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Kirsten Schlewitz | January 14, 2015

East German football's invisible wall

Football fans think they know the German story. After West Germany won the World Cup in 1954, 1974 and 1990, and made it to the final in 1966, 1982 and 1986, a newly-unified German national team struggled. They hit rock bottom -- for die Mannschaft, anyway -- at Euro 2000, finishing bottom of their group. But, reluctant to embarrass themselves in front of their own fans in 2006, the DFB knew they needed to overhaul their program. So here came the Germans, with youth programs and development ideals. Ruthless. Efficient. Will never again lose on penalties. And holders of the 2014 World Cup. Not to mention their club football, which is not only attack-minded and high-scoring, but dirt-cheap to watch, thanks to fan-centric membership models.

History lovers -- or really, anyone who's sat through a middle school history class in the U.S.-- think they know the story of Germany during World War II. Short man rises to power, taking advantage of Germany's weaknesses after the Great War. He invades Poland, then starts gobbling up much of the European map. The Nazi Party is ruthless, bent on exterminating not just Jews but Catholics, Slavs, Romani, homosexuals, the disabled, political opponents, and more or less anyone they didn't like the look of. When Hitler and his party are finally stopped, the Allies decided to divide Germany into four parts, out of which emerged two separate countries.

Yet where these stories intersect, where football and World War II and socialism and a divided Germany and the legacy that remains all come together, that's where many stories remain untold. While the Germany national team is being held up as a model for the rest of the world, while the German economy keeps going from strength to strength, while the Bundesliga draws in more and more fans, the region formerly hidden behind the Iron Curtain is being left out. Although the border is technically gone and "West Germany" no longer exists as a nation, the football in Germany remains very much about the west.

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What Went on Behind the Wall

For five seasons, Dresdner SC dominated their regional league, losing just two games of 90 played. Next it was Schalke's turn, going unbeaten from 1935 to 1939. These two clubs met in the 1940 final, with Schalke ultimately claiming the trophy. Dresdner went on to win the championship in 1943 and 1944. Then came the end of the war. Occupation and the Soviet influence on East Germany created a lasting -- and negative -- impact on football in the country.

25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Schalke remain relatively strong. They're in the top flight and challenging for a Champions League spot, and have spent much of the past fifteen years battling for the title. The city of Dresden, meanwhile, has nearly fallen off the footballing map. with Dresdner in the 7th division, while Dynamo plays in the 3rd. The politics at play during the years spent under socialist rule, combined with the lingering effects of those four decades, continue to haunt east German football.

From 1949 to 1990, East Germany or the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was ruled as a Soviet satellite state. The state's leaders weren't the biggest fans of football -- the collective was more important than the individual, after all, and football players showed dangerous tendencies toward flair and finesse -- but they did recognize its importance in foreign relations. Football allowed the GDR not only to break through its diplomatic isolation but to "highlight even more clearly the superiority of our socialist order in the area of sport."

Showing off in sport would only enhance socialism's reputation -- at least, that was the belief of Erich Mielke, the Minister of State Security. Or, to be more precise, head of the Stasi, the GDR secret police. Mielke began to make his influence felt in 1953, when he created Dynamo Berlin, a team born mostly out of spite.

See, Dynamo Dresden, themselves born just a year earlier out of players from other police-affiliated clubs, had found too much success too quickly. They'd won the East German Cup in 1952 and took the DDR-Oberliga title in 1953. That's when Mielke decided Berlin deserved some glory, so he took the majority of the club to the capital, leaving behind just the name and some reserves.

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Dynamo Berlin still weren't winning titles, though. Another Berlin side, ASK Vorwärts Berlin (later renamed FC Vorwärts Berlin) lifted six trophies between 1958 and 1969. Then, while Dynamo Dresden and 1. FC Magdeburg traded championships in the 1970s, Mielke began ordering more and more players to Dynamo Berlin. He also entered Dynamo Dresden's dressing room in 1978, while they were celebrating their latest championship, and let them know it would be Berlin taking the title the next year. Sure enough, Dynamo Berlin won in 1979, then captured every championship up through 1988.

But Dynamo Berlin's house of cards came tumbling down in 1989. The wall fell, Mielke fell, the team fell. Which was unfortunate for the capital club, as the 1990 championship proved doubly important: the two highest finishers would earn places in the Bundesliga, and six would be added to the 2.Bundesliga. Dynamo Berlin, no longer propped up by the Stasi and their officials, failed to make the cut. Instead Hansa Rostock were champions and Dynamo Dresden came in second, making it to the unified top division.

A mere five years later, only Hansa, who'd already been down and came back up again, were representing east Germany in the Bundesliga. Dynamo Dresden had finished the previous season in last place, but due to financial troubles were relegated to the third division. Chemnitzer FC followed after their relegation from 2.Bundesliga, leaving only three former East German teams playing in the second division, four total in the top two leagues.

An Invisible Wall Remains

Initial struggles were one thing. After all, many east German clubs lost their best players following the fall of the wall, with Bundesliga clubs swarming to sign not just the stars, but the bright young things brought up in the East's talented academies. The former DDR clubs struggled to replace those players, often making the mistake of signing older stars to big contracts, using money the clubs didn't have. A lack of sponsors, mismanagement, corruption, adjustment to a new league -- it made sense that these teams would struggle at first.

But it's been 25 years and the situation has actually gotten worse. There are no clubs from east Germany currently playing in the Bundesliga (although Hertha Berlin experienced its own complications in the divided city, the club never played in the DDR-Oberliga). And there is but one club from that league in 2.Bundesliga: FC Erzgebirge Aue, who won three DDR-Oberliga titles as SC Wismut Karl-Marx-Stadt.

There are no clubs from east Germany currently playing in the Bundesliga

What, then, of Dynamo Dresden, holders of eight DDR-Oberliga titles? They're currently in the 3.Liga. Magdeburg, who broke Dynamo's hold to take three in the 1970s, are now a fourth-tier side. But it is the team the won the first German title under the name VfB Leipzig, then played in the DDR-Oberliga as Lokomotive Leipzig, that paints perhaps the most depressing picture of football in east Germany.

Gone are the days when Leipzig was a major player on the German football scene. Lokomotive reverted back to VfB Leipzig and managed to achieve promotion in 1993, but finished the following Bundesliga season dead last and went straight back down. Their rapid slide through the lower divisions resulted in bankruptcy a decade later, and the club was dissolved in 2004. The team was refounded as 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig in the 11th division, and they now play as a 5th division side in the Oberliga Nordost. FC Sachsen Leipzig, winners of two East German titles, was dissolved in 2011. One of the clubs claiming to be its successor also had to file for bankruptcy, while the other, BSG Chemie Leipzig, is in the 6th division.

But Leipzig differs from the rest of east Germany by having a club that can claim current success. Success, and controversy -- or utter contempt, if you'd like.

In 2009, the people of Leipzig were given a new club to support. Energy-drink-producers and true-sport-lovers Red Bull purchased SSV Markranstädt, a side languishing in the 5th division. Renamed RB Leipzig, the team immediately earned promotion to the 4th division. Then, armed with €100m to spend on transfers for the 2012-2013 season, it came as little surprise that RB Leipzig were promoted once more. Last year, they damned the haters, and amid protests obtained a Bundesliga license to enter the 2.Bundesliga.

Red Bull's goal was to get its new toy into the top division within ten years. Considering RB Leipzig went into the winterpause four points back of an automatic promotion place, reaching the Bundesliga by the 2015-2016 season (four years early!) is certainly not unthinkable. East Germany could finally have a realistic contender, aiming to challenge even Bayern Munich, yet few are thrilled with the idea.

The problem is the way Red Bull run their business, or to be more precise, the fact that they run the football club as a business at all. The German league association (DFL) requires a 50+1 membership model, meaning that in clubs registered as stock companies, no one investor has majority voting rights, and members have a veto over important issues, like ticket prices.

RB Leipzig isn't technically breaking the 50+1 rule, yet they seem to be doing their best to destroy its spirit. In 2013, the club had just 11 members -- and those members had to pay €800 per year, plus a €100 first-time registration fee. After the league threatened to deny RB Leipzig its 2.Bundesliga license, membership totals increased, but still stand at around 300.
Bayern Munich, on the other hand, have around 250,000 members, who pay around €30-60 per year for the privilege.

This obstruction of fan participation is making plenty of German football fans very, very angry. This near-faceless company, hellbent on gobbling up teams from various countries, is not only going against German traditions, but it is doing its best to buy success.

Boris Streubel/Getty Images

Yet RB Leipzig could well be the model more east German clubs will find necessary to follow in order to survive. Simply having passionate supporters, it seems, is no longer enough for a team to find success. Dynamo Dresden, for example, managed to attract over 10,000 supporters when playing in the 3rd division, with that number increasing to an average of 27,000 last season, when they were in 2.Bundesliga.

But having devoted fans doesn't necessarily translate to achievements on the pitch. Dynamo won just five games last season, ultimately finishing 17th and dropping back to the 3rd division. Relegation only amplifies the club's financial struggles, as they'll lose a significant portion of revenue coming from Bundesliga TV rights. That meant Dynamo were forced to appeal to the city of Dresden for help, with the city ultimately agreeing to support the costs of the recently-renovated Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion.

Dresden, one of the few former GDR cities that's managed to successfully develop post-reunification, can afford to give its formerly glorious football team a helping hand. But most cities aren't so lucky. On the whole, the region lags behind the west. Unemployment is much higher -- nearly twice as high, in some areas -- and east Germans report lower income levels. There's less investment throughout the east, and the area lacks large corporations or headquarters, as well as private smaller firms. What's more, the population is shrinking, with nearly 2 million people having left since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The remaining workforce is rapidly becoming depleted, as more and more working-age people have left for the west.

As much as German football wants to sell itself as being centered upon the fans, the fact is that these days, clubs need money to survive. Bayern Munich has a whole host of sponsors, from T-Mobile to Allianz to Paulaner, that provide the funds needed to secure some of the best players in the world. Dynamo Dresden's list, on the other hand, is not nearly as long, with the majority of companies hailing from within the city.

When Union Berlin sought investors in 2011, one of the ways it did so was with a can of Red Bull, crushed, alongside the words, "We are selling our soul, but not to anyone!" It is easy to sympathize with east German fans who have no desire to see their clubs become a billboard for a brand. Yet it is only RB Leipzig, with their modern training facilities, scouting networks and means to acquire young talent, that have the means to not only climb to the Bundesliga but the probability of remaining there. Money is power, and unfortunately, much of the time, there's not a lot of power behind the 50+1 model.

One hopes that a compromise can be reached. That a club like Union Berlin, with a passionate fanbase that protests against RB Leipzig, that sets out couches for World Cup games and gathers together to sing Christmas carols each year, can also find a way to remain viable in Germany. That perhaps teams like Dynamo Dresden or even FC Magdeburg can pull themselves back up from the lower divisions. But as long as football remains constrained by political, economic and social context, it's more likely it is only clubs such as RB Leipzig that will find a way to consistently challenge for the top division -- at least, until east Germany no longer needs to be discussed as a separate region from the former Federal Republic of Germany.

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