Santi Kolk has never told this story before.
And as he does it’s as if I can sense a weight being lifted off his shoulders. His greatest moment in a Union shirt, a goal he says is up there with any that he ever scored, is dogged by an abiding sadness. And the wrath of a striker scorned. He gives the impression that he will never really be able to revel in it like he should because of the other things that pissed him off.
That, possibly, even drove him to score it in the first place.
He’s funny and open and happy to reminisce, but he raises his voice in anger at times during our conversation. It’s still raw. He grows breathless, focussing on the road as he drives to a game he has to watch at home in Holland, as the sense of injustice he feels when he looks back on his time in Berlin hits him in the chest again.
It hits him like the boot of a centre half who’s been beaten already by the time Santi has taken his first touch away from him. It’s as if it’s been there since he left almost ten years ago.
But then he will relax again. Focussing on the road. He’ll remember the fans who he only wanted to impress, and the stadium and the moment that he is so proud to have been able to give them.
I asked him about his goal against Hertha. But he said to understand it, and his reaction to it, we needed to go back. Back to the week before the first ever league derby between 1.FC Union and Hertha BSC.
Union had started the 2010/11 season badly. Uwe Neuhaus was under pressure. They’d lost in the first round of the Cup to Halle. They’d drawn with Aachen and lost at home to Fürth.
Then they had lost away at Paderborn, 2-0. When the whole country’s eyes were starting to focus on football in the Hauptstadt for the first time in ages, Union had been listless and uninspired. Frankly, they’d stunk the place out.
Kolk had scored a fine goal in the Fürth game, but he also missed a penalty. He was struggling to adapt. “I’d never played midfield before in my life, but that’s where Neuhaus kept putting me,” he now says, unconsciously sounding like every stereotypical Dutch schoolboy to have played the game. The number ten was an inheritance that bestowed magical qualities and unallayed freedom upon its wearer.
Santi was wearing the number on his back but he was playing too deep and had to keeping tracking the runs of Zweite-Liga-midfielders who, technically, weren’t fit to lace his boots.
“I cannot defend. I can’t tackle. It looks like shit. I’m not a midfielder, to play me there was a waste for everybody.”
For the leaders of the club off the pitch, Uwe Neuhaus and Christian Beeck this was tantamount to treason. They were both former centre-halfs. Though they came from opposite ends of the country – they grew up in different countries – they were both fiercely proud of their working class roots and their hard fought tenacity.
For them football was a battle.
They were both always absolute gentlemen to a stranger like me, but they imposed themselves upon you immediately. They had vice like handshakes. You remembered your first meeting with both in the white marks left on your hands and the sense that you were cut from a different, less powerful cloth as they.
They were alpha males and they expected this to be reflected on the pitch they sent their teams out to play upon.
When Uli Hoeness said that his Wattenscheid team were a blight on the Bundesliga, Neuhaus took that as the greatest compliment of all, and smiled when I once reminded him of it. Because he knew that it meant he was doing his job.
And we need to remember this context when Santi tells his story. Because there’s a good chance that he was never going to fit into the footballing culture of a club like Union back then.
It was hewn in Neuhaus’ image and Santi was different. He was fast and he was pretty. His long hair flicked out behind him as he burst past a slumbering defence onto a precisely hit ball over their heads.
Santi was born to score. And one on one against a keeper was his bread and butter. He’s no mathematician but he had an innate understanding of the trigonometry of the situation, judging his own speed and that of the keeper coming out off his line. The angles were already clear to him, the speed with which he’d need to hit the ball, the time he had to take one or two touches to steady himself whilst accelerating with the ball at his toe.
It was all about that first touch. Without it everything else would have fallen apart before he had even the chance to shoot. He could kill a ball stone dead, just like that, nudging it one way or the other the way a chess player sets up a trap.
As soon as he took that first touch, check mate. He could do it all day.
He just didn’t like tackling.
And he was never very good at keeping his mouth shut either. He says he was always impatient.
He’d left Den Haag at 18, having scored on his debut, stars in his eyes. But he was too young, it wouldn’t work out. He’d tell everyone what he thought. “I didn’t care. Coach players, chairman. I’d talk to everyone.” When he says he’d talk to everyone I think he means he’d tell them exactly what he thought of them, too.
It was his ego that made him able to make the act of scoring a goal look so simple, it allowed him to play with an ephemeral beauty and gave him a constant threat. But it was also his ego which would make him so belligerent. Which would make him back himself even when nobody else ever thought he was worth a shit.
Throughout his life he would always return to Den Haag. He had four spells at the club. He’d always return to the comforts of home. To the place he knew best, and the place where everybody knew him, and everybody remembered the belter he drove into the top corner against Ajax from outside the box. They hated Ajax, and they loved Santi for ever more after that one. It was a hell of a goal.
He was accepted for what he was. Not like here. Or at least that’s how he saw things. Still sees things.
He reminds me in many ways of the brilliant English striker Matt Le Tissier. He was gloriously talented in a way that the English could never really get their heads around. He was what we a “continental type.” A beguiling, dreamlike number ten, but he never played at the level he could have done because he never left Southampton. “I suppose I liked being a big fish in a small pond,” he once said.
Santi would always be a big fish in Den Haag. They were happy to put up with his relaxed attitude to defending.
If Neuhaus thought that he was hard work, for the leaders on the Alte Försterei pitch it was even worse. They resented him, as he sees it. They thought he was only in it for himself. He was making more money than most of the team, he had a flash car and he lived in a luxury flat in the Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz. He didn’t see the problem. “I was 28 years years old. I’d worked hard for this, and I loved Berlin.”
He liked the lights and the glamour of the city. Whereas two people as diametrically different as Jens Keller and Sebastian Polter would make a virtue of making their homes in Köpenick, it wasn’t for Santi, and he didn’t see why he had to pretend.
When Nikita Khrushchev called Berlin the “Testicles of the West,” he wasn’t thinking of its south eastern fringes, the edges of the Müggelsee, the Wuhlheide, the legends of Wilhelm Voigt and the clanking of trams along cobbled streets past the decaying former factories of Oberschöneweide.
And Union were still a provincial club back then, too. Still closer to their nadir in the Oberliga than the bright lights of the Bundesliga, a million miles away, as Köpenick was a million miles from Potsdamer Platz. Their values were worn on their sleeves. Santi was seen as an outsider. And he couldn’t help but see himself as one, either.
Looking back in hindsight, this was probably never going to work out. Many of the squad didn’t like him from day one, and he didn’t really care, as long as they would let him play the game the way he knew how. “You don’t have to be friends, there are always arguments in the dressing room. But you have to have that respect.”
Their bus slunk back to Berlin in the wake of the defeat to Paderborn through the night, followed by a single car being driven by Christian Arbeit. It wasn’t his car. It belonged to Santi.
Santi went the other way, back to Holland for a quick break for the first time since he had become Union’s record signing. He had a new girlfriend he wanted to see. He was still a home-town boy. But things would blow up while he was there.
“I was in Holland and a team meeting was called while I was away. I had a couple of mates in the squad and they called and said it was all about me. Players saying that I didn’t work, that I only wanted to play a certain way.” He was livid.
“It was a lack of respect, to talk behind my back like that. I was so angry, saying “What the fuck is this?”
When he came back in the week before the derby he couldnt look anyone in the eye. Football was his life. His passion. It was all he’d known. “And Neuhaus is spending all week telling the team that he only wants players who are going to give him “200 percent.”
“I said to him, I know what happened. I feel hurt, and I won’t be able to give you what you want, so put me on the bench.” He’d started every game for Union so far. He says he was thinking about the team, that he knew he couldn’t do what they needed him to do. He was too angry, but maybe he was also trying to defend himself still.
“Neuhaus was surprised. He couldn’t believe it.”
So Santi sat on the bench for the next 76 minutes, 74 of which were played with Hertha leading 1-0 through Peter Niemeyer’s second minute opener. He wasn’t sure if he’d come on, but if he did he says he was certain what would happen. Even after he missed a sitter after only a minute of being on the pitch, the ball bouncing off his shins, it was ugly and ungainly. Maybe he was still caught up in the fog of his emotions.
But then it came.
He picked up the ball halfway inside the Hertha half. He bore diagonally right, heading towards the box, towards the roaring Waldseite, before hitting a perfectly weighted right footed drive back across goal from the edge of the box and inside the far post. “I always score against Maikel Aerts,” was what he’d said before the game, and he repeats it now and I can almost see the grin spreading across his face as he does. Le Tissier had also once said that, as a striker, there is no better feeling than humiliating a keeper. It is the one thing you are there to do.
There is no space for compassion between strikers and keepers. One is only there to stop the other. One is only there to put the ball in the net, and the cooler you look when it’s done, the better.
But the real beauty in his goal against Hertha BSC is in its timing. In the way that he hit the ball early, when he still had space to take another touch if he wanted to, having judged the angle already as he started his run. It was a goal scored by muscle memory. An innate reaction.
He couldn’t miss.
The goal for which he is most remembered in Berlin, a perfectly placed shot, hit with power and precision, low and inside the far post in front of the bedlam of the Waldseite, was one that sparked utter, wild joy. There was a delirious, screaming roar. And as he tore away, even before it crossed the line – for he knew that it was going in as soon as he hit it, he’d been scoring goals like this his whole life – he was happy because he’d shown the Unioner in front of him that he really did care. That he really was good enough.
He says now how much he loved the fans here. How he knew what this meant to them, and he really wanted them adore him in turn.
But it was also one borne of anger. His masterstroke wasn’t just a fuck you. But it was partly, too. At his team-mates, at his management. He was happy because he’d shown everyone else that he didn’t give a shit about what they thought of him.
“I felt so strong. All that negative energy became a positive. I knew I’d do something. It wasn’t only about scoring an equaliser against Hertha. It was to show my team-mates… I don’t know what I did. I went crazy.”
He didn’t celebrate with the team that night. He would after the Olympiastadion win, but not this time. He went out with his girlfriend. He took her to dinner. Showed her the bright lights.
Talking to Santi I cant help but feel an overwhelming sense of sadness. He kept getting injured before falling out with Neuhaus and Beeck entirely through a bizarre couple of meetings that could fill an entire chapter of a book by itself, but that we don’t have time to go into now. Beeck was gone by the end of the season anyway, the victim of a power struggle with Neuhaus. Santi ended up going to Breda on loan.
Neuhaus would tell the press after Santi left: “I didn’t even know he was the number ten.” The acrimony was all too palpable. They had reached the point of no return, and he picked up his stuff and has still never been back to this day, though he says he still wants to.
He played only 18 times for Union. I can’t have seen him more than nine or ten of those times, but for some reason I have built him up in my memories of Union to a heroic level. Like he played a hundred times for the club. Maybe because he was a foreigner which I was. Or maybe because he was an outsider, like I sometimes felt like I was. Maybe it’s because of his pretty boy looks and his long hair and the way he could drop a shoulder and leave a clogging defender on the dirt without so much as a pause for thought.
Santi Kolk offered a hint of glamour, a glint of flawed romance to a utilitarian side rooted in hard work and solid organisation. Tusche was a God, but Santi was different, somehow.
And he’s not blameless. He says so today. Neuhaus had to have players who gave him that steel, that Eisern, those who would give him the 200 percent he needed. It is how he brought them out of the mire, how they went up to the 2.Bundesliga in the first place, and what established the bedrock upon which the club are built. Union would not be facing Hertha BSC in the Bundesliga this weekend without the dogged qualities of Uwe Neuhaus.
But he was also inflexible, and couldn’t find a way to help patch up the chasms that had formed between Santi and his team-mates after that meeting in his absence. The saddest thing of all is that if they could have found a way to use a beautifully gifted player like Santi, then things would have worked out differently, for them both.
He says he tried, Santi says he didn’t really, and the truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Though in many ways it doesn’t matter now. It’s a long time ago.
It just leaves us with one thing; the memory of a single goal. The first ever league goal scored by an Unioner in the derby against Hertha BSC. A glorious finish past a keeper he always scored past, and a sensation of the roof coming off the Alte Försterei. Despite all the bullshit that had preceded it and the anger that would come after, he says it is still one of the greatest moments of his career.
And in many ways, having heard all this, and as I promise to tell his story as fairly as I can, I know that that’s enough. It’s more than most people leave you to remember them by.