On 25th March, over 18,000 spectators piled into the home of FC Magdeburg to see their team defeat Vfl Osnabrück 2-0 and tighten their grip on the automatic promotion spots in Germany’s 3 Liga.
However, Magdeburg is no ordinary third tier side. The club from the banks of the Elba river hold the honour of being the only team from the former GDR (East Germany) to win a European trophy. On a warm night at the Kuip Stadium in Rotterdam in May 1974, Magdeburg defeated Italian giants AC Milan 2-0 to win the European Cup Winners Cup.
The game was remarkable for many reasons. Milan arrived as overwhelming favourites but were defeated by a group of players with the average age of 23 and who were all drawn from a city of just over a million inhabitants. Only Jock Stein’s European Cup winning Celtic side of 1967 sourced their players from a smaller area. This triumph was a classic underdog tale but, unlike Celtic’s Lisbon Lions, who are still lauded across the world over 50 years later, very few people remember FC Magdeburg.
Undoubtedly this is, in part, due to the lack of recognition for teams from the former GDR. After the reunification of Germany there was a rush to dismiss the GDR and the achievements of its sports teams to the dustbin of history. As a result, many great sides and matches have been forgotten.
It may also have had something to do with the unusual circumstances of Magdeburg’s victory. The final in Rotterdam was watched by one of the lowest crowds in the history of European cup finals, with only 5,000 fans inside the Kuip Stadium. This was, mainly, because of the reluctance of AC Milan fans to make the journey to the Netherlands but it was also due to the customary GDR policy of only allowing handpicked dignitaries to travel abroad for European ties. As a result, less than 300 people travelled from East Germany to Rotterdam, most of whom had no ties to, or interest in, FC Magdeburg.
By the time the club’s players embarked on their lap of honour, the stadium was almost empty. It is a bitter irony that the greatest night in GDR club football history passed by with so few witnesses.
The team was not short of recognition back in their home town, however. The players received a stirring welcome on their return to Magdeburg, with thousands lining the streets to welcome their heroes.
The careers of those involved in that famous night in Rotterdam took vastly different paths in the years that followed.
Manager Heinz Krugel, who had masterminded the victory, was removed from his post only two years later, ostensibly for football reasons. It was common knowledge, however, that his perceived political dissidence and unwillingness to follow orders from the GDR leadership were the real reasons for his dismissal. Captain Manfred Zapf went on to become a high ranking official in the ruling SED party and, briefly, GDR national team coach.
Perhaps the most remarkable story of all, however, is that of striker Jürgen Sparwasser, a man who played the key role in the two biggest triumphs of GDR football. Sparwasser’s goals fired Magdeburg to the final in Rotterdam, but the following summer he eclipsed even these achievements at the 1974 World Cup. It was the Magdeburg striker who scored the only goal in the group game between East and West Germany in Hamburg, the only time the two Germany’s ever met on the football pitch.
Sparwasser defected to West Germany in 1988, but by this time FC Magdeburg were already in trouble. The reunification of Germany brought about troubles for many Eastern teams, with only two being allowed into the Bundesliga and the others having to fight it out in the lower divisions. Magdeburg fared worse than many. Eintracht Braunschweig poached their manager, Jochaim Streich, and the club fell into the semi professional regional leagues.
Worse was to follow. In 2000-01 Magdeburg went on an extraordinary run in the Dfb Pokal, the German cup, vanquishing Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich and FC Koln on a run to the quarter finals. Behind the scenes, however, the club was in serious financial trouble and in danger of going out of business altogether. A combination of donations from fans and loans from local banks kept the club in business for another season but in June 2002, FC Magdeburg could cope no longer and the club fell into receivership.
Relegation to the fourth tier and an exodus of all the team’s senior players followed, leading the club to be forced to survive with a squad made up of youth team products. It seemed as if the only East German champions of Europe were about to follow so many of their compatriots and slip into obscurity.
However, even at this dark hour, the shoots of recovery were slowly beginning to spring.
The Magdeburg city council had approved the building of a new stadium in the area as early as 2004. FC Magdeburg moved into their new home in December 2006, dramatically increasing attendances and the mood of positivity around the club. Despite these promising steps, fortunes on the field did not dramatically improve and for the next 9 years Magdeburg seemed condemned to stagnating in the amateur divisions.
However, in 2015, the club appointed the former Lokomotive Leipzig and Union Berlin player Jens Hartel as manager. Hartel oversaw a dramatic change in the team’s fortunes, winning promotion to 3 Liga in his first season, the first time Magdeburg would play in a professional league since reunification. The club was expected to struggle merely to survive in the third tier but Hartel and his players had other ideas.
In their first season in 3 Liga, Magdeburg achieved a fourth place finish and averaged crowds of over 18,000 in the impressive MDCC Arena. Another fourth place finish followed in 2016/17, but the best was yet to come, which takes us to the present day.
In 2017/18 Magdeburg have excelled themselves. Spearheaded by the goals of striker Christian Beck and midfielder Phillip Turpitz, the club have spent the majority of the season in one of the two automatic promotion spots, jostling with FC Paderborn for first place. Promotion to 2 Bundesliga, the second tier of German football, would have seemed inconceivable a few seasons ago as the team toiled in the amateur divisions, but now it is close to being a reality.
The days of Jürgen Sparwasser and European trophies may be long gone but something special is happening in Magdeburg and, if promotion is achieved, few would bet against Hartel and his men defying the odds again to reach the Bundesliga next season.
For more on 1.FC Magdeburg, see Wayne Symes ‘We Went There….” feature from last August, and follow the club on Twitter @1_FCM