The fall of East German football
He had no way of knowing it, but 3 hours and 34 minutes before Ulf Kirsten ran into the penalty box with the ball at his feet, the entire politburo of the Socialist Unity Party had stepped down. He also didn't know that while he looked up to find his striking partner, Thorsten Gutschow, the German Democratic Republic (GDR)'s ambassador in Czechoslovakia (CSSR), Helmut Ziebart, was summoned by that country's foreign minister, Pavel Sadovsky.
Kirsten spotted his teammate and crossed the ball. Gutschow had his back to the goal and was closely marked by defender Dirk Schuster. He just about managed to control the ball with his right foot, then he somehow wrapped himself around his marker, swivelled and shot.
There wasn't much power behind this strike from 9 yards, but for the tiniest fraction of a second goalkeeper Dirk Heyne hesitated, not sure whether to block the shot with his foot or go down. When he decided to go down, it was too late. Dynamo Dresden were 1-0 up against league leaders 1. FC Magdeburg.
Some 20 minutes later, while Matthias Sammer was carrying the ball through midfield in his inimitable style, in equal measures powerful and elegant, Helmut Ziebart was sitting on a chair in Prague and feeling uncomfortable. The Czechoslovakian government was annoyed that more and more East German citizens were allowed to decamp into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) via the Czech border. Without putting too fine a touch on it, Sadovsky explained that his own people were beginning to wonder why they couldn't do the same. It was a very unfortunate situation.
Suddenly Sammer accelerated. He briefly glanced at Magdeburg's goal, then he struck from almost 30 yards. Goalkeeper Heyne desperately lunged to his right, but the shot was a beauty. Dresden had doubled their lead.
Then Magdeburg defender Dirk Schuster was sent off and the match between the title contenders seemed to be over as a contest.
In Prague, Ziebart said that he understood but that the situation back home was problematic, too. In fact, it was tense. He added: "We are considering issuing a set of guidelines for travel to foreign countries before a new law on travel is adopted." Sadovsky replied that this could drag on for an indeterminate period. "Our government requests," he said, "that departures by citizens of the GDR to the FRG be handled directly, and not through the territory of the CSSR." In the world of diplomacy, this was not so much a request as a demand.
In Dresden, Magdeburg refused to accept defeat despite being reduced to 10 men. The club's young phenomenon, Markus Wuckel, pulled one back with a long-range free kick 12 minutes from time. A draw would have been enough for the visitors to defend first place. The game remained close until the final minute. Then Dresden hit Magdeburg on the break.
Midfielder Hans-Uwe Pilz set up Gutschow, who scored his second goal of the game to secure a final result of 3-1. It was Nov. 8, 1989. On the next day, the Berlin Wall came down.
It also came down for football, of course. The 1989-90 campaign -- ultimately won by Dynamo Dresden because 1. FC Magdeburg lost to Chemnitzer FC, then known as FC Karl-Marx-Stadt, on the final day -- was the penultimate for the GDR. One season later, in May 1991, the East German league was wrapped up and eight GDR clubs joined the West German professional game.
Hansa Rostock and Dynamo Dresden, who'd finished the last GDR season in the top two spots, qualified for the Bundesliga, while six clubs were allowed into the two-tiered second division: Stahl Brandenburg, Chemnitzer FC, Rot-Weiss Erfurt, Chemie Halle, Carl Zeiss Jena and VfB Leipzig. Magdeburg, the only GDR club that had ever won a European trophy (the 1974 Cup Winners' Cup against Milan), failed to make the grade. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that in March 1990, shortly before his 23rd birthday, Markus Wuckel was involved in a serious car crash. He was sidelined for 11 months and was never the same player again.
Today, 25 years after the Wall fell, not one of those clubs is still in the top two flights. In fact, only one team in the Bundesliga is based in the east, and that's Hertha Berlin -- which has always been a West German club. In the second division, just three teams represent eastern football: Union Berlin, Erzgebirge Aue and RB Leipzig. And maybe there are only two, because Leipzig is a special case -- it has no history in the east, effectively founded by Austrian businessmen in 2009. In a recent interview with kicker magazine, Halle's president, Michael Schadlich, said: "RB Leipzig is not eastern football."
This development -- the demise of the once proud and strong GDR teams -- never fails to amaze and astound foreign observers. I know this because they often ask me for an explanation. Well, any attempt at explaining the situation has to come in two parts, simply because the problems that crippled the eastern game then are not quite the same ones that are holding it back now.
So let's start with that penultimate GDR season, during which Dresden and Magdeburg fought for the title. Only six days after the Wall came down, East Germany played a World Cup qualifier against Austria in Vienna. Sitting in the stands were no fewer than 100 scouts from European clubs.
They had just been served a huge, untapped talent pool on a silver plate and they knew they couldn't waste any time. None acted faster than Bayer Leverkusen. While the game was in progress, a low-level -- and thus inconspicuous -- club representative from Leverkusen was literally sitting on the East German bench, talking money with the GDR's star players. No wonder they lost 3-0.
During the offseason, Dynamo Dresden lost five players to Bundesliga clubs, among them Matthias Sammer, Ulf Kirsten and Hans-Uwe Pilz.
Pilz would stay for only three months with Fortuna Cologne. He got the BMW he'd dreamed of and his family lived in a nice house, but he wasn't one of those young hotshots like Sammer. He was almost 32 years old and felt like a fish out of water in the capitalist west, where nobody talked to you and people looked at you as if you were a freak. You were an "Ossi" to them, a communist dupe from the east. In October 1990, Pilz was back at Dynamo Dresden.
He was an exception, because most players of his class sooner or later went where the money was. Magdeburg's Dirk Schuster joined Eintracht Braunschweig in the summer of 1990. The immensely talented Rico Steinmann, playmaker for Karl-Marx-Stadt, had a good offer from Cologne and stayed with his club only after being promised a serious pay rise. A local newspaper said Steinmann was handed an annual salary of 240,000 Marks (the equivalent of around 82,000 pounds at that time) -- an otherworldly sum for people who until very recently had to order a car and then wait 17 years until it was delivered.
Steinmann would later say that he should have left the east like everyone else. "I was convinced that we would qualify for the Bundesliga," he told Eurosport in 2010. "But of course they all knew that I was not merely earning a little more than everyone else -- it was a lot more. It gave rise to envy. It was a pity."
So most of the key players left -- and many of those who didn't felt left behind. Of course the clubs got good money for their stars, but it wasn't invested wisely. Eduard Geyer, then coaching Dresden and the national team, told kicker: "We had nobody to blame but ourselves. We signed fifth-rate coaches and business managers because we thought those guys from the west were going to be our saviours, but they were bunglers who got us into deep water."
Some of them were more than just bunglers. During the years following reunification, there was a strong feeling in the former GDR that people were trying to make a quick profit by taking overwhelmed easterners for a ride.
Because that's what they were -- overwhelmed. There's probably nobody who is reading (and writing) this column who can even begin to understand what it must have been like for someone who grew up in the GDR to be suddenly catapulted into a capitalist society where it was dog-eat-dog. Put differently, it's not in the least surprising that the original eight eastern clubs that joined western football in 1991 ultimately failed. They just never had an honest chance.
But that doesn't explain why now, a quarter of a century later, the situation is still the same. Clearly, the clubs have had plenty of time to wise up to western ways, haven't they? Yes. Now their disadvantage has less to do with history, politics, experience or ideology and more to do with location.
When people debate the state of the clubs in the east, they always look at the football clubs and wonder what the problem is. All they have to do is look at the bigger picture. According to a feature produced by Sport Inside, a weekly magazine on public-service broadcaster WDR, you could win 108 national championships in various team sports during the 2013-14 season. Only eight of them went to clubs from the east, and two of those were won by floorball players, which is an obscure indoor sport.
So when you look at Magdeburg and marvel that the football club that once beat mighty Milan is now in the fourth division, you might as well look at another famous club from that city: SC Magdeburg. A little over 10 years ago, they had one of the best team handball sides not only in Germany but in Europe, and they won the team handball Champions League in 2002. These days, the 10-time GDR champions are no longer competitive at the very top. "The other clubs' budgets went through the roof, patrons appeared on the scene and players' wages rose astronomically," SC Magdeburg's Marc-Henrik Schmedt told Sport Inside. His club just doesn't have that sort of money.
The reason for this is the lack of big sponsors in the east. According to Sport Inside, there are 13,000 large companies in Germany, but only 1,400 of them are based in the east. Consequently, a recent study found that the economic power in the east is still 30 percent below that of the west.
One look at the current football tables is enough to tell you how important economics have become during the past decade: Wolfsburg, bankrolled by Volkswagen, are in second place in the Bundesliga, while FC Ingolstadt, backed by Audi, top the second division. Back when Dynamo Dresden and 1. FC Magdeburg met on that muddy pitch in November 1989, those clubs were in the third division (Wolfsburg) or didn't exist (Ingolstadt).
Does this mean the likes of Dresden, despite their large fan base, or Magdeburg, despite their history, are unlikely to ever rise again?
Halle president Schadlich says: "I'm not entirely without hope. In five years, there will be more clubs from the east in the second division than there are now." However, Geyer, the former Dresden and East Germany coach, is sceptical. "I'm afraid that the level we now have in the east will be with us for a number of years," he told kicker. "I'm not really optimistic."
Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.