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A Flight to Remember

Union in Braga: Part one

Wed, 14. September 2022
A Flight to Remember

Day One.

Dirk Zingler is sat at the front of a chartered jet, a smile playing across his face. Flight attendants with faces like porcelain dolls’ fuss around the cockpit. There are printed menus offering a choice of salmon or chicken for lunch; there is a rose in a glass in the toilet. This is a different world.

It looks like he’s caught between silent anticipation and joy, between the knowledge that Union have come so far, and knowing how much he wants them to go further.

After all of the striving he has done, all the driving he has done over the last, almost twenty years. And going back, before that, to the repeated near collapses of the club, time and again, saved by its fans and its neighbours, and an ingrained muscle memory somehow pulled it back from the brink, a hand reached out of the water at the last to grope for an edge that was just, somehow, still there.

We talk about muscle memory a lot in European football, as an enshrined knowledge of what it takes to win in this rarefied air. Liverpool have it as Real Madrid have it. That’s why Manchester City or Paris St. Germain haven’t won the European Cup, we say, looking down our noses at their nouveau riche grandeur like a gold embossed self-portrait hung smugly on a banker’s wall.

But if this is true, then Union’s muscles should revert to a different position. Zingler shouldn’t be up here at all, not really. But things can also change. He can stretch his legs out here. On this plane.

He is heading towards Porto airport where everyone will pile off, and pile onto another bus, the staff in one and the players in the other, and head for a hotel in Braga. After that it’ll be to the stadium for an open training session with foreign press. Then the press conference that Urs Fischer will grin through parts of - and stare through other parts of - knowing that this is all part of the process, that if he wants to succeed on this highest stage, then he’ll need to put up with The Other Stuff that comes with it.

He is sat over the aisle from Zingler at the very front of the plane. He’s the only one wearing a shirt with a proper collar.

Braga, tomorrow’s opposition in the UEFA Europa League, are a good fit somehow. They remember what it’s like to be the underdogs, too.

In 1966 they won their first ever title, the Taca Portugal, and no one had given them a hope. As a side, they had flashes of brilliance, people say, but they were also prone to the most catastrophic of collapses. When they played well they would beat you 5-4, but when they weren’t at it…. Vitoria Setubal stuffed them 8-0 just a few weeks before in the league, and they were the favourites on that May day at the vast, open national stadium in Lisbon.

But the cup had brought something out of Braga. They had beaten Sporting on the way, and then in a raucous, wild quarter-final they had beaten the great Benfica over two legs, a side that would provide several of the Portuguese national team about to reach the semi-final of the world cup in England. A side crowned by one of the greatest players who ever graced the turf, a man whose myth grew out of all proportion, Eusebio. There’s a story that Ferenc Puskas once gave him his shirt after a game, and the world saw it as a passing on of the mantle.

Our dads talked about Eusebio the way they talked about few others on Earth.

And Braga had beaten Benfica as they’d already beaten Sporting in an earlier round, as they would beat Setubal in the final, clinging on for the last 20 minutes, completely out of all character, to a late goal by the Argentinian, Perrichon.

Union weren’t supposed to win their first big cup final two years later against Carl-Zeiss Jena either. And they too won by a single goal. So there is a certain congruity there. The stories of Jimmy Hoge and of Wolfgang Wruck and Uli Prüfke, of Mäcki Lauck and Ralf Quest and all the others still seep through the walls of the club today. They were robbed of their chance to play in Europe afterwards; it still seems unfair, really.

When Braga won the Portuguese cup, Union had taken on their most modern of forms only a couple of months before, dragged into modern football in the GDR, the least regarded of three new clubs in the capital.

It’s easy to think of what might have been.

Only a month ago everyone there on that plane was on the main stand at the Alte Försterei, along with so many more - everyone who worked in the stadium and at the club, from the groundsmen and women to the cleaners, to Zingler, himself - waiting for the draw for the Europa League groups from Istanbul. Michael Parensen was there, of course, and they cheered when his face appeared briefly on the screen. And they chatted with each other about who they wanted and who they didn’t want. It’s not often people talk of AS Roma and Manchester United on those steps, their names stuck out amongst those of clubs like Royale Union St. Gilloise and FF Malmö and, yes, SC Braga, too.

One of the beer wagons from matchday had been opened; it was like the last day of term for many of them there, a break from the normality of running a Bundesliga club.

And as they sat there the thought was obvious, what would’ve happened in ’68, had Union’s players been allowed to play in the Cup Winners’ Cup? There were no group stages, of course. And the draw certainly wouldn’t have been broadcast live. Maybe the news would’ve been filtered through a party member, or maybe, along a wire among the news of rebellious Czechs and of America burning itself to the ground and the threats of Nuclear War. Maybe they would have had to wait for the next day’s papers, for a couple of lines. They’d have missed Braga by a couple of years, so maybe it would have just read Union have drawn their near-neighbours Porto, or maybe Torino. Or Barcelona, for that matter. They could have met them in the final in Basel, even, as Slovan Bratislava did.

One shouldn’t read too much into this stuff, of course, but the program for that final had an advert on the front for a local Swiss decorating firm. They were called Fischer.

The players are sitting in the back of the plane.

Yes, they are quieter than expected, even though they look so young gathered outside before take-off. They laughed in their matching suits, the staff in white t-shirts, the players in black. They looked so much smaller than on the pitch, somehow. Nevertheless, there was a focus in their eyes too. It was not a school trip, despite the positioning of their seats. There was work to do. Sheraldo had glasses on, Jordan was on his phone. Robin Knoche and Christopher Trimmel meandered around, exuding seniority, chatting amiably with whoever was there to chat to. Andras Schäfer had a cheeky grin spread across his face, Rani Khedira a dignified flash of silver in his hair. Aljoscha Kemlein, an 18 year old who has just signed his first professional contract with the club, and who is supposed to be a hard working midfielder of a rare natural ability, fits right in among them.

And then when they get out they have to wait for their luggage like the rest of the world does. They stand around in small groups. A few people stare, wondering who these people are, a couple of fans take a couple of photos hiding their intentions, giving the players space to wait. To wait and wait and wait.

Urs Fischer has told them a hundred times, anyway, as he will the rest of the world in his press conference in a few hours that will be held in a different room in a foreign land in a bewildering stop-start mix of three languages. He’ll say that his players have to put the disappointing loss at home to St. Gilloise in the first group match behind them, and that every game starts at zero. He’ll talk of compactness and of fight, of robust lines and of the similarities between the sides.

And he’ll finish by saying that Braga will be scared of Union, too. Because who wouldn’t be at the moment. Union are top of the Bundesliga.

They don’t look like underdogs, like this isn’t supposed to be, like they’ve inherited a kind of muscle memory that causes Union to slink away from Europe. As they had to after the Soviet Union rolled their tanks into Prague when the vicissitudes of the cold war prevented all eastern bloc sides from competing in Europe for a single season. As they did after qualifying in 2001 as the cup runners up, a mere 2.Liga club who didn’t stand a chance even against Litex Lovech, the side sat sixth in the Bulgarian first division.

Or even last year, when they fought through the group stage of the Europa Conference but were caught out against Slavia Prague and Feyenoord, clubs with that muscle memory, whose forebears had been there all too often before.

They are here to play football he says.

And now off the plane, via the hotel, and through the cavernous spaces of the Stadio Municipal into the press conference where he slinks up against a wall as if he’s not really supposed to be here at all. Zingler smiles.