In the wake of Germany’s triumph at the 1990 FIFA World Cup™ in Italy, even as collected and stoic a figure as Franz Beckenbauer was swept up in the euphoria.
Germany would now be unbeatable for years to come, declared the man who coached his national team to global glory, as the team would be augmented by the cream of the crop from the former GDR. As it turned out, the Kaiser was wide of the mark on this occasion, but it was unquestionably the start of a new chapter in the nation’s footballing history, with a cast including new heroes, starlets who never quite cut it in the changed circumstances, and famous clubs fallen on hard times.
A rocky road
"We almost blew it because of that wall," Beckenbauer recalled last weekend at celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of German football’s own reunification: "My job was to prepare my team for a vital match, but all at once, their focus was gone." The likes of Lothar Matthaus and Jurgen Klinsmann recognised that there were more momentous events unfolding than football. Just six days after the fall of the Berlin wall, West Germany played Wales in a do-or-die qualifier, needing victory to seal a berth at the 1990 finals. "And we somehow scraped home. Just a few months later, we were world champions!"
Two national teams finally became one on 20 November 1990. "We brought 40 years of GDR history to a close," recalled Hans-Georg Moldenhauer, the last President of the GDR’s German Football Association (DFV). German FA (DFB) President Theo Zwanziger acknowledged the work still to be done: "There’s still plenty of scope for action in the east. I regard the east as a natural footballing region, comparable with the Ruhr Valley, but we’re far from closing the gap in terms of club football."
Plenty of star players ended up as winners. "At the World Cup in 1994, we had more players from the east than from the west,” observed Beckenbauer, adding, “Many were world-class, and brought real strength to the national team.” Inspirational midfielders Matthias Sammer and Thomas Doll made names for themselves around Europe, while the likes of goal-getters Ulf Kirsten, Olaf Marschall and Andreas Thom, regarded as the most promising talent in the GDR before reunification, enjoyed prolific Bundesliga careers. A little later, Bernd Schneider and a certain Michael Ballack would be bracketed among the elite group of world-class players.
"I can still remember playing them in internationals, which we usually lost. Sometimes they wore white shirts, and sometimes blue,” said UEFA President Michel Platini at last Saturday’s gala, where the Frenchman was guest of honour and delivered his speech in German, "in honour of this very special occasion". The unified German team won its first international too. Switzerland provided the opposition in December 1990, and the final score was 4-0. Naturally enough, Moldenhauer’s memory of the day remains crystal clear: "Sammer was the national team’s Ossi (East German), and Thom came on as a sub and was the first goalscorer.”
For all the progress, plenty remains to be done. Magdeburg, the only GDR team ever to lift a European trophy, currently play in the fourth division. Former giants Dynamo Dresden and Carl Zeiss Jena are battling to escape the third division, and the serial GDR champions of the 1980s, Berlin-based BFC Dynamo, are bumping along in the fifth tier of the game. The former East Germany currently has no representative in the national top flight, although Moldenhauer sees a brighter future ahead: "The clubs in the east have come on a very long way in terms of organisation. The fact there’s no Bundesliga club in the east of the country this season is just a temporary thing."
And the men from the east got the better of their western counterparts in a celebratory veterans’ match on Saturday. A 15,400 crowd in Leipzig saw Marschall and Kirsten fire the Ossis to a 2-1 victory over the 1990 FIFA World Cup winning side captained by Matthaus, after Karl-Heinz Riedle had opened the scoring for the Wessis. "Our legs aren’t so strong nowadays, but we’re still very much up for it mentally,” grinned former national coach Klinsmann, who joined the likes of Andreas Brehme in digging out his boots specially for the game. Everyone joined in the party afterwards – and for all the problems still to be solved, there remains plenty to celebrate.