The Fight to Stay Humble in the Face of Greatness

A Short Story About Union vs Real

Wed, 20. September 2023
The Fight to Stay Humble in the Face of Greatness

It’s absurd to think that as 1. FC Union Berlin were founded, Real Madrid were facing hard times.  

The side that beat Partizan Belgrade in the 1966 European Cup Final, their sixth, were, according to David Goldblatt in his masterful global history of the game, The ball is round, called the “Ye ye’s”, an alliterative bastardisation of the Beatles 1963 hit. But if the Beatles had another four years until their near total pop-cultural domination got the better of them, things were different for the greatest power club football had ever seen.

“No new dynasty was founded,” he writes. “No unbroken run of success was initiated. 1966 is the beginning of what became known as los años del desiertos – the wilderness years.”

The Wilderness? The Unioner – or at least those lucky ones, unlucky enough to witness the  slumps their club had periodically sunken into – could tell you a thing about the wilderness. Compared to the rags on show in a small southeastern corner of Berlin, Real’s fallow years involved bulging harvests where golden threads were spun to bind unbidden stores of meat, they drunk down caskets of wine the depth of the Müggelsee.

Yet maybe it was easier for them to face oblivion than for Real to face mediocrity. Maybe the old song is right. If they hadn’t seen such riches, they could live with being poor.

But all things need to be taken in their context. Gone were the days, back then, when Real Madrid won the first five European Cups in a row, when Paco Gento flew, Alfredo Di Stéfano  tricked and Ferenc Puskás – the galloping major - barrelled their way past all comers, lighting up the nascent competition, setting their name as the benchmark by which all other European clubs would ever be judged, and delighting generations of youth for whom the 1960 European Cup Final was the greatest of highs, when they demolished Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in their definitive crowning moment.

That game was shown live on flickering TV’s in the UK - a rarity -  and for a generation it was their first tastes of such inconceivable sporting glamour. 120,000 people filled Hampden Park, jaws open at the devastation wrought on the pitch, a young Alex Ferguson among them. He spoke about that night in awed tones, as many football fans still know the names of the two scorers, Puskás and Di Stéfano , because their parents passed the information down as crisp in the memory as the day nine years later when man walked on the moon.

Now, we know the story of Union’s founding, or re-founding that year; of Paul Verner and the Transformatorenwerk and all that. We don’t need to re-tread that old ground other than to point out the absurdity that on Wednesday afternoon, following Urs Fischer’s press conference, their successors stepped out into that enormous stadium, about to become the first ever side to play Champions League football in the newly refurbished and rebuilt Santiago Bernabéu.

Success can change a club as it can change a person, of course. Everybody likes to be talked of, to turn heads, and that’s what they’ve been doing these past few years, as they took this implausible path that would ultimately lead its way to Madrid. But Fischer spoke after the draw for the group stages of the need to be humble in the face of it all, even when allowing himself the indulgence of a smile when discussing the very prospect a couple of weeks ago when he permitted a single question on the subject, merely to try and put a stop to the inevitable slew of them. 

Just as the tifo that draped the Waldseite for the season’s opener against Mainz proclaimed, “The key to our success, is not forgetting where we come from.”

It echoed a line from a short story called “I believe your son’s cocked it up, old girl” written by Jorge Valdano, the former Real striker and sporting director.

”He had simple tastes... and was the type of man who, while not having much, did not hanker for more.”

In the same story Valdano also spirited up the line “hope is a waking dream”, which is a little msaterpiece in itself. He was a hell of a striker, he scored in a world cup final, and he was behind many moments of Real’s modern greatness, but he made for a beautiful writer too.

In an interview published by the Athletic Christopher Trimmel recently said that he believed Union could still pass as underdogs, but he also knew that this wasn’t the case with everyone they’ll now face. Not any more.

Maybe those moments' passing came when Michael Parensen went from being  the replacement left-back for Patrick Kohlmann into being the man in the room who appeared on screen, live from Monaco, as 1. FC Union Berlin drew Real Madrid in the Champions League.

Parensen was an excellent left-back, by the way, but his greatest strength came from his longevity, and his refusal to acquiesce to the role seemingly made for him, and to the demands of age. Parensen would play anywhere he was asked, and he’d score in the Bundesliga into his mid-thirties when most had assumed his time had passed. In other words, his hard work and, importantly, his humility helped.

Fischer and Trimmel looked small up on the stage in the Bernabéu's press conference room, but that was nothing to the players when they ran out for training. They were dwarfed by the five tiers, the fold-away struts for the retractable roof hanging impossibly above, weighing hundreds of tonnes. They jogged a lap around the pitch, almost disappearing into its impossible recesses.

One could certainly suppose that at least it makes it easier to stay humble. The stadium is itself named by a powerful man for himself. It is home to a club who were too big even for Didi, one of the greatest Brazilian footballers ever to kick a ball, who is said to have invented the banana swinging free kick on his way to heartbreak and the 1950 world cup final.

Maybe the only way to survive is to let it wash over you, like the beloved Real player Emilio Butragueño , of whom Jimmy Burns quotes his teammate and friend, Michel. “The ball didn’t surround him day and night. He found it quite easy to disconnect with the sound of football...”

On a bitter cold day towards the beginning of this year Paul Seguin was stood outside of a homeless shelter before an afternoon volunteering in the kitchen, alongside Diogo Leite, Julian Ryerson and Morten Thorsby. Wating to go inside he chatted about his dad, Wolfgang, who scored the winning goal in the 1974 Cup Winners Cup final against AC Milan, the only European title ever won by an East German side. He said that the players of that team still get together every year.

“That doesn’t happen any more,” he said, but it was with little regret, he wasn’t lamenting a better time, somehow, it was just a simple comment on the realities and the transient nature of modern football. He too would be sold to Schalke within months. Ryerson and Thorsby would be off soon afterwards, too, to start afresh with new team-mates, new friends. Until the next move.

Therein lies the trick. Sticking to your roots. Knowing that as long as you are together there is a common cause, something to hold on to, something to believe in. Fischer said as much in the press conference. Union’s strength has always laid in the way they fight for each other, in the way they are stronger as one.

Real have won a further eight European cups since that period in the wilderness that began in 1966. Humility has rarely been a quality they have needed.

But it might just be Union’s secret as they step out tomorrow into that mythical stadium in a tournament they never expected to grace.