The most politically-charged match in history: when East Germany met West in 1974

The most politically-charged match in history: when East Germany met West in 1974

Roughly translated from German, ein kampf zwischen brüdern’ means ‘a struggle between brothers’ and has been used to describe the game that took place as part of the initial group stages of the World Cup in 1974, when West Germany played East for the only time at international level during the 41-year period when the country was divided between the capitalist West and the communist East.

In those times of Cold War tensions, epitomised by the scar of barbed wire and concrete running through the country’s erstwhile capital, especially in the latter years, football acted as a bridge to many in the eastern sector. Whenever a team from the other side of the divide visited an Eastern Bloc country for a European tie, there was a collective clamour for tickets. It was hardly the sort of collectivist movement desired by the authorities in the East, but illustrated both a desire to see the stars from the other side of the political divide and a sustained sense of belonging, a bond that remained strong if restrained by the edifice of a wall.

Even in the 1950s, it was not particularly unusual for clubs from either side of the divide to play friendlies. It was a way to keep a small measure of contact in place. Indeed, in what almost amounted to an all-Germany playoff in 1956, Kaiserslautern, who had been West German champions in 1951 and 1953, also finishing as runners-up in the following two years, played against Wismut Karl-Marx-Stadt, at the time champions of East Germany.

The game, played out at the Zentralstadion at Leipzig, drew massive interest with upwards of half-a-million applications made for tickets, outstripping supply many times over. The people lucky enough to be able to attend saw the team from the west triumph in a goal glut of a game 5-3.

Across all of the club games between teams from East and West, it was usually the way that the latter ran out winners. The authorities in the former would doubtless have loved to trumpet the success of the communist system over the corrupt capitalist West, but the reality was that the teams from the DDR were usually just that bit weaker.

As the Cold War heightened in the 1960s, the opportunity to play such games dwindled. At least the teams from the East weren’t losing any more, but when the draw for the finals of the 1974 World Cup was made, chance – or fate, depending on your preference – offered up an opportunity for the national teams to play each other. Now it was more than mere club pride at stake. Should the East German team prevail it would be a moment to paint the result as a major coup and significant victory for the socialist system

The draw for the competition took place in Frankfurt on 5 January 1974. There were four groups, with West Germany as the hosts in Group One and the other previous winners, Brazil, Uruguay and Italy, heading the remaining groups. The drawing of the teams to fill each of the remaining slots was entrusted to the innocent hand of a young boy selected from the Schöneberger Sängerknaben boys choir of Berlin.

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Call it irony, divine intervention, or merely the playing out of the cards dealt by chance, but the youngster from the divided city initially provoked gasps, and then applause, as he drew out the token that would mean a 90-minute reunification of Germany on the football field, separated only by white lines rather than red ones and an edifice of concrete.

As hosts, West Germany had no need to go through an arduous qualification campaign, but for the East Germans, a group including Romania, Finland and Albania had to be negotiated before they could take their place at the football world’s jamboree. Despite being run close by Romania, with both teams winning their home games, the giants of Bucharest slipped up with a 1-1 draw in Finland, while the East Germans won all of their remaining fixtures to take their place at the finals.

Alongside the two Germanys in Group One were Chile and Australia, and as the draw came together, and surely as drama would require, the final game of the group would be between the hosts and their separated brethren. 

The tournament would begin in mid-April, but a month before that, players from East Germany sounded a warning that perhaps their football was reaching a new height when FC Magdeburg, under the astute and iconoclast coach Heinz Krügel, delivered the Cup Winners’ Cup, becoming the first and – latterly proven to be – only East German club to lift a major European trophy. 

Clubs in the west though were hardly struggling, though, as Bayern Munich lifted the European Cup a few days after Magdeburg’s triumph. They would go on to retain Europe’s premier club trophy for the next two years as well.

The group stages of the 1974 World Cup started positively for both of the German teams. A fairly scrappy opening game saw West Germany get the better of Chile thanks to a single strike from Paul Breitner, while Georg Buschner’s East Germany secured a 2-0 victory over Australia thanks to an own goal and a strike from Hansa Rostock’s Joachim Streich.

In the following round, with the difficult first game now safely behind them and the points in their pockets, veteran coach Helmut Schön would see his West Germany team overcome the Aussies with some ease. Three goals from Wolfgang Overath, Bernhard Cullmann and Gerd Müller were more than enough to account for the boys from Down Under. The hosts were clearly finding their stride.

At the same time, for East Germany, the going was somewhat tougher. In a tense game against the South Americans, Magdeburg striker Martin Hoffman gave them the lead after 55 minutes, but an equaliser by Sergio Ahumada with 20 or so minutes to play kept Chilean dreams alive – at least for a while.

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In these more innocent times, the last games of the group were not played simultaneously. That was an innovation that FIFA decided to adopt after another West Germany final group game in 1982 left a nasty smell of collusion in the air. At this tournament, however, Chile faced off with Australia three-and-a-half before the all-German squabble, and a 0-0 draw meant that neither could now qualify. All that was left to be decided was who would win the group, and which regime would be able to claim sporting hegemony for their particular doctrine.

The game, which had been discussed in as many political circles as sporting ones since that choirboy’s hand drew out the East Germany ball back in January, took place on 22 June. Five months of anticipation, anxiety and apprehension were to be played out in 90 minutes of football. As well as the inevitable political attention, it’s important to note that on both sides of the border, there was also huge public interest, not so much to promote any particular political philosophy, but more it was a touchpoint, a nexus, between the divided country and, more pertinently, the divided people.

It would be of little surprise that a number of people living in the East were keen to see West Germany triumph. Both teams were seen as representing Germany, so there was little if any national rivalry, and a result the other way would only bolster an unpopular regime keen to build its renown on sporting exploits, no matter how they were gained, as later events in a number of other sports would reveal.

In the opinion of most pundits, the West German team was seen to be the more accomplished and likely to prevail. This wasn’t merely due to the contrasting performances of the two teams in the tournament so far. Neither was it because Schön’s team were reigning European champions, and any home advantage they held would be arguable at best. The key factor was that they were perceived as having the better players, the core of their team being taken from the Bayern XI that had defeated Atlético Madrid to lift the European Cup. They were overwhelming favourites to win the game and top the group.

It wasn’t thought, however, that their opponents were going to succumb easily. As well as Magdeburg’s European success, East Germany had won bronze at the 1972 Olympics and would take gold in 1976.

Although it’s difficult to find any direct evidence, a number of reports around the game suggest that confidence was riding high in the West German squad, with a comfortable assurance of victory being the dominant trait. There would also be a superiority of support for West Germany at the Volksparkstadion in Hamburg. Over 60,000 would watch the game, but of that number, only 1,500 or so selected guests from the East would be allowed to travel across the border to watch. It’s hardly needs to be said that none amongst that number would be anything other than staunch supporters of the regime.

It should also be mentioned that the West Germany squad had an additional incentive to win the game. Veteran manager Schön, who was guiding his nation’s hopes through a third World Cup finals tournament, had been born in the East German city of Dresden, although at the time of his birth, back in 1915, the division of the country was a long way off. Much later, his family had fled the East to escape the Soviet-imposed regime. There was, therefore, a strong feeling amongst the group that they were playing for Schön, literally and metaphorically. It was a theme that skipper Franz Beckenbauer used to urge on his teammates.

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It’s interesting to note that, after the initial ceremonies, as the players were stripping off their tracksuit tops, the chants of “Deutschland, Deutschland” rang around the stadium. Was this merely for the home team or some kind of statement by the people attending? The pitch had a running-track around it, creating a buffer between the players and crowd, but the emotions streamed down from the terraces and washed over the men on the pitch representing the divided country.

Uruguayan referee Ramón Barreto blew for the start of the game. Müller tapped the ball to Overath and the intra-international game was underway. Very quickly, it became clear that the underlying emotion in the air was one of tension. A desire to win from both sides was there to see, but so was an appreciation of the pressure thrust upon the 22 players on the pitch, each seen to be representing a whole doctrine of life, as well as a nation. It wasn’t quite the Cold War subsumed into a football match, but it wasn’t a million miles away from it.

With the all-pervading political backdrop, no-one wanted to make a mistake and caution was the byword. Tackles were tame and tempers held in check as a mutual respect – and perhaps a measure of fraternal understanding for each other’s situation – came to the fore. It was understandable, but meant that the first half of the game became quite sterile. 

A shot from the right by Heinz Flohe flew wide of Jürgen Croy’s right-hand post. The goalkeeper threw himself towards the ball, but it was more of a gesture than a required save. The best chance of the half for the home team came when an astute pass by Beckenbauer towards Müller allowed Der Bomber to roll his defender before squaring across the box for an onrushing Jürgen Grabowski, but although the ball beat the despairing dive of Croy, who tried to intercept, it ran behind the Eintracht Frankfurt wide man and he couldn’t reach back to turn the cross on target.

Midway through the half, Breitner shot tamely wide as the West German efforts continued to break down at the well-drilled East German back line, offering solid protection to Croy.

It would be wrong to say that there was no threat from the nominally away team. A throw-in from the left by Lothar Kurbjuweit into the West Germany box caused consternation as Reinhard Lauck gathered and turned towards goal. Sepp Maier was drawn towards his near post, Cullmann followed suit, but the move left Hans-Jürgen Kreische in yards of space. Lauck squared the ball across the box, bisecting goalkeeper and defender and leaving an unguarded net for his teammate.

In a 14-year career, Kreische would play over 250 league games for Dynamo Dresden, netting almost 150 goals. In his club colours, the chance would surely have been accepted, but this was an entirely different pressure. As the ball arrived to him on the six-yard line, he leant back and hoisted his shot way over the bar. The clear opening had come and gone. The striker walked back with head bowed to receive a consolatory pat from Jürgen Sparwasser. 

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At the break, the game remained goalless. The West Germans had clearly been the more dominant team, but as is so often the case, the best chance fell to their opponents. For differing reasons, both coaches would have had cause to feel both frustrated and relieved at the scoreline.

The second-half began much as the first had ended. One change, though, was that, for some reason, Maier had seen it necessary to change his black goalkeeping top for a green one. Everything else remained the same.

West Germany continued to press and a ball by Müller sent Grabowski into space, but his shot was high, wide and not at all handsome. Long-range shooting was becoming the order of the day, but with East German efforts sporadic and West German ones facing a solid blue wall of defenders to block any efforts on goal, a draw began to look increasingly inevitable. Given the other group results, it would mean West Germany would top the group; the authorities in East Berlin would have to console themselves with an honourable draw and progression to the next phase.

There was still time for that scenario to be changed, though. A scrambled effort by Breitner was at least on target as he followed up on a poor clearance, but the ball bounced a number of times before it rolled into Croy’s welcoming arms.

With 65 minutes played and a few tired legs beginning to show, Buschner withdrew midfielder Harald Irmscher, replacing him with Erich Hamann. A dozen or so minutes later, the move would prove to be hugely significant. On the other bench, Schön was also looking at options. A few minutes later, he removed the teak-tough centre-back Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, who often provided the stability at the back for Beckenbauer to indulge in his sallies forward, both for Die Mannschaft and Bayern, sending on Horst-Dieter Höttges. He also took off Overath and threw the thrusting power of Günter Netzer into the fray. For the next few minutes nothing changed, but with 13 minutes remaining, the goal came.

With his back to goal, Uli Hoeneß flicked the ball over his head in an attempt to cross, but the ball fell comfortably to Croy. Quickly looking up, he saw the fresh legs of Hamann, the substitute, cantering forward down the right flank, and hurled the ball towards him. The 30-year-old was playing in one of only three games in which he would represent his country but, in the next few seconds, he would take a leading role in one of East Germany’s greatest sporting triumphs.

Running forward, he looked up as he entered the West Germany half. Sparwasser was accelerating into a gap as the defence funnelled back to cover. Hamann hoisted a perfect ball to meet the attacker’s run. Chesting past a slipping Beckenbauer, exposing the libero’s less-than-perfect defensive prowess as he entered the box, the Magdeburg player then fired right-footed past Maier to give East Germany the lead.

Completing a forward roll in celebration, Sparwasser regained his feet to see the small contingent allowed to travel from the East celebrating in jubilation, before he was engulfed by his ecstatic teammates. The West Germans stood, hands on hips. They hadn’t really threatened to score other than the poor pull-back from Müller that Grabowski had been unable to fully control. As time had ticked away, the draw that would see them top the group seemed like an increasingly inevitable conclusion to the game, but their lethargy in settling for a share of the spoils had betrayed them to their hungrier brethren. Now they had a mountain to climb – and precious little time to do it in. 

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Inevitably, the pressure mounted, and a series of free-kicks and corners saw plenty of bluster but hardly any sustained threat on Croy’s goal. The East Germans locked down at the back and held a firm line as belief and time drained away from their hosts. When the final whistle was sounded, it was the blue-shirted East Germans surrounded by photographers capturing their moment of triumph with Croy and Sparwasser receiving particular acclaim.

The Magdeburg striker was well aware of the significance of his goal, later declaring: “If one day my gravestone simply says ‘Hamburg 74’, everybody will still know who is lying below.” In East Berlin, the authorities would have been in raptures. In the cities and towns around East Germany, the people were less so. East had triumphed over West. Socialism had defeated capitalism. Fifteen-hundred fans celebrated while 58,000 sloped away. But what did it mean?

The victory took East Germany to the top of the group. Normally, this would mean an easier path to progress, but as things shaped up, that wasn’t the case. Plunged into a second-stage group alongside Brazil, Argentina and the Johan Cruyff-inspired Netherlands, a single point was all they could achieve after a meaningless draw in the last game against Argentina when both were already eliminated.

In contrast, the West Germans were pitted against Sweden, Poland and Yugoslavia, duly winning all their games and then going onto beat the Dutch in the final. If the East had won the battle, the West had won the war. There was a political triumph to savour, but perhaps that was a Pyrrhic victory as well.

Later, players who had worn the DDR shirt on that summer evening would seek to play down any political importance. Tall, powerful and blond, every inch the athletic sweeper he was, East German skipper Bernd Bransch would relate that it was the victory that was important, not the opponent over whom it was gained. Goalkeeping hero, Jürgen Croy, would concede that, “It was important because it was the World Cup and because it was Germany against Germany,” but was keen to add, “Of course it was glorified by the politicians, but that happens everywhere. All countries try to take political advantage of sports success.”

Let’s leave the final summary to Jürgen Sparwasser, the goal-scoring hero. When responding to questions about how the goal changed his life in the East, he said: “Rumour had it I was richly rewarded for the goal, with a car, a house and a cash premium. But that is not true.” Perhaps the result changed very little in the end, especially for the central character in the passion play. In 1988, just a year before the Berlin Wall fell, a 40-year-old Jürgen Sparwasser defected to the West.

For a short while, it looked like the qualifying tournament for Euro 92 may produce a reprise of that June evening in Hamburg when the two Germanys were again drawn to play each other. Political events overtook matters, though and the falling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 precluded any such event.

On 12 September 1990, the Deutsches Demokratisches Republik – East Germany – played their last ever international game: a friendly against Belgium in Anderlecht’s Astrid Parc Stadium in Brussels. Less than a month later, the two sectors of Germany were reunited. The struggle between brothers was finally over.

By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze

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