This article was first featured in Issue 6 of the Póg Mo Goal magazine, available to order here with words by Ryan Kilbane and illustration by Slavimir Stojanovic.
“Now we are in a situation where what belongs together, will grow back together,” said former Federal Republic of Germany Chancellor Willy Brandt on November 10th, 1989, the day after the abolition of intra-German border controls which kick-started the process of reunification.
On 9th November, the Berlin Wall had fallen and by 3rd October 1990, East and West became one again. The union, while largely successful, understandably had teething problems and football was not immune. The East government had been wary of football generally, instead favouring Olympic sports like athletics and swimming which, felt to have fewer variables, increased the likelihood of medals. As fan culture predated Soviet occupation, there were also concerns about large congregations of non-Communist Party members at grounds.
On the pitch and in the stands, football was viewed as risky but unlike in other authoritarian regimes, avoided much interference. And despite this relationship, both clubs and country performed reasonably well before ‘German Unity.’ The ‘Oberliga’ completed its final season in 1991 with plans in place to integrate Eastern clubs into the ‘Bundesliga.’ A ‘two plus six’ arrangement was agreed between the two governing bodies DFB (West) and DFV (East) meaning only the top two Oberliga teams, Hansa Rostock and Dynamo Dresden would enter the Bundesliga and the following six would join 2. Bundesliga. The rest were left to compete in the lower echelons.
Just like that, having predated the Bundesliga by 17 years, the historic ‘Oberliga’ was there until it wasn’t. Adding to the uneven integration, former East German clubs couldn’t compete financially with their western counterparts. Inexperienced in free-market practices, Eastern sides were regularly short-changed after losing prized assets. The most high profile example was future Ballon d’Or winner Matthias Sammer’s transfer from Dynamo Dresden to VfB Stuttgart in 1990. As part of the deal, Dresden received a team bus, but three years later, after Sammer had left for Inter Milan, Stuttgart claimed the bus back. ‘None of us had ever heard of a lease agreement,’ explained club official Jens Genschemer. For the next 25 years or so, Hansa Rostock and Energie Cottbus were the only clubs to spend any significant time in the Bundesliga while many of the Oberliga’s legendary sides languished in the regional leagues.
FC Magdeburg is perhaps the most extreme case. In 1974, they defeated a Giovanni Trapattoni-managed AC Milan to claim the European Cup Winners Cup but since reunification, their star has faded. A bad final season in 1990/91 meant they’d begin life in the third tier. ‘Der Club’ never recovered and have yet to play in the Bundesliga. BFC Dynamo suffered a similar fate. The Stasi-backed outfit won ten consecutive titles from 1979 to 88, making them the Oberliga’s most successful club. They gained the nickname ‘crooked champions’ after numerous favourable decisions from officials and, eventually insolvent in 2001, were rescued by a fan group.
BFC currently ply their trade in the fourth tier ‘Regionalliga Nordost’. Fast forward to the 2019/20 Bundesliga season and East Germany were represented by two teams, Union Berlin and RB Leipzig. While ‘post wende’ clubs struggled due to outdated state-run business models, these were the embodiment of modern football’s diverse landscape.
RB were founded in 2011 by energy drink company Red Bull and while not the most popular, have competed at the top of the Bundesliga since 2017. Meanwhile, former trade union-funded ‘Union’ became just the fifth ex-Oberliga team to play in the Bundesliga after promotion in 2019. If RB are a manifestation of new-age capitalist football then ‘Union’ can be seen as a ‘cult’ anti-establishment initiative.
Club football in East Germany may have lost a generation, and the national team now only exists in memory but the region possesses one of the most unique and complicated football histories. At a time when the entire world was East or West, it occupied a strange apolitical space. Then as the Soviet bloc and an entire ideology fell around it, the people’s desire to play, watch, and follow meant its football continued.