How Unification Killed the Beautiful Game

CM, Béal Feirste

In November 1989, down came the Berlin Wall. Along with its fall was the promise of prosperity and luxuries that citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) could only dream of. For football it was the promise of spectacular sponsorship deals, TV money for televised games and match ups with the European giants of Bayern Munich, Dortmund, and Hamburg. In the East the game was very different. Although the GDR was filled with exceptional talent such as Kirsten, Rösler, and Sammer, it was the celebrity status of the western players that made them seem like giants in comparison to their eastern counterparts. Flashy cars, penthouses, sponsorship deals with clothing brands and tech companies, the East German players and their clubs were about to experience the capitalism advertised to them on colour TVs.

However, as socialists know, unification was a disaster for the East. The ramifications are still felt today, not only in football but all aspects of German life. All of the publicly owned factories and workplaces were privatised, sold off to western barons resulting in the eastern economy completely crashing. This was also the case for football. Over 30 years since the wall came down there is not one single team in the Bundesliga (German football’s top division) that was in the East German first division in 1989. Regular league winners, Dynamo Berlin, are stuck in the fourth division while teams like Hansa and Lokomotive Leipzig play in the third tier of German football.

FC Lokomotive Leipzig fans cheer during a 1976 match against FC Vorwärts Frankfurt. 

In April 1989, Dynamo Dresden were playing in the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. Meanwhile Dynamo Berlin were moments away from putting out Arsene Wenger’s Monaco team in the Cup Winners’ Cup in October, and Karl-Marx-Stadt were a consistent tough draw in the UEFA Cup. All while the GDR national team was set to qualify for the 1990 World Cup as they eliminated the Olympic champions, the USSR. So, if East German football was so strong, how is it almost non-existent in 2021?

A huge factor in the quick death of East German football was the transfer market. Bayer Leverkusen’s West German manager, Reiner Kimoon, was the first manager to seal an East-West transfer less than a month after the wall came down. Bayer Leverkusen captured the signature of the best GDR player, Antelias Tome. What followed was the poaching of all the East’s talent. Dresden star Kirsten was next, then future Balon d’Or (world’s best player) Mattias Sammer made the switch to the West. The Bundesliga clubs came and took all of the East’s best talent. As the eastern clubs had no concept of player values on the transfer market, for obvious reason, they were extremely underpaid for their talent. Losing such important players and not being paid suitable amounts made it incredibly hard for eastern teams to rebuild. The dream of luxury and rewards in the new Germany had turned out to be a horrible nightmare.

In the GDR, all football clubs were owned by the workplaces in the respective area. This meant the players would also be workmates and neighbours. This created an immense team bond that couldn’t be found in the West. Players were paid by the state. There was no marketing know-how of sponsorships, agent fees, contract bonuses, wage increase clauses, appearance fees etc.

Dynamo Dresden were bought over and destroyed by a West German businessman who later went to prison for embezzlement. As eastern clubs sold for too low, they were none the wiser and bought for too high. The ways of the free market destroyed many clubs who had been around since the early 1900s. If we are being honest there was some cases where there was complete and utter bad management from eastern clubs but at the same time it isn’t fair to be immediately pushed into a style of business that was completely alien to them.

The merging of the eastern and western first divisions was totally biased towards the western teams. In 1991 the two leagues were still separate, with 18 in the Bundesliga (West) and 14 teams in the Oberliga (East). Instead of merging these leagues, the new unified league would contain all 18 western teams while only two Oberliga teams were allowed in. The remaining Oberliga teams were relegated to the second and third divisions.

High-performing teams from the GDR were often relegated after the so-called “unification”.

Uwe Rösler played for Dynamo Dresden and moved to Nuremburg in 1992. He struggled to adapt to the new way of football in the west. He had said, “football and society was so different, we had pressure from contracts, sponsorships, the media; the game was a lot more dirty. Players would use elbows and kick out. You had to look out for yourself a lot more. Whereas we were used a more collective society, we were more team orientated”. Rösler isn’t the only player to have spoken about the contrast in team dynamics. Although some players did well for themselves, such as Steffan Freund and Rösler, who had extremely successful careers with Dortmund and Manchester City respectively. But for most players, their former teams had collapsed, some going out of existence and other falling all the way down to the seventh tier of German football and ending up millions in debt.

30 years on from unification, East German football, in terms of its clubs, is dead.

However, it is the East German scouting and academy model which has kept the eastern flame alight through its darkest period. East German footballing legend, Matthias Sammer, set up the current German youth development system up in the early 2000s. Football fans around the world can agree it is one of the best in the game today. This academy model copied what was happening for 20-30 years in the GDR. If we look at who the best German players are in each of the three decades after unification we find all three are born and raised in the East; Matthias Sammer (Dynamo Dresden), Michael Ballack (FC Karl-Marx-Stadt) and Toni Kroos (Greifswalder FC).

Today there is one team from the former GDR who play in the Bundesliga, Union Berlin. A fan-owned club that was saved by investors in the late 90s. They were saved again when their fans built the club a new stadium to meet seating requirements to play in the upper echelons of German football. RB Leipzig also have East German roots and play in the Bundesliga but are the antithesis to a team like Union Berlin. In contrast Red Bull Leipzig are owned by Red Bull. With a Red Bull-themed kit, badge and 50,000-seater stadium they are very much everything eastern clubs were not. Most football fans regard the likes of RB Leipzig as a cancer in modern football. Red Bull have bought many clubs and turned them into money-making, marketing kingpins while destroying the history and reputation of the clubs they have bought over.

It is safe to say unification destroyed East German football. We will likely never again see a purer form of grassroots football than was seen in the GDR.

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