It’s a phenomenon in sport that when a team falls on hard times off the pitch – such as the loss of a club legend or the illness of a teammate – the players unite in a showing of solidarity on it. We saw it last weekend in the Bundesliga when Wolfsburg marked Junior Malanda’s tragic death with a rousing 4-1 victory over runaway league leaders Bayern Münich. This weekend it was Union Berlin’s turn in the 2. Bundesliga.
As the eighth minute ran down during Union’s match against VfL Bochum, die Eisernen stopped playing. The starting 11 stripped their shirts off, revealing a number seven with the words “Gemeinsam kämpfen,” or “fight together.”
They linked arms with the Union bench, facing the main stand where teammate Benjamin Köhler was seated with his family. The 34-year-old had earlier in the week been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and this was his club’s way of showing their support.
The Bochum players stood off in the background and applauded along with the rest of the stadium as Union fans cheered Köhler’s name. It moved not only fans to tears, but the stricken man in the stands, too.
Köhler’s contract was due to expire in the summer, and it was in doubt whether the veteran would be offered another deal. But as soon as his diagnosis was made public, the Union board moved to offer a one-year extension.
It’s yet another sign of Union Berlin’s refreshing approach to the game, as well as why so many foreigners are drawn to its aura and so many Berliners are proud to call Köpenick home. There are not many upsides from the Soviet reign in East Germany, but Union stands strong as an undying icon for the community.
As for the game itself . . . Union, inspired to grab a symbolic win, reentered the second half of the season with a solid performance. Manager Norbert Düwel made a few tweaks to his line-up, pushing left fullback Michael Parensen into midfield to partner captain Damir Kreilach, with Björn Kopplin taking his place in defence.
Steven Skrzybski joined goal-machine Sebastian Polter up front, with Sören Brandy lining up on the left of midfield, as Düwel plumped once again for a 4-4-2 formation.
As per tradition, Christian Arbeit, the club’s media manager, entered the field before kick-off to read out the Union line-up. But instead of the usual process, Arbeit provided another tear-jerking moment when he asked Union fans to respond to each player’s first name with the response of “Köhler, Fußball Gott.”
The first half didn’t go to plan, however, with Bochum taking the lead through a neat corner routine. The ball was played short, and, with Union switching off, Selim Gündüz received possession on the edge of the box, cutting back onto his left foot and sending the ball coolly past Daniel Haas.
Union, spurred on by the occasion, gradually made their way back into the game. Fans in Sektor 2 unfurled a fitting banner stating, “Sieben – eine zahl für Zuversicht und Glück. Kämpfe Benny und komm zurück” (Seven – a number for hope and luck. Fight Benny and come back soon).
The men in red and white went on to miss decent chances through Parensen and Polter before Kreilach forced a top save from Bochum keeper Michael Esser from a curling free kick just before the break.
Düwel switched things around at half-time, Skrzybski and Brandy swapped positions, and Martin Kobylański entered the field for right-sided midfielder Christopher Quiring. The substitution worked wonders, with Kobylański scoring his first goal for the club in the 50th minute with an excellent curling effort from the edge of the 18-yard line.
Union took control from there, with Skryzbski looking much stronger in left midfield and Kobylański testing Esser with long-range efforts.
With the final whistle approaching, Kobylański once again provided the magic, chipping over the Bochum defence with a deft ball that captain Kreilach finished underneath Esser in the 85th minute. The whole team rushed towards the main stand once again, in yet another tribute to Köhler.
Mikael Forssell had a late chance from a decent position to break Union hearts, but his effort was sent wastefully wide, leaving Union holding on to an emotional and deserved victory.
This was a game where the result was always but a distant concern when taken in context, but victory was nonetheless an appropriate and welcomed end result. Hopefully Union fans see Köhler return to the field, but in the meantime, Düwel’s side have extra motivation to build on this result and finish the season strongly.
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