Monday 2 December 2019

Oberliga and Out - The Story of Domestic Football in the GDR

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 it was the beginning of the end for the forty year experiment that was East Germany, the country would reunify with the west and Germany would be united as one again. 

Reunification saw massive changes in everyday life and this extended to the game of football. Separated from the west by a wall in Berlin and a heavily fortified border elsewhere, like in all other areas of life, football in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), otherwise known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or simply East Germany, had been completely separated from the west. A new united Germany, however, meant football in those lands would be united again and East German football as those at the time knew it would be no more.

For just over forty years East Germany had their own football leagues separate from those in the west, with their own teams creating their own stories away from the other half of Germany, not just at home but also in European competition. Football in the east did not have all the star names they had in the west and mostly went unnoticed outside it's homeland, but nonetheless, it still had plenty of tales to tell.

Abstruse Beginnings and Dresden Players Reallocated

SG Planitz, nowadays known as FSV Zwickau, can be considered the first ever East German football champions winning what was then known as the Ostzonenmeisterschaft (Championship of the East Zone) which was a short knockout tournament that took place in 1948. Renamed as Horch Zwickau the club would also become the very first DDR-Oberliga champions in 1949-50. Some fourteen years before the West German Bundesliga was formed, this was the new top flight division in East Germany, the newly formed soviet backed communist state that had come about after World War II.

Renaming clubs, dissolving teams, and forming replacements was all rather commonplace in the early days of East German football. As with many aspects of daily life, football clubs were often run by the state. Many clubs were associated with different government departments or sectors of the economy, and the state often meddled with these teams to suit their own ends. The varying different team names in the early years of East German football can at times prove hard to navigate. In Leipzig, for example, it's easy to lose count of how many times its clubs were dissolved, reformed, and had their names changed before the city settled down with two teams Lokomotive Leipzig and Chemie Leipzig. Chemie were the only one of the two to claim any Oberliga titles winning the championship in 1951 and as a reformed side again in 1964. However, some 23 years after that second triumph, city rivals Lokomotive (Lok) almost had their own success when they reached a European final as we shall later see. Some clubs, of course, were not run by the state and the most famous of these were FC Carl Zeiss Jena, and 1. FC Magdeburg, names we shall also come across later.

The first real powerhouse in East German football was Wismut Karl-Marx-Stadt, nowadays known as FC Erzgebirge Aue. Starting in 1955 the club won three league titles in a row, part of four in five years. Another successful club following on from Wismut Kark-Marx-Stadt was ASK Vorwärts Berlin. Champions in 1958, the club ran by the ever growing Ministry of Defence would go on to win a further six titles in the 1960s. In 1971, however, the club was moved from the capital to Frankfurt (Oder) on the East German-Polish border, to replace the local secret police-sponsored side SG Dynamo who had been disbanded. They would feature four times in the UEFA Cup in the 1980s. One other interesting story of note from those early days is the tale of Dynamo Dresden, champions in 1952-53, and their move to the capital.

Dynamo Dresden's championship triumph actually proved to be their undoing. Dynamo were affiliated to the Stasi (secret police) of which Erich Mielke was head, and Mielke decided to move the club to the capital East Berlin. Mielke wanted the capital to have a strong footballing power, something he felt it lacked, and he thought moving champions Dynamo Dresden to East Berlin would give the city the team he felt they deserved. This move took place on 21 November 1954 and saw players such as East German national team stars Johannes Matzen, Herbert Schoen, and Günter Schröter all move to East Berlin. 

In the decade and a half that followed it was, of course, rival East Berlin side Vorwärts Berlin that would at Dynamo's Berlin's expense have the success that Mielke had envisaged. Dynamo Berlin's Dresden acquired players started to age and the team struggled, even suffering relegation and year outside the top flight in 1957 and then again in the late sixties. The club's glory days would come, however, beginning in the late seventies, well after Vorwärts had moved away from the capital, and running through much of the 1980s. By then known as Berliner FC (BFC) Dynamo, they themselves would be the country's dominant force. That is another story in itself but first, however, there was the 1970s. In Magdeburg, there was a Cup Winners' Cup triumph in 1974, the same year that East Germany made their one and only World Cup appearance. There were duels between east and west in the European Cup, whilst Dynamo Dresden were also back on the scene in what was an exciting decade for East German football.

European Successes

With the move to Berlin, suddenly overnight Dredsen's team had been destroyed and what was left of the club was a side forced to regroup in the second-tier DDR-Liga. It took them eight years to regain their top flight place and even then a couple of relegations and promotions followed. In 1971 the club was back on top, however, as Dynamo Dresden were once again Oberliga champions. Two years later another title would follow with Hans-Jürgen Kreische becoming the first Dynamo Dresden player to be named East German Footballer of the Year, whilst between 1975-76 and 1977-78 there were three successive Oberliga title wins. Kreische was the league's leading goalscorer on four occasions and part of the East German 1974 World Cup squad. '71 and '77 were the most productive seasons for Dresden as they actually saw league and cup doubles for the side with victories over BFC Dynamo and Lokomotive Leipzig respectively in the two finals.

Hugely successful at home during the seventies, Dresden became the most popular club in the country and regularly drew crowds of 25,000 plus during this period. For all their success at home and the big crowds it brought, however, Dresden could not make it past the quarter finals in continental competition. Even when they did not win the title and gain a place in the European Cup Dresden often found themselves participating in the UEFA Cup but other East German clubs actually had more success than Dresden when it came to the European scene. 

In 1971-72 BFC Dynamo reached the semi finals of the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, agonisingly losing to Dynamo Moscow on penalties after a 2-2 aggregate scoreline. Some ten years earlier Carl Zeiss Jena (at the time known as SC Motor Jena) had managed the same feat, whilst in 1975-76 BSG Sachsenring Zwickau also reached the semi finals of that same competition beating Panathinaikos, Fiorentina, and Celtic along the way. Meanwhile, in 1973-74 Lokomotive Leipzig had made the semi finals of the UEFA Cup beating Torino, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Fortuna Düsseldorf, and Ipswich Town, before losing to Tottenham Hotspur. It was 1. FC Magdeburg, however, who ended up being the biggest hit on the European stage when in 1973-74 they surpassed all those other achievements and became the first and only East German side to win a major European trophy. 

When Magdeburg beat Dutch side NAC Breda in their Cup Winners' Cup first round tie it's doubtful it would have occurred to anyone across Europe that they might actually win the whole competition, and when they lost to 2-0 away at Baník Ostrava of Czechoslovakia in the first leg of their second round tie no one would have given them a cat in hells chance of reaching the next round let alone reaching the final and winning the whole thing. Magdeburg, however, won the second leg against Banik 3-0, and Beroe Stara Zagora of Bulgaria were then defeated before Magdeburg entered into an enticing semi final against Sporting CP of Lisbon. A credible 1-1 draw away from home was followed by an even better 2-1 home win and 1. FC Magdeburg were in the Cup Winners' Cup final - the first ever European final for an East German side - where the opposition would be Italian side AC Milan.

Milan were overwhelming favourites for the final and so convinced were their supporters that the match would see nothing less than a routine victory for the Rossoneri very few of them actually bothered to make the trip to Rotterdam for the final. As for Magdeburg, the East German authorities allowed only a few hundred of their klaxon blowing supporters to travel to the game meaning a very low turnout in the stands. In fact, the official attendance of just 4641 was the lowest ever recorded for a European final up till that point. At home, Magdeburg supporters crowded around tv sets to watch their team play against these Italian giants and they certainly would not be left disappointed.

Magdeburg had a team completely composed of homegrown players whilst the only foreigner in the Milan squad was former West German international Karl-Heinz Schnellinger. As the game got underway it soon became apparent that the East Germans were no pushovers and would be a difficult proposition for their much fancied opposition, so no one should have really been surprised when Magdeburg took the lead on 43 minutes.

Magdeburg broke forward through 19-year-old midfielder Detlef Raugust and when he eventually fired a low cross into the box Milan's Enrico Lanzi accidentally hit the ball into his own net. If anyone thought Milan would come roaring back, however, they would be mistaken, Magdeburg looked the better side in the second half and in the 74th minute managed to find themselves 2-0 up. The ball fell to Wolfgang Seguin on the left hand side of the box and he was able to slot the ball home from a rather acute angle. 

Milan were in shock and couldn't recover, the game ended 2-0 and the underdog had won. On 8th May, for the first time in the history of European club competition, an East German side had won a final, with the 1974 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup winners being 1. FC Magdeburg. 

"Dear Magdeburg fans, I would like to congratulate you on this outstanding performance and I wish you continued success." Those were the words of future East German leader Erich Honecker, then already a leading politician in the country, in his telegram to the victorious Magdeburg team. Yes, in a year that shops allowing East Germans to buy western products were opened for the very first time, it was a team of Eastern goods that had actually come out on top in what was one of Europe's three major finals.

Whilst it was Dynamo Dresden who were arguably the star team of domestic football the 1970s, in between their five league titles that decade there was also three Oberliga successes for Magdeburg themselves, one of which came in the same season as their European glory to complete a league and cup double. That was their second title and was followed by a third the following season in which they lost only twice throughout the whole campaign and scored an average of more than two goals a game. Magdeburg ended the decide by claiming runners up spots in '77 and '78, and winning the FDGB-Pokal (East German Cup) in 78' and 79'. As with Dresden these title successes, of course, brought European Cup football to Magdeburg and the following season after the 1973-74 double saw a tie with West German side FC Bayern München. 

East v West Duels

Magdeburg v Bayern was not the first time German sides from the east and the west had met in European competition, indeed FC Bayern had actually met Dynamo Dresden in the same competition a year earlier. Of course, when people think of East v West Germany in football they think of the 1974 World Cup when Magdeburg's Jürgen Sparwasser scored that famous goal to help the East Germans defeat tournament hosts and eventual winners West Germany, but perhaps less well remembered are some of the fascinating east v west ties at club level. These were real battles of determination, and although the 1970s may have been mostly an era of détente between the east and the west of Germany, on the football pitch, it was all about winning. Friendliness would have to come second. 

In round one of the 1973-74 European Cup Dresden had defeated the mighty Juventus of Italy with a 2-0 home victory in the first leg helping them progress 4-3 on aggregate before the massive round two tie against their West German neighbours. 

The first leg saw over 50000 spectators cram into the Munich's Olympiastadion as the hosts ran out 4-3 winners after twice coming from behind in the match. In Dresden for the second leg, a full house of over 36,000 were present with well over half the tickets award to members of the Stasi and various other loyal comrades of the state. Those present saw the visitors 2-0 up after 12 minutes and Dresden looked down and out. Goals either side of half-time drew the hosts level, however, and when they took the lead on 56 minutes it really was game on. That lead only lasted two minutes, unfortunately, as FC Bayern drew level at 3-3 with what would turn out to be the final goal of the game to send themselves through and Dresden crashing out. Bayern would go on to defeat Atlético Madrid in the final.

The following season it was Magdeburg's turn to face FC Bayern. As Cup Winners' Cup and European Cup champions respectively, the pair should have met in the Super Cup, but could not agree upon dates for the matches. They certainly found time to play each other when they were paired together in the second round of that season's European Cup, however, and as with the Dynamo-Bayern tie a year earlier this would again be another cracker.

It was first blood Magdeburg in front of 63,349 for the first leg at the Olympiastadion where a Johnny Hansen own goal put the visitors ahead after just one minute. As with all such European ties, the East German state was very selective in who they would let travel to away matches, but the few Magdeburg fans present saw their team 2-0 up before half-time thanks to a strike from Sparwasser. The European champions were stunned. Three goals in the second-half, however, saw the hosts win the match and Magdeburg a goal behind going into the second leg. As for that second leg, Sparwasser scored again but his goal came after two Gerd Müller goals in a game that FC Bayern won 2-1 as the west defeated the east for a second year running.

There were two further European Cup ties between sides from the east and west and both of those also involved victories for the west when BFC Dynamo lost to Hamburger SV in 1982-83 and SV Werder Bremen in 88-89. The second of those ties was notable as the Berliners won the first leg at home 3-0 only to lose the second 5-0 and go crashing out.

In total there were seventeen ties between East and West German sides in European competition with East German sides winning a paltry two, those being UEFA Cup victories for Lokomotive Leipzig over Fortuna Düsseldorf and Werder Bremen respectively. After FC Bayern's successive victories in '73 and '74, one other well remembered tie between the east and west is a Cup Winners' Cup tie between Dynamo Dresden and Bayer 05 Uerdingen in 1986. Having won the first leg of the quarter final tie at home 2-0, Dresden then found themselves 3-1 up in the second leg and all but guaranteed a place in the semis, or so they thought... Uerdingen, however, had other ideas, and a remarkable six goals for them in the second half saw them complete the most stunning of turnarounds and win the tie 7-5! 


There was yet more drama after that match between Dresden and Uerdingen when Dresden forward Frank Lippmann who'd scored in both legs of the tie escaped from the travelling Dresden party through an underground hotel car park and defected to the west. Lippmann was one of many defectors from east to west, including Magdeburg's 1974 World Cup star Sparwasser. Sparwasser fled in January 1988 while in West Germany for a Veterans Tournament. He walked into a Police Station and sought asylum.

With travel severely restricted it was all but impossible for East Germans to legitimately move to the west, and escape meant leaving friends and family behind with the prospect of potentially never seeing them again. But whether for political reasons, financial ones, or just sheer curiosity, many people in all walks of life did try to escape from the east, and footballers were no different. For East German football players, high wages in the west was often a major contributing factor in defections.

In 1976 East German u21 players Jürgen Pahl and Norbert Nachtweih, both of Chemie Halle, took the opportunity to flee while on tour with the u21 squad in Turkey. Pahl stated that there were no political reasons for defecting and that they just wanted to earn better wages. From Turkey, they fled to West Germany where they both joined Eintracht Frankfurt after serving what was an obligatory one year suspension given to those that defected.

Another defector was Lutz Eigendorf. Eigendorf escaped after a friendly between Dinamo Berlin and Kaiserslautern in West Germany in 1979. When the team stopped for a break whilst travelling back East he ran off and then fled in a taxi. In 1983, Eigendorf was involved in a car accident and died two days later. Many were suspicious of the accident and believed the Stasi may have somehow been involved. In 2010 a former East German spy confessed that the Stasi, unhappy with the player's defection, had ordered him to murder Eigendorf but he chose to ignore those orders.

In July 1989, less than four months before the wall fell, Axel Kruse of Hansa Rostock defected whilst in Copenhagen for an Intertoto Cup match. He escaped to West Berlin and joined Hertha BSC.

Three Dinamo Dresden players, however, were not so lucky. Gerd Weber, Matthias Müller and Peter Kotte, had their plans to escape foiled in 1981 when the Stasi arrested them at the airport before a Dinamo Dresden trip to Argentina.

The Nearly Men

Dynamo Dresden's five league titles in the 1970s made them the most successful team of the decade whilst Magdeburg with their three league titles and Cup Winners' Cup triumph were not far behind. But one team who should have arguably had more success during this period are Carl Zeiss Jena who despite winning the final of their three Oberliga titles in 1970 actually stand atop the Oberliga all-time points table. That final championship was followed by four second placed finishes in five years, making them the nearly men of the decade. Jena also contributed seven players to the East German World Cup squad in 1974, more than any other club, whilst they also had numerous players in East Germany's 1976 Olympic squad that won gold in the men's football tournament.

Jena's tag of nearly men can also be extended to European football where in 1980-81 they were defeated by Dinamo Tbilisi in the final of the Cup Winners' Cup in Düsseldorf. With travel again severely restricted for those living behind the Iron curtain, as with Magdeburg's final in '74, less than 5,000 were in attendance as the Soviet side came from behind to win 2-1. Jena had beaten Roma, Valencia, Newport County, and Benfica along the way in an impressive run after which they must have surely been rather confident of picking up silverware in the final, but alas it wasn't to be.

BFC Dynamo Dominance and a European Final for Lokomotive

As we shall see, the seventies ended with a new dominant force in domestic football who would dominate much of the 1980s. But in 1986-87 it was another club who would make the biggest impression on the continent for an East German side that decade by bringing one last European final appearance for East Germany. A club who, despite winning the previous season's East German Cup final, were generally far less successful on the domestic front. 

In 1986-87 Lokomotive Leipzig made it to the final of the UEFA Cup Winner's Cup. Having struggled to a 3-1 aggregate victory over Glentoran of Northern Ireland in round one, Austria's Rapid Wien were then defeated 3-2 on aggregate with a 2-1 home win after extra time in the second leg. A 2-0 aggregate victory over Swiss side Sion in the Quarter Finals set up a semi final tie with Bordeaux of France.

It was a tale of two 1-0's for Bordeaux and Lok, the first leg in France saw a 1-0 win for visitors Lok who then lost the second leg at home by the same scoreline to force extra-time and penalties. That semi final second leg was played at Leipzig's Zentralstadion, a venue much larger than Lok's usual home. The stadium was rocking with almost 75,000 in attendance as the city turned out in force to support Lok's quest for European glory. A third minute goal put the visitors ahead and a further 87 minutes of regular time followed by 30 minutes of extra-time saw no further goals and so the 1-1 aggregate scoreline. The dreaded penalty shoot out would have to be used to determine who would make the final. Both teams took seven penalties apiece and both missed their second, Lok scored all of their other six whilst Bordeaux 6-5 down saw their seventh penalty saved by goalkeeper Rene Müller. Lokomotive Leipzig were heading for the final where they would face Ajax of Amsterdam.

Played at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, the 1987 Cup Winner's Cup final was won by a single goal scored by Marco Van Basten for Ajax after just twenty minutes. Managed by Dutch legend Johan Cryuff the Ajax squad also featured Frank Rijkaard and a young Dennis Bergkamp but despite losing the match Lok gave a good account of themselves, again with only a small number of their fans present.

BFC Dynamo never had the success of other East German sides when it came to European competition. That 1971-72 Cup Winners' Cup was their best ever performance in Europe, and two European Cup Quarter finals were the best they managed in the years that followed. In domestic football it became an altogether different story, however, as starting in 1978-79 the club won a record ten consecutive Oberliga titles in a row. 

Following Dresden’s title win in 1977-78 their players were supposedly told by Erich Mielke that “it was BFC Dynamo’s turn”, and so it turned out to be true. Mielke, the man behind Dynamo's move from Dresden to Berlin, remained a keen supporter of the club who were of course affiliated to the Stasi of which, remember, he was head.

In 1978-79 BFC Dynamo opened the season with 10 league wins in a row. The title was secured that campaign with two games to spare after a 3–1 win at home to Dynamo Dresden in front of 22,000 spectators at their Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark stadium. That was just the beginning, BFC Dynamo went on an unbeaten run of 36 games between 1982 and 84 including the whole 1982-83 season. Eventually, they lost to FC Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitzer and not be confused with Wismut Karl-Marx-Stadt) and the run was over.

Despite being the team of the regime, most of BFC Dynamo's star players in this era actually came up from their youth team as opposed to the club handpicking stars from other sides as they had done at times in the past. Thomas Doll, who had a successful career with various western clubs after the wall fell, was the only big-name signing. In the eighties, this policy of local homegrown talent clearly paid off with a very successful team on the pitch. There were, however, accusations of help from supposed BFC Dynamo friendly referees which it was claimed gave the club an unfair advantage over other teams, and for many this tainted BFC Dynamo's successes. 

With the team already being wildly hated around the country due to them being the team of despised Stasi, accusations of match fixing and dodgy refereeing decisions only made things worse, and more the successful the club became the more their rivals became incensed at this. There were even a couple of occasions when matches ended with unrest and violence from angry supporters, whilst on the majority more peaceful occasions the BFC Dynamo players might instead simply have abuse hurled at them.

For BFC Dynamo, there were often dodgy penalty decisions in their favour, offside goals given for them, and fouls by their players ignored. The referees, or so it seemed, often favoured them - one incident was supposedly so outrageous it was deliberately never shown on television. Fans became disillusioned and attendances dropped, for some East German football was becoming a joke. 

The most famous of these events took place in 1986 and became known as the 'Schand-Elfmeter von Leipzig' (shame penalty of Leipzig). 1-0 down in 94th minute against Lokomotive Leipzig in what was a huge match in the title race, BFC Dynamo were awarded a penalty when one of their players fell for no reason in the box seemingly without any interference from the opposition. BFC Dynamo scored the penalty. "This cannot be happening" exclaimed one commentator on the radio as the penalty was awarded, and due to the huge outcry that followed afterwards, referee Bernd Stumpf was banned from football and the league's refereeing committee disbanded and replaced. It later turned out Stumpf worked for the Stasi. Some have always, however, maintained that the decision was a correct one.

East Berlin in Decline?

BFC Dynamo won their tenth league title in a row in 1987-88 and completed the double that year by beating Carl Zeiss Jena in the cup final. But with the Berlin wall about to fall and protests beginning to take place in parts of the country, the politburo and the Stasi seemed to be losing their grip on power, and so did BFC Dynamo. The team finished runners up and then fourth in the following two seasons as the title both times went to Dresden. Around that time there was civil unrest and disobedience in Dresden as the city became a focal point in events that would eventually lead to the fall of the wall and the reunification that followed. It seemed East Berlin's power really was waining.

But if BFC Dynamo thought they had problems then they clearly hadn't seen what was happening at East Berlin rivals 1. FC Union Berlin. The club who had never won the Oberliga, and often moved between the top two divisions, were relegated from the top flight once again in 1989 two years before the East German League system came to an end.

1. FC Union, Anti Regime, and Derby Day Violence

Union Berlin is a team worthy of note as this year in a united Germany they have made it to the Bundesliga for the very first time, and with no other East German sides in the top flight (the decline in East German football post reunification is another story in itself) Union are currently the most well known East German club around the world. Behind the wall, however, due to them mostly featuring at the wrong end of the Oberliga or sometimes not even in it, they were hardly a big name outside of East Berlin. 

Seen as the people's team in East Berlin, unlike their city neighbours, Union were not associated with the Stasi and had a group of anti regime fans famed for chanting 'The wall must go!' when the opposition formed a wall for free-kicks. Meanwhile, in the often heated derbies between Union and BFC Dynamo, Union fans on one occasion held up a banner saying "We Welcome BFC Dynamo and Its Referees", and on another had a banner proclaiming “We don’t want no Stasi swine”. 

Violence and hooliganism were often rife when the two sides met, and naturally, this was often the case when BFC Dynamo met Dresden also with the locals there not forgetting how the Berlin side was originally formed. Some supposedly saw supporting BFC Dynamo as an easy way to get into fighting and this is arguably still the case today with the club, now a small time fourth tier side (their decline post reunification has been even more severe), being renowned for its supposedly far right skinhead support, again another story to be told elsewhere.

As for Union, nowadays, their main footballing rivals are West Berlin side Hertha BSC, and whilst BFC Dynamo's story is largely focused on the Stasi ran side of the eighties, much of Union's story when told tends to focus on life after the wall came down.

The GDR is No More

In 1989, the wall the fell, and post reunification, in the 1990-91 season Hansa Rostock won the final ever Oberliga championship and for them their first ever title. Communism had come to an end, Germany was again united as one, and East German sides would going forward participate in a revised West German league system now under a unified banner. The East German Oberliga was no more.

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