A nice, plain looking family from Dresden were waiting for a bus at the Praça Conde Agrolongo, what would later be described by one local as “the grubbiest square in the city”. They wore pastel coloured tops and pastel coloured knee length shorts. The mum and the daughter had long hair pulled back in ponytails, the dad was balding, cheery pink cheeks matching his T-shirt.
“I find it astonishing,” said the woman – the teenage daughter stayed tight-lipped through the whole exchange. “They travel all this way, they spend, how many Euros, for an hour and a half?”
“We are…”, she said, speaking for all of them, while casting a suspicious eye over at the people in red and, mostly, white filling up the square, coming at it from all angles with Superbocks of different shades in their hands and, more often than anyone else, the name of Christopher Trimmel on their backs, “…not football fans”.
Her sense of wonder at what the hell it was that dragged these people across the continent for a game was unabound. Indeed, she was unconsciously invoking one of Braga’s most famous sons – a skeptic – Francisco Sanchez, who wrote in the 16th Century that “nothing is known.” He said we couldn’t understand the universe without God. The woman from Dresden didn’t drag a higher power into it. At least not at that point, anyway. She said she just couldn’t understand why these people did this thing that they did.
Nothing is known. She shook her head.
A group of Unioner wandered past, enjoying the sun on their faces, taking their time. They were benign, utterly harmless. She shook her head again and the family got the number two bus away from the growing mass of people as soon as they could.
Around the corner a man with a tube plugged into his throat to help him breathe played Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence on a cheap wooden recorder. Another woman, running a café on the square, said she had no worries about the descending hoards. She was already doing a brisk trade in Superbock, though she looked disappointed every time a fan turned down the chance to have one in a hyper-chilled glass, the way it is supposed to be.
Maybe the Mum was right. It is a curious notion, after all, the devotion shown by these people in relation to their football club. That they would be here at all, a 24 hour round trip at best, is remarkable. But no less remarkable than the hundreds who went to see the goalless draw against Falkenstein-Finkenkrug in October 2005.
That left them five points behind Babelsberg in the table, and four behind Neuruppin.
Or the hundreds who went to Erfurt on a Monday evening a decade and a half ago to see a 2-0 loss in the pissing rain in an uncovered stand behind the home straight of a tatty running track from which you couldn’t see the ball anyway. That one left them in tenth.
It was grim that night, and they sung all the way there, and they sung all the way home too.
By three the Praça Conde Agrolongo was filling up and the sun was coming out. It was weirdly peaceful. Tourists and locals alike stopped to take photos, they too wondered.
Cursory singing broke out, but only cursory. Most of them had been awake at three to get their flights, 1,500 of them. Old friends saw each other, people who knew each other only through this, through following Union. It was community, after all. And what is stronger than that? The supermarket had a steady queue, its fridge, hidden at the back, around a corner, like a treasure trove.
A few dozed. It had been a long day and the sun was deceptively hot out there. The march to the stadium, when they’d all join together like a bastardised version of the pilgrimage to nearby Santiago de Compostella, to walk en masse through the streets to the quarried out majesty of the stadium, was still a couple of hours off.
But they would rouse themselves for that, for the game too.
Several fans said that they didn’t really care what the result was. “Who gives a shit”, one said with a toothy smile a mile wide. He’d come via Paris. Others had come via London. Jesus, they’d come from every angle, like ants towards an apple core. But what was important was that they were here, “that they showed the world they cared”, he said.
But he also said he still carried that hope in his heart, the hope of victory, the hope that the football Gods would smile upon them this time.
Because if not last time, then maybe, why not this time.
Diogo Leite, who spent a year here, and who was wheeled out at the press conference as a returning son, caught in the crossfires of three different languages, none of which seemed to coincide with each other very much, said last night that he was sure things would work out. He said that the strength of these very fans would help, too. Because he’s seen the derby between Porto and Sporting – he came on for the last five minutes in one when only 19 years old, now that is pressure, let’s not forget – but that the noise of the Alte Försterei before kick-off was something else.
Instead of knowing that nothing is known, for the Unioner in Braga, it would be better said that “nothing worth knowing is known”. Because if they knew what would happen, if it was ordained, this would all be pointless.
Because the hope… embodied by the people in that square with the beers in their hands and the sun ,the brutal Iberian sun that even the police cowered away from, slinking away into the shadows, off around the corner, burning their heads, who wore hundreds upon hundreds of specially printed white T-shirts that said “Back then, unthinkable, but today it’s true…”
The hope… The hope is always there.