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Interview with Rafal Gikiewicz. Authenticity in football from a player's perspective.

Roger Hampel




On Wednesday 09.11.2022, 1. FC Union Berlin host FC Augsburg. Rafał Gikiewicz is the current star of FC Augsburg, but he built his personal brand in the colors of Union Berlin, qualifying with them to the Bundesliga in 2019, becoming the "Berlin Player of the 2018/2019 Season Award" and "Unioner Des Jahres 2018/2019 Award".


On the occasion of this match, I decided to ask him about his time with Union Berlin in terms of functioning in an authentic and anti-commercial sports club from the perspective of a footballer.


May 2019. Union Berlin players celebrate the first promotion to the Bundesliga. Rafal Gikiewicz was one of the main heroes of this promotion. Source of the picture: https://images.app.goo.gl/Cp4kbWc5F3an3ag78


Roger Hampel (Football Business Journal): Your feelings about Union Berlin from the perspective of a footballer in an anti-commercial club.

Rafal Gikiewicz (FC Augsburg): The media describe Union as a cult club with its rules, but you just have to experience it yourself and see it from the inside. From day one at the club, the club's CEO, directors and rulers are just different from those I met in previous clubs. The fans are primarily devoted to the club and no matter what is going on there, no matter what opponent comes, no matter how many matches they lost or won before a given match - the stadium is full. This is a cult club, it has cult fans and they just come to spend time at the Alte Foersterei. It is just their hobby, their way of spending the day and for them the match starts 3-4 hours before the game and ends 3-4 hours after the game. In some stadiums, fans leave earlier during the match to avoid traffic jams, get into the car and go home. In Union it doesn’t work like that! At Union Berlin, every home game and every victory tastes different than at any other club I've played for. It was no coincidence that they had a 36-game unbeaten streak at home. I had the honor of defeating Union in my first game for Augsburg. In the last four matches I haven't lost against Union, but it's really hard to play there, Union players leave their hearts on the pitch. Their slogans "Niemals Vergesen. Eisern Union". This is not a basic slogan, it is something that means more for the fans and for the players.



Roger Hampel (Football Business Journal): How important is the character fit in such a club?

Rafal Gikiewicz (FC Augsburg): First of all, Union even builds the football team with a specific character and the fact that you are a good footballer does not always match joining such a club, because a football player may not fit the character there. The sports director told me this at the first meeting with me, he communicated it to me. They talked to me, saw my family, then talked to head coach Urs Fischer, who came at the same time as me to the club. You have to fit with them first as a human and then as a footballer, because they don't take people who want to be bigger than the club either. Nobody is bigger than Union Berlin. They have their opinion, they stick to this opinion, every year they replace half of the team, because Union is a good club to promote players. I left not because of the money, but because they said I was old and I would only get a one-year contract. In Augsburg I got a two-year contract with an option to extend it for a third year. I played 73 Bundesliga games in Augsburg without any missed minutes, where age also does not matter. I really wanted to stay in Union, but I have a family and I care about stabilization, so only one year of extending the contract did not suit me. Children and family cried when we moved out because I spent a wonderful two years there.


Gikiewicz with Union Berlin's tattoo. Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/YcvJAfrmLK5Cdta7A


Roger Hampel (Football Business Journal): What can you say about the relationship with clubs' management?

Rafal Gikiewicz: It's hard to describe what's going on inside this club. I think it epitomizes a scene when, before the first Bundesliga play-off game with Stuttgart in 2019, the club’s president entered the dressing room with a scarf and said he was wearing this scarf for 25 years, he used to wear it as a kid, as an older man and as club’s president. He entered the club locker room and said, "Gentlemen, no matter what happens tonight in Stuttgart, the whole club is proud of you, all the cleaning ladies, all the people in the offices, from those who sell tickets to marketing and security. We are all proud of you. We will not forget this season, we will not forget what you have done, you are already winners. Do your job, enjoy it, no one is betting on you. Let’s go!” Now, as I talk about it, I have goose bumps. In Union Berlin the president of the club came to say hi before each game. After every game regardless of the result, he came to motivate us. The club president is a great guy, with a lot of fortune, but the contact in Union with the president is so shortened that you don't feel it. And he really was present all the time that season where we made a promotion, he was present that season where we held up in the Bundesliga.


Roger Hampel: Do you still have some contact with some players or club employees?

Rafal Gikiewicz: I do not know a player who, after leaving Union Berlin, would not have good memories, good contact with the woman who washed our equipment, with club employees, players, coaches or with the club’s president. Before the Berlin Derby in April 2022 (Hertha's defeat was important for us in the context of Augsburg’s staying in the Bundesliga) I called Union captain Trimmel and said that if they won, I would buy them a beer. They won and a day later I sent them three pallets of Polish beer with the signature 'Berlin ist Rot. Giki'. They celebrated with the Polish beer! To this day, this contact remains great. I did a lot for this club and people haven't forgotten it! Without coach Urs Fischer, we would not have made this promotion, he is a guy who tactically arranged and integrated the team perfectly. He came with an assistant who is also a great tactician and this duo insured that Union had more than 50 points in the Bundesliga for two seasons in a row.


Roger Hampel: Do you agree that as a Union player you have to be yourself?

Rafal Gikiewicz: Yes! They don't like caricatures. When I was in Union for 2 years, I spoke even more of what I thought in the interviews. In Augsburg, people from the club say "Be careful what you say." In Union Berlin, you stand in front of the microphone and say what you think. And for this truthfulness, people love you. The club is expressive and the players have to be expressive. In Union Berlin, you have to be yourself and when you play someone else - you don't fit in with Union Berlin. If you play someone else, your time will be up for Union Berlin. You will not fit into this team. It was no coincidence that they invited me to talk to the family, to the children who received Union T-shirts. They wanted to see how we would feel at Union Berlin. They told me that they know I would be fine on the pitch, but they wanted to know that I would be fine in Berlin. If a footballer feels bad in a given city, he is not able to give his best on the pitch.


Roger Hampel: What about the image of a football player in social media? Some Bundesliga players showed luxury stuff on social media f.e. Aubameyang's Diamonds Lamborghini or Ribery's Golden Steaks. In case of the cult club like Union Berlin, it may be a problematic case.

So, are they looking at it in Union?

Rafal Gikiewicz: They look at it. Players who drove Lamborghinis are no longer in the club.

Grischa Proemmel, who drives a Ford Fiesta, fits more in this pattern. Such a player fits more into the scheme of Union Berlin. An ordinary car, inconspicuous. Such a man who is down-to-Earth. Subotic was in line with the club's ways, because he wore one pair of jeans, one pair of shoes, and was going by a tram to the training. We said of him that he is a perfect match for Union Berlin. I was even going to buy his Ford Fiesta after promotion for 500 euros, I wanted to cut off the roof and celebrate the promotion. At first, Grischa agreed, but in the end, he had changed his mind. I always did a walking round around the stadium after each match, clapped, thanked the fans for cheering - Union fans like something like that!


Grischa Proemel (ex-Union Berlin Star, current Hoffenheim player) driving Ford Fiesta, which he got from his grandparents for his 18th birthday. Source of the picture: https://images.app.goo.gl/2zXAdceWVz2xKUts6


Roger Hampel: So authenticity is very important there.


Rafal Gikiewicz: They like normality! If you are a normal person, you are yourself, you say your opinion, you will have great sympathy in Union Berlin! This is a normal club, on very normal, solid legs, it is not a monster on clay legs like for example HSV Hamburg - big money and no good team. Union pays less money but has a good team. There is something great and specific about this club. I can recommend everyone to spend 1-2 days inside the club to see how it works. To this day, I have contact with Susanne, who washed our clothes, prepared everything for us, takes care of the organization in the club and I say to her 'Mama' instead of 'Susi'. She brings the team together and without her this Union would not be what it is. There are no random people in any position.

Roger Hampel: What can you say about the times of crisis at Union Berlin? After all, you were one of the first people to relinquish your own salary following the outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic.

Rafal Gikiewicz: During the Covid-19 pandemic, when the club lost revenues, I was the first to write an e-mail to the president that I was able to give up my salary and it was not a problem for me, so they cut my salary. And after less than a week, the whole team followed me and made the same decision. Everyone agreed to forgo part of their salary! Everyone, including the lady who sold tickets or the lady who washed our clothes. All of them gave up their salaries in proportion to their earnings, not only footballers, because in Union everyone is equal and the good of the club is the most important thing. The president of the club entered the dressing room himself, showed us the table with financial losses and clearly said what losses await the club due to the crisis and the lack of fans at the stadiums. There were no secrets at the club. In order for this club to function and to be financially liquid, we had to do it!


Roger Hampel: How important was distinguishing from Hertha BSC - from your local rival?

Rafal Gikiewicz: Hertha and HSV are clubs that have unfulfilled dreams and will always be looking at their local rival like Union and St. Pauli, instead of focusing on themselves. Because of this they lose a lot, in recent years they have achieved nothing. Union shows that by selecting the right people for the tactics and club, you are able to compete against a club that invests millions of euros in its team. Union can be an example for other clubs. Everything in the club works as it is supposed to. They are where they are for a reason.


Roger Hampel: The relationship between financial success and sports success.

Rafal Gikiewicz: In the Bundesliga, the better you play, automatically the more money you have. The club is better known, it is shown on TV during Prime Time viewership, the club makes money from marketing - the players are dependent on the club and the club is dependent on the players. The popularity of the club is the consequence of the sports performances. In my time, there weren't many young players in the first team. After their success in sports, money started coming, and this money is spent on young people as they are expanding training bases. And that's cool! Nobody wastes money. In times of crisis, it is easiest to bet on your players, and then the fans will identify with the club even more.


Roger Hampel: How important is the relationship between footballers and fans in 1. FC Union Berlin?

Rafal Gikiewicz: In general, in Germany, this relationship is very close. It is a cult club and the fans are great. Nobody whistled at us. After losing the first game in the Bundesliga 0: 4 against RB Leipzig, the fans sang for half an hour after the game and were happy that we gave them the opportunity to experience the match at the level of the first Bundesliga. Whether you win or lose, the fans will applaud you, they will thank you that you left your heart on the pitch, because the fans realized that we lost the match because we were weaker, not because we didn't want to play. Whoever wears the Union Berlin jersey will leave their heart on the pitch, sometimes you lose, sometimes you win, that's football, but these fans are always the twelfth player on the pitch. At An der Alten Foersterei, this stadium has its own atmosphere, these changing rooms have their own atmosphere, this old clock has its own vibe and it is not without reason that Union Berlin is such a strong team in home games.


Rafal Gikiewicz and the 1. FC Union Berlin's fans. Source of the picture: https://images.app.goo.gl/QGKjhhr4kNrKeSuW

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