In a country still governed by black and white, a team in white and blue took the most popular sport to a new level through one of the biggest surprises in European club football. 1. FC Magdeburg’s fantastic triumph in the final of the Cup Winner’s Cup against Milan in Rotterdam 1974 is often overlooked, but must be seen as something out of even the extraordinary. It is a story of newly found hope, growing seeds of possible success. It is also what forms legends, what builds dynasties and what makes legacies that inspire the footballing world for centuries onwards. This is what happened to Magdeburg in the beginning of the summer 1974, a year widely regarded as the best year ever in German football history.
Everything echoes in a ghost town. It’s a platitude, but most platitudinarians will often find themselves on the right side of the more and more ambiguous concept of truth. For this story is certainly an echo, of rather grave proportions, and it did happen in what can be regarded as a ghost town. But this does in no way take away the importance or even grandiloquence of the event itself. It’s a great echo, but the ghost town maybe did just need a sound to come back to life. And there are names. An array of fantastic and stereotypical names will grace this history with their presence.
Now, I’m all for historical context. I find it easier to relate to something if it’s been put into perspective. So let us do just that with the FC Magdeburg’s triumph in 1974, let’s put it into a historical context, because this transpired in the middle of one of the most frantic years German football had ever seen. Bayern Munich won the title and won the European Cup not many days after. The German national team made itself ready for World Cup on home soil and DDR had just qualified for its first international tournament ever, in which they would go on to beat the hosts with 1-0 in the group stage. However, it is also important to remember that 1974 was politically a very tempestuous year. There were many famous dissidents throughout the Teutonic lands, rebels just wanting the German society to be a tad more balanced. Rote Armee Fraktion (also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group) was at the height of its national power and tensions had begun to rise even more between the states on the two sides of the German iron curtain. Germany was of course a divided land as well and this did in ways affect the German football. An area so divided, both by ideology and by an actual wall, had two national teams, two football leagues and two dominant sides that controlled their respective part of the footballing domain of Germany.
Regarded as a footballing icon, Gianni Rivera’s legacy was in no way tainted by the happenings of May 8th 1974. His status as an icon in an icon-filled sphere might have taken a hit, but the damage did not at all last longer than one could have expected. The attacking midfielder was one of the best at his position for a few years and had just won the Cup Winners’ Cup with Milan. He had also finished a fantastic season for I Rossoneri in which he had scored 17 times and become the League’s leading goalscorer from his advanced midfield position. This Italian version of Fritz Walter was just about to be part of a historic match, a game watched by so many, but attended by so few. Gianni Rivera was part of a rather famous collection of players. Apart from the obvious grandeur of AC Milan itself, this team had some characters in it. Gianni Rivera is one of these, Romeo Benetti is another and their coach at the time was Giovanni Trapattoni. Most Bundesliga fanatics will be familiar with Trap from his mad time at FC Bayern. AC Milan had also just won the cup in Italy, for the second time in the row, and came to this final in Rotterdam as reigning champions, put up against East German superminnows who had exploded their way through to the final.
For 1. FC Magdeburg was an attacking team. They played blistering attacking football with lots of movement and chances. Their team and tactic had been composed by coach Heinz Krügel, who died not too long ago and who now names the street where Magdeburg’s stadium lies. Heinz Krügel had dribbled through the DDR-Oberliga with flamboyance and style, his 4-3-3 with very inverted wingers worked wonders and Magdeburg had finished their season with 50 goals in 26 games, almost 2,5 goals a game. Krügel had joined die Kapuzenmänner earlier that decade and had transformed the whole club into something completely new. He shifted out the deadwood and brought in some new talents to strengthen their future. When they won the league in 1971/1972, their average age was 22,5 years. This was the youngest squad to ever win the DDR-Oberliga. This whole decade more or less belonged to 1. FC Magdeburg because of this. Krügel had built a strong backbone with young players that could grow and develop together. A masterstroke from the late German, who ultimately became a victim of classic DDR politics, as historian Manuel Veth of Fussballstadt explains:
“Heinz Krügel was banned from coaching in football in 1977, because the government claimed that he had pro-West German tendencies. In reality, he refused to use information collected by the Stasi on Magdeburg’s 1974/75 European Cup opponent Bayern München, who were bugged ahead of the two teams playing each other in the round of 16, and in general refused to let politics dictate his sides selection ahead of crucial matches.”
Magdeburg’s blue and white dress had that season been blessed by East German footballing icons like Jürgen Sparwasser, Wolfgang Seguin and Manfred Zapf and all of these played a big part in the triumph that was to come. Sparwasser’s prolific nature as well as his underrated creativity and vision with the ball at his feet propelled him into the yearning hearts of many. He was the one who scored the goal against Germany in the group stages of the World Cup in 1974 and he was Magdeburg’s main man up front that season. He was accompanied by the capable likes of Martin Hoffmann and Wolfgang Abraham, two players who had consistently been racking up numbers in DDR-Oberliga for the blue-whites. This trio in attack was as brutal as it was efficient. Behind these three they had three mobile midfielders. There was the midfield mastermind Jürgen Pommerenke, who directed play from his phlegmatic position between defence and attack. He was joined by winger-turned-central midfielder Axel Tyll who often shifted between flanking duties and more central obligations. Tyll was quick and technical, the perfect choice alongside Pommerenke. Wolfgang Seguin completed the trio in midfield and he is the most famous of them all. Seguin was an attacking midfielder with a very reliable eye for a goal. His goalscoring had helped the club to a few titles and the imminent title in Rotterdam would send his name to the stars. Seguin went from being a kid from Burg to a household name in just two or three years and is now lauded as the best East Germany had. (Fun fact: He’s also the father of current VfL Wolfsburg player – on loan at Dynamo Dresden- Paul Seguin)
In the lead-up to the final at De Kuip in Rotterdam, some rather turbulent things occurred. The DDR decided that only a few handfuls of people would be allowed to go to the game. In fact, apart from the players’ wives, only about 200 people from East Germany were there. And the Milanese? They believed it was going to be a stroll in the park, so they didn’t even bother to go and watch. Why spend that money when the entertainment isn’t there? This combined to create the worst attendance number any European final has ever seen, as just 4641 people watched FC Magdeburg take on AC Milan in the beginning of May 1974. 1. FCM had more people in the stands when they were in Regionalliga. This bad atmosphere was somewhat expected. Even though Magdeburg usually had about 45.000 at their home games, nobody had expected DDR to let people loose due to a sporting event. A few handfuls only, and that was them being generous. But as the game at De Kuip went on, the Magdeburgers started to make lots of noise and after a while, those 200 people were the only ones you could even hear.
Now, one might say that this is just a fun story of an underdog. Who does not love a story about underdogs? They’re the ultimate proof of the romantic side of sport and it excites us to even think about it. What if our team is the next underdog? How cool would that be. For example: The DFB-Pokal final in May will be so much more exciting for me as an Eintrachtler because I know my team is the underdog. But, underdogs genuinely have nothing to lose. This was the case with Magdeburg. However, in this single case, there was more to it than one might have expected. Magdeburg’s squad was solely made up by local guys.
The goalkeeper Ulrich Schulze started his career at SG Darlingerode, close to the border. Manfred Zapf was born in Stapelburg, a city only a few miles from the East German border. Detlef Enge played for SSG Schwanebeck, between the border and Magdeburg. Wing back Helmut Gaube started his career at Traktor Niederndoleben in the western outskirts of Magdeburg and Detlef Raugust, also wing back, played at Lokomotiv Vorwärts Halberstadt, not too far from Stapelburg and the border. Midfield motor Wolfgang Seguin played at Einheit Burg and Jürgen Pommerenke at Traktor Wegeleben, both in the vicinity of Magdeburg. Axel Tyll was born in Magdeburg and started his career at Motor Mitte Magdeburg. Goalscorer Wolfgang Abraham played for Einheit Osterburg, Martin Hoffmann for Aktivist Gommern and Jürgen Sparwasser for Detlef Raugust’s Lokomotiv Halberstadt. All these places are located in the vicinity of Magdeburg, in the western parts of Sachsen-Anhalt. If this wasn’t enough, the rest of the squad was also from the area. This was therefore not your regular underdog. This was David versus Goliath 2.0. David won again! Don’t tell me the odds.
More or less a month after Magdeburg had managed to beat reigning champions Dynamo Dresden and surprise package Carl-Zeiss-Jena to the title, they were going up against one of the most famous and commercial clubs in world football. Only a couple of months before they had been playing against teams like Wismut Aue, Stahl Riesa and BSG Sachsenring Zwickau and now they were going up against Gianni Rivera and Trapattoni. That is football for you, sport at its best, constantly making dreams come true. The empty stands must have given the players an increasing feeling of being abandoned in the nethersphere, left to their own devices. And so, the game kicked off and the lack of a soar from the stands must have sent chills down some spines. A football stadium that grand with fans so few? Spooky.
The game was very even. AC Milan played their classical 5-4-1 with libero Enrico Lanzi at the back. AC Milan’s goalkeeper in this final has one of the best names I have ever had the opportunity to come across – Pierluigi Pizzaballa- and he struggled. Magdeburg had some shots on goal as their optimistic approach seemed to work rather fine against the Italian catenaccio. Milan’s backline with the late Angelo Anquiletti, Aldo Maldera, Enrico Lanzi, Guiseppe Sabadini and Karl-Heinz Schnellinger was up against one of the most creative attacks DDR-Oberliga had ever seen in the Hoffmann-Sparwasser-Abraham trio. Behind these sat Axel Tyll and Wolfgang Seguin, picking up balls that Jürgen Pommerenke managed to pick from the Milan players. Milan’s midfield was made up of defensive midfielder Romeo Benetti, wingers Alberto Bigoni and Francesco Bergamaschi and advanced playmaking genius Gianni Rivera, their main focal point when attacking. One can say that he was later found in Jürgen Pommerenke’s pocket. Magdeburg’s defensive line with Detlef Raugust, Detlef Enge, captain Manfred Zapf and Helmut Gaube was in no way supposed to have any problems at all with Milan attacker Carlo Tresoldi, a player who was not known for his goalscoring antics. Heinz Krügel’s fresh and young attacking system was up against Giovanni Trapattoni’s catenaccio, a classic fight between ideologies.
In the 43rd minute Magdeburg were able to go on a counter following a turnover at midfield. 19- year old Detlef Raugust picked up the ball and began running for what seemed like eternity, eventually putting in a low cross towards Sparwasser. It was a dangerous delivery and instead of clearing it, libero Enrico Lanzi accidentally kicked the ball into his own net, completely catching name-hero Pierluigi Pizzaballa off guard. Die Kapuzenmänner from Sachsen-Anhalt went into the break with a 1-0 lead. Sensational! In a recent interview with Tagesspiegel, striker Jürgen Sparwasser said that it had been noticeable from the start that they could match Milan’s quality. The goal confirmed this, he said, and states that they knew that they would win if Milan didn’t have anything else to offer. Magdeburg went into the second half full of confidence. One can imagine that Krügel’s charisma had made them even more determined to step out there and play these Italians off the park. And this was exactly what they did.
This was no smash and grab from Magdeburg. They were genuinely on par with AC Milan. The second half showed this even more as Magdeburg began to own more of the ball and piled on the pressure with some overloading on the flanks. They could do this, for they knew that a 5-4-1 was harmless on the counters. AC Milan invited pressure, instead of pressing, and finally found themselves in goalkeeper Pizzaballa’s lap and they could find no way out. Magdeburg pressed them and kept the ball within their capable team. Pommerenke pulling strings from deep, Axel Tyll and Seguin dropping in behind the lines and even acting in the half-spaces, anachronistically enough. Then came 2-0.
In a small generic house in the northern outskirts of Magdeburg sits a family down, all dressed up in white and blue, to watch 1. FC Magdeburg play the Cup Winner’s Cup final against AC Milan in Rotterdam. They have maybe invited their neighbours, because the neighbours haven’t been able to get a TV yet. They went for the Trabi instead, since the husband works in Halle. In the 74th minute, this bunch of friends and enemies (I don’t know their backstories) bursts into a frenzy of good feelings. Their still black and white TV-screen shows an Italian goalkeeper named Pierluigi Pizzaballa lying in the grass, yearning for the whistle. Behind him they can see Enrico Lanzi stand with his hands on his knees. He says something in Italian to his colleague in defence. The biggest part of the screen is occupied by a man wearing a white and black shirt with the number seven on the back. This is Wolfgang Seguin and he has just secured DDR’s biggest triumph in sports ever.
This was the beginning of a lovely summer for German football. Jürgen Sparwasser scored for DDR against hosts West Germany in their first ever World Cup. German football celebrated one of the best international sides this world has ever seen. Players like Gerd Müller, Beckenbauer and Breitner were to be canonized for their actions on the pitch the summer of 1974. In this positive chaos, it is still easy to find 1. FC Magdeburg’s triumph against AC Milan at De Kuip. And it would also be quite normal to do just that, for it is still just an echo in a ghost town. But this win and the goal Sparwasser scored against West Germany can give an insight into how important football was for the oppressed masses of East German society.
Magdeburg didn’t solve any problems in the East German society, nor did their win have a lasting positive effect on East German football on an international stage. Their win in Rotterdam remains the only international title ever won by an East German team, East German did never get to dance again. But maybe, just maybe, these two triumphs weren’t just echoes in a ghost town. Perchance were they genuine beacons of hope in a society where hope was ransomed.
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