The final days of football in the GDR: a legacy left behind

The final days of football in the GDR: a legacy left behind

On 9 November 1989, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) opened its borders to West Germany. Less than a year later, on 3 October 1990, Germany reunified after over four decades of separation. These historical events not only changed the lives of millions of Germans, but marked a turning point for the football community in the East. 

The football stadiums in the GDR in the 1980s accurately reflected the state of a country that had been in a steep decline. The regime under Erich Honecker lacked the resources to modernise the sports facilities and thus was not able to keep with the times. Dilapidated wooden stands in arenas like Lok Leipzig’s Bruno Place Stadion or Erfurt’s Georgi Dimitrov Stadion dominated the scenery of late-socialist football in Germany’s East. Floodlights became a luxury; rusty fences were the norm. 

In 1989, the Oberliga, GDR’s top-flight, was in a state of insignificance. During the previous decade, spectator interest had steadily declined, and once people felt that a political transition was on the horizon, there were truly more important things than the often mediocre football in Zwickau, Jena or Karl-Marx-Stadt. 

Thirty years ago, East German society as a whole faced a time of change – and so was football: while Monday night gatherings and the fall of the Berlin Wall led to a fundamental transition towards democracy and liberalism, the clubs had to deal with the consequences of past mismanagement. A few days after the opening of the border to West Germany, the GDR national team played their last World Cup qualifying game. One month later, the first high-profile player left East Germany.  

Once the Berlin Wall came down, West Germans invaded the football community with a kind of gold-digger mentality. Reiner Calmund, long-time sporting director of Bayer Leverkusen, was the first to recognise that now was the time to get highly talented players at bargain prices.

With a bag full of money and lots of toys, the shrewd businessman travelled to the tranquil town of Rüdersdorf in eastern Brandenburg, the home of Andreas Thom. The 24-year-old was considered the biggest attacking talent in GDR football and made headlines as the leading goal scorer at BFC Dynamo, the club that had won the national championship ten years in a row. 

Calmund quickly persuaded Thom’s children with the toys he had brought with him, while the player was amazed by the number this sturdy-looking dealmaker from the West offered him. For a record transfer fee of 3.6 million Mark, Thom signed with Leverkusen, where Falko Götz and Dirk Schlegel, two who had escaped the socialist regime in 1983, were already playing. 

“These guys were desperate to go to the West. There was the money. That’s what they were watching on TV,” Calmund later remembered in an interview in the television show Sportstudio. “Dynamo Dresden or BFC Dynamo, for them it became clear: we had to sell the players. They would have preferred to sell them to Italy because they would have received more money. That would have been fair, but all the players wanted to play in the Bundesliga.” 

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Thom’s transfer started a wave of footballers moving from the East to the West. The GDR had no shortage of top-class talent in 1989 despite the ruined facilities and finances of their clubs. Matthias Sammer, Ulf Kirsten, Thomas Doll and others followed Thom in summer of 1990, shortly before the reunification. 

“There is a deep-seated frustration. What happens in the Oberliga is frightening,” said Bernd Stange, former head coach of the GDR national team and manager of Carl Zeiss Jena at the time. The Oberliga – and with it East German football – slowly bled out.

On the other hand, the clubs did not hesitate to accustom themselves to the practices of football capitalism and try to benefit from it. Heiko Scholz was the first player to be transferred for more than a million Deutsche Mark within the still existing GDR. The future German international and current coach of Dynamo Dresden left Lok Leipzig in 1990 to join his youth club Dresden. Two years later, Calmund also convinced Scholz to go to Leverkusen.

Dynamo also signed two experienced Bundesliga players in Peter Lux and Sergio Allievi on lucrative contracts, while 1. FC Magdeburg acquired the services of Uwe Rösler.  


Violence Reigns


Before the Bundesliga and the Oberliga merged in 1991, the Oberliga had to play one final season under the banner of the Northeast German Football Association. To put it mildly, the 1990/91 season did not turn out to be a great advertisement for the clubs and East German football in general. Stange later remembered that this last year felt “like a funeral”.

The clubs felt compelled to start the arms race for the transition to all-German football by investing large sums of money. However, ticket sales were declining rapidly and television broadcasters seemed reluctant to sign new contracts, while the region went through an economic shock period shortly after the reunification. Indeed, attendance was at a historic low point, with 4,807 spectators per match on average.

But that didn’t prevent clubs from signing players on contracts that guaranteed salaries of 250,000 Mark and more per year. A rescue fund of 2.2 million Mark provided by the German Football Association (DFB) in a way tempted the clubs to overspend, even though it was clear as the day that the money was not enough the entire league. The economic decline of dozens of clubs during the 1990s already started at that point. 

Beyond the financial concerns, the Oberliga was increasingly dominated by violence, with FC Berlin, the former BFC Dynamo, becoming the epicentre of riots. In 1990, the once serial champions had become a mediocre club on the pitch, as Erich Mielke, the former Minister for State Security – better known as Stasi and patron of BFC, was no longer in the picture.

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Milke was not the only one from the Stasi involved in East German football. It was later revealed that Dresden striker Torsten Gütschow, the top scorer of the final Oberliga season, and other players had worked as confidential informants for the state security. 

While FC Berlin didn’t have the support of the authorities anymore, the club’s supporters continued to make headlines due to the violence they brought to the stadiums. When they met Sachsen Leipzig on 3 November 1990, the violence reached a tragic climax.

A few weeks earlier, Leipzig’s fans had caused a match in Jena to be called off due to riots, showing that they would not give up an inch once they go up against other belligerent groups. The violence between FC Berlin and Sachsen Leipzig supporters got to such extreme dimensions on that November day that police leadership in Leipzig gave the order to use firearms. Three people were seriously injured, and 18-year-old Mike Polley died at the gates of the Alfred-Kunze-Sportpark.

The ceremonial reunification match between East and West Germany planned for later that month had to be cancelled due to security concerns. In March 1991, Dynamo Dresden was banned from the Europeans Cup after violent riots in their match against Red Star Belgrade. It was a dark time. 


Debt and Division


Consequently, the decline of East German football continued after the Oberliga closed its doors and clubs were integrated into the Bundesliga and Germany’s league system. “The gap was gigantic,” Sammer later said.

Hansa Rostock, the only club that was able to establish itself in the Bundesliga during the 1990s, won the final East German championship. Responsible for their success after years of insignificance before the fall of the Berlin Wall was head coach Uwe Reinders. That the former German international even signed with Rostock was the result of the first inner-German club partnership.

In spring of 1990, Werder Bremen and Rostock had reached an agreement to cooperate. Rostock’s deputy chairman, Dietrich Kehl, travelled to an international cup match in Bremen in 1990 and was asked by officials what Hansa needed to win the championship. “I said, ‘We need a coach from the West.’ My colleague looked around and said, ‘There he is’,” Kehl later recalled the moment when Reinders was introduced to him.

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Reinders demanded a bonus of 200,000 Deutsche Mark for winning the championship and another 200,000 for winning the national cup. Hansa, who hadn’t been able to win any trophies for decades, agreed with a smile, not believing that Reinders was serious with his ambitions. But he achieved what he was aiming for and laid the groundwork for Hansa’’s success in the 1990s, becoming the premier representatives of East German football. 

Once Reinders arrived in Rostock, he immediately noticed the cultural differences. “When he came to the training ground for the first time, the players were standing there in file,” he later recalled. Reinders asked his assistant Jürgen Decker what was going on because he had never seen anything like that in the Bundesliga. “He said, they waited for me to greet them with ‘Sport Frei’.” That was typical for East German sports teams. “I asked the boys if they were waiting for a general,” Reinders said.

He coached the team that had no renowned stars to the title thanks to their eagerness and his coolness. “You have to step on the gas at half-past three on Saturdays, then you can soon drive a Mercedes,” he once told his team.  

Hansa became the only real success story of the dying days of East German football while other clubs got into considerable difficulties in the 1990s: Dynamo Dresden at first played in the Bundesliga just like Hansa, but then experienced a financial meltdown under West German businessman Rolf-Jürgen Otto and sketchy players’ agent Willi Konrad, which ultimately forced the league to withdraw their license and relegate them directly to the third division.

VfB Leipzig, the former Lok Leipzig, played one season in the Bundesliga in 1993/94 and performed so badly that they are to this day listed as the second to last team in the all-time Bundesliga rankings. 

Former East German powerhouses like FSV Zwickau, 1. FC Magdeburg and Sachsen Leipzig went bankrupt over the years, sometimes because of overaggressive financial planning to compete with the much wealthier West German clubs, and other times because they got in business with Michael Kölmel and his soon-to-be-insolvent media company Kinowelt.

As a result, the academies that produced many world-class talents deteriorated because young players who showed the skillset to make it in the Bundesliga quickly left their home clubs and moved to the West. Around the turn of the millennium, the Regionalliga Nordost, one of Germany’s third divisions, became a sort of substitute of GDR’s Oberliga because most of the famous clubs from the East played there. 

Before RB Leipzig, funded by an Austrian energy drink producer, emerged on the scene a couple of years ago, East German football was irrelevant in the great scheme of things. Hansa Rostock and later Energie Cottbus popped up in the Bundesliga every once in a while but they were nowhere near the level to compete for the top spots in German football. Like in many Eastern European countries these days, football in East Germany has a rich history but is. even 30 years after the end of socialism. fighting for relevancy. 

By Constantin Eckner @cc_eckner

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