The paradox of East German representation in the national team

The former East Germany region still legs behind the rest of the Germany in football.

We are frequently approached by our readers asking us questions relating to German football. Everything from the play-off model for fifth-tier sides to promotion matches, and even to the dating habits of particular football players has been asked. This morning, one such inquiry gave us reason for pause to reflect upon the development German football has undergone over the last few years:  Ian Campbell asked us how many East Germans are featured in the current squad of the German national team.

Well, the answer is “one!” Just as in South Africa, the only national team player with roots in the former GDR is Toni Kroos. Both René Adler and Marcel Schmelzer were among the potential prospects for the 2014 edition of Die Nationalmannschaft, but the two players originating from the east of Germany were dropped by Jogi Löw before the team was finalized.

Roughly 15% of Germany’s population lives in the former GDR, meaning that roughly 3.5 players from that part of the country should be featured in the national team’s squad if the make-up of the national team resembled the demography of Germany.

In 2006, there were four East Germans in the national team. 8 years earlier it were five, and in 2002 there was a staggering total of 7 players from GDR featuring in the German national team. How can a part of the country, which, in the past, has produced between one-sixth and one-third of national team squads, suddenly be left with only one representative?

Germany’s reunification – A mixed bag

After Germany was reunified, there were several East German players bursting onto the scene. Former HSV and Eintracht Frankfurt player Thomas Doll hit the nail on the head when he said “a re-unified Germany was the worst thing that could have happened to East German clubs at the time and the best thing that could have happened to East German players.” The likes of Andreas Thom, Matthias Sammer, and Doll himself were now able to put the excellent training they had received in the GDR to good use in the Bundesliga and abroad. The GDR may not have been the best of national teams, but there were several decent players at Oberliga level who were good enough to make an impact in the Bundesliga. At the time, Germany’s national team coach Franz Beckenbauer rejoiced over the prospect of including all these East German players in the team, stating that Germany might become an unbeatable nation for years to come.

For the clubs, on the other hand, the sudden change from a system which had provided them with few surprises to the system of capitalism was a disaster. Some clubs didn’t know how to live within their means, and their overspending in a quest to achieve Bundesliga glamour quickly arrived to haunt them. FC Sachsen Leipzig and 1 FC Union Berlin are two such examples from the early 90’s.

Traditional club Dynamo Dresden fell in the hands of a glory-hunting president from West Germany, who abused the trust instilled in him and ran the club into the ground. Dynamo managed to stay in the Bundesliga for four seasons after Germany was reunited, but the economic malpractice at the club saw the team plummet into oblivion for a long time afterwards. Hansa Rostock and VfB Leipzig both managed to stay in the Bundesliga for just one season in the early 90’s, as both clubs had trouble competing with their West German counterparts.

Two East German success stories in the mid 90s

The DFB has often been criticized for throwing the East German teams into a situation for which they couldn’t possibly have been prepared and, in the process, helping many of those teams to suffer a slow and painful downward spiral. Some critics go as far as stating that the federation neglected this part of the country entirely. Since reunification, the national team has held a total of 7 international matches in former East Germany. By comparison, there have been seven held in Kaiserslautern alone over the same period of time. It’s no surprise that many people feel that their football teams and the football culture existing in this part of the country was forgotten by the higher-ups at the DFB.

It is remarkable how East German football and German society as a whole have resembled one another. Many East German businesses suffered a similar fate to that of the clubs once the best and the brightest decided to leave this part of the country. The ‘brain drain’ which most sectors of the East German economy experienced happened to football as well. The loss of infrastructure and industry does have an impact on East Germany, still. Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise that those East German players who made it in the Bundesliga in the late 90’s and early 00’s left their clubs to join West German sides. Furthermore, the lack of financial resources in the region means that, to this day, East German clubs have a harder time generating money than do their West German counterparts.

Hansa and Energie Cottbus managed to buck the trend from the mid-90’s onwards. Both clubs found a formula which allowed them to stay in the Bundesliga despite having less money than most of their competitors. Hansa, in particular, had a knack for finding good players. Oliver Neuville, Marko Rehmer, and Rene Schneider all became German internationals while playing at Hansa. Stefan Beinlich made his debut for die Nationalmannschaft just one year after leaving Hansa to join Bayer Leverkusen.

It was Hansa Rostock in particular which could make waves in the Bundesliga. The team managed to finish sixth twice and were voted in a poll by Kicker magazine to have played the prettiest football of all Bundesliga sides in the 1997-98 season. Eventually, however, Hansa Rostock had to sell their best players, including the national team players on the roster, to keep the club’s finances afloat. A season of tantalizing football was regularly followed by a season fighting against battling relegation. At the end, this fluctuation caught up with Hansa; the club suffered their second relegation from the Bundesliga in 2005 and have not returned since their third drop in 2008.

The second generation of East German players making an impact

The following generation of players learning their trade in East Germany – which included players Robert Enke, Jens Jeremies, Carsten Jancker, Marko Rehmer, Thomas Linke, and, most notably, Michael Ballack – grew up in a day and age when youth work wasn’t among the main priorities for most clubs in the Bundesliga. The disastrous EUROs in 2000 and 2004 hadn’t yet happened, and Germany’s clubs were happy to find formulas for success other than focusing on finding local talent and educating them in their own youth academies. The focus on fostering talents had, however, partly lingered in East Germany, at least partially due to economic necessity, and several German players from that part of the country had the chance to make an impression in 2.Bundesliga and in the third tier.

The seven eastern players on the German national team during the 2002 World Cup, the peak time for East German representation in die Nationalmannschaft, were all transferred from East German teams to a Bundesliga side at some point. The total of the transfer fees paid for all seven players was a mere 3.7 million €: Bernd Schneider went from Jena to Frankfurt on a free transfer. A couple years earlier, Jörg Böhme had left the same club without money changing hands to 1. FC Nürnberg. Thomas Linke left Rot-Weiss Erfurt on a free transfer in 1992. Dynamo Dresden received a measly 20,000€ for Jens Jeremies from TSV 1860 München; Michael Ballack went from third-tier Chemnitzer FC to Kaiserslautern for 75,000€. Carsten Jancker had left East Germany back in 1991 as a youth player. Marko Rehmer joined Hertha on a 3.6 million € transfer from Hansa Rostock, which was playing in the Bundesliga at the time.

Four years later, the German national team featured Michael Ballack, Bernd Schneider, Robert Huth, and Tim Borowski. The only player who had drawn a transfer fee out of the four of them was Ballack. Huth and Borowski had left East Germany while playing at youth level.

Bleak future prospects

Schneider and Ballack were still of the old guard back in 2006, while Borowski and Huth signified a trend set in in the mid-00’s. The East German players who had featured in the squads of ’98 and ’02 had mostly started their playing careers at East German clubs. Die Nationalmannschaft’s dreadful results in the EUROs of 2000 and 2004 triggered a new way of thinking within German football. Most clubs have taken to developing their own talents; most Bundesliga sides feature at least a couple of players educated at the club’s academy. The emergence of these home-grown talents have had an impact on the national team. Many young players gather experience at a Bundesliga level at an earlier stage than they would have in the 90’s and early 00’s. Jürgen Klinsmann and Jogi Löw have embraced that trend, giving those younger players a chance to make the senior side of the national team.

This has made life more difficult for East German players. The infrastructure of the youth academies in the former GDR isn’t as good as in the rest of the country. Dortmund and Munich have the biggest and best youth academies these days. Being born somewhere between Rostock and Aue leaves a youth prospect at a disadvantage from the get-go. Furthermore, there are no Bundesliga teams currently in East Germany, leaving young talents the tough choice of either leaving their home at an early age to further their career, or being stuck in a part of country which has 3 sides featuring in the Bundesliga 2 and 6 teams playing in third tier, but none higher than that. Making it to the national team if one isn’t exposed to Bundesliga football from an early age has become increasingly difficult.

The likes of Ballack, Enke, Jeremies, and Böhme left their clubs around the age of 20. By comparison, some of the players in their mid-20’s have already made several appearances in the Germany jersey. Players like Matthias Ginter or Julian Draxler are, in fact, 20 years old right now. Schalke’s Draxler has already been on the pitch in 11 internationals, even having captained the side once.

The three eastern players among the hopefuls for the 2014 squad hadn’t been plying their trade in East Germany for some time. Toni Kroos left Rostock when he was 16, Marcel Schmelzer left Magdeburg when he was 17, and René Adler left Leipzig at 15. In the current Under-21 and -19 squads of the German national team, there is only one player who was born in the former GDR. Leonardo Bittencourt was brought up through the youth ranks of Energie Cottbus and plays currently at Hannover 96. Besides the son of a former Brazilian footballer, there is not a single player with an East German background in those squads. Whether the emergence of RB Leipzig can change that picture in the not-too-distant future stands to be seen.

How would an East German national team look these days?

With the number of teams from the former GDR declining in the top two divisions of the country, so has the number players from that region. If one were to nominate a team solely consisting of players coming from East Germany, the aforementioned trends would come to the fore even more clearly. So, how might such a national team consisting solely of players from East Germany look?

Goalkeeper – Ralf Fährmann (Schalke 04)

The keeper left Chemnitzer FC at the age of 14 and joined Schalke’s youth academy in 2003. Fährmann moved to Eintracht Frankfurt after having served as Schalke’s second-choice keeper behind Manuel Neuer in 2009. Two years later, he rejoined Die Knappen with the ambition to take over the position between the sticks. Fährmann finally got his chance to shine this past year, after two injury-filled seasons. He has since been a solid goalkeeper for Schalke, featuring in 52 Bundesliga matches.

Right back – Tony Jantschke (Borussia Mönchengladbach)

Jantschke left FV Dresden-Nord as a 16-year-old, before he featured in Germany’s Under-17 squad. He has since become a regular at Gladbach, having featured in 115 Bundesliga matches so far. Furthermore, the Hoyerswerda-born player has also featured in the Under-18, -19, -20, and -21 teams.

Centre back – René Klingbeil (Erzgebirge Aue)

The 33-year-old is currently captain at Erzgebirge Aue and has a long career behind him. He joined Borussia Mönchengladbach as a youth player back in 1998 and was given a number of appearances for the Foals second team between 2000 and 2003. The Berlin-born player moved on to HSV in 2003 and made his first-team debut in 2004 before moving on to Viking Stavanger in Norway in 2007. Klingbeil has a total of 51 Bundesliga matches for HSV and 193 2.Bundesliga matches for Erzgebirge Aue on his C.V.

Centre back – Robert Huth (Stoke City)

Born in Berlin, Huth played for Union Berlin’s youth set-up between 2000 and 2001. He moved on to Chelsea’s youth team in 2001 and made his Premier League debut for Chelsea on the final match day of the 2001-02 season. He has since played for Middlesborough (2006 and 2009) and for Stoke City. Huth was a fringe player for the German national team between 2004 and 2009, featuring in 19 inernational matches and scoring two goals.

Left back – Marcel Schmelzer (Borussia Dortmund)

The Magdeburg-born player moved from 1. FC Magdeburg to Borussia Dortmund at the age of 17 and has since become a regular on the left back, winning the German championship twice and the DFB Pokal once during his time at the club. Schmelzer made his debut in the national team in 2010 and has since featured in a total of 16 matches. The 26-year-old was hopeful in securing a spot in the squad for this World Cup, but he dropped in favour of BVB-teammate Erik Durm.

Right midfielder – Leonardo Bittencourt (Hannover 96)

His name might sound Brazilian, but Bittencourt was born in Leipzig, where his father Franklin Bittencourt followed his trade as a footballer. The German-Brazilian played for Energie Cottbus’ youth set-up before joining the first team in 2010. Since then, he has featured in 29 Bundesliga matches for Energie and 36 Bundesliga matches between BVB and Hannover 96. Bittencourt is currently the only Under-21 player with an East German background.

Central midfielder – Toni Kroos (FC Bayern München)

Kroos left Rostock at the age of 16 to join Bayern München’s youth set-up. He made his Bundesliga debut at the age of 17, before making his national-team debut at the age of 20. The Bayern player is currently the only player in the German national team with an East German background. He has so far won the Bundesliga and the DFB Pokal on three occasions and the Champions League once. Kroos has featured in 46 matches for the German national team, scoring 5 goals.

Central midfielder – Maximilian Arnold (VfL Wolfsburg)

The Riesa-born player left Dynamo Dresden at the age of 15 to join VfL Wolfsburg’s youth set-up. Arnold has featured in the German national team once and played 14 minutes in Germany’s friendly against Poland ahead of the World Cup. The 2013-14 season was Arnold’s break-through year, featuring in 28 games for the Wolves, scoring seven goals and assisting on three more. The 20-year-old has played for the Germany Under-21 team once and could become a future regular in the Germany senior side if he keeps developing the way he has over the last couple of seasons.

Left midfielder – Tobias Werner (FC Augsburg)

The 28-year-old played for FC Carl Zeiss Jena in 2.Bundesliga and in the third tier before joining then-second-league FC Augsburg in 2008. Werner has since steadily developed as a player and was among the best players in this campaign’s FC Augsburg side, which surprisingly manage to pull off an 8th place finish.

Striker – Nils Petersen (Werder Bremen)

Petersen turned the head of several Bundesliga sides when he finished as the top scorer with 25 goals in the 2010-11 season of the 2.Bundesliga for Energie Cottbus. The former Carl Zeiss and Energie player decided to join Germany’s record champions Bayern München and suffered a lack of playing during his first Bundesliga season. After 2 goals in 9 games, Petersen was loaned to Werder Bremen where he managed to score eleven goals in his first season as a Bundesliga starter. The Green-and-Whites purchased Petersen after his on-loan efforts, but the striker’s dividends diminished to seven goals this season. As things stand, it is highly unlikely that Petersen is going to be anywhere near the national team in the near or distant future.

Striker –Ronny König (Erzgebirge Aue)

Köng has been relegated from the Bundesliga with both Rot-Weiss Oberhausen and SV Wehen Wiesbaden. His strike rate of 42 goals from 201 2.Bundesliga appearances is certainly not among the best, but not a complete disaster either. This season he has featured in 21 games and was subbed onto the pitch on 20 occasions. Most impressive about the striker’s performances are his work rate and his willingness to contribute to the defensive efforts of his team.

Bench: René Adler (Hamburger SV), Clemens Fritz (Werder Bremen), Maik Franz (without a contract), Stefan Kutschke (SC Paderborn), Torsten Mattuschka (Union Berlin), Nicky Adler (SV Sandhausen), Robert Tesche (Hamburger SV), Tom Starke (FC Bayern München), Felix Kroos (Werder Bremen)

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 32-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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