Foto by Stefanie Fiebrig at textilvergehen
You just call on me, brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
As his teammates wheeled away having secured the unlikeliest of victories, a goal that the Unioner will talk about for a generation, Andreas Luthe didn’t join in. He had been at fault for the away side’s opener, his face was ashen as he turned back to pick the ball out of the net after that, but now he knew he had to keep his focus, he had to do his job.
Because for a goalkeeper nothing is done until its done, a moment’s lapse of concentration can mean a lifetime’s opprobrium.
But it had been he who set the tempo, whose saves had made this possible, who laid the foundation for Max Kruse’s header, for Max Kruse’s last gasp winner, for another increase in Max Kruse’s fame. A simple final flourish, from maybe the technically best player Union have ever had, who most of their fans have never seen, which secured Union seventh place in the league. Which secured them an astonishing place in European competition and that was played up and down the length of the country, and over and over again in the minds of the adoring fans.
No, Luthe was at the back, doing his job, keeping his lonely vigil. But then goalkeepers are used to loneliness. They train together, just them and their direct competitors for a single spot, away from the team, they face unimaginable pressure, alone. So Luthe stayed. The grass would not grow in his box without him noticing it.
But this is not a story about the most important man on the pitch. This is a story about another goalkeeper. A more important one.
The house that the Alte Försterei is named for is a little like it’s taken from a Brothers Grimm fairytale. Its stairs are too narrow for more than one person to pass down at a time. Especially in the old days, before the new stand was built with modern offices attached, it was the very heart of the club, its marketing and press departments, and directors and bosses, its sales people and coaches all squeezed into rooms with sloping gingerbread floors and rice-paper cupboards, bulging with everything from posters to footballs, to shirts and books and cones.
Potti Matthies walked past me there once, a man who won Union player of the year more than anyone else before or since, and was a goalkeeper, they say, of great bravery and some style. He was voted Union’s most important player of all time, but this isn’t about him either.
For in a sober room upstairs in that old house sits Oskar Kosche, a goalkeeper who is as instrumental in the club’s rise to European football as anyone. Kosche is the bedrock upon which the club is built, he’s the one they can rely on, lean on. He’s the drummer setting the time and pace, covering other’s mistakes, filling in the gaps and never letting up, always knowing that there’ll be a time when he’s needed and that he’ll be there. He keeps their secrets. He guards their treasures and holds their purse strings. He’s got their back.
Because he’s a Berliner, an Unioner. He’s a goalkeeper, and he’s seen it all before.
When he was delegated to play across the city at Union’s greatest rivals, BFC Dynamo – as many of the best talents in Berlin were back then – Oskar Kosche had to wait for years to get a place in the side. He was, after all, behind one of the best keepers in the DDR, Bodo Rudwaleit. But he did so because he was patient and hard working and diligent, and the only thing he had ever wanted to do was play in goal as well, and as much as he could.
He said once to me of his young life (though he may have been describing the present, too), “It was just football, football, football.”
But Kosche’s timing, if uncanny on the pitch, was poor off it back then. As was his luck. One of his first starts was in a scoreless draw against Stahl Eisenhüttenstadt on a cold, damp Wednesday night at a mostly empty Jahn Sportpark. He remembers mishitting a clearance to a striker who failed to make anything of the chance, and nothing more. It seems there was little to remember from the game, except the date.
For the very next day the wall fell and within months his club’s support structure had crumbled to dust, the light had burnt itself out. The best left. Chaos ruled. A new name, new sponsors, new players all came.
But he always had Union. His loyalty to them today, is based on theirs to him. He was happy to go home. He was there when they were denied the license to play in the 2.Liga in 1992 because of an amateurishly forged bank statement. A botch-job that would never stand up, but there was shit everywhere at the time. The whole city was beset by a crisis of confidence, and a worrying lack of hard cash.
“The club was always on the edge of collapse…”, he said in Und niemals vergessen, the definitive text on the club. “We knew about the size of the debts, But it didn’t matter for us if it was a tenth, a half or all of them. They were always so high. Only a miracle could help.” He was rarely paid and never on time. “Sometimes it would be five months, sometimes four weeks.”
He played for Babelsberg for a time, but that was it. Union may have been a mess, a fitting simile for the country they used to inhabit, but he was tied to the place. He couldn’t leave his area, his line, not when he was needed.
Kosche didn’t enjoy our interview in his office upstairs at the old foresters house. I failed to understand that there were filigrees of shade in between the black and white images of the former east. I asked him about politics when, as a young man, he said he’d never given the subject a second’s thought.
He was goalkeeper, he insisted.
I asked about the influence of hidden hands on the tiller of his former club, and if he’d shaken them. He shook his head.
He was a goalkeeper, he insisted.
He had nothing to offer anyone apart from that. He started to tap his pen on the desk, his white shirt collar seemed to be cloying at his wide neck. He remained polite, but he knew this was inane.
And he had work, he had more important things to do.
I have seen Oskar Kosche play football only once, in the Flexstrom Cup, the old-timers five-a-side tournament at the Max Schmeling Halle. He smiled, he threw himself around, he chatted to his team-mates and took the piss out of them, utterly at ease, a man in complete control. Only once did his face drop, when Christian Beeck misplaced a back-pass that he had to sweep up and out of danger’s way. For fuck’s sake, man, he seemed to be saying – for the words were impenetrable. For fuck’s sake, man. Pay attention, concentrate. This is important.
Oskar Kosche will be at his desk tomorrow, for though Union are celebrating a remarkable achievement that was made possible only through his tireless effort, he still has work to do. He will be making sure that the club never fall into ruin again, he will continue doing what he’s done for most of his adult life, and what Andreas Luthe knew he had to do on Saturday, too. It’s a goalkeeper’s job.
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