How East Germany almost qualified for the 1990 World Cup.

“The wall was opened four or six weeks too early”

If you’ve ever seen the superb 2003 film Good Bye Lenin!, you’ll remember the 1990 World Cup being used as a reference point in the reunification timeline. West Germany were crowned World Champions at the tournament, which took place in the intervening summer between the fall of the Berlin wall and German unity.

As the main character, Alex, begins his new job at a West German cable company, there’s a scene where he and his western colleague install shiny new satellite dishes for East Berliners, just in time for them to witness Andy Brehme’s winning penalty for West Germany in the World Cup final against Argentina.

The point of this was partly a plot device, but also as a reference to easterners’ interest in West German media and affairs, as well as a show of unity between the two countries. There were parties all across Berlin when Franz Beckenbauer’s side were crowned champions.

But East Germany’s own relationship with Italia 90 is a story so fascinating and full of intrigue, it could itself be mistaken for a Hollywood screenplay. Eduard Geyer’s side, the best GDR team in over a generation, stood on the verge of World Cup qualification. All they needed to do was win or draw against Austria in their last match. Fate, specifically the fall of the Berlin Wall, got in the way.

East Germany had only previously qualified for the World Cup on one occasion, the famous 1974 story in which they took on West Germany in Hamburg and won 1-0, with Jürgen Sparwasser scoring the iconic goal. The GDR, spearheaded by the world-class striker Joachim Streich, went out in the second round. Although the team won Olympic Gold in Montreal two years later, international success subsided quickly.

The Class of 1989 featured a host of talents, not least Matthias Sammer, Ulf Kirsten and Andreas Thom (more on them later). But the qualification campaign had been a bit of a struggle. Drawn against a strong USSR, but beyond that fairly average opposition in Turkey, Iceland and Austria, it had looked like being another qualification round without success. The team won just one of their first five matches.

Eduard Geyer took over as coach in the summer of 1989. He had just returned Dynamo Dresden to its former glory, winning the league for the first time in eleven years. He oversaw a rapid and unexpected turnaround, and after they followed up an impressive victory against the Soviet Union with a 3-0 win in Iceland, all East Germany needed to do was draw their last game in Vienna and a spot at Italia ’90 was theirs.
Then it happened. Following the now well-documented chain of events, and SED spokesman Günter Schabowski’s press conference, the Berlin Wall fell suddenly on 9 November 1989. The nationwide protests had succeeded and after a summer of instability within the Eastern bloc, this was the major global political event of a generation. As for the East Germans’ decisive qualification game against Austria, it was to take place six days later.

“It was an incredibly difficult situation”, recounts Geyer for Sportschau. An understatement. “We were in Leipzig preparing for the game and it came to light that the Wall had fallen, and a couple of days later we had to be in Vienna.” In particular, Geyer noted that the players, quite obviously, didn’t appear in the correct frame of mind.

Austria took the lead after just two minutes. Toni Polster was allowed to dribble past a standoffish defence and place a shot inside Dirk Heyne’s near post. It was a poor goal to concede and signalled an uphill struggle for the GDR. Soon after, East Germany gave away a contentious penalty (Dirk Stahmann tackled the ball cleanly), converted by Polster for 2-0. Geyer’s side had the chance to halve the deficit before half-time, but Rico Steinmann had his penalty saved. Polster completed his hat-trick after the break for a resounding 3-0 victory. The World Cup dream was over for East Germany. Austria took their place.

After the match, Eduard Geyer was characteristically brutal in his assessment of the performance, criticising the poor start in particular. “The game had everything that as a coach you wouldn’t wish for”, he told the press, lamenting in particular the “totally unnecessary” first goal. Geyer went on to criticise the referee, Piotr Werner of Poland, especially for the penalty. “You have to wonder about the choice of referee. For me, he really struggled.”

Looking back, the interview’s relative banality fascinates. It’s as though Geyer’s words could have been lifted from November 1989 and placed in practically any other era or environment and sounded exactly the same – a classic football manager’s rant, devoid of the occasion’s unique context. Geyer’s focus on the match was so single-minded that the life-changing events surrounding him seemed totally secondary. Only the game mattered. It also offers a glimpse into the amazing power sport has to transcend events around it. For a game taking place in such a unique set of circumstances, there was simultaneously no context at all. It was one team versus another for a place in the World Cup finals.

“We were a really strong team then, much much better than Austria”, Geyer recounted in an interview 20 years later. But “the players’ heads were turned straight away”, he laments. Indeed, where Geyer’s sole focus had been on the match, for some of the GDR’s best players this was certainly not the case, but it wasn’t just events in East Berlin that had them thinking.

On the other side of the curtain, Reiner Calmund, an executive at Bayer Leverkusen, sensed the moment as a huge opportunity to attract talent to his club. Leverkusen’s reputation had grown in the 1980s, becoming an established Bundesliga side for the first time and lifting the 1988 UEFA Cup, their first major trophy. Getting to East Germany’s best players first could take Leverkusen to the next level. In a move of ruthless business opportunism, Calmund resolved to make contact with Geyer’s players in Vienna, in order to tempt them into moving west.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the list of heralded East German footballers fleeing to the West was not a long one up to that point. One instance came in December 1983. Falko Götz and Dirk Schlegel were playing in the European Cup for Dynamo Berlin, East Germany’s dominant side. The team had been under constant Stasi surveillance, but that didn’t stop diplomats in training gear accompanying Götz and Schlegel from the team’s base in Belgrade to Ljubljana, Zagreb and finally Munich.

Götz and Schlegel, who themselves were signed by Bayer Leverkusen, would have been acutely aware of the potential consequences of their flight. Just six months earlier, Lutz Eigendorf, a former team-mate of Götz, was killed in a car accident in West Germany, having transferred from Dynamo to Kaiserslautern and then Eintracht Braunschweig, all while under the watchful eye of the East German secret police. Experts since have heavily alleged, though never proven, Stasi involvement.

But with the border suddenly open, Leverkusen’s Calmund knew it was different this time. “Who’s going to stop me from going in?”, he said in a later interview. In Vienna, six years on from Götz and Schlegel’s defection, Andreas Thom was one of the primary targets this time. In one of history’s fitting call-backs, Thom had played in Belgrade that night, the 18 year-old making his European debut as Götz’s replacement up front.

So Calmund’s men arrived in Vienna, having forensically researched their targets’ addresses and whereabouts, and began talking to the players – at the match itself, no less. “I was substituted around the 70th minute”, recalls Ulf Kirsten in an interview with MDR. “Somebody came over with a TV identification, sat next to me and said ‘I work for Rainer Calmund. Can we have a chat?’”

It was Wolfgang Karnath, Calmund’s right hand man. “Matthias Sammer was completely stunned”, Karnath recalls in an interview with broadcaster ZDF’s Sportstudio, marking the 20th anniversary of reunification. “I sat next to him and said ‘I’m not who you think I am, I’m from Bayer Leverkusen’”.

Within a month, Andreas Thom became the first to formally agree a transfer to Leverkusen, transferring for 2.5 Million Mark and making his debut in February 1990 (with East and West still officially divided). He became the first player in the GDR’s top tier to transfer into the Bundesliga. Calmund still wanted Dynamo Dresden’s top prospects Kirsten and Sammer, and may have gotten all three, but for some political intervention from the very top.

Andreas Thom

It’s a story still widely reported that Chancellor Helmut Kohl himself vetoed Calmund’s capture of all three players, worried about perhaps East Germany’s three biggest stars leaving for one single Bundesliga team so quickly after the fall of the wall. “You can’t just buy the GDR empty”, Calmund reports having been told by Kohl. It’s a story that fits Kohl’s famously clever political manoeuvrings. Having spent years prioritising and promoting a deliberate image of himself and the West behind the curtain, it would come as no surprise that Kohl would fear this fast-becoming a troublesome issue within the reunification process.

Calmund is said to have taken Sammer and Kirsten on holiday in Bavaria and told them they wouldn’t be joining Thom at Leverkusen. Sammer signed for VfB Stuttgart in the summer of 1990, winning the league championship with them in his second season. As for Kirsten, Calmund went back on an agreement with Borussia Dortmund and managed to sign the player in the summer. Dortmund were furious.
After the defeat in Vienna, East Germany would only play seven more internationals, their last coming on September 12 1990 in Belgium, with Sammer scoring twice. 20 players turned down their invitation to play for the GDR that day. Less than a month later, East and West were officially reunified. In the intervening time between the defeat in Vienna and their final game, despite having no World Cup to look forward to and amid all the upheaval, the GDR won six of those seven, beating the likes of Scotland and Belgium, drawing at Brazil’s legendary Maracanã stadium and losing only to France.

Geyer’s record as GDR coach stood at played 13, won 9, drawn 2, lost 2, a superb record by any standards, especially for a team like East Germany, who were far from one of world football’s giants. “To go to the World Cup was my biggest ambition”, he recalls.

Geyer himself was denied the chance to test himself in the West alongside his best players. Usually the Bundesliga would have jumped at the chance to attract such a successful coach. But the newspaper Bild had already reported on his past as an informal collaborator to the Stasi (many civilians were pressured into becoming informants). Geyer, the staunch Saxonian, also complained about Western arrogance denying him his fair chance. He had the last laugh though, bringing unknown Energie Cottbus from the eastern regional leagues into the Bundesliga via the German Cup final. The man the Bundesliga didn’t want got there off his own accord.

Would East Germany have qualified for the World Cup were it not for Reiner Calmund? Ultimately, the exact impact of his intervention in the occasion is difficult to quantify. His actions lacked respect for the occasion, interrupted East Germany’s preparations and, in confronting the players directly before and during the game, will certainly have messed with the heads of Geyer’s most important players.
At the same time, it’s more than likely the players had already turned their own heads, which would have been inevitable amid the uncertainty and effective crumbling of their country a few days before. “These boys wanted to go to the west now”, Calmund recalls. “There was more cola, they watched western TV. It was completely normal”.

It’s also possible East Germany underestimated their opponents. Austria certainly weren’t as good a side, but playing at home to 55,000 fans, knowing that a win could bring qualification for a World Cup, the Austrians raised their game for the occasion much more than their opposition.

Austria’s first game at Italia 90 pitted them against none other than the hosts at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. The Austrians lost 1-0 before a first-round exit. As for Germany, with Geyer’s stars joining Beckenbauer’s World Champions, the reunified nation initially underachieved, including a shock defeat in the Euro 92 final against Denmark. Four years later though, Berti Vogts’ side won Euro 96. Sammer was named Player of the Tournament, before taking the European Footballer of the Year crown later that year. Kirsten went on to win a century of international caps. Bayer Leverkusen have still never won the Bundesliga title.

My favourite scene in Good Bye Lenin! is towards the end, as Alex and his mother watch one of the news tapes he has fabricated for her. “The GDR I created for his mother was becoming more and more like the GDR I would have wanted for myself”, he says. In his final video, he uses a lookalike of his childhood hero Sigmund Jähn to portray the East German President, giving the country, in his eyes, the “worthy farewell” it had been denied in real life.

Football is, of course, nowhere near as important as global issues, freedom, politics and unity. Yet one is left wondering about that parallel universe in which fate doesn’t get in the way, and East Germany qualifies for the 1990 World Cup, going out with a bang the summer before it ceases to exist. “For me personally, I always said the wall was opened… I guess four to six weeks too early”, Eduard Geyer recalls. “Maybe we would have qualified.”

Eduard Geyer at Dynamo Dresden
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Jonathan Lines

Jonathan is a teacher and football writer based in the UK. He writes mostly about German football, with a particular interest in clubs from eastern Germany, past and present. Follow him on twitter @JDL_1989


  1. Thanks Jonathan, really interesting read. Prompted me to go back and read your piece on Eduard Geyer as well

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