanted “to have our hands on the trophy” before she started to think too much about the play-offs.

She would have it soon enough, it was never really in doubt.

Before Abu got her medal after the final whistle, but after her 42nd goal of the season – a beautiful lob from outside the box that left the keeper backpedalling in impotent windmills - Christian Arbeit, as stadium announcer, told the crowd that she had become the highest scorer in all the five German regional leagues.

She smiled but looked at the floor. Marie had talked of her humility, and here it was in action. She could have given it the big one, but she didn’t; she couldn’t.

No-one in the history of the Regionalliga Nordost had ever gone a season winning every single game. Until now. Since 1991 there had been chinks in even the staunchest of armours. Union had made history.

But the shine was taken off by the injury to Marie that saw her crying out in pain as she lay, just a yard inside the touchline, near the dugouts, clutching her thigh in agony. Abu and Katja ran straight to her, they tenderly spoke to her, checking up on her.

Thoughts ran back to when she had talked of Lange’s injury. It was bitter, she would have to miss both legs of the play-offs.

But they had to put it out of their heads. They had to go back to the game, and Abu says that at least they have complete faith in every member of the squad. But still… Marie winced through the celebrations at the end, her thigh wrapped tightly, unable to take much weight at all.

Melanie Wagner, in the hardest position of them all, on the tattered Kreuzberg turf
The Fritz-Lesch hums with expectation ahead of the last home game of the league season
Heiseler, Wagner and Blaschka lead the team out for the final game of the league season
Champions!

Lisa Görsdorf Comes to the Party

1. FC Union Berlin vs. SV Henstedt-Ulzburg | Promotion play-Off | 09.06.2024 | 8-0

Ailien slept superbly the night before, but now it was just an hour before kick off, there were an astonishing 18,000 people starting to fill the Alte Försterei, her players were doing their stretches on the pitch, and she couldn’t have looked more relaxed. It was like she was just taking a stroll in the park.

But then, as we know, she'd been here so many times before, even if it didn't have a roof - and the Hertha game had certainly taken the edge off any potential nerves, But she knew things we didn't. Ailien had done her homework.

A Monday morning a couple of weeks ahead of the first leg of the play-off, Ailien was watching a video of Henstedt-Ulzburg’s league game against Buntetor. Asked if they were good, she smiled, and said that Viktoria are better. “We can only beat ourselves”, she said.

Heisi knew them, too, but for different reasons.

“Yeah, we were relegated back then in Henstedt-Ulzburg.” It was in 2017, with four games to go, at the Fritz-Lesch, and Lisa scored to put the hosts a goal up after a minute. But that was as good as it would get. Vera Homp and Jennifer Michel both scored in Henstedt-Ulzburg’s 4-1 win.

Both are still there and would play in the Alte Försterei’s play-off.

But the old place was awash with new faces, there were kids everywhere.. It was a delight, a carnival in red and white – and Henstedt-Ulzburg didn’t stand a chance. The Union players were all utterly convinced that if they played as well as they know they can, then Union would win at the Alte Försterei.

Especially with the volumes that the stadium would reach, the joy emanating from the stands, the pride in everything these remarkable women had achieved.

For the opening ten minutes the guests showed themselves as a more than accomplished opponent. They dared to resist Union, refusing to retreat like most did But Union started to turn the screw, after that, building upon the immense work of Charleen, having moved across to take Marie's role of the last one back.

But though Abu scored another hat-trick, and Pia opened the scoring and won the penalty for the second - and though Dina scored a bicycle kick of almost absurd refinement, guiding the ball over the keeper and inside the back post as she dropped through the air, her back to goal - out of all the people in the stadium, the day really belonged to Lisa Görsdorf.

Lisa has been at Union since she was 13 years old. Her first coach still stands in her number eight shirt with her name on the back. He stands with her mum, who tries to never miss a single game she plays. But their support goes deeper than just football. 

Lisa came back from a cancer that she first discovered at 18, twice, and stayed at Union because all she ever wanted to do was play football. She then tore her cruciate, but still she stayed. Still she played.

She came on with five minutes to play, and almost immediately made her run towards the box as Charleen passed the ball out to Zita. Zita then threaded it through a gap to the captain who spotted her now appearing in the box like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. Her cross was precise and all Görsdorf had to do was roll it home.

She was in front of the Waldseite where her mum stands for every men’s match, where she did too when Union played Bochum earlier in the season. She tore towards the packed out terrace but was immediately flocked by her team-mates, led by Heiseler.

If not all watching knew her story, and her love for this football club, they did soon enough, right when they saw the whole thing written in the biggest of headlines all across her face.

It was her first goal of the season; and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. 

The End

SV Henstedt-Ulzburg vs. 1. FC Union Berlin | Relegation Play-Off | 16.06.2024 | 2-0 

In the end it took just the two goals from Dina to finish things off. 

Both were typically elegant; one a volley, the other a half-volley; one on the turn, one up on her toes. Both with her right foot. Both superb. 

But, for the over six hundred fans who had travelled from Berlin to see them, the way they came mattered little. What mattered was the sense of celebration, the solidarity, the love, and all of that other stuff that they treasured so much about being an Unioner, in amongst the 10-0 aggregate win that saw Union back into the 2. Liga for the first time since the days when the likes of Lisa and Dina were mere teenagers. 

It rained, hard, then the sun burnt down, and it was one of those days that all those Unioners who were there will talk about for years to come. As they were at the end of an incredible season, they also knew they were at the beginning of something special. 

Again the beer flew in wild torrents, Athanasia and Zita and Lisa and God knows who else sprayed it this way and that. Most took their dousings; Jenny hid, but took hers too. They laughed and they danced and they sung along to Kernkraft 400's Zombie Nation and everyone joined in, wrapped up in the joy of the wordless anthem.

Dur-duh-duh. Dur-dur-dur-dur-dur, dur-dur, dur, doo-dur, doo-doo.

They dragged themselves off the pitch, got themselves together and boarded the bus for more of the same, for more "Majorca music" as Marie would have it, and they deserved every moment, every single bloody beat of it. 

Finally, at about 20 past nine that evening the triumphant players of 1. FC Union Berlin poured out of their bus into the car park of the Alte Försterei where a huge crowd was waiting for them.

Then, they erupted as one.  

18,045 people in the Alte Försterei watched Union's first-leg win over SV Henstedt-Ulzburg. As the final home game of a wonderful season, it couldn't have been any finer.
16-9
The Alte Försterei. The finest of stages
Fans as well as players. Latoya Bach and Lisa Görsdorf. The latter's first goal of the season would prove one of the most emotional
Athanasia, Dina, Abu and Celine celebrate in front of the Waldseite. They were almost there.
Katja Orschmann, superstar
There were hundreds waiting at the Alte Försterei for the team's arrival, but just as impotrant were the players of the U-23's, who had won their own play-off in dramatic style. Promotion belonged to all of them
Never before had a team won every game in a Regionalliga season. The crowds awaiting the team were more than deserved