When East met West

The 1974 World Cup fixture between East and West Germany was a unique encounter during the Cold War era – but meetings were more frequent than the official history suggests. Paul Joyce looks back to the little-known Olympic qualifying competitions and reveals the political manoeuvring behind the remarkable Geisterspiele (ghost matches) of 1959

Most history books refer to East Germany’s 1-0 victory over West Germany at the 1974 World Cup as the only game between the two countries. Strictly speaking, however, it was already their sixth encounter. Before this, the Federal Republic and the GDR contested a series of pre-Olympic qualifiers with a Cold War intensity that made disputes about the composition of the 2012 British Olympic football team look like a vicarage tea-party.

The post-war reintegration of Germany into the Olympic movement was complicated by its division into two separate states in 1949. Having gained full recognition in 1951, the West German National Olympic Committee used its connections on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to repeatedly block socialist East Germany’s requests for admission. In June 1955, however, the IOC provisionally recognised the GDR’s Olympic Committee, with one condition: from now on, an all-German team would be formed using the best athletes from East and West, who would be selected in pre-Olympic competitions. When this joint team made its first appearance as “Germany” at the 1956 winter games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, IOC president Avery Brundage claimed that “we have managed something that the politicians could not achieve”.

Yet the all-German teams of 1956-1964 merely exacerbated tensions between East and West. Viewing the games as a way of gaining international recognition for their state, GDR sports officials insisted that the all-German football squad for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics had to consist of equal numbers of players from East and West. After West Germany disagreed, the GDR withdrew their footballers from the team.

For the 1960 Rome Olympics, the GDR proposed instead a two-legged qualifier between West and East, with the winners to represent Germany. Their rationale was cynical: the country that provided the most athletes for the all-German team also nominated the chef de mission. Sending an entire football squad would help, not least because the GDR would start such qualifiers as clear favourites. Though full-time sportsmen, Eastern bloc footballers were officially “state amateurs”, meaning that the entire GDR national team was eligible for the Olympics. But IOC statutes prevented West Germany from nominating pros such as Uwe Seeler and Helmut Haller. Instead, they had to use their amateur national team, many of whose players came from lower-league clubs such as Buxtehude and Günnigfeld. Admitting that at most two or three of his players were good enough for a joint team, West German trainer Sepp Herberger warned GDR officials in July 1959: “You know what football’s like: we’ll have a qualifier and the better team will lose.”

In what GDR coach Heinz Krügel would call “a disgrace to football and an insult to the sportsmen on both sides”, it was agreed that the qualifiers would be held behind closed doors. The first leg was in East Berlin’s huge Walter-Ulbricht-Stadion on September 16, 1959, in front of 40 armed policemen and a few journalists. Herberger’s prediction came true: despite dominating, the East Germans gifted their opponents an own-goal and lost 2-0. GDR midfielder Roland Ducke described the atmosphere as “horrendous, we weren’t allowed to speak to our opponents”. West Germany’s Matthias Mauritz claimed he was called a Nazi and a fascist.

The second leg in West Germany a week later was even more secretive. Journalists were told that the game would be held in “the Duisburg area”, and were only driven just before kick-off to the true location – the Rheinstadion in Düsseldorf. There weren’t even any ball-boys. As the Federal Republic didn’t recognise the East German state, West German TV commentator Günter Wolfbauer was told by his bosses to refer to the teams by the names of the respective football associations, DFB and DFV. “They threatened to cut off the broadcast immediately if I ever said GDR.”

East German hopes were raised when Günter Schröter converted an early penalty. But a defensive mix-up allowed Thimm to poach an equaliser and Heinz Wilkening struck a second-half winner for West Germany to give them a 4-1 aggregate victory. Yet there is no record in the DFB annals of either game having taken place – which is particularly tough on Wilkening, who was playing his only match for the West German amateurs. Nor did the victors even reach Rome, failing to get past Poland and Finland in further pre-Olympic qualifiers.

Inter-German relations deteriorated further before the 1964 Olympics. Three days after the building of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, West Germany severed all sporting relations with the GDR. Yet the IOC refused to expel East Germany, forcing the Federal Republic to persevere with the all-German team.

This time, spectators were allowed to attend the inter-German qualifiers. In September 1963, 50,000 fans in Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz) saw a GDR side inspired by Rainer Nachtigall and Jürgen Nöldner, the “Puskás of the East”, win their home leg 3-0. Herberger’s comment that his amateurs had lost to a team that had played “professional football in places” was a typically double-edged compliment. With the tie effectively over, only 15,000 watched West Germany win the second leg 2-1 in Hanover. The GDR went on to win the bronze medal for “Germany” in Tokyo behind Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

This was to be the last appearance of the all-German team. The GDR was granted full recognition by the IOC in 1965, and sent its own team to the games from 1968 onwards. There would be one further East-West encounter, however, at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Eager for success on home turf, West Germany relaxed its eligibility rules to include Bundesliga stars who committed to remain “amateur”. This meant that their Olympic squad contained Uli Hoeness, who had helped the Federal Republic win the European Championship in June.

Watched by 80,000 spectators in Munich’s Olympiastadion, the second-round clash between East and West Germany in September 1972 was less volatile than previous encounters. West Germany twice equalized through a lob from Hoeness and a flying header from Ottmar Hitzfeld, but the GDR went on to win 3-2 with a late goal from Eberhard Vogel and to share the bronze medal with the Soviet Union after a suspiciously fortuitous 2-2 draw in the third-place play-off.

Instead of acknowledging the strength of a GDR side which would win Olympic gold in Montreal, many West German journalists attributed their team’s defeat in Munich to the Eastern bloc’s abuse of Olympic amateur status. What would happen, mused the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper, if West and East Germany’s full national sides should ever meet? At the World Cup two years later, Jürgen Sparwasser gave them an answer they weren’t expecting.

From WSC 271 September 2009