I interviewed Sebastian Andersson last year for Textilvergehen, only a day or two after the fire that started in a fridge in the main stand so catastrophically damaged the building.
Workers ripped plasterboard unceremoniously off the walls with claw hammers as I waited. They pulled out mile after mile of wiring. It was a mess. Staff looked lost, not knowing what to do or where they should be. This symbol of how far Union had come had the bitter and accrid stink of smoke filling the whole building.
The lift was out of order so we had to use the stairs. Andersson loped up them slowly as he took in the chaos. He’d not expected the damage to be so bad. None of us had. He had a slightly perceptible limp that is the defining characteristic of a top sportsman. You can spot them a mile off by the way they walk when not in action. It is as if they are protecting themselves against exertion, they hold themselves back, and he did just this.
He was still pretty new to Berlin. This was before promotion.
Before he reached joint fourth position with Marco Reus in the list of Bundesliga top scorers with his second goal against Köln on Sunday.
A goal that rolled so slowly towards the line that for a second nobody knew if it had crossed it before it was hoicked away by a desperately sliding defender, arriving like a policeman after a robbery. Red faced and puffing and swearing, just too late on the scene.
But Andersson knew. He had rounded the keeper easily, put the ball back past him, across the goalmouth, as cool as fuck. He was already away, his fingers pointing towards the sky.
I’d met Andersson back then to write a piece about him and Simon Hedlund, two Swedes in Berlin. Foreigners, like me, and I wanted to know how they were adapting. How they saw the city. How their fight with the language really was?
Hedlund had been here longer, but in fact it was actually he who still felt more like the outsider. His wife was still back home. He wasn’t scoring and Urs Fischer would decide pretty soon that he wouldn’t be a part of his plans.
He looked sad at times when he talked about his life here, Hedlund. He sounded a bit lonely.
But Andersson was different, less vulnerable. He had his family here and he’d also escaped the ritual humiliation of life at Kaiserslautern, whose own delusions of grandeur were only being matched by their staggering incompetence.
He was older and he also knew that he was good. Really good. Bundesliga good. Hedlund stuck his tongue out when he joked. He was happier to take the piss out of his team-mate. He had spots. He was schoolboyish in a way that Andersson wasn’t. He was more curious to hear other perspectives. More grown up, somehow.
On Sunday he completed three or four successful sliding tackles. One on the half-way line. One almost at left-back. He nodded down ball after ball with his back to goal, all the time getting kicked and pulled and shoved and elbowed.
And he kicked and pulled and shoved and elbowed those defenders back, as Urs Fischer smiled from the touchline knowing that he hated to play against strikers like him. It was so much easier when you could make them want to disappear.
He liked playing against strikers that could be bullied.
Who could be made to feel uncomfortable because they don’t really know deep down if they belong.
I’d read a story about Andersson’s home town, and I wanted to know his thoughts on it. A story about a flying saucer that landed there in the woods in 1946. It’s a cool story and it culminates with an alien using the international signal of a flat palm facing forward, meaning “stop.”
There is a monument to that flying saucer there in the woods outside of Ängelholm to this day. It is a quaint little tourist trap. A curiosity, an oddity, but I’d wanted to use it as an allegory.
A means of getting across a broader point about the universality of body language, and the inherent decency of strangers to those from elsewhere.
But it didn’t really work, it was a bit ham-fisted, and it is only recently, since the Bundesliga, in fact, that I’ve realised why. Because Sebastian Andersson desn’t need to be able to communicate with the rest of humanity like most of us do. He doesn’t need you to take him aside and give him a cuddle or to show him the way.
He is confident enough in his abilities to say bollocks to all that.
He is calm enough to wait as Christopher Trimmel prepares to take a corner kick against Köln with a defender either side of him a couple of feet away from the penalty spot.
He is cocky enough to begin his run at the same time as Trimmel, drifting a little to his left to drag his marker just out of the space he wants to burst into, as his captain takes the short steps before he hits the corner into the box.
He is exact enough in his timing of his run to know that he will meet the ball at the right time in the right place.
And he is sure enough in his technique, with his eyes open and his back straight to head solidly past a keeper who can do nothing about it.
No, he doesn’t need sympathy, or the universality of sign language.
He’s the fourth highest scorer in the Bundesliga.
Image courtesy of Stefanie Fiebrig at Textilvergehen