Back in 2001, the Olympiastadion had the rare pleasure of hosting a Berlin team in the German cup final: 1.FC Union, who played in the Regionalliga at the time and had just been promoted to the second league. The club was experiencing one of its most glorious moments in recent history. They lost narrowly to Schalke 04, but advancing to that final also got them a ticket for European football the following season, where they bowed out in the second round of the UEFA Cup to Litex Lovech of Bulgaria.
Ever since then, it seemed that Union’s run to the 2001 final somehow jinxed the cup for them. While they at least made it to the second or third rounds in the following three years, none of the current squad ever advanced with Union, leading Torsten Mattuschka to say he would happily retire if they managed a win this time, “because then I will have seen it all.”
To be fair, some of the past defeats could be excused by the fact that Union were the underdog playing against first division teams, but the last two years were actually quite embarrassing: in 2010, the squad travelled to Leipzig to play Hallescher FC (who could not play at home at the time). To protest restrictive ticket sales, both fan groups remained silent for the first 15 minutes of the game. At some point, the Union fans – in their charming self-deprecating fashion – mimed their usual chants and cheers silently. While this in and of itself made the day unforgettable, Union still lost to the fourth division club. In 2011, Union played against Rot-Weiß Essen, another fourth division team. They at least managed to level the game after being down two goals, but still lost on penalties.
And 2012? With their recent track record, nobody would have blamed the Union fans if they already considered the cup match lost. Not only was their team pitted against a fourth division club once again, the draw would also bring them back to the place of their most recent cup defeat: Essen. So why would anyone be willing to travel a total of 1,000 km on a Monday night just to witness certain defeat, especially after Union’s first two games of the season revealed that stabilising their sloppy defence is still going to take some work?
For one, there is the usual dead-set dedication and loyalty to the club they love. This particular game also offered the opportunity to be one of the first away crowds in the new Essen stadium, or at least the three sides that are already built, offering room for 13,600 people (12,500 came that evening). Union fans not only had a good view of the game, but could also see the remnants of the old stadium through the gaping hole between the two main stands. And finally, they took the trip with the firm belief, that Goliath might finally beat David, and that the third time’s the charm.
The cup weekend had seen plenty of giants falter, so Uwe Neuhaus put his faith in the guys who experienced last year’s defeat first hand – Mattuschka came in for Tijani Belaid, Christian Stuff instead of Fabian Schönheim and Patrick Kohlmann returned to left back after his injury.
And unlike in previous games, Union were defensively very solid. They did not let Essen get too close to the penalty area, and keeper Daniel Haas only had to snatch up a few high crosses. Overall, Union were the more dominant side with better ball control. Essen found no way to get through, but neither did Union– their attack was toothless and lacking in creativity against a very defensive home side. There were only a few short-lived highlights when Union stepped up the pace: during the first five minutes of the second half, and a little after an hour into the game when Luis Felipe Gallegos debuted in the Union jersey. He immediately brought energy to the attack on the left, and fought hard for every ball. He was well positioned most of the time, but his teammates were not always on the same wavelength.
The game remained a stalemate and dragged on into extra time. Shots on goal were rare and people in the stands had already come to terms with the prospect of another penalty shootout. Not the Union bench, though, as Uwe Neuhaus would point out later at the press conference “we kept pushing the players to go for that final blow to avoid another shootout at all costs.” And Union would have their lucky punch. They had T-Rod.
During the past 120 minutes (much like during the first two league games), one would hardly have noticed Simon Terodde, but at the very end the striker was there when it mattered. After hitting the post just moments before, he managed to control a Zoundi header and outmuscled a pack of defenders swarming about him to tuck home – “a bit lucky, but not undeserved” said Neuhaus. The Essen fans – who had wholeheartedly supported their team throughout the entire game – fell silent, and their team had no means to turn the tide during the last two minutes of added time.
Now that Union’s cup curse is finally broken, it is unlikely that Mattuschka will act on his jokey promise to retire. His performance showed that there is some room for improvement, but that holds true for others as well. Let’s hope that he picks up speed and will lead his team to a new cup run to rival 2001.