On Monday Union's first team players had only a single, if brutal, training session in the morning, because their afternoon was reserved for something quite different, and possibly even more vital.
For, on the initiative of the foundation "UNION VEREINT. Schulter an Schulter", head coach Urs Fischer's team visited five separate social institutions in small groups, offering different services to various disadvantaged groups spread across the city. They'd last been able to do this in 2019, so it was a welcome return for the club.
The Frankfurter Allee Stadtsmission work primarily with the socially disadvantaged. A group led by defenders Danilo Doekhi and Paul Jaeckel visited their alternative Christmas market, helping to pack and distribute gift bags for needy families, leaving enough time to play with some of the kids from the district, too.
Games were played in the Chris-Gueffroy-Allee shared accommodation, where more than 300 refugees are currently being cared for by the International Bund (IB). The Union strikers Sheraldo Becker and Sven Michel were not the only ones who visibly enjoyed playing table football, even though their opponents, kids from the centre, seemed to get more joy out of the goals they scored against them than against anyone else.
Meanwhile the coaching team of Urs Fischer, Markus Hoffmann and Michael Gspurning went to the Zurich School in Neukölln - a partner of the Union Foundation since 2019 - as part of the "Football Meets Culture" programme. Here, in addition to a question and answer session, a joint training session was on the agenda, which provided a welcome change for the approximately 25 children between the 4th and 6th grades in attendance.
It was only logical that captain Christopher Trimmel's group would be representing under the motto "Football meets Art", travelling west to Reinickendorf to paint oversized lanterns together with pupils from two primary schools there. The resulting works will be hung as a light installation around the Alte Försterei before Christmas, before the lanterns are auctioned off for the benefit of the Union Foundation.
The final group went to the Berliner Stadtmission's logistics kitchen near Hauptbahnhof where Julian Ryerson, Morten Thorsby, Diogo Leite and Paul Seguin put on their aprons and got to work. They were there to support chef Dirk Seeliger in the preparation of meals with which they provide homeless people, not only the 140 of them that are put up every night in the building itself, but so many more, in their emergency shelters spread across the city every day.
It's hard to estimate exactly how many homeless there are in Berlin, Seeliger said. They only know the numbers of those officially registered, but there's a lot more than that, and it's his job to try and ensure that as many as possible won't go too hungry.
So the players chopped and peeled, and sliced and diced vegetables, even if this was only a fraction of the 40 plus kilos needed by the kitchen per day.
Seeliger and the legendary programme and paper selling fan, Tazunioner, showed them around the kitchens, introducing many of the staff (of whom 40 to 50 percent are mentally or physically disabled), and talking to them about the important work they do at the Stadtmission. It was pretty humbling and the players were clearly both impressed and moved, especially so as the temperatures outside sunk well below zero.
"The idea of the action day came out of the wish to do something good," said Michael Parensen, Union's technical director and a member of the foundation's board. "We wanted to try and give an unforgettable experience for some people who aren't as privileged as us."
Having worked their way through a fair mountain of carrots, the players all remarked on how happy they were to be able to be there, and how important it was for them to be reminded of so many people not so fortunate as themselves in the city they call home. Not to mention how demanding the work itself was.
Meanwhile the other chefs bustled around their cramped kitchen, joking and smiling, huge pots boiling, warming ovens humming. Their work was far from over.