The reunification of Germany had big implications for football in the new country. Karsten Blaas explores how the game has developed since the Berlin Wall fell
At the end of last season, German football commentators were able to announce some rare good news from the east: all professional club teams from the formerly communist part of the country had avoided relegation. Hansa Rostock had successfully completed their Bundesliga campaign while Leipzig, Jena and Zwickau secured their places in division two. Energie Cottbus added some icing to the cake by winning promotion to the Second and reaching the cup final (which they lost).
All in all, we were told that football was about to pave the way for a ‘rise of the East’, a general upswing of the entire region. This optimism, however, seems grossly exaggerated. East Germany shared the fate of other former Soviet bloc countries in being thrown into a free market environment without being prepared for it. But in football, the GDR was effected far more severely than the rest and it will take East German clubs much longer to recover.
East German football is now almost entirely a lower division appendix of the Western league structure. And while Czech or Hungarian clubs only lost their star players, East Germany has seen an exodus of enormous proportions that started immediately after the wall fell and hasn’t come to an end yet. Not only are there more than a hundred native professionals playing for Western clubs in the top leagues, among them big shots like Matthias Sammer, Ulf Kirsten and Stefen Freund, there are also innumerable others who have joined amateur or youth outfits in the West.
In the unification euphoria of 1990, supporters from the East began to head westward every Saturday, leaving their local teams with what were, even by GDR standards, tiny gates. The Eastern football authorities were afraid that a delayed introduction of the Bundesliga might worsen things even more. The DFB, West Germany’s football association, were restructuring their own league system at the time of unification and originally intended to wait for at least two more seasons before admitting the Easterners. When they reluctantly gave in, the Eastern officials learned their first lesson in the laws of supply and demand: if you offer something that no-one wants, you won’t get very much for it.
Two harsh conditions were imposed: first only two of the Eastern Oberliga’s fourteen teams were allowed in the Bundesliga, while a further six were placed in division two. Second, there would be no special legislation to protect the financially unstable and inexperienced clubs from behind the wall. The East Germans were to discover that it is not easy to live in a democracy when you belong to a minority.
So, when the Western world and unsubdued capitalism came to Dresden, Rostock and Leipzig, it caught them wrong footed. Most of those who had run the clubs under the Communists were removed and replaced by well intended but overstretched new boards. Investors were extremely hard to find in an area with an unemployment rate of over 20%, so the new club executives gratefully let in anybody who promised to help them.
As a result, they became an easy prey for incompetent and often criminal speculators. Dynamo Dresden, one of East Germany’s most successful sides over many decades, were the most spectacular case. Between 1991 and 1995, they were run by Rolf-Jürgen Otto, a building contractor from Frankfurt with a criminal record. After running the club into the ground, Otto is now in prison again for tax fraud, while Dynamo are flat broke. They were relegated to division three for continuous breach of the DFB’s licensing regulations, committed under Otto’s leadership. With similar turbulence happening all over the place, the DFB was forced, periodically, to change its harsh line – a Bundesliga without an Eastern participant would have caused political embarrassment in a nation that was officially attempting to overcome the old divide. When Dresden’s financial chaos became plain to see at the end of 92-93, they were deducted four points for the following season, a dubious and unprecedented decision, since normally clubs get penalized for forged accountancy in the same year it occurred. This, however, would have meant relegation for the GDR’s then only first division representative.
Another of the DFB’s occasional concessions to Eastern clubs was a prolonged period of time during which they were to get their grounds into shape. Nothing much has happened yet, which makes away trips to Eastern stadia, with their unsegregated terraces, insufficient policing and indifferent stewarding, a tricky experience for Western visitors.
Hooliganism and fascist skinhead violence in the East aren’t a result of the post-unification period, having been obvious problems since the mid-eighties. Hansa Rostock supporters caused a nationwide outcry in ’95 when they threw tear gas grenades on the pitch during a home match against St Pauli. Two of the latter’s players were injured and had to be substituted. Again, the DFB’s punishment was ridiculous: they merely ordered Rostock to hold one of their subsequent home matches on neutral ground. St Pauli, who had been the target of the assault didn’t get a replay, let alone the three points, while Hansa drew the biggest crowd in the club’s history when they nearly filled Berlin’s Olympic stadium for the visit of Frankfurt. In fact, they voluntarily went to Berlin for a second time a few weeks afterwards when their home pitch was iced over.
On both occasions, more than 50.000 people from all parts of the East came to watch them. Hansa Rostock, a team that never had any success or reputation while the GDR existed, are now the only Bundesliga team that Easterners can emotionally relate to (apart from Bayern Munich whose merchandizing machine has lured fans from all over the globe).
Today there is a new mood of self esteem in Eastern football, with most of the region’s clubs preferring to appoint home grown managers and board members, rather than importing journeymen from the West. The other side of the coin, however, is a very aggressive form of terrace xenophobia, which includes unrelenting hostility towards black players as well as hatred of those who are seen as representing the in just new capitalist system: Western players, referees and fans.
Despite the fact that disturbances at intentional and European club matches in recent years have mostly been caused by Eastern thugs, the German football association apparently think it’s none of their business, an attitude that seems doubly strange in light of their application for the 2006 World Cup. Meanwhile, fans of Rostock, Cottbus and Jena are completely free to loudly invoke the former leaders of the GDR and Germany’s Nazi past on matchdays. The East has indeed risen, though not in the way the predominantly Western media would like to see. The people of the GDR took a long time to realize that the brave new world is a fake. Now, Nazi dimwits think that they have every right to act accordingly.
From WSC 129 November 1997. What was happening this month