It’s easy to get disillusioned with football these days, and I don’t just mean the big stuff like the corruption, the ridiculously huge (and ever growing) transfer fees and the domination of the big teams. Not to mention the fact the past year has kind of sucked, Germany are “re-building,” the DFB continue to screw up and make stupid decisions (their latest mishap being to align themselves with Volkswagen – yeah, because that’s totally a good image for the national team) and Freiburg escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth. But every once in a while something comes along that reminds you why you fell in love with the game to begin with, this season that thing is Union Berlin.
Despite all of that I was really looking forward to the relegation play-offs this year, because it felt like it wouldn’t be the formality it’s been in previous seasons. Whether it was Union Berlin or Paderborn that ended up in third place Stuttgart have been so bad this season it seemed a pretty good bet that either of the former had a really good chance of winning the tie. As things turned out it was Union Berlin who finished in third and had to face VfB Stuttgart. I was rooting for them for more than one reason, first of all I always root for the opposition against Stuttgart, secondly Union are a really cool team with a terrific set of fans and thirdly their crazy goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz used to play for Freiburg. Well he only actually played three games for Freiburg but two of them were really important games.
Rafal played three times for Freiburg, twice in the league and once in the DFB Pokal. He came on to replace Schwolow when he was injured in the Leipzig game, and took his place in the following game against Dortmund. He played in the second round of the DFB Pokal in a 3-1 win over Dynamo Dresden. The Dortmund game is memorable especially for being the one in which Freiburg took the lead (through two Petersen goals) and kept it until the third minute of extra time when Dortmund equalised. That second Petersen goal was voted as goal of the season on Sportschau. Rafal himself is well acquainted with late goals in extra time, for he scored one himself for Union Berlin against 1.FC Heidenheim earlier this season. He’s a great keeper (the 14 clean sheets he’s kept this season show that), something he didn’t get to showcase much at Freiburg. So I’m happy he’s found a place at Union Berlin, not least because it gives me an extra excuse to watch them.
As I mentioned above, the relegation play-offs can feel like something of a formality, they tend to go only one way. In the past ten years a 2.Bundesliga side has won the relegation play-off just twice, 1.FC Nürnberg and Fortuna Düsseldorf being the two teams. Of course both those teams had previously been in the top flight, whereas for Union it’s the first time ever. The odds are obviously stacked in favour of the Bundesliga team, but this year’s play-off has proved that sometimes karma does work. Because Stuttgart truly deserved to get relegated and Union deserved to be promoted. Stuttgart have been so consistently terrible that relegation is no surprise, the only reason they weren’t relegated directly is that Hannover and 1.FCN have simply been worse.
Funny how things end up, Stuttgart and Hannover were relegated together in 2016, promoted together in 2017 and now once again in 2019 are relegated together. 1.FCN on the other hand return to the 2. Bundesliga after just one season in the top flight. Something which SC Paderborn know all about. At the moment Paderborn are the living embodiment of fairy tale football. Promoted to the Bundesliga for the first time ever in 2014, then relegated in 2015. That was followed by relegation from the 2. Bundesliga and then from the 3.Liga. It’s only thanks to 1860 Munich’s troubles that they weren’t playing in fourth tier of German football in 2017. They made good use of their reprieve and earned promotion back to the 2.Bundesliga.
And now after five years away they’ll be in the Bundesliga again, for the second time in their history. How long they’ll get to stay there I don’t know, I expect they’ll be top of everyone’s lists for potential relegation candidates. Hopefully they’ll be better prepared this time, and won’t self destruct quite so spectacularly should that happen. Union Berlin, I wouldn’t like to make any predictions there. They played well in the DFB Pokal against Borussia Dortmund, that’s true. But there’s a big difference between doing that once and playing in the Bundesliga every week against such teams. Whatever happens I’m sure their fans will enjoy it and that they’ll be a terrific addition to the league.
Weird thing is I dreamt about Stuttgart’s coach yesterday, I don’t remember why I was talking to him or where I was, but I remember what I was saying. I was asking him if he could talk without giving a motivational speech every time he opened his mouth. Which I suppose kind of summons up the arrogance of Stuttgart, they thought with few motivational speeches and battle spirit they could get through it. But all those millions spent and they couldn’t defeat Union Berlin, they didn’t lose either game but they didn’t win either. They just didn’t do enough, too little too late – which pretty much sums up their whole season.
Meanwhile Union have some celebrating to do, something they got started with the second the game ended as the pictures below show. The first picture is of their delightful mascot, who very fittingly is a knight. A knight who it seems can’t quite believe his new Bundesliga status: