The star striker of the Bundesliga season so far is not Harry Kane. It’s Kevin Behrens. Both men made their competitive debut at the age of 30. The difference is that Behrens has spent most of the past decade in German football’s regional leagues.
Now he is preparing himself for Real Madrid.
At 32 years old, Behrens is more than just a touching story, a man who had his best days in the fourth division to become a hero at Union Berlin, scoring a hat-trick on the opening weekend against Mainz and cycling home. It’s a symbol.
For the wider game, of course. Newspaper Berliner Zeitung I enjoyed comparing him to Neymar, who was said to have sat on gold leather on his private plane from Paris. The simple act of avoiding East Berlin traffic was enough to be seen as contradictory.
For the Union in particular. Their remarkable journey to the Champions League has been fueled by a strange chemistry. This famous club from the capital, famous for its support but not its football, has upended expectations – and the German elite. There is no benefactor, only unwavering faith.
Behrens embodies that journey. “He’s a meta character,” says Jacob Sweetman. Sky Sports. English by birth, and Berliner by choice, Sweetman is now part of the communications team, spreading the gospel according to the Union in the English-speaking world.
“Ittihad is an old-fashioned football club,” he says, by way of explanation of the Burns phenomenon. His hat-trick of headers against Mainz, the first player to do so in a Bundesliga match this century, is exactly what the fans in Union want to see.
“We don’t need to see the ball on the ground. We like a big No. 9. We’re not looking for a sneaky genius. We like someone who comes up with his elbows. The fact that he can get kicked in the head and get up, we love that. Kevin Behrens embodies all of that.” “
His goals have come at the right time because there is a change happening in the federation. In August, the club signed German internationals Robin Gosens and Kevin Volland. They followed this up by bringing in legendary Italian defender Leonardo Bonucci. It’s a new world.
Their Champions League home matches will be played at the spacious Olympic Stadium, home of Hertha and Les Union. For a club that takes pride in its identity, Behrens is a reminder that this club is still the Etihad. “There’s another dynamic at play with Union and Kevin,” Sweetman says.
“I’ve noticed an arrogant attitude towards him over the last year or so in your more bourgeois press. They look down on him. There’s definitely an arrogance and I think a very large number of Union fans think people look at their club that way too. They take to it.”
All of this makes this story special, but it took Behrens to make it possible. “Never give up, always work hard, before and after training, believe in yourself and seize the opportunity.” These are the words of the man himself. “My path was not normal.”
“Such a strange profession.”
Released by Werder Bremen as a youngster, Behrens moved from club to club, winning over fans but not always his coaches. There was a season in Germany’s Aachen and another at Rot-Weiss Essen before he found a home in Saarbrücken at the age of 25.
Robert Rolovsen later became assistant manager at Saarbrücken. “After a few training sessions,” says Roelofsen. Sky Sports“I told the head coach: ‘We’re a transition team.’ Behrens was not the type to play a complicated game, and he thrived when there was space.
Roelofsen had coached in the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg, and had seen all types of players. Nothing like Burns. “I’ve had players who I thought would make it to the top but they never did. Then there are those who surprise you. I’ve never had a player with such a strange career before.”
His interpretation? “Players think they’re there too early because they’re making too much money. The hunger you need to get to the next step is tough. With Kevin, the mentality was always to get to the next step because he wasn’t satisfied with his career.”
Berns left Saarbrücken after the club lost out on promotion to 1860 Munich in the play-offs. “Of course, the Fourth League was too low for him. I definitely saw the possibility of him getting promoted to the Second League. Have you seen the Champions League? No, I haven’t.”
His seasons at Sandhausen made him a force in the second division. It took Union to bet on him in the Bundesliga. Asking a player on the wrong side of 30 to advance seemed like a risk. But Union’s unique approach under Urs Fischer was a perfect fit for Berhenz.
“You have to find the right way to play with him,” Roelofsen explains. “If he plays for Manchester City as an attacking striker and the spaces are tight, it’s not for him. At Union, they play long balls and use his physicality. This is the best use of his quality.”
Roelofsen does not take it lightly when he uses the term “kicking and lunging” – it is a tactic that has destabilized the entire Bundesliga. Al-Ittihad sit deep, absorb pressure, then quickly tackle or pass the ball wide and hit the penalty area with quality crosses. A lot of wilting.
“They’re one of the only clubs where things can work out, but it’s a perfect match because Kevin just wants to have fun. Don’t expect a lot of tactical talk from him. I don’t think he has a plan very often but he’s got that physicality and he’s eager, just let him do it.” .
“He is a machine. But you need a coach who understands his quality. They have found a player that fits their system and suits what the fans want. Union have a lot of people who work hard all week. They want to see a player.” Who works his ass off every weekend.”
“There’s more to Kevin Burns.”
Sweetman would agree to Union Crowd’s demands at the intimate Stadion An der Alten Forsterei and admit to pointing to Behrens’ insatiable work ethic. “He’s a hard worker. You should see his abs. His stomach is crazy.”
Although Behrens gave “every second to get as much out of himself as possible”, his first season in the Bundesliga saw him forced to settle for a part-time role. Twenty-two of his 24 appearances came from the bench, scoring twice. Last season was different.
His equalizer against Borussia Mönchengladbach in October captured the imagination. “It was a header and he got punched in the head by the goalkeeper,” recalls Sweetman. He ignored it, of course, as he did. “He had this shine to him and he hardly seemed to notice it.”
If it was for the fans, and to cement his legend, then the win at Werder Bremen in January was for him. “He grew up there, and you could see how important it was to him. His parents were there in the stands. There was a significance to it. I think that was a turning point for him.”
Goals followed against Wolfsburg, Stuttgart, Eintracht Frankfurt, Freiburg, and even away to Borussia Dortmund. Behrens developed his game with the help of Markus Hoffmann, Fischer’s assistant and former lower league striker. A real talisman appeared.
He retains that sense of fun, unpredictable Union boy. As players and staff lined up on the field to be introduced to the crowd before the first game of the season, Behrens could be seen giving teammates a pat on the back of the head, a constant source of nuisance.
He was once asked what the perfect holiday destination was, and he answered Mallorca, specifically the Ballermann, the infamous German tourist bar. His choice of food? Foot long sausage. Behrens is not afraid to stoop into caricature. “He’s this kind of weird guy. No bull.”
However, Sweetman is convinced that this collective image is not the whole picture. He adds: “Whenever I see him, he laughs and sticks out his tongue, but I think he is more sensitive than what he likes to say.” “I think there’s more to Kevin Behrens.”
He remembers the scene of Behrens with the injured Andras Schäfer after the victory over Union Saint-Gilloise last season. “He was carrying him to the bus. There are no pictures of him but he was really touching. He showed Kevin this side that people don’t see.”
Real Madrid’s worst nightmare?
This explains why Behrens is so popular among his teammates as well as supporters. “Everyone loves him. It goes back to the idea of him being a regular guy. I think he’s absolutely wonderful.” Roelofsen agrees. “He’s humble. He’s a natural. And people love him for that.”
Later this month, Behrens will be part of the Al Ittihad squad that arrives at the Bernabeu for a match that so far seems improbable. Four years ago, the club had not yet appeared in the Bundesliga, let alone participated in European competition.
Now they face the most famous club ever.
Real Madrid’s aristocrats will be at home in more ways than one, and the interlopers at the Etihad are just as comfortable in their role as outsiders. They have a strong striker from the regional leagues in their ranks with a point to prove.
He couldn’t, right? “The most amazing thing is that it’s not impossible,” Sweetman says.
That’s the lesson of Kevin Behrens’ story.