The 1974 FIFA World Cup is fondly remembered by many for a final that saw the brilliance of football legends such as Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller and Johan Cruyff on full display, as Der Bomber memorably provided West-Germany with their second World Cup title, and very much started the cycle of misfortune for their great rivals, the Netherlands, who are still searching desperately for their first World Cup win. But there was a dramatic sub-plot in the tournament, in the less glamorous reaches of the group stages, where East-Germany beat their grudging neighbours West-Germany, ironically serving as the catalyst for the latter to make the necessary changes and win it all.
Other than that immortal victory in Hamburg, East-Germany never could hold a candle to their western neighbours in football, and neither were they unduly worried. In the GDR, football was not seen as a priority; for it represented more the individual and his own decisions, even within the wider spectre of team sport, than was deemed acceptable in a socialist society where everything was centered around the collective. Strictly monitored activities and sports like gymnastics, swimming and athletics saw the GDR flourish on the Olympic stage, where the key word was always dictatorial discipline. While football on the continent flourished as flair players emerged, creating the spectacle we see today, East-Germany stood still and its football stagnated.
“Sport is not private amusement, it is social and patriotic education” - Manfred Ewald, former East-German Minister Of Sport
In his early days at Dynamo Dresden, Matthias Sammer had started showing some of the flair, leadership and personal drive that would see him become World Player Of The Year later in his career, but was quickly prodded back into line with what the socialist football model prescribed by not too subtle means. “One day the entire squad was awarded with new boots; mine were the only ones that did not fit, being three sizes too large. It is not secret that it was a form of harassment, as individualism was not tolerated”. Indeed, it was their way of discouraging what they perceived as capitalist tendencies emerging within one of their players. This stymied the growth of East-German footballers, for there simply was no other solution than to accept the specific role that was forced upon an individual within a predetermined structure. The scorn poured on sport as a source of relaxation and enjoyment within the GDR is encapsulated by this sneering quote from the then-East-German Minister Of Sport, Manfred Ewald: “Sport is not private amusement, it is social and patriotic education”.
“One day the entire squad was awarded with new boots; mine were the only ones that did not fit, being three sizes too large. It is not secret that it was a form of harassment, as individualism was not tolerated” - Matthias Sammer
There were modest successes in Europe for some GDR clubs, though, as 1.FC Magdeburg managed to beat the mighty AC Milan in the 1974 Cup Winners’ Cup, while Carl Zeiss Jena nearly won the same competition seven years later against Dinamo Tbilisi. However, as time progressed, the scourge of match-fixing and a complete lack of competitive competition in the GDR-Oberliga destroyed East-German football. The stasi, or GDR secret police, decided in the late 1970’s that the club under their patronage, FC Dynamo Berlin, should become the dominating force in the GDR-Oberliga, and thus their leader and Minister Of State Security Erich Mielke decided to give the then-reigning champions, Dynamo Dresden, a changing-room visit to let them know about the changing of the guard. Needless to say, FC Dynamo Berlin proceeded to win the next ten league titles, and subsequently were nicknamed the elf schweine, or ‘eleven pigs’, to illustrate the disapproval of fans who did not even have to look very hard to recognize extremely biased refereeing and blatantly obvious match-fixing.
Eventually, this ill-deserved monopoly was put to an end in the 1988-89 season by who else than Dynamo Dresden, but only because the stasi decided that the era of FC Dynamo Berlin was over, which had much to do with the fact that the stasi themselves had started to lose some clout as the fall of the Berlin Wall creeped closer and closer. When Germany was finally re-united, FC Dynamo Berlin changed its name to FC Berlin, while FC Karl-Marx-Stadt did the same shortly after to become Chemnitzer FC, very much signalling the death of the GDR-Oberliga and all it stood for, banishing the oppressive nature of the socialist reign that had led to the stagnation in growth of football in East-Germany. The stage was set for players from the former GDR to flourish, and grow in conjunction with the former West-Germany to build and strengthen the united Nationalmannschaft after the 1990 FIFA World Cup win that West-Germany still achieved by name, whilst representing unified Germany by heart. The top two teams in the final season of the GDR-Bundesliga, first-time champions Hansa Rostock and Dynamo Dresden, were granted entry to the holy grail, the Bundesliga, as the last ties were severed with socialist institutions and associations. Surely the time was right for clubs from the east to finally grow and develop, becoming integrated with teams from the west at all levels of the domestic game?
With reunification, the stage was set for Bundesliga clubs to handpick the top talent from the former GDR, for their financial clout, infrastructure, history, and most crucially, prestige within European and world football outweighed anything that the eastern clubs could offer them.
Unfortunately, this did not happen, with East-German stars like the aforementioned Matthias Sammer and Rico Steinmann, among others, immediately being snapped up by settled, traditionally powerful West-German clubs. With reunification, the stage was set for Bundesliga clubs to handpick the top talent from the former GDR, for their financial clout, infrastructure, history, and most crucially, prestige within European and world football outweighed anything that the eastern clubs could offer them. With the eventual dissolving of the East-German national football team, the line became blurred between the former socialist-controlled clubs that were poorly run, unstable and miles behind in terms of tactics and technical knowledge, and the much more glamorous, well-known and financially stable teams from the former FRG. Thus it simply became a case of richer clubs buying promising players from poorer clubs, as is the norm today, without recognizing the fact that within this unique situation the poorer clubs needed to be protected and helped because of their history, and subsequent arrested development due to this.
This disparity remains, with the gulf between eastern and western clubs widening even more rather than becoming smaller. The importance of financial strength in football as we know it has created a vicious cycle from which it is almost impossible to escape without outside interference, which does not seem forthcoming in any shape or form. Whenever an eastern club produces a promising and talented player, the bigger clubs can sweep in and buy said player, leaving the smaller club with players not good enough to drive them forward. Any money made simply has to go into the club itself to simply ensure survival, which perfectly illustrates the almost infinite flow of stunted development. It is a sad situation which sees traditionally significant German clubs eventually disappearing, with VfB Leipzig, the first-ever Champions of German football going bankrupt in 2004. The club has since been resurrected as 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig by fans, the club name of VfB Leipzig in socialist times, but the sobering reality of the fact is that the achievements and soul of VfB Leipzig has been relegated to the history books, far away from the minds of modern lovers of German football.
Of the teams from the former GDR to have made it all the way to the Bundesliga post-Berlin Wall, it is a sobering reality that the likes of Dynamo Dresden and Hansa Rostock are more known for their insanely and fiercely fanatic fans, who sometimes blur the lines between burning passion for their club and hooliganism, than their actual performances on the pitch.
Of the teams from the former GDR to have made it all the way to the Bundesliga post-Berlin Wall, it is a sobering reality that the likes of Dynamo Dresden and Hansa Rostock are more known for their insanely and fiercely fanatic fans, who sometimes blur the lines between burning passion for their club and hooliganism, than their actual performances on the pitch. Both clubs enjoy massive fan bases, but the issue of finances is a constant threat to the survival of both sides, most recently Dynamo Dresden with their relegation from the 2.Bundesliga, which brings us back to the vicious cycle resulting in stunted growth and performance that is the case for so many other clubs from the east. Energie Cottbus did enjoy a sustained run of six seasons in the Bundesliga over the previous decade, but they have fallen back into 3.Liga obscurity, while Erzgebirge Aue remain a club that shows promise at times, but never really threatens to make the jump from 2.Bundesliga to the top division. The eternal question is one of how to help the East-German clubs reach the level of their former FRG counterparts? With German football, as a whole, in the midst of a massive high after their 2014 FIFA World Cup win, and the Bundesliga stronger than ever before thanks in large part to the renowned quality of youth players that Germany produces, one surely cannot throw a spanner in the works by looking to protect smaller clubs who are completely irrelevant and unimportant in the eyes of sponsors and television stations?
With the Bundesliga stronger than ever before thanks in large part to the renowned quality of youth players that Germany produces, one surely cannot throw a spanner in the works by looking to protect smaller clubs who are completely irrelevant and unimportant in the eyes of sponsors and television stations?
At this stage, there seems to be no real signs of progress on this front, apart from the Red Bull project in Leipzig. However, it has been well documented that many opposition fans and clubs do not agree with what is going on at RB Leipzig and how the club came to be. In terms of financial punch, there are few clubs who can really compete with Die Roten Bullen, and it has to be said that they have implemented a clear policy that focuses in youth development rather than the exclusive purchase of established stars. But can they really, truly be classified as one of these East-German clubs? The club in its current shape and under its current name only came into being in 2009, long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the liquidation of the socialist GDR. The vast majority of German football fans would agree with the statement that when RB Leipzig make it to the Bundesliga, for it is a question of sooner rather than later, they will only be representing East-Germany by virtue of location, rather than having broken the shackles of developmental oppression and strife that traditional, full blooded clubs from the east have been subjected to. But might the much-maligned Roten Bullen end up being the only vaguely East-German presence we see threatening the top tier of German football for years to come?
When Germany was reunited, families, loved ones, friends and colleagues found each other again after years of suffering and separation. In a humanitarian sense, it was an incredible success. But for East-German football, it spelled death for historically significant clubs like VfB Leipzig and many more, while pitting Dynamo Dresden, Hansa Rostock and numerous others against the powers of capitalism for years to come. There has never been a more apt time to say that for every triumph, there is a resulting failure, and this is the case for football in the former GDR; still lagging behind, all but forgotten.