When the full-time whistle was blown was blown on the 2014 World Cup final at the Maracanã in Rio, more Polish-born players collected winner’s medals than East German-born players did, as part of a success that is chronologically classed as Germany’s fourth World Cup win.
International divorce can be a messy process when it comes to who owns what, and which splinter nation can claim achievements of the past as their property. For reference, see the former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, while international re-marriage can be equally as complicated. What becomes of the identity and the history of the lesser of the two lights in question?
In the case of East Germany, they sort of blended into the wallpaper of what became the unified Germany and, while all things West German remained centre stage, East Germany just disappeared from consciousness. A sort of “what’s yours is ours, and what’s ours is also ours” took place. East Germany were patted on the head and told they had a major role to play in the brave new world, but essentially found themselves absorbed within the West German system, then swallowed up and digested.
Only eight full East German internationals went on the represent the unified Germany at the same level, one of those appearing just once, another just three times. Only Matthias Sammer and Ulf Kirsten became integral regulars for Germany, while the talents of Andreas Thom and Thomas Doll didn’t burn as brightly or for as long as your mind probably tricks you into thinking, with the two of them clocking up just 28 appearances in Germany shirts between them.
East Germany had a formidable national side throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, yet how good they were is lost to the black and white record books that tell us the story of a nation which reached the finals of a major tournament just once during the 38 years in which they kicked a competitive football around; that tournament being the 1974 World Cup finals, just next door in West Germany. They didn’t just reach the 1974 finals, they prospered once they got there.
They topped a first round group that not only saw them face Chile – in a game that was played out just the other side of the Berlin Wall – but also pitted them against their West German twin, beating them in an iconic coming together in what was one of the most politically charged games of football to ever have taken place.
East Germany prevailed 1-0 in Hamburg through a goal from Jürgen Sparwasser 13 minutes from time, planting the ball high into the roof of Sepp Maier’s net from just six yards. It would be the only time the two nations would meet at full senior level and the win, while political gold in East Berlin, only worked out to be one of those hindrances in disguise that international tournaments can sometime churn up.
East Germany’s dubious prize for topping Group 1 was winning the right to face the Netherlands, Brazil and Argentina in their second round group stage, as opposed to a group that contained Poland, Sweden and Yugoslavia, which turned out to be West Germany’s more favourable fate for being runners-up. A narrow 1-0 defeat to Brazil in Hanover, and a 2-0 loss at the hands of the hypnotic Dutch in Gelsenkirchen left East Germany with nothing more than a wooden spoon encounter at the bottom of the group with Argentina, again back in Gelsenkirchen, a game that kicked off simultaneously with what was effectively a semi-final between the Netherlands and Brazil in Dortmund.
It should have been the first of a number of appearances in the finals of major international tournaments for East Germany, but they instead befell the type of misfortune in qualification campaigns that Wales seemed to be magnetically drawn towards throughout the very same era. Between Mexico 70 and Italia 90, East Germany contrived to fall at the final hurdle in both World Cup and European Championship qualifying on an unerringly regular basis, they could and in some cases, should, have been present at almost every World Cup between 1970 and 1990, not just the one they did make it to in 1974.
They threw away a number of golden opportunities to reach the finals, no more so than in the qualifiers for Euro 1980, when they blew a 2-0 advantage against the Dutch in the final qualifier in front of 85,000 partisan spectators in Leipzig, to eventually go down 2-3 and miss out once again. Apart from the 1974 World Cup, East Germany’s biggest achievement came wrapped in their dedication to Olympic football, with one gold medal, one silver and two bronze being won between Tokyo 1964 and Moscow 1980.
At club level East Germany operated with a professional national top league for well over a decade before the West German Bundesliga launched in 1963. The DDR-Oberliga seems not to have always been administered and officiated in an even-handed manner, however, with Dynamo Berlin’s widely perceived status as being the club of the establishment resulting in a suspect ten consecutive titles being won between 1978 and 1988.
It was in European club competition that a true level of East German club talent could be found and the domestically dominant Dynamo Berlin of the eighties were often easily subjugated on the continent, with their best European showing coming in 1972 with a run to the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup. Other evocative names rose from East Germany: FC Magdeburg beat the then-holders AC Milan in the 1974 Cup Winners’ Cup final in Rotterdam to become the one and only East German club to lift a major European trophy, although others came close.
Carl Zeiss Jena beat Newport County in the quarter-finals on the way to reaching the final of the same tournament in 1981, where they threw away a 1-0 lead late in the game to eventually go down 2-1 to Dinamo Tblisi in Düsseldorf while, again in the Cup Winners’ Cup, Locomotive Leipzig were edged out 1-0 by Ajax and a Marco van Basten winner in the 1987 final in Athens. Dynamo Dresden lost out 2-1 on aggregate to VfB Stuttgart in the UEFA Cup semi-finals in 1989. When you put FC Magdeburg’s 1974 achievement into context, it was almost two further decades until a French club first won a major European club competition.
When Hansa Rostock won their first Oberliga title in 1991, in doing so simultaneously becoming the last ever East German league champions, there had already been an enthusiastic grasping of the new opportunities to the West, an understandable exodus of many of the best playing and coaching talent the old East Germany had to offer. The Bundesliga and the DFB opened its arms and assimilated the Oberliga, placing its fourteen clubs at carefully considered positions within the existing West German pyramid.
Oberliga champions Hansa Rostock were joined in the Bundesliga by 1991 runners-up Dynamo Dresden, six further clubs being placed within the then two regionalised second tier divisions, and the final six clubs being interspersed within the three regionalised third tier divisions, including a now cut adrift Dynamo Berlin who, since being absorbed into the unified German system, have never risen any higher than the third tier.
Life in the Bundesliga proved tough for the East German clubs. Hansa Rostock were relegated at the first time of asking, although they returned three years later, passing Dynamo Dresden on the way back up as they headed off into the wilderness of the lower divisions from where they’ve never managed a top flight return. The second Bundesliga coming of Hansa Rostock lasted longer than the first, clocking up ten successive seasons before relegation took them down once again, even joined for a few seasons by Energie Cottbus, who’d not been classed as one of East Germany’s big hitters from the Oberliga days.
2005-06 marked the first Bundesliga season without a former East German club within its number since their 1991 arrival. Hansa Rostock and Energie Cottbus would both return to the Bundesliga again, yet by 2009 the Bundesliga was an East German-free zone once more and that’s the way it has remained ever since.
There is light ahead for the old eastern zone of German club football, however. Union Berlin and RB Leipzig carry the eastern torch in the second tier of the Bundesliga having taken two polar opposite routes to getting there. Union have just kicked off their sixth successive season in the second tier, a span of time during which Hansa Rostock, Energie Cottbus and Dynamo Dresden (pictured) have all slipped down into the third tier, making Union Berlin all of a sudden the most pre-eminent East German club, a position they wouldn’t have attained without the remarkable efforts of a fan base that literally rebuilt the stadium they play in and spilt blood to keep them alive.
Two-thousand supporters picked up tools and gave the club they love 140,000 hours of labour to help provide a stadium fit for a progressive future while, in 2004, when the club was struggling to scrape together enough money to pay for the licence they required to compete in the fourth tier for the 2004-05 season, their fans came up with a ‘Bleed for Union’ campaign which entailed fans giving blood, and then donating the money the blood banks gave them to the club. Union Berlin eventually found their even keel and prospers today through the hard work of what has become one the biggest cult clubs in the country, and the devotion of their fans.
Conversely RB Leipzig thunders on towards what appears to be an unstoppable roll towards the Bundesliga, under the patronage and free-flowing cash that the energy drinks baron Red Bull can offer them, with a rumoured 10-year budget of €100 million having been bestowed to take the club to the promised land of the top flight and even beyond into European club competition.
Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz has even publicly aired ambitions of RB Leipzig becoming German champions, moving a club that until just five years ago was the more modest SSV Markranstadt into Leipzig’s 44,345 capacity Zentralstadion, now renamed the Red Bull Arena. It shows that Mateschitz is very serious; factor in the employment of Ralf Rangnick as sporting director, a man who took Hoffenheim from semi-professional football to the Bundesliga in the blink of an eye, and the current five-year absence of any East German presence in the Bundesliga is unlikely to stretch much further, no matter how much bankrolled football clubs upset sensibilities in German football.
Union Berlin and RB Leipzig offer two very different sides to the East German football coin, and if Hansa Rostock and Energie Cottbus can both rise from the third tier as quickly as they dropped into it, then the old East Germany might be able to blossom again from what has been a barren footballing land for much of the last quarter of a century.
By Steven Scragg. Follow @Scraggy_74