East German football and the Fall of the Iron Curtain

This article was originally published on ostklassisker.net.

It’s late summer in 1989 and something strange is happening all across the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Gorbatchow’s policy of glasnost had taken hold across the Soviet Union and the people of East Germany were growing tired of the restriction and oppression. This growing sentiment over the course of the autumn of 1989 culminated in the “Peaceful Revolution”, a wave of non-violent protests that swept across all of East Germany’s major cities. The Berlin Wall fell on 9th November and, eleven months later, Germany was a unified nation again. The fusion of two societies that had been polar opposites for more than four decades was a mammoth task in every respect, the effects of which are still being felt today over 20 years down the line. The unification of both country’s national sport, football, was no different.

Football in West Germany developed much the same way as football around the rest of western Europe. In East Germany, however, the situation was much different. Football clubs were backed either by state ministries or by massive state-owned combines and the sport was used by the ruling party, the SED, to prove the prowess and fortitude of the East German nation. From the early 1960s onwards, highly skilled footballers were concentrated around a handful of “centres of excellence”, which included all the clubs familiar to most English football fans from those early, patchy TV broadcasts of European Cup ties. All footballers were technically employees of the respective club backers: Dynamo Dresden players were policemen, those at army-backed FC Vorwärts Frankfurt technically soldiers. As a result, they were amateur sportsmen like any other and, according to the socialist principles of equality, were seen and treated merely as any other factory worker or civil servant.

However, in reality footballers were often paid underhand bonuses in almost total secrecy. They were given cars or houses as rewards for success or to encourage players to complete a transfer. When Lutz Lindemann moved from Rot-Weiß Erfurt to Carl Zeiss Jena in 1977, he received a Trabant full of fruit as a “sweetener” and was promised a large house up in the hills surrounding the city. Right through the 1980s, transfers only really ever took place if the Deutscher Fußball-Verband (DFV – East German FA) ordered players to move to certain clubs or if money changed hands illegally. It was a world away from the million-pound transfers of English football in the 1980s.

By early November 1989, the Oberliga had reached match day 10. On Wednesday 8th November, FC Magdeburg travelled to bitter rivals Dynamo Dresden looking to preserve their slim one-point lead at the top of the table. Dynamo sent Magdeburg packing with a 3:1 victory with a brace from Torsten Gütschow and 30-yarder from Matthias Sammer, preserving the side’s unbeaten start to the season. However, the minds of players, coaches and fans alike had long since been elsewhere

Peaceful protests had gathered momentum across the country and half a million people had taken to the streets in Leipzig two days earlier. East Germany was becoming increasingly porous, with citizens fleeing to the West through Czechoslovakia and Hungary. On the evening of the Thursday 9th November, Günter Scharbowski, a member of the Politbüro of ruling party SED gave a now infamous press conference in which he declared that East Germany borders were effectively open. The new regulations were supposed to apply from the next morning, but Scharbowski committed what proved to be a fatal error for his nation by announcing that the borders were open “immediately”. That night the Berlin Wall fell and jubilant East and West Germans were reunited up and down the country.

The DFV had long since recognised that the West German Bundesliga could perhaps be a desirable destination for many of the East German footballers under its management, especially after several national team players had fled after away matches in Western countries or after travelling abroad with their clubs for European Cup matches. In late October 1989, it approached all Oberliga footballers and requested that they sign central contracts in line with FIFA statutes. These contracts effectively meant that no East German player could be transferred to another country without DFV consent. It proved to be a sage move, as developments in the GDR hadn’t gone unnoticed in the boardrooms of the Bundesliga giants, either. With protests gathering momentum and revolution in the air, managers and directors of football at teams such as Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen had recognised the chance to hand-pick the best talent East Germany had to offer.

On 15th November, just under a week after the East had effectively crumbled, the East German national team travelled to Austria for a key World Cup qualifier. The talented squad contained a number of the under-20 side that had finished third at the World Youth Championships in Chile two year previously, including Matthias Sammer and FC Karl-Marx-Stadt midfielder Rico Steinmann. Placed in a group with the USSR, Austria, Iceland and an emerging Turkish side, East Germany appeared to have been heading for an early exit from the qualifying tournament after back-to-back defeats against Turkey and only a draw at home to the Austrians. However, an impressive victory over the USSR at the start of October with two goals in the last ten minutes from Andreas Thom and Matthias Sammer meant that, provided Turkey lost to the USSR in Simferopol on the final match day, all East Germany needed was a draw in Vienna to qualify for Italia ’90.

Almost as soon as the East German players arrived at the team hotel in Vienna, they were swamped by agents, scouts and managers from Bundesliga sides. Rainer Calmund, then manager of Bayer Leverkusen, sent an army of scouts together with youth team manager Wolfgang Karnath, whom Calmund valued for his persistence. Karnath’s missions was clear: Get the exact addresses and contact details of Thom, Kirsten, Sammer and co

Despite the backing of over 5,000 travelling fans enjoying their first ever away match in “the West” with the national team, East Germany succumbed to a Toni Polster hat-trick and lost 3:0. Steinmann missed a penalty. As he was subbed off late on in the match, Matthias Sammer suddenly found himself sat on the bench next to a man he didn’t recognise. It was Karnath. He had snuck into the ground by waving some kind of official-looking ID, pulled on a high-vis vest and posed as a photographer. “Rainer Calmund says his best wishes,” he said to Sammer. “We want to bring you to Leverkusen. How about we meet later on at the hotel?” Andreas Thom was approach as he trudged off the pitch at the final whistle – a meeting was arranged for later that evening.

After a little gentle persuasion and gifts to sweeten the deal, Thom agreed to join Bayer Leverkusen a few weeks later. All that was left for Calmund was to agree on the transfer amount with the DFV and obtain the approval of the Deutsche Turn- und Sportverband (DTSB). Thom played his last match for BFC Dynamo on 1st December, before becoming the first East German to be officially transferred to West Germany in January 1990, moving to Leverkusen for 2.8 million marks. He scored 15 minutes into his Bundesliga debut for Bayer Leverkusen on 17th February against FC Homburg and would go on to score a further 41 times in the Bundesliga for Leverkusen and then Hertha BSC either side of a spell at Celtic. Sammer would move to Stuttgart and Kirsten would end up with Thom at Leverkusen after reneging on a deal with Dortmund.

The fall of the Berlin Wall of course also had a profound effect on the fans of East German clubs. FC Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitzer FC) were playing in their first season of European competition for over 20 years after finishing third in the 1988/89 season. Against the odds, they beat both Boavista and FC Sion to reach the third round. They were drawn against the mighty Juventus and, with the first leg in Turin taking place on 22nd November, fans of the Westsachsen would be able to actually follow their team to a European away match officially for the first time instead of having to make do with television coverage. A total of 430 FCK fans paid 800 Ostmarks (a month’s salary at the time) each for a berth in the football special rail service through Bavaria and over the Alps. FC Karl-Marx-Stadt almost pulled off a mighty shock after taking a 70th minute lead in the Stadio delle Alpi, but ended up losing the leg 2:1 and the tie 3:1 after a 1:0 home defeat in front of a packed Stadion an der Gellertstraße.

By early 1990, capitalism had well and truly arrived in the Oberliga. East German teams bore sponsors on their shirts for the first time, players were given West German marks in addition to their regular Ostmark salaries. However, as was the case in many other aspects in the dissolution of East German infrastructure, not all investors from the West proved to have the cash they promised.

On 13th May, the East German national team played what proved to be their penultimate match. The venue was the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro against admittedly not the best Brazil side to ever grace the hallowed turf. Ricardo Teixeira, the head of the Brazilian FA, wanted to organize a friendly against a side that would really test the Brazilians in the run-up to World Cup 1990. As they would not be represented at Italia ’90, East Germany were the perfect choice. With flights and accommodation paid by the Brazilians, the group of players from a country that would cease to exist in less than five months’ time found themselves pulling on the national shirt for the penultimate time in front of 80,000 Brazilian fans. Despite trailing 3:1 after 59 minutes, goals from Rainer Ernst and a last-minute equaliser from Rico Steinmann secured the East Germans a respectable draw. Hans-Georg Moldenhauser, the man who would later mastermind the incorporation of the DFV into the DFB, said later that everyone thought manager Eduard Geyer was responsible for bringing the side up to such a standard, but the truth was that each and every player was doing his all to impress Bundesliga scouts and earn a lucrative contract.

The Oberliga season finished and, for the second season in succession, Dynamo Dresden took the title. Rekordmeister BFC Dynamo had lost the backing of the defunct Ministry for State Security and had renamed itself FC Berlin with the aim of shedding its controversial past. Dynamo Dresden also wrapped up the club’s third double by beating Eintracht Schwerin in the cup final. However, over the summer, Dresden lost the spine of their team with the departures of Ulf Kirsten, Matthias Sammer and Hans-Uwe Pilz. It would be the same story all over the Republik, with the best players seeking their fortunes in the more lucrative Bundesliga. Any clubs that were able to retain their best players were forced to offer large contracts far beyond their means, further exacerbating the financial difficulties that were to come.

The summer of 1990 also marked the first time an East German manager took over a West German club. Joachim Streich was perhaps one of East Germany’s most talented players. The former Hansa Rostock and 1. FC Magdeburg striker was the record Oberliga goal scorer (229 goals), most-capped East German national team player (102 appearances) and record national team goal scorer (55 goals). On 1 July 1990, he took the helm at upper-mid-table second-division side Eintracht Braunschweig but soon found himself under pressure. The East German training routines aimed at generating ultimate physical fitness didn’t go down well with the Braunschweig squad and Streich experienced petulance and a lack of respect that had been completely alien to him as a manager in the East. Eight months later he was sacked and Eintracht finished a lowly 13th.

The last ever Oberliga season began in August 1990. The stakes were high – two spots in the unified Bundesliga and five in the 2. Bundesliga for the 1991/92 season. The season’s card count of 544 yellows and 29 reds (compared with 512 yellows and 7 reds in 1987/88) shows how hard-fought the season was. This was East German football’s swansong, and it would go out kicking and screaming. The reunification of Germany saw interest in the Oberliga tumble, leaving the door open for hooliganism, now unleashed from tight state control, to take hold. The wave of violence reached a tragic climax in November 1990 with the death of eighteen-year-old FC Berlin fan Mike Polley. The hopelessly overwhelmed police force had attempted to contain a group of FC Berlin supporters after their side’s away match at FC Sachsen Leipzig and Polley was shot by a police officer. The death triggered further rioting across the country for the rest of the season, something that further damaged the popularity of the league.

On 4th May 1991, Hansa Rostock beat second-place Dynamo Dresden at the Ostseestadion to secure their first ever East German title and a passage into the Bundesliga for the 1991/92 season, where Dynamo would join them. Rot-Weiß Erfurt, Hallescher FC, Chemnitzer FC and Carl Zeiss Jena were promoted directly into the 2. Bundesliga, as were Stahl Brandenburg and Lokomotive Leipzig after a playoff. However, once in the unified leagues, East German sides found it difficult to attract the necessary quality to replace the top-class players that had left to join established Bundesliga giants. Ageing talents came in on big contracts and, plagued by mismanagement and short-termism almost across the board, many of the former East German clubs began on a relatively short road to ruin.

Dynamo Dresden battled against relegation for four seasons before being refused a licence and forced to start again in the third tier. Hansa Rostock, the final East German champions, fared a little better and were a permanent fixture of the Bundesliga between 1995 and 2005. Since then, however, they too have been plagued by financial difficulties. Minor success was also achieved at Energie Cottbus, but so far none of the former Oberliga sides have managed to establish themselves as true forces in German football.

The uncompromising and unstoppable wave of capitalism that engulfed East Germany after reunification undoubtedly harmed the former country’s football teams, but with infrastructure gradually being improved around the region, the foundations are gradually being laid for sustainable growth. New stadiums have been built in Berlin-Köpenick, Halle, Dresden, Magdeburg and Rostock and more are planned in Jena, Erfurt, Zwickau and Chemnitz. With financial mismanagement (hopefully) a thing of the past, the time may finally come for these well-supported, traditional sides to return to former glories.


11 Freunde – “Wie die Ost-Stars die Wende erlebten“. This is an excellent timeline of the reunification, from which a lot of information in this piece was taken.

MDR – “Schwarze Kassen im DDR-Fußball

Die Welt – “20 Jahre Mauerfall: Wie Calmund DDR-Star Thom zu Bayer lockte

Tagesspiegel – “Fußball in Ostdeutschland: Brasilien ruft nicht mehr an

Die Geschichte der DDR-Oberliga, Michael Horn & Andreas Baingo.

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