World Football

The secrets to East Germany's football success

Jürgen Sparwasser celebrates at the 1974 World Cup.
© imago images
  • 3 October is German Unity Day
  • 'East' managed something that 'West' never could
  • Schneider and Sammer among the players who shone after reunification

It is 30 September 1989. On the balcony of the German Embassy in Prague, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher begins a speech with the words: "We have come to you to tell you that today, your departure..." The rest of Genscher’s words of liberation are drowned out by the celebrations of countless East German refugees.

This is one of the most famous half-sentences in German history, and it came during one of its most historic moments. It was a milestone that would culminate on 3 October 1990 with the German Democratic Republic joining the Federal Republic of Germany on what has come to be known as German Unity Day.

Unbeatable for many a long year?

The country and its citizens reunited, and so did the national football teams that had previously played as East and West Germany. Stars from the DDR got to join forces with the likes of Lothar Matthaus, Rudi Voller, Andreas Brehme and Jurgen Klinsmann.

'Der Kaiser', Franz Beckenbauer said that the reunited Germany would be unbeatable for many a long year, but the reality proved to be somewhat less glorious. There were differences that were clear for all to see, and despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, reintegration would take time after 30 years of division.

"The German national team was a highly professional outfit. In the west, we always stayed at the best hotels and were looked after in every possible way. It’s become even more extreme now – everything’s been taken out of the players’ hands. It was a different story though for the East German team," said Ulf Kirsten in a previous interview with FIFA.com.

"The GDR would have continued to have a very good team and could most likely have held their own internationally. Whether we could have been successful is another matter, but I do think that if we’d been given the chance to play another set of EURO or World Cup qualifiers, we would have got through."

Kirsten was a fearsome presence up front for the GDR, with 34 goals in exactly 100 international appearances – 49 for East Germany, 51 for West Germany.

Ulf Kirsten in action for East Germany

Success on both sides of the wall

It should not be forgotten that East Germany enjoyed a fair amount of success on the footballing front. While the Miracle of Berne in 1954 – followed by three more FIFA World Cup™ wins in 1974, 1990 and 2014 – plus another three EURO titles are famous around the world and particularly in Germany, less is known on a global scale about the history of the GDR team.

When it comes to the Olympic football tournament for example, east very much beats west. The strength of the East German Football Association (DFV) Olympic team came from the fact that it was primarily the first-choice national team. While countries from the Western world did not play their pros, everyone in the East counted as an amateur and was allowed to take part.

Plenty of people will still tell you today that the West Germany team of the 1970s, which won EURO 72 and the World Cup in 1974, is the best in the history of German football. The same can be said for the GDR team who also enjoyed a particularly purple patch in that very decade.

Their excellence was highlighted at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, when East Germany played West Germany for a spot in the bronze medal match and won 3-2 against a side featuring none other than Uli Hoeness, before going on to secure a medal. Even better was to come four years later in Canada, when the GDR brought home the gold.

East Germany completed the full set of Olympic medals in Moscow in 1980 when they picked up silver, but perhaps their most famous achievement in footballing terms came on the biggest of stages – the 1974 World Cup that was held over the border in the Federal Republic of Germany.

The gods of the beautiful game decided that the two nations should be drawn together in the group stage, and the red-hot favourites from the host nation went down to their neighbours from the east 1-0, courtesy of a goal from Jurgen Sparwasser.

East Germany also enjoyed success at youth level, even though they only took part in the FIFA U-20 World Cups in 1987 and 1989. In the first of those two tournaments in Chile, they made it all the way through to the semi-finals where they were edged out 2-1 by Yugoslavia, before ensuring a place on the podium by beating the host nation on penalties in the third-place match.

Lothar Matthaeus and Ulf Kirsten enter the pitch
© Getty Images

Differences to overcome

Eduard Geyer, who was the last man to coach the East German national team, once said that he wished that "the Wall had come down just three months later – I would have loved to have gone to the World Cup".

While that dream of one last appearance on the biggest of stages would not come to fruition for the GDR – indeed, it would only have been their second time after 1974 – Germany under the auspices of the DFB would go on to win the World Cup in Italy.

Despite that success, there were still plenty of differences to overcome. Fourteen clubs took part in the East German top flight in the 1990/91 season, with two of them earning the right to play in the Bundesliga – champions Hansa Rostock and runners-up Dynamo Dresden. Another six clubs were admitted to Bundesliga 2, but none of these teams has managed to maintain their status in the top two divisions in Germany.

Schneider: "There were already differences"

One man whose career was well and truly shaped by what happened back then is Bernd Schneider. "We obviously all talked about it within the team," he said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, "and obviously we thought that for starters, we were getting back to within touching distance of the Bundesliga."

At the time, Schneider – who would go on to be a world-class international player – was just 15 years old and playing for Carl Zeiss Jena. In 1998, he moved to the west to join Eintracht Frankfurt and went on to win 81 caps for Germany, for whom he was also named vice-captain by the DFB. In 2006, the gifted midfielder was given the honour of leading the host nation out onto the pitch for the opening match of the 2006 FIFA World Cup as captain.

The basis for Schneider’s outstanding career came from the work he put in during countless training sessions in the GDR, while the silky ball skills that saw him come to be known as the "white Brazilian" were down to the influences of the west.

"I’d already worked with coaches from the west,” he said, “and there were already differences. They focused more on the technical and the tactical side of things, unlike in the GDR where the physical aspect was very important, with training and exercises to build up strength and stamina. That had all developed in two very different directions over a number of decades."

Kirsten: "We trained a lot more in the east"

For Kirsten, things were brought even more sharply into focus during those historic months at the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990. At the time of reunification, he was a forward in his mid-20s playing for Dynamo Dresden, before going on to be one of the best German attackers of his day.

"It was new for us that a lot of agents and managers of clubs would turn up to matches or training sessions and that we would keep having them come up and talk to us. In the second half of the 1990 season, it really became a big thing with so many interested parties contacting us," said Kirsten of his experiences at that crucial time in his career.

"We definitely trained a lot more in the east, twice a day. You actually never had a day off. In the Bundesliga, it was and still is usual just to do some jogging on the day after a match and then have the day after that off. That was uncharted territory for us."

Matthias Sammer celebrates at EURO 96.
© Getty Images

Sammer's success story

A few months after the wall came down, Kirsten – whose childhood idol was the great Gerd Muller – moved to Bayer Leverkusen. He was following in the footsteps of his strike partner Andreas Thom, who was the first to make the leap from east to west back in 1989.

Over 20 players left East Germany between 1989 and 1991 to sign for Bundesliga clubs, including future stars such as Thomas Doll, Matthias Sammer, Steffen Freund and of course the Leverkusen twin strikers Kirsten and Thom.

"Not many people got to have the experiences that I had, both in terms of sport and my life in general," said Sammer in a previous interview with German press agency dpa. Dresden-born Sammer went on to win the Bundesliga three times as well as the Champions League, and then EURO 1996 with Germany.

"The concept of what would have happened if the wall hadn’t come down is obviously something I have thought about. The fact that I could do what I did – from a personal perspective as well – is something that I find humbling and which I’m very thankful for. It’s almost a gift from God," said Sammer, who was the first East German to represent the re-united German team in the 4-0 win over Switzerland in December 1990.

Toni Kroos of Germany and Real Madrid poses with the FIFA World Cup trophy
© Getty Images

Kroos brings it all full circle

A total of 37 players who cut their teeth in clubs in the east went on to represent the DFB in the years after the Wall came down, including a current World Cup winner in Toni Kroos.

He himself sees the fact that he was the only player in the squad in Brazil to have been born in one of the new federal regions of Germany as no big deal. The concept of East Germany is far less relevant to him than it would be, for example, to those of his parents’ generation.

The Berlin Wall was consigned to history 30 years ago, but the concept of a divided Germany took longer to be torn down in the minds of those who had lived through it. Since then however, a country has grown back together. And at the end of the day, that is all that matters.

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