Bobby Wood begins ‘soccer god’ life in Berlin

By Mike Woitalla @MikeWoitalla

Ten minutes before kickoff, there are no lines at the beer, merchandise and currywurst concessions that surround Union Berlin’s stadium. The bored vendors outnumber the fans. If you didn’t hear the thunderous singing and chanting, you’d think no one showed up today.

In fact, it’s a sellout of 22,000 at the Stadion An Der Alten Försterei — “Stadium by the Old Woodsman’s House.” All the fans are already packed inside, where 80 percent is standing sections, for which tickets cost $13. The seats cost $44. Fans of the Eisernen (Iron Ones) don’t miss kickoffs. They don’t miss the player introductions. The currywurst can wait.

It’s the opening day of 2015-16 German second division season. When American Bobby Wood is introduced by the PA, the crowd shouts: “Fussballgott!” (soccer god).

But that’s what the Union Berlin fans chant after each player’s name is called out. They’re getting their first look at Wood today. Union Berlin paid a $1 million transfer fee — a club record by far — for the 22-year-old striker. Wood will be under significant pressure to prove it was money well spent. This is not a wealthy club.

Like all clubs from the former East Germany, Union Berlin struggled after reunification. When a $2 million deficit threatened it with bankruptcy in 2004, fans organized a “Bleed for Union” campaign in which they gave blood and sent the donation payments to the club.

During the 2008 stadium renovation, when the club ran out of funds, more than 2,000 fans put in 140,000 volunteer work hours to help with construction.

“There were enough there who knew what they were doing when it came to construction, that the rest of us could follow their lead,” says a fan when I asked him what it was like. The atmosphere in Berlin’s only soccer-specific stadium is renowned as one of German soccer’s most electric.
Photo by Felix courtesy of Groundhopping etc.

Last season, Union Berlin finished in seventh place. Sebastian Polter led the team in scoring with 14 goals but left for Queens Park Rangers. Wood is supposed fill his shoes.

The Hawaii-born striker joined 1860 Munich’s youth team at the age of 14 in 2007. He debuted for the first team at age 18 in 2011 after scoring 12 goals for its reserve team.

Wood played in 50 second division games for 1860 Munich before a clash with his coach led to a loan to struggling Erzgebirge Aue, which was relegated to the third division last season as Wood scored three goals in nine appearances while plagued with injuries. He arrived in Berlin with only six second division goals on his resume.

But last June his stock skyrocketed via the U.S. national team. He came off the bench to score a 90th-minute gamewinner in the USA’s 4-3 win over the Netherlands. Five days later, he came off the bench and scored the winner when the USA beat Germany, 2-1, in a Cologne friendly. Soon there were rumors of a move to first division VfB Stuttgart. Instead, he came to Berlin.

Coach Norbert Duewel said before the opener against Fortuna Duesseldorf that Wood was still a couple weeks away from full fitness, but started him anyway. It didn’t go well for Wood. He stumbled on the ball when he tried to fake out a defender on the edge of the penalty area and misplayed the ball on another promising foray.

Photo by Felix courtesy of Groundhopping etc.

The three major Berlin newspapers rated Wood lowest among Union Berlin’s players. Bild wrote that he was “weak” and “ineffective.”

The Union Berlin fans left the stadium dejected because, after having led, 1-0, for 85 minutes, the Eisernen conceded a 90th-minute equalizer. Asked about Wood, they were more forgiving than the press would be the next day. “It’s too early to judge him” was the standard response.

They keep faith in their soccer gods at the Stadium by the Old Woodsman’s House.

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