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Of Work and Intelligence

A Story of how the Unioner Celebrated in Brussels

Fri, 04. November 2022
Of Work and Intelligence

In the middle of Brussels’ Place de Luxembourg stands a statue of the 19th Century British industrialist John Cockerill, flanked by workers, among them a miner and a potter. He has a red neckerchief tied around his neck, and his back is turned to the vast polished concrete, shining glass and curving, rolling edifice of the European parliament building.

And last night, to his right, were maybe fifty to a hundred pretty, clean youth enjoying the break in the evening’s rain in the cobbled, rounded square. They were inoffensively drunk, somewhat sensibly cheerful, and in no way could what they were doing be described as loitering. Meanwhile, opposite them, to Cockerill’s left, were then fifty to a hundred Unioner, also drunk and also cheerful, but probably not quite as prettily and their unalloyed joy was not as measured.

For their 1. FC Union had just done the impossible - not just in beating Royale Union Saint-Gilloise - though that was certainly something in itself when looking at how they had dismantled Union in Berlin at the beginning of this campaign– but in qualifying for the knock-out round of the Europa League.

They greeted each other when new small groups arrived, they exchanged stories about the night, about the remarkable game they had just witnessed. They repeated legends, they hugged and they clapped each other on the back whenever they walked past one another.

A couple talked about times gone by. Most of them were too young to remember Osnabrück, but some were, and they could say with a sense of utmost wonder that they never expected to see anything like this.

Many of the Unioner there in the Place de Luxembourg had never made it as far as the stadium, their German passports denying them entry to even the neighbourhoods surrounding Den Dreef, by officious mayoral decree. But those that had, had borne witness to the spectacle of Union’s historic victory, marked among others by the performances of Danilho Doekhi, Robin Knoche and Diogo Leite, who have turned the idea of stolid resistance, and its purest form, the 1-0 win, into a compelling, artful sight.

This is not to say that Union didn’t attack, for they did. And Sven Michel’s sixth minute volley was a result of attacking football perfected; an intervention from Rani Khedira, a header down by Christopher Trimmel, a touch and a quicksilver moment of inspiration by Sheraldo Becker next to a defender suddenly caught in a cloud of existential dread.

For a moment it seemed as if his pass, hit with the outside of his right boot, bending in towards the goal, into the gap he saw before anyone else, was just overhit, when really it would be the decisive moment of the match. Michel stretched to get onto the end of it, falling backwards as he did so, imparting enough pace for the ball to creep past the keeper and inside the right hand post.

But that Union were able to conjour even a single moment like that only goal of the game was because of the poise and balance gifted them by their protectors at the back. Their refusal to allow Royale Union Saint-Gilloise to break them down, their dogged, yet daring display of work and intelligence. Their awareness of the spaces around them, their concentration and fearlessness.

The fans were awaiting the arrival of the team bus, and when it rounded that cobbled, rounded square they broke out as one. Their pogo-ing seen from above looked like a seething cauldron, a volcanic spring. They sung songs about Union in Europe and about Union international, which was somehow more fitting here than possibly anywhere else on Earth.

And then the players joined them, slowly at first, lead by Trimmel, the captain, the heart of the side, and Khedira who has played more minutes than any of them, who’s developed into one of the finest holding midfielders playing this selfless, unheralded trade in the German game.

Frederik Rönnow, who plays the piano in a thoughtful, measured, patient manner, and who had injured himself at the end of the first half, somehow stopping a shot from squirming over the line at the last second, was there. So too was Kevin Behrens, with his centre forward’s haircut and his centre forward’s black eye still visible from where goalkeeper Tobias Sippel had punched him square on the angle of the cheekbone as he rose to head home his centre forward’s equaliser in that astonishing victory over Mönchengladbach last week.

Later on Julian Ryerson, who had augmented his own performance with a gorgeous, perfectly disguised, snake oil salesman drop of the shoulder by the left hand touchline in the first half, would later just shrug, smiling, at the madness of it all. Of the way his team had played, of the heights they are consistently reaching.

There were no words needed.

None of them would sleep well that night. The adrenaline was coursing still too wildly through their veins, their visions of all this sporting glory appearing every time they closed their eyes. They could allow themselves a moment to revel in it all, but only a moment, until retraining their focus again onto leverkusen, the next game on Sunday, the next step to climb.

Someone was dancing on the roof of one of those functional, ill-fitting bus shelters, as another played it like a great timpani drum, it echoed and boomed around the square. The fifty to a hundred pretty, clean looking youth opposite stared and pointed and giggled at this joyous mess. Some took pictures. A couple of them came over, enticed in by the maddening crowd, unable to resist its draw.

At least two people cried. Many more seemed pretty close to it.

In the square Cockerill turned his cheek to the cheers, and to the tears of the Unioner. He was not a man who indulged in the pursuit of unnecessary frivolity, of flights of fancy or fantasy. But, presumably unknown to them, to the players, to Urs Fischer, or to his assistants and confidants too, silently he acknowledged everything that has been instilled in this remarkable team. For there is an inscription on the stepped plinth, right at his foot.

In French, it simply reads, “work and intelligence.”