In from the cold

Not since before the Berlin Wall came down has a team from the former East Germany progressed as far as Leipzig have in European competition this season. As Julian Nagelsmann’s side blaze a trail, we reall some of the players, teams and tales that put the GDR on Europe’s footballing map

WORDS Simon Hart | PHOTOGRAPHY Getty Images

History
For a measure of just how different things were for a footballer in the former East Germany, try the following from Falko Götz of life in the Berliner Dynamo dressing room in the early 1980s. “We were a club from the Stasi,” says the former attacking midfielder, explaining the team’s connection with the secret police of the German Democratic Republic.

“Politics inside the club was very important in that you took the ‘Red way’ all the time. Sometimes it was dangerous to be young and talk a lot and that’s why you had to be very careful in the club. There were microphones wherever you were. We had our own training camp, which cost a lot of money and had all the things you needed for sport, but they also liked to hear what we said in the rooms.”

It is a world that will be unrecognisable to the footballers of RB Leipzig, the club whose progression to the knockout phase of this season’s Champions League provided the first eastern German presence in the competition’s latter stages since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Yet it was the world that Götz and his contemporaries had to navigate in the GDR, when they would enter European fixtures with the instruction to “Think you’re a diplomat from the Communist part of Germany – you’re going to be seen by the rest of the world.”

For all the restrictions imposed by an oppressive regime, it is worth noting that East German clubs succeeded in leaving their mark on UEFA’s club competitions –something easy to forget amid the decline suffered by football’s old GDR powerhouses since reunification. In Dynamo’s case there were two runs to the quarter-finals of the European Cup in the 1980s. Götz was 17 and on the fringes of the team when they faced holders Nottingham Forest in the first of those quarter-finals in 1979/80. “I was with the squad in Berlin and I remember players like Trevor Francis and Tony Woodcock,” he says. He also summons the name “Tony Morley” in remembering the scorer of both Aston Villa goals in Berlin two season later, when another English champion-elect got the better of Dynamo. 

It was a spotlight that Götz relished, given that most of his international matches with the GDR’s under-age teams had come against other Eastern Bloc nations. It also left him craving more, a craving that would ultimately lead him to take drastic steps – but more on that later. “It was totally different, you were in touch with the best players,” he says, voicing a sentiment shared by Jürgen Raab, the East German international and Carl Zeiss Jena playmaker. Jena were one of only three clubs from the GDR to reach the final of a UEFA club competition, the 1981 European Cup Winners’ Cup showpiece, and those visits abroad left a vivid imprint.

“It was always a new impression for us to see big cities like London or Lisbon or Rome,” the 61-year-old begins. “It was a chance to see so much history, and big stadiums. We only had one big stadium, in Leipzig with 100,000 people [the Zentral stadion], but we could play in Rome with 65,000 people, Lisbon 70,000 people, the old Wembley stadium. It left great impressions on every player in the GDR.”

It was against Roma that Jena overturned a 3-0 first-leg deficit with an astounding 4-0 home success to launch that Cup Winners’ Cup campaign, in which they also overcame holders Valencia and Benfica. But results were not the only thing that the players brought home from those away days: it was also a rare opportunity to pick up goods from outside the Iron Curtain.“There was a shopping trip for maybe three or four hours and you had to find all you needed,” says Raab. “It wasn’t easy because they had different sizes and you’d want to bring the right size for your wife or children. I’d try to get some nice shoes for the children, adidas or Puma. In East Germany it was only possible for professional players to get adidas boots and not so many – for one season, two pairs only.”

Not everything in the West was to the liking of curious East German athletes, however. As writer Uli Hesse relates in his history of German football, Tor!, Dynamo Dresden players had to leave the cinema early when taken to watch Jaws ahead of a UEFA Cup tie against Liverpool in 1976. In short, “many players’ stomachs just weren’t used to Hollywood horror fare”.

On the field, their players were less cowed. Falko Götz uses one word to sum up their quality. “Collective,” he chuckles. This, after all, was a Communist state. “They made you good because they needed good teams in the highest club football in East Germany, which was Magdeburg, Carl Zeiss Jena and Dynamo Dresden, and also Berliner Dynamo – [teams] that [showed] they could play international football.”

These clubs had a national championship, the DDR-Oberliga, that was established in 1949, 14 years before the Bundesliga began over the border in West Germany. They also had a strong development system for young players. “I played for 12 years in the academy and it made me a good football player in terms of technique,” says Götz. “It was very professional from when I was a young age. We had a lot of very good coaches, like the academies today in the West. In the East we had it much, much earlier with the structure. I worked with a plan from when I was nine or ten years old.”
“In the mind of the politicians it was like a fight between two systems to show which was better"

Raab offers another thought. “We didn’t have the chance to buy players. We had to educate players from our region and sometimes we only played players from our region – from Jena and Gera and towns nearby. There was not the chance to make big transfers. But we developed a really strong team with younger players and some experienced ones, and we had the chance to be competitive with other big teams in Europe.”

In Jena’s case there was the benefit of backing from Carl Zeiss, whose factory in the city produced optical glass. “They made planetariums to watch the stars,” says Raab. They helped support a few footballing ones too. “The general manager was a really good man, Dr Wolfgang Biermann. He recognised very early how important football success was to his company. He had different agencies in London, Brussels and other countries and, if we did well, we’d help make the company known.”

During Jena’s run to the Cup Winners’ Cup final, Raab relates that the players would receive a bag after each round. It contained a bonus. “In the early stage it was 5,000 GDR marks; in the final it was 20,000, I think. That was really big money for that time.”

The pity for Carl Zeiss was the location of that 1981 final against Dinamo Tbilisi of the Soviet Union: the Rheinstadion in Düsseldorf, some 450km to the west but, in reality, a world away. It meant an official attendance of just 6,000 spectators. “When I remember that, it still hurts – right to the pit of my stomach. It was a great success to reach the final but bad luck there were two teams from the East playing a final in Düsseldorf in West Germany.

“It wasn’t like what you now have with all the media coming to the stadium and there was no chance for our fans to travel; the same for those from Tbilisi. Those who did weren’t real fans, only people the government had approved.”

Jena lost the match 2-1, just as Lokomotive Leipzig would lose the 1987 final of the same competition against Ajax. This meant that Magdeburg’s 1974 Cup Winners’ Cup success – achieved with a 2-0 final win against AC Milan – was the sole European triumph by a team from the GDR. Just a month later one of their victorious players, Jürgen Sparwasser, struck the only goal of the game in a meeting of East and West Germany in the group stage of the World Cup. The following season, a reunion of sorts occurred when Magdeburg drew Bayern München in the second round of the European Cup. Sparwasser scored again, putting the visitors 2-0 up before half-time in the first leg at the Olympiastadion. However, Bayern recovered to win 3-2 on the night and prevailed 5-3 on aggregate.

Such East-meets-West match-ups were quite common in UEFA’s club competitions. Jürgen Raab’s Jena had one such encounter with Augsburg and says politics definitely did not intrude. “In the mind of the politicians it was like a fight between two systems, to show which was the better system, but for us players it was important to show only that we had quality.”

However, back in the DDR-Oberliga, politics did play its part. Dynamo’s run of ten league titles between 1979 and 1988 owed more than a little to the club’s connections with the Stasi. “After two or three seasons you developed a feeling that not all is fair,” says Raab. “There were little decisions in matches against Dynamo and later in matches against other teams. It wasn’t directly in the match against Dynamo – maybe you were in a dangerous position in the table, they looked at your next opponent, the referee made a decision and you lost this match.”

Götz had his own source of discontent, namely the impossibility of deciding his own path. “In East Germany they [footballers] all played the same way and the career was the same. At 24, 25, they could have 30, 40 games with the national team but what then? If somebody higher up didn’t want you to play any more, they could decide when your career was finished.” One notorious example was Dynamo Dresden sweeper Hans-Jürgen Dorner’s demotion from player to youth-team coach after his team had surrendered a 2-0 first-leg lead in a 7-3 drubbing at Bayer Uerdingen in a 1986 Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final. This just a season after being voted East Germany’s player of the year for the third time.

“The most important thing in the GDR was to be a diplomat for your country,” says Götz. “Other things were not important – individual human things were not interesting.” He eventually decided he’d had enough. His solution? Defection to the West. The opportunity for escape? A European Cup match in 1983/84 during their second quarter-final run that decade.

The recollection of his daring breakout, with team- mate Dirk Schlegel, is like the stuff of spy novels. Owing to the bugged rooms at the training ground, they plotted their defection during walks in the forest. Their initial wish had been to flee in Luxembourg, where Dynamo had faced Jeunesse Esche in the first round. “It wasn’t possible as there were too many guys in Luxembourg from the Stasi, and from the club, who followed all your steps around the hotel,” says Götz.

Instead they would find their moment ahead of Dynamo’s second-round match against Partizan in Belgrade. Götz had scored the first goal of the tie in the first minute of the opening leg in Berlin. The day of the decider, 2 November, the team were driven into central Belgrade to stretch their legs. He recounts what came next.

“They said, ‘OK, you have one hour to go shopping and then we’ll meet at the bus to go back to the hotel.’ That was the chance to move freely for a few minutes and get away from the team.” Inside a record shop, he and Schlegel pulled the trigger on their plan. “Two or three times we’d started [to run] but it was too dangerous, but in the record shop there was a different door that went out the back, a second entrance, and nobody from our team was there. We said, ‘OK, let’s go out here and then run.’ After running for five minutes we saw a taxi and said, ‘Please take us to the German embassy.’”

Embassy staff drove them to Zagreb and then on to Ljubljana where, with new passports, they were put on a night train to Munich. “We arrived in Munich at six in the morning the next day,” says Götz. And the feeling on reaching safety, and a new life in the West? He felt two things. “One, it had happened and I wasn’t in jail or something else. The other thing was, you’d done it – you wouldn’t see your parents or your friends. You’d left them behind and I was worried they were in trouble.”

Indeed, he would not see his parents again until after reunification, which came two years after he had won the UEFA Cup with Bayer Leverkusen, scoring a goal in the final. “We talked on the telephone but we knew the Stasi were listening to the phone call. I always said, ‘I am good, I am happy and everything is fine,’ and everybody could hear it.”

The season that Dynamo lost Götz and Schlegel to the West, they still managed to reach the European Cup quarter-finals, where they lost 4-2 on aggregate to Roma. Today, in a very different climate, Leipzig have been taking big strides of their own in the Champions League. “For me it’s a positive thing we have a club from the east of Germany at the highest level,” says Raab. “But it’s really difficult for the former East German clubs to get to this level.”

Götz offers a lengthier reflection. “Many things they’ve done the right way: they spend a lot of money on infrastructure and they have a good academy,” he says of Leipzig. There is an undoubted distinction, though, between this Red Bull-backed outfit and the old clubs of the GDR. “They have a lot of money, which is totally different from other clubs in the east who don’t have that money. Many academies from the Bundesliga take their talents from them at the age of 13, 14. They don’t have the strength they had. The old traditional clubs play in the second or third tier.

“There is potential when I see Union Berlin [in the Bundesliga],” he adds. “Erzgebirge Aue have played a few years in the second division. Dynamo Dresden have better infrastructure now after 30 years. It needed time but it’s a long way back for many, many clubs.”

The words of a man who knows all about embarking on a difficult journey.

“Politics inside the club was very important in that you took the ‘Red way’ all the time. Sometimes it was dangerous to be young and talk a lot and that’s why you had to be very careful in the club. There were microphones wherever you were. We had our own training camp, which cost a lot of money and had all the things you needed for sport, but they also liked to hear what we said in the rooms.”

It is a world that will be unrecognisable to the footballers of RB Leipzig, the club whose progression to the knockout phase of this season’s Champions League provided the first eastern German presence in the competition’s latter stages since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Yet it was the world that Götz and his contemporaries had to navigate in the GDR, when they would enter European fixtures with the instruction to “Think you’re a diplomat from the Communist part of Germany – you’re going to be seen by the rest of the world.”

For all the restrictions imposed by an oppressive regime, it is worth noting that East German clubs succeeded in leaving their mark on UEFA’s club competitions –something easy to forget amid the decline suffered by football’s old GDR powerhouses since reunification. In Dynamo’s case there were two runs to the quarter-finals of the European Cup in the 1980s. Götz was 17 and on the fringes of the team when they faced holders Nottingham Forest in the first of those quarter-finals in 1979/80. “I was with the squad in Berlin and I remember players like Trevor Francis and Tony Woodcock,” he says. He also summons the name “Tony Morley” in remembering the scorer of both Aston Villa goals in Berlin two season later, when another English champion-elect got the better of Dynamo. 

It was a spotlight that Götz relished, given that most of his international matches with the GDR’s under-age teams had come against other Eastern Bloc nations. It also left him craving more, a craving that would ultimately lead him to take drastic steps – but more on that later. “It was totally different, you were in touch with the best players,” he says, voicing a sentiment shared by Jürgen Raab, the East German international and Carl Zeiss Jena playmaker. Jena were one of only three clubs from the GDR to reach the final of a UEFA club competition, the 1981 European Cup Winners’ Cup showpiece, and those visits abroad left a vivid imprint.

“It was always a new impression for us to see big cities like London or Lisbon or Rome,” the 61-year-old begins. “It was a chance to see so much history, and big stadiums. We only had one big stadium, in Leipzig with 100,000 people [the Zentral stadion], but we could play in Rome with 65,000 people, Lisbon 70,000 people, the old Wembley stadium. It left great impressions on every player in the GDR.”

It was against Roma that Jena overturned a 3-0 first-leg deficit with an astounding 4-0 home success to launch that Cup Winners’ Cup campaign, in which they also overcame holders Valencia and Benfica. But results were not the only thing that the players brought home from those away days: it was also a rare opportunity to pick up goods from outside the Iron Curtain.“There was a shopping trip for maybe three or four hours and you had to find all you needed,” says Raab. “It wasn’t easy because they had different sizes and you’d want to bring the right size for your wife or children. I’d try to get some nice shoes for the children, adidas or Puma. In East Germany it was only possible for professional players to get adidas boots and not so many – for one season, two pairs only.”

Not everything in the West was to the liking of curious East German athletes, however. As writer Uli Hesse relates in his history of German football, Tor!, Dynamo Dresden players had to leave the cinema early when taken to watch Jaws ahead of a UEFA Cup tie against Liverpool in 1976. In short, “many players’ stomachs just weren’t used to Hollywood horror fare”.

On the field, their players were less cowed. Falko Götz uses one word to sum up their quality. “Collective,” he chuckles. This, after all, was a Communist state. “They made you good because they needed good teams in the highest club football in East Germany, which was Magdeburg, Carl Zeiss Jena and Dynamo Dresden, and also Berliner Dynamo – [teams] that [showed] they could play international football.”

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These clubs had a national championship, the DDR-Oberliga, that was established in 1949, 14 years before the Bundesliga began over the border in West Germany. They also had a strong development system for young players. “I played for 12 years in the academy and it made me a good football player in terms of technique,” says Götz. “It was very professional from when I was a young age. We had a lot of very good coaches, like the academies today in the West. In the East we had it much, much earlier with the structure. I worked with a plan from when I was nine or ten years old.”
“In the mind of the politicians it was like a fight between two systems to show which was better"

Raab offers another thought. “We didn’t have the chance to buy players. We had to educate players from our region and sometimes we only played players from our region – from Jena and Gera and towns nearby. There was not the chance to make big transfers. But we developed a really strong team with younger players and some experienced ones, and we had the chance to be competitive with other big teams in Europe.”

In Jena’s case there was the benefit of backing from Carl Zeiss, whose factory in the city produced optical glass. “They made planetariums to watch the stars,” says Raab. They helped support a few footballing ones too. “The general manager was a really good man, Dr Wolfgang Biermann. He recognised very early how important football success was to his company. He had different agencies in London, Brussels and other countries and, if we did well, we’d help make the company known.”

During Jena’s run to the Cup Winners’ Cup final, Raab relates that the players would receive a bag after each round. It contained a bonus. “In the early stage it was 5,000 GDR marks; in the final it was 20,000, I think. That was really big money for that time.”

The pity for Carl Zeiss was the location of that 1981 final against Dinamo Tbilisi of the Soviet Union: the Rheinstadion in Düsseldorf, some 450km to the west but, in reality, a world away. It meant an official attendance of just 6,000 spectators. “When I remember that, it still hurts – right to the pit of my stomach. It was a great success to reach the final but bad luck there were two teams from the East playing a final in Düsseldorf in West Germany.

“It wasn’t like what you now have with all the media coming to the stadium and there was no chance for our fans to travel; the same for those from Tbilisi. Those who did weren’t real fans, only people the government had approved.”

Jena lost the match 2-1, just as Lokomotive Leipzig would lose the 1987 final of the same competition against Ajax. This meant that Magdeburg’s 1974 Cup Winners’ Cup success – achieved with a 2-0 final win against AC Milan – was the sole European triumph by a team from the GDR. Just a month later one of their victorious players, Jürgen Sparwasser, struck the only goal of the game in a meeting of East and West Germany in the group stage of the World Cup. The following season, a reunion of sorts occurred when Magdeburg drew Bayern München in the second round of the European Cup. Sparwasser scored again, putting the visitors 2-0 up before half-time in the first leg at the Olympiastadion. However, Bayern recovered to win 3-2 on the night and prevailed 5-3 on aggregate.

Such East-meets-West match-ups were quite common in UEFA’s club competitions. Jürgen Raab’s Jena had one such encounter with Augsburg and says politics definitely did not intrude. “In the mind of the politicians it was like a fight between two systems, to show which was the better system, but for us players it was important to show only that we had quality.”

However, back in the DDR-Oberliga, politics did play its part. Dynamo’s run of ten league titles between 1979 and 1988 owed more than a little to the club’s connections with the Stasi. “After two or three seasons you developed a feeling that not all is fair,” says Raab. “There were little decisions in matches against Dynamo and later in matches against other teams. It wasn’t directly in the match against Dynamo – maybe you were in a dangerous position in the table, they looked at your next opponent, the referee made a decision and you lost this match.”

Götz had his own source of discontent, namely the impossibility of deciding his own path. “In East Germany they [footballers] all played the same way and the career was the same. At 24, 25, they could have 30, 40 games with the national team but what then? If somebody higher up didn’t want you to play any more, they could decide when your career was finished.” One notorious example was Dynamo Dresden sweeper Hans-Jürgen Dorner’s demotion from player to youth-team coach after his team had surrendered a 2-0 first-leg lead in a 7-3 drubbing at Bayer Uerdingen in a 1986 Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final. This just a season after being voted East Germany’s player of the year for the third time.

“The most important thing in the GDR was to be a diplomat for your country,” says Götz. “Other things were not important – individual human things were not interesting.” He eventually decided he’d had enough. His solution? Defection to the West. The opportunity for escape? A European Cup match in 1983/84 during their second quarter-final run that decade.

The recollection of his daring breakout, with team- mate Dirk Schlegel, is like the stuff of spy novels. Owing to the bugged rooms at the training ground, they plotted their defection during walks in the forest. Their initial wish had been to flee in Luxembourg, where Dynamo had faced Jeunesse Esche in the first round. “It wasn’t possible as there were too many guys in Luxembourg from the Stasi, and from the club, who followed all your steps around the hotel,” says Götz.

Instead they would find their moment ahead of Dynamo’s second-round match against Partizan in Belgrade. Götz had scored the first goal of the tie in the first minute of the opening leg in Berlin. The day of the decider, 2 November, the team were driven into central Belgrade to stretch their legs. He recounts what came next.

“They said, ‘OK, you have one hour to go shopping and then we’ll meet at the bus to go back to the hotel.’ That was the chance to move freely for a few minutes and get away from the team.” Inside a record shop, he and Schlegel pulled the trigger on their plan. “Two or three times we’d started [to run] but it was too dangerous, but in the record shop there was a different door that went out the back, a second entrance, and nobody from our team was there. We said, ‘OK, let’s go out here and then run.’ After running for five minutes we saw a taxi and said, ‘Please take us to the German embassy.’”

Embassy staff drove them to Zagreb and then on to Ljubljana where, with new passports, they were put on a night train to Munich. “We arrived in Munich at six in the morning the next day,” says Götz. And the feeling on reaching safety, and a new life in the West? He felt two things. “One, it had happened and I wasn’t in jail or something else. The other thing was, you’d done it – you wouldn’t see your parents or your friends. You’d left them behind and I was worried they were in trouble.”

Indeed, he would not see his parents again until after reunification, which came two years after he had won the UEFA Cup with Bayer Leverkusen, scoring a goal in the final. “We talked on the telephone but we knew the Stasi were listening to the phone call. I always said, ‘I am good, I am happy and everything is fine,’ and everybody could hear it.”

The season that Dynamo lost Götz and Schlegel to the West, they still managed to reach the European Cup quarter-finals, where they lost 4-2 on aggregate to Roma. Today, in a very different climate, Leipzig have been taking big strides of their own in the Champions League. “For me it’s a positive thing we have a club from the east of Germany at the highest level,” says Raab. “But it’s really difficult for the former East German clubs to get to this level.”

Götz offers a lengthier reflection. “Many things they’ve done the right way: they spend a lot of money on infrastructure and they have a good academy,” he says of Leipzig. There is an undoubted distinction, though, between this Red Bull-backed outfit and the old clubs of the GDR. “They have a lot of money, which is totally different from other clubs in the east who don’t have that money. Many academies from the Bundesliga take their talents from them at the age of 13, 14. They don’t have the strength they had. The old traditional clubs play in the second or third tier.

“There is potential when I see Union Berlin [in the Bundesliga],” he adds. “Erzgebirge Aue have played a few years in the second division. Dynamo Dresden have better infrastructure now after 30 years. It needed time but it’s a long way back for many, many clubs.”

The words of a man who knows all about embarking on a difficult journey.

“Politics inside the club was very important in that you took the ‘Red way’ all the time. Sometimes it was dangerous to be young and talk a lot and that’s why you had to be very careful in the club. There were microphones wherever you were. We had our own training camp, which cost a lot of money and had all the things you needed for sport, but they also liked to hear what we said in the rooms.”

It is a world that will be unrecognisable to the footballers of RB Leipzig, the club whose progression to the knockout phase of this season’s Champions League provided the first eastern German presence in the competition’s latter stages since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Yet it was the world that Götz and his contemporaries had to navigate in the GDR, when they would enter European fixtures with the instruction to “Think you’re a diplomat from the Communist part of Germany – you’re going to be seen by the rest of the world.”

For all the restrictions imposed by an oppressive regime, it is worth noting that East German clubs succeeded in leaving their mark on UEFA’s club competitions –something easy to forget amid the decline suffered by football’s old GDR powerhouses since reunification. In Dynamo’s case there were two runs to the quarter-finals of the European Cup in the 1980s. Götz was 17 and on the fringes of the team when they faced holders Nottingham Forest in the first of those quarter-finals in 1979/80. “I was with the squad in Berlin and I remember players like Trevor Francis and Tony Woodcock,” he says. He also summons the name “Tony Morley” in remembering the scorer of both Aston Villa goals in Berlin two season later, when another English champion-elect got the better of Dynamo. 

It was a spotlight that Götz relished, given that most of his international matches with the GDR’s under-age teams had come against other Eastern Bloc nations. It also left him craving more, a craving that would ultimately lead him to take drastic steps – but more on that later. “It was totally different, you were in touch with the best players,” he says, voicing a sentiment shared by Jürgen Raab, the East German international and Carl Zeiss Jena playmaker. Jena were one of only three clubs from the GDR to reach the final of a UEFA club competition, the 1981 European Cup Winners’ Cup showpiece, and those visits abroad left a vivid imprint.

“It was always a new impression for us to see big cities like London or Lisbon or Rome,” the 61-year-old begins. “It was a chance to see so much history, and big stadiums. We only had one big stadium, in Leipzig with 100,000 people [the Zentral stadion], but we could play in Rome with 65,000 people, Lisbon 70,000 people, the old Wembley stadium. It left great impressions on every player in the GDR.”

It was against Roma that Jena overturned a 3-0 first-leg deficit with an astounding 4-0 home success to launch that Cup Winners’ Cup campaign, in which they also overcame holders Valencia and Benfica. But results were not the only thing that the players brought home from those away days: it was also a rare opportunity to pick up goods from outside the Iron Curtain.“There was a shopping trip for maybe three or four hours and you had to find all you needed,” says Raab. “It wasn’t easy because they had different sizes and you’d want to bring the right size for your wife or children. I’d try to get some nice shoes for the children, adidas or Puma. In East Germany it was only possible for professional players to get adidas boots and not so many – for one season, two pairs only.”

Not everything in the West was to the liking of curious East German athletes, however. As writer Uli Hesse relates in his history of German football, Tor!, Dynamo Dresden players had to leave the cinema early when taken to watch Jaws ahead of a UEFA Cup tie against Liverpool in 1976. In short, “many players’ stomachs just weren’t used to Hollywood horror fare”.

On the field, their players were less cowed. Falko Götz uses one word to sum up their quality. “Collective,” he chuckles. This, after all, was a Communist state. “They made you good because they needed good teams in the highest club football in East Germany, which was Magdeburg, Carl Zeiss Jena and Dynamo Dresden, and also Berliner Dynamo – [teams] that [showed] they could play international football.”

These clubs had a national championship, the DDR-Oberliga, that was established in 1949, 14 years before the Bundesliga began over the border in West Germany. They also had a strong development system for young players. “I played for 12 years in the academy and it made me a good football player in terms of technique,” says Götz. “It was very professional from when I was a young age. We had a lot of very good coaches, like the academies today in the West. In the East we had it much, much earlier with the structure. I worked with a plan from when I was nine or ten years old.”
“In the mind of the politicians it was like a fight between two systems to show which was better"

Raab offers another thought. “We didn’t have the chance to buy players. We had to educate players from our region and sometimes we only played players from our region – from Jena and Gera and towns nearby. There was not the chance to make big transfers. But we developed a really strong team with younger players and some experienced ones, and we had the chance to be competitive with other big teams in Europe.”

In Jena’s case there was the benefit of backing from Carl Zeiss, whose factory in the city produced optical glass. “They made planetariums to watch the stars,” says Raab. They helped support a few footballing ones too. “The general manager was a really good man, Dr Wolfgang Biermann. He recognised very early how important football success was to his company. He had different agencies in London, Brussels and other countries and, if we did well, we’d help make the company known.”

During Jena’s run to the Cup Winners’ Cup final, Raab relates that the players would receive a bag after each round. It contained a bonus. “In the early stage it was 5,000 GDR marks; in the final it was 20,000, I think. That was really big money for that time.”

The pity for Carl Zeiss was the location of that 1981 final against Dinamo Tbilisi of the Soviet Union: the Rheinstadion in Düsseldorf, some 450km to the west but, in reality, a world away. It meant an official attendance of just 6,000 spectators. “When I remember that, it still hurts – right to the pit of my stomach. It was a great success to reach the final but bad luck there were two teams from the East playing a final in Düsseldorf in West Germany.

“It wasn’t like what you now have with all the media coming to the stadium and there was no chance for our fans to travel; the same for those from Tbilisi. Those who did weren’t real fans, only people the government had approved.”

Jena lost the match 2-1, just as Lokomotive Leipzig would lose the 1987 final of the same competition against Ajax. This meant that Magdeburg’s 1974 Cup Winners’ Cup success – achieved with a 2-0 final win against AC Milan – was the sole European triumph by a team from the GDR. Just a month later one of their victorious players, Jürgen Sparwasser, struck the only goal of the game in a meeting of East and West Germany in the group stage of the World Cup. The following season, a reunion of sorts occurred when Magdeburg drew Bayern München in the second round of the European Cup. Sparwasser scored again, putting the visitors 2-0 up before half-time in the first leg at the Olympiastadion. However, Bayern recovered to win 3-2 on the night and prevailed 5-3 on aggregate.

Such East-meets-West match-ups were quite common in UEFA’s club competitions. Jürgen Raab’s Jena had one such encounter with Augsburg and says politics definitely did not intrude. “In the mind of the politicians it was like a fight between two systems, to show which was the better system, but for us players it was important to show only that we had quality.”

However, back in the DDR-Oberliga, politics did play its part. Dynamo’s run of ten league titles between 1979 and 1988 owed more than a little to the club’s connections with the Stasi. “After two or three seasons you developed a feeling that not all is fair,” says Raab. “There were little decisions in matches against Dynamo and later in matches against other teams. It wasn’t directly in the match against Dynamo – maybe you were in a dangerous position in the table, they looked at your next opponent, the referee made a decision and you lost this match.”

Götz had his own source of discontent, namely the impossibility of deciding his own path. “In East Germany they [footballers] all played the same way and the career was the same. At 24, 25, they could have 30, 40 games with the national team but what then? If somebody higher up didn’t want you to play any more, they could decide when your career was finished.” One notorious example was Dynamo Dresden sweeper Hans-Jürgen Dorner’s demotion from player to youth-team coach after his team had surrendered a 2-0 first-leg lead in a 7-3 drubbing at Bayer Uerdingen in a 1986 Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final. This just a season after being voted East Germany’s player of the year for the third time.

“The most important thing in the GDR was to be a diplomat for your country,” says Götz. “Other things were not important – individual human things were not interesting.” He eventually decided he’d had enough. His solution? Defection to the West. The opportunity for escape? A European Cup match in 1983/84 during their second quarter-final run that decade.

The recollection of his daring breakout, with team- mate Dirk Schlegel, is like the stuff of spy novels. Owing to the bugged rooms at the training ground, they plotted their defection during walks in the forest. Their initial wish had been to flee in Luxembourg, where Dynamo had faced Jeunesse Esche in the first round. “It wasn’t possible as there were too many guys in Luxembourg from the Stasi, and from the club, who followed all your steps around the hotel,” says Götz.

Instead they would find their moment ahead of Dynamo’s second-round match against Partizan in Belgrade. Götz had scored the first goal of the tie in the first minute of the opening leg in Berlin. The day of the decider, 2 November, the team were driven into central Belgrade to stretch their legs. He recounts what came next.

“They said, ‘OK, you have one hour to go shopping and then we’ll meet at the bus to go back to the hotel.’ That was the chance to move freely for a few minutes and get away from the team.” Inside a record shop, he and Schlegel pulled the trigger on their plan. “Two or three times we’d started [to run] but it was too dangerous, but in the record shop there was a different door that went out the back, a second entrance, and nobody from our team was there. We said, ‘OK, let’s go out here and then run.’ After running for five minutes we saw a taxi and said, ‘Please take us to the German embassy.’”

Embassy staff drove them to Zagreb and then on to Ljubljana where, with new passports, they were put on a night train to Munich. “We arrived in Munich at six in the morning the next day,” says Götz. And the feeling on reaching safety, and a new life in the West? He felt two things. “One, it had happened and I wasn’t in jail or something else. The other thing was, you’d done it – you wouldn’t see your parents or your friends. You’d left them behind and I was worried they were in trouble.”

Indeed, he would not see his parents again until after reunification, which came two years after he had won the UEFA Cup with Bayer Leverkusen, scoring a goal in the final. “We talked on the telephone but we knew the Stasi were listening to the phone call. I always said, ‘I am good, I am happy and everything is fine,’ and everybody could hear it.”

The season that Dynamo lost Götz and Schlegel to the West, they still managed to reach the European Cup quarter-finals, where they lost 4-2 on aggregate to Roma. Today, in a very different climate, Leipzig have been taking big strides of their own in the Champions League. “For me it’s a positive thing we have a club from the east of Germany at the highest level,” says Raab. “But it’s really difficult for the former East German clubs to get to this level.”

Götz offers a lengthier reflection. “Many things they’ve done the right way: they spend a lot of money on infrastructure and they have a good academy,” he says of Leipzig. There is an undoubted distinction, though, between this Red Bull-backed outfit and the old clubs of the GDR. “They have a lot of money, which is totally different from other clubs in the east who don’t have that money. Many academies from the Bundesliga take their talents from them at the age of 13, 14. They don’t have the strength they had. The old traditional clubs play in the second or third tier.

“There is potential when I see Union Berlin [in the Bundesliga],” he adds. “Erzgebirge Aue have played a few years in the second division. Dynamo Dresden have better infrastructure now after 30 years. It needed time but it’s a long way back for many, many clubs.”

The words of a man who knows all about embarking on a difficult journey.

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