As I cycle along Wilheminenhofstrasse, the Indian summer’s sun on my back, the wind coming off the Spree across to the north, the first thing that hits me is the little things, the minutest of details that have changed on the iconic, industrial revolution era yellow brickwork of the Transformatorenwerk.
There’s new tags painted up there, some technically superb, some amateurish. There’s RBK in pink. Baba Bubu written above a heart in red. There’s what looks like ARFEM in large and largely illegible, spidery blue letters going uncertainly around the corner of the wall. Though it is hard to write your name, pissing paint out of a standard office fire extinguisher in six foot script, with any certainty when you are stood on the middle of Wilhelminenhofstrasse at any time of the day.
In thick black pen a guy has written HURE, PUNK and PENIS.
They are squeezed into gaps between older pieces. Many of which are of no-one person’s name at all.
In thick silver chrome paint, which they say is easiest to use when you need large fill of solid colour and you are in a hurry, with red and black outlines, they just bear the legend, FCU.
It was here, inside these huge walls, that 1.FC Union Berlin were finally formed in 1966 out of the ashes of all of their predecessor clubs, the teams who had played for the pride of the workers of this part of south east Berlin since the earliest part of the Twentieth Century.
Olympia Oberschöneweide, Union Oberschöneweide, Union 92 Berlin, Motor and TSC Berlin.
Back then the Politburo member and minister for sport, Paul Verner, had stood with his back gun barrel straight behind his brown wooden lectern like a headmaster at a school for itinerant and unruly boys, and told a packed out room that the new club would have a four cornered badge that would represent the club’s roots, whilst setting out a vision for the future that would include that most tantalising of prospects.
The former remains, and, weirdly, eventually, after a lifetime’s waiting, they have even achieved the latter.
Wolf Biermann famously called Verner a “Spatzenhirn mit Löwenmaul.” He had a sparrow’s brain but a lion’s gob, he sung, but then he was hardly a fan of the Socialist authorities at the best of times. Nor was his step-daughter, whose paean to the club will be played out, as always, only a mile away, on Saturday at 3.28pm.
I cycle on, following the tram tracks, bending up to where the road will eventually meet the edge of the forest, past bio-burger joints and a window in another of those pale mustard hewed factories that has a sign in a second floor window that just says “Atelier.” Artist’s paint brushes can be seen on the windowsill.
I am on my way to the press conference before the first game of Union’s second season in the Bundesliga, and I think back to all the others that came before.
I know that Urs Fischer will have nothing new to add, it’s not his job. Later on, when he is asked if the second year will be more difficult than the first, he bats it away with consummate professionalism, saying that the second will be as hard as the first was. As will be the third and the fourth. It’s almost identical to an answer Uwe Neuhaus gave a decade ago about his second year in the 2.Liga.
Fischer is charming, but is adept at dancing around these questions, skilled at saying something when he really says nothing at all.
I see Trimmi, all in black, a biker style cycle helmet in his hand looking like the coolest guy in the world. I see Max Kruse retracting the roof on his yellow Porsche looking like the opposite. I see people that have been coming here far longer than I, who are part of the furniture at this ritual, this dance.
Tag Herr Bunkus.
Tag Herr Färber.
Tag Herr Koch.
The land upon which we all mill about, waiting to be lead inside and up to the lounge where the press conference will take place, was named for a battle that took place almost exactly 100 years before Verner addressed that extraordinary member’s meeting at the Transformatorenwerk. When almost 15,000 people died on a single day’s vicious fighting at what was once called Sadowa and is now called Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic.
There is an old fable about a Czech bombardier who had lost his arms, his legs and, finally his head there in the horrors of Sadowa, but who still felt compelled to apologise to his commander for not being able to salute him.
People tell the strangest of stories about the past.
This is the first season in forever that Union will start the season without a recognisable number nine, a big man up top. Fischer says that the rest of the team will have to make up for this, that they all know what they have to do. And in Kruse – as also in the unmentioned but potentially devastating Markus Ingvartsen – there is the potential there for not only making up for Sebastian Andersson’s loss, but for redefining further their footballing style.
It seems Urs Fischer has his eyes trained on the future.
He is all in blue. His hair is the same. His glasses are the same. That four cornered badge over his heart is the same. He and Christian Arbeit spar with Matze Koch, exchanging raised eyebrows at his questions, as they always have, as have Fischer’s predecessors. Fischer make a cats cradle of his fingers behind his own lectern.
Behind him is a photograph of the Transformatorenwerk in its industrial heyday. A black and white rendering of the things he says all his his players understand the need for. Hard work. Unity. Sweat and steel. He refuses to compare his former goalkeeper who will be returning here for the first time in the shirt of Augsburg, and his new one. Christian pipes up, smiling. He says that the best keeper is the one in the Union shirt.
Only the three vertical stripes running up and down their arms and legs signal the coming of the new.
I amble out to the balcony at the top of the stand and look down to the pitch as the groundsmen make their final preparations. The stands are grey and empty, the red crash barriers covered with stickers denoting fan clubs and regular spots for people who have been coming here for decades, many of whom won’t be able to on Saturday. But if you look closely there is spray paint on the grey concrete. Red arrows to tell the 4,000 or so people allowed to, where to stand, making sure they keep to the rules.
Because in these times order has to prevail. There’s nothing for it. It can’t be helped. We live in exceptional times, and I try to remind myself that things have always changed here, as they always have in Berlin.
The painted arrows are not like the wild, rebellious, modern additions to the yellow outer walls of the Transormatorenwerk. There is a sadness inherent in their presence. But I’m torn, I’m also glad to be back. To see the same old faces, to dance the same old dance.
To hear how happy people at the club are to have someone, anyone, able to be able to come to the game, even if it’s only 4,000 of them, because it was so shit to play in front of no-one at all.
Back in Oberschöneweide I buy a burger made from a cow they say was happy and plump and also had the Indian Summer’s sun on its back before its quick and painless death, and I wonder what this all means, knowing that in this crisis there is also an opportunity here to create something better out of a game that has, itself changed out of all proportion over the last couple of decades.
I cycle home with my fingers crossed. For them all.