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Few events have shaped modern Europe quite like German reunification. Historical milestones always produce winners and losers, and when the Federal Republic absorbed the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1990, undoubtedly one of the biggest casualties was East German football.
The glory days
The DDR-Oberliga was never quite able to rival its western counterpart, the Bundesliga, but it certainly boasted some brilliant teams. Its biggest—and least controversial—success stories were 1. FC Magdeburg and Dynamo Dresden. Although neither was the league’s most successful team—that honor belonged to Stasi-backed, match-fixing BFC Dynamo—both were pioneers.
Dresden was the GDR’s original dynasty, winning the country’s first-ever domestic double in 1971, and it went toe-to-toe with some of Europe’s biggest names, like Bayern Munich. Magdeburg took it a step further by winning the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, a forerunner of the Europa League, in 1974.
When the process of reunification commenced and the Berlin Wall began to crumble, the Oberliga also fell apart. As soon as the travel restrictions between the two Germanys were lifted, agents flocked like locusts to the East to snap up the GDR’s best talent. Hansa Rostock and Dresden qualified for the unified Bundesliga in 1991, but the damage was done.
Dynamo’s deadly striker Ulf Kirsten left a year earlier to become a Bundesliga legend at Bayer Leverkusen, and Matthias Sammer joined VfB Stuttgart that same year. He would go on to win every trophy under the sun despite having his career cut short by injury.
They weren’t the only ones, however; another three Dresden players joined Viktoria Köln, BFC Dynamo’s Thomas Doll transferred to Hamburger SV, and Magdeburg’s Dirk Schuster signed for Eintracht Braunschweig, to name just a few. GDR clubs were gutted by the Bundesliga.
Without their stars, clubs predictably struggled. Rostock was relegated after just one season in the top flight and Dresden finished dead last in 1995, leaving the Bundesliga in disgrace and dropping down to the semiprofessional Regionalliga after having been denied a license for the second tier because of mounting debts.
Most of the GDR’s powerhouses are now languishing in the lower leagues. Dresden was relegated from the 2. Bundesliga last season, and Magdeburg is currently fighting to stay in the 3. Liga, while other former giants like Lokomotive Leipzig, BFC Dynamo, Carl Zeiss Jena, and Chemnitzer FC are all in the fourth tier.
The only club that came away relatively unscathed was Turbine Potsdam, a women’s Bundesliga side and still the only former GDR team to win a top-flight title in reunified Germany.
These days, the East’s foremost clubs are “Germany’s most hated team,” RB Leipzig, formed in 2009, and Union Berlin, a minnow that made headlines in the GDR only for its defiance of the state—a far cry from the glory days of the 1970s and ’80s.