Picture the scene. A communist-era colossus of a stadium, the vast expanse of concrete stretching as far as the eye can see, enclosing a seething mass of humanity, congregating in their blue and yellow scarfs. They will need them tonight, for this open bowl is completely at the mercy of the elements. The fans do not care, however. This is the Zentralstadion in Leipzig and it is about to witness its finest hour.
They have seen bigger crowds than this here, of course. The Turn-un Sportfest, the socialist government’s regular celebration of athletic achievement, can draw attendances of 100,000 or more. This is the largest crowd it will ever see for a football match, though – and that matters.
Football is the one thing that the authorities cannot control, the rebellious child of the model socialist state. Football fans are not to be trusted; their first loyalty is to their teams and not to the party or the nation. They are prone to singing dissident songs and to bouts of hooliganism. Their unique culture is something that the state will never even try to understand. In these last years of the GDR, the terraces are also at the forefront of rebellion and change, operating, along with the church, as an open cover for opposition to one-party rule, hiding their protests in plain sight.
They will say there were 74,000 people inside the Zentralstadion that night, but many more will claim to have been there. It seems apparent to even the most casual observer that the real attendance is close to touching six figures. Later estimates put the actual number at 120,000.
For the players who are about to step into this febrile atmosphere, this is their chance to make history. Lokomotive Leipzig are on the verge of reaching their maiden European final. They lead Bordeaux 1-0 from the first leg in France and now they stand 90 minutes away from the Cup Winners’ Cup final in Athens.
Lokomotive, the club, had already been through many incarnations. Their ancestors, VfB Leipzig, were the first national champions way back in 1903, when Germany was a unified nation. It is not apparent to those inside the ground tonight, but it soon will be again.
Leipzig start the game with energy, flying into tackles, clearly fired up by the noise and passion of the crowd inside the stadium. It is Bordeaux, though, who take the early lead and go on to control the match.
The home side continue to hold their own, however. They even have a chance to win the game late in the second half but Uwe Zotzsche’s penalty is saved by Dominique Dropsy in the Bordeaux goal. Extra-time is a tight affair and the match drifts to penalties.
Leipzig goalkeeper René Müller saves from Phillipe Vercruysse but Lok’s joy is short-lived as Matthias Liebers promptly sees his kick saved by Dropsy. Both teams’ penalty taking is unerring from that moment on, taking the shootout to sudden death. The tension in the ground is unbearable as Zoran Vujović steps up with the score tied at 6-6. His earlier goal has taken the tie this far but now he looks gripped by nerves.
He hesitates twice on his long run-up before scuffing his penalty straight at Müller. The Zentralstadion erupts: Lok are now one kick from glory. Incredibly, the man stepping forward to take the crucial penalty is none other than Müller himself, the goalkeeper who now has the chance to score the most important goal in his club’s history.
Müller places the ball and starts his run with a determined look in his eyes before blasting his penalty high into the roof of the net. He wheels away, arms in the air, and is instantly mobbed in a sea of exultant teammates.
There is something symbolic about the celebrations inside the stadium. The fans don’t know it but this is as good as it will get for GDR football. Within two years, protests will begin in this very city, as young people craving the freedom of expression of Western society crowd onto the streets that surround the Zentralstadion. These protests will spread all over the nation, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall on a cold November evening. Within four years, the GDR will be no more.
So what became of Lokomotive Leipzig and those men in yellow and blue shirts? The team itself would go on to lose the Cup Winners’ Cup final to a dynamic Ajax side containing Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and a young Dennis Bergkamp.
In many ways Lokomotive’s fate since that April night in 1987 mirrors that of the former GDR. Desperate to throw off the negative associations of communism and to seem at one with their new western countrymen, the team ditched the name Lokomotive in 1991 to become VfB Leipzig once again. A brief foray into the Bundesliga followed three years later before the economic reality of eastern life in the united Germany bit hard. By 2004, the club that had stood on the brink of European glory a mere 17 years earlier had ceased to exist.
The old Zentralstadion was a ruin, housing a shiny new ground inside its crumbling bowl. The new stadium was used during the 2006 World Cup in Germany and is now the home of RB Leipzig, the controversial franchise club owned by the Austrian soft drinks giant Red Bull. As an image of capitalism’s utter triumph over communism, only the McDonalds that now stands on Checkpoint Charlie is more symbolic.
For many cities, this may have been the end of their famous old football club, but Leipzig is no ordinary place. The club’s fans rallied round and restarted Lokomotive Leipzig in the 11th tier of German football in time for the 2004/05 season. Fans rebuilt the club’s Bruno-Plache Arena brick by brick with their bare hands until it was fit to host football again.
The response from the city was incredible. Lokomotive even broke the record for a lower-league football match in Germany when 12,421 spectators turned out for a game against Eintracht Grosbenden. The venue for this game? None other than the famous old Zentralstadion itself. The club that refused to die had come full circle.
It would be painting an unnecessarily rose-tinted picture to pretend that everything has been plain sailing since then. Leipzig’s tendency to be a microcosm of the eastern half of Germany has continued as the years have progressed. Lokomotive have not been alone in battling neo-Nazi hooligan elements as the far-right has sought to exploit the economic troubles and resentment of the former GDR for its own ends.
The club has also failed to break out of the regional leagues despite plenty of near-misses over the last few years. However, the current picture is beginning to look altogether brighter. Leipzig is now an up-and-coming city, boasting a thriving tourism industry, trading in both shiny new architecture and GDR kitsch, or Ostalgia as it is called by locals.
Lokomotive, too, are on the up. The club has made commendable efforts to drive out the hooligan element and to make the Bruno-Plache a more welcoming environment for everyone. They boast one of their most impressive squads in recent years and harbour real hopes of soon returning to the Bundesliga structure.
Many lower league clubs have struggled to survive the empty stadiums, or “ghost games” as they are called in Germany, which have become a sad necessity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lokomotive had their own unique solution to the problem. The club announced they would be selling tickets for €1 to a virtual game against the “invisible opponent” to raise money to pay the club’s 300 staff.
The aim was to set a new club attendance record, beating the 120,000 that were estimated to have been at the Zentralstadion for the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final. Incredibly, Lok ended up selling 150,000 tickets for this imaginary game, the money keeping the club afloat through the months that followed. They do things differently in this unique city.
The joy of fans returning to stadiums this season has sadly been curtailed recently in the state of Saxony, where Leipzig resides, with matches temporarily being played behind closed doors once again. As a result, the Bruno-Plache Arena currently stands empty. Its last game with spectators was the derby against Chemie, another famous name from the GDR days. Lok won 1-0 in front of 6,000 passionate fans.
Those fans may be absent at the moment but soon they will return to cheer on the men in yellow and blue shirts, for nothing can quell their devotion. To this day, they still tend to their beloved stadium, picking weeds out of its’ cracks and painting its seats. It might not quite be the Zentralstadion on that magical night in 1987, but Lokomotive Leipzig and their fans are home again. Who knows, they may have a few more glory nights left in them yet.
By Billy Crawford @BillCrawford87