March 22, 2017

Cancer-Free Benjamin Köhler Scores in Comeback Match

It may have only been a meaningless friendly during the winter break for Union Berlin. However, for one of the players it meant an awful lot more than just a bit of match practice during the off-season. On Sunday 35-year-old Benjamin Köhler played his first competitive football match against a team of Spanish footballers currently without employment since the 19th of December 2014.

On February 4th in 2015 the news broke that the former Kaiserslautern and Eintracht Frankfurt player had been diagnosed with cancer in his lymph system in the stomach, putting not only his career but his very life at danger. The treating physicians gave Köhler an 80% chance of recovering to full health. His club decided to extend Köhler’s expiring contract by a year with same conditions. In an interview with 11 Freunde the midfielder said that this “was what I needed and it allowed me to fully focus on my recovery”.

During Union’s next home match the Iron Ones and their opponent VfL Bochum had agreed upon to put in a break during the 7th minute of the match (Köhler wears the number 7 jersey). Once the match had stopped the players removed their jerseys and under them they wore shirts displaying the number 7 and asking their teammate to stay strong. Köhler himself wasn’t told anything about what was going to happen beforehand and he had to shed a tear as he watched on from the stands.

A return to full health

On July 23rd Köhler got the joyous news that he had beaten the disease. He had undergone chemo therapy and battled incredible stomach-aches that couldn’t be lessened by even the most potent of painkillers. His hair had fallen out, though Köhler was really only bothered by losing his eyebrows and didn’t care too much about the loss of his beard and hair.

Unsurprisingly Köhler still has vivid memories of the day he was told that he had beaten the disease, he told 11 Freunde:

“I should be told about the latest test results in the afternoon. However, I couldn’t bear to wait that long and called the hospital at around 10 in the morning. A nurse told me that there wasn’t found any trace of cancer cells. That I was healthy again. I hung up the phone and I couldn’t get up for some time. I had to process what I had been told and it took me some time to understand it. Afterwards I really enjoyed it. The week before the final diagnosis was rather tough. I was afraid that I hadn’t defeated the disease. My mother has had cancer three times. After the first time she was told she was healthy again. Five years later the disease came back.”

As with most people fighting this disease changed the midfielder’s personal outlook on life. The man who hadn’t believed in a higher power before he was diagnosed with cancer started praying to God during the worst of times and now he believes that there is a higher power that guides his life. These days Köhler says that he has started to enjoy the little things in life an awful lot more. Going out to meet friends or enjoying a nicer meal in a restaurant are among the little pleasures in life that have become more important these days, as he couldn’t enjoy them during his days fighting cancer.

The way back to the football pitch

Köhler’s outlook on football has changed over the course of his treatment. Nowadays he doesn’t regard what is going on the pitch as more important than other things in life. However, the 35-year-old started to train for his comeback after he was told that he had beaten the disease. The midfielder was aware of the fact that it was going to be tough to get back to full fitness, but he was willing to put in the effort to reap the rewards.

On Sunday Köhler finally got his first start since beating cancer. The fact that he played 81 minutes may be very impressive, but the experience of the match was crowned by the fact that his teammates and the 250 fans who had made their way to the Iron Ones training camp in Oliva Nova asked him to take the penalty Union Berlin were awarded in the 76th minute.

The spot kick was expertly taken by the 35-year-old and put Union in a 3-0 lead against the team of unemployed Spanish footballers(the match ended 4-0 for Union). After the final whistle Köhler told the club’s website:

“I was overjoyed. This was a very emotional moment. The fact that we were awarded a spot kick was somehow fitting. I was asked by the guys to take it. Of course, I didn’t hesitate to accept it. For me it was very important to be back on the pitch with my colleagues. I can only hope that things are going to continue in the same vein. Every minute I get to play helps me. I’m simply happy now.”

In the Rückrunde Sascha Lewandowski’s team wants to leave the battle against relegation as quickly as possible. Today one of their most experienced players made his comeback and from here on out he might be able to help his team more and more as time progresses during the second half of the season.

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Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 30-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball and on the @AufstiegPod.