With the increasing competitiveness of the Bundesliga, and clubs now as reliant as ever on money to succeed, it certainly isn’t easy for clubs from the east to compete. We are about to enter the fourth successive season without an eastern club in the top flight, and, in the 17 years since SG Dynamo Dresden’s relegation from the Bundesliga in 1994/95, only two clubs from the east have played in the Bundesliga.
One is FC Hansa Rostock, the GDR’s final champions who intermittently played at the top level until the mid-2000s. The other, FC Energie Cottbus, reached the Bundesliga in 1999/2000 in the most unlikely and remarkable circumstances. That Energie were in the Bundesliga again as recently as 2008/09 is a minor miracle. While there are many factors contributing to their unlikely success, amid the political complexities of football in the GDR and reintegration into the Federal Republic, none is more crucial than the man who changed the destiny of FC Energie Cottbus: Eduard Geyer.
“Ede” was born in Bielitz, Upper Silesia. Then, it was a part of the German Empire, but that was about to change. As a baby, Geyer’s family had to leave Bielitz along with thousands of other Germans after the Third Reich’s defeat in World War II. He grew up in Dresden, a city that suffered as a result of the war but one with which he would forever identify with. Playing youth football in the city, he joined its biggest team, SC Dynamo Dresden, in 1968 and went on to spend more than 20 years at the club, as a player, coach and head coach. Geyer enjoyed great success with Dynamo on both the pitch and touchline, winning two GDR championships as a player and returning the club to glory as a coach. With Ede at the helm, Dynamo won the league in 1989 for the first time in eleven years.
The outspoken and determined Saxon enjoyed further success in East Germany. Due to his success with Dynamo, Geyer was appointed trainer of the GDR national team in 1989. Although they had come close on several occasions, East Germany had only ever once qualified for a major tournament, the 1974 World Cup. But Geyer’s team stood on the verge of qualification for Italia ’90. All they had to do was beat Austria in their final match, a match which took place on November 15 1989, six days after the Berlin Wall so suddenly fell. With the minds of the players inevitably elsewhere, East Germany lost 3-0 and would not qualify. Some players had even been in contact with West German clubs during the trip. It was another symbolic event signalling the final days of East German football.
Unlike some of the team, Geyer refused to lose focus on the task though. “For me personally, I always said the wall was opened… I guess four or six weeks too early,” he remembers. “Maybe we would have qualified”. But that was Geyer, a coach whose sole focus was on winning. A passionate, at times aggressive coach, Geyer certainly had a unique style. Explosive on the touchline, he often berated his players, either from the sidelines, face-to-face in the dugout, or even from the stands, for he was frequently sent off. “He was a very strict coach”, remembers ex-Dynamo Ulf Kirsten. Strict, but meticulous: he constantly made notes on his players from the sidelines, and, taking after his former coach and role model Walter Fritsch (aka “The General”), a detailed thinker and tactician. With Cottbus he would assess and grade his player’s on-field performances, grades which were usually less kind than Kicker or the local newspaper.
There are indeed few left like Geyer. This was part of the reason he struggled to find work after the Wende. Leaving Dynamo Dresden in 1990, arguably East Germany’s best coach wanted to test himself in the west. But the west didn’t want him. His aggressive style had earned him a certain reputation, and his methods were seen by many as old-fashioned. There was no love lost. Geyer felt the west were too arrogant to hire a coach from the east. But this was not the only reason for Ede’s difficulties finding work in the Bundesliga. In 1971, he was approached by the Stasi to act as an Informelle Mitarbeiter (informal collaborator), an undercover agent who would file reports on his fellow players for the state. Threatened with the end of his football career, perhaps worse, Geyer, like several others at Dresden and elsewhere, agreed to the state’s requests.
His struggle to find work took him to some low-profile scouting and coaching jobs, before he moved to FC Energie Cottbus of the Regionalliga Nordost (Tier III) in July 1994. He didn’t know it at the time, but this was to become the biggest appointment of his career.
Energie were by no means a successful club in East Germany. When the state reorganised sport and football in 1965, it created an elite group of football clubs whom it separated from the usual multi-sports clubs. These new FCs were given special privileges separate from the other SCs, including the cherry-picking of talented players, as the authorities looked to strengthen the GDR’s football reputation. There were ten such clubs (plus the defiant SC Dynamo Dresden), who, with a few exceptions, went on to dominate the GDR Oberliga for the next 25 years. Energie Cottbus (then BSG Energie) were not one of these clubs. BSG Energie spent many of their years at the lower end of the GDR-Oberliga.
After 1990, when the eastern clubs were integrated into the western divisions, Energie’s final position in the GDR table was not high enough that they would be allocated to one of the major federal leagues. Instead, they were put in the third tier, competing, not with teams from the west, but with fellow eastern clubs in a regional division.
Although they were financially weak, and in a low position in the system, this move did them little harm compared to the higher-achieving sides. For one, they retained a certain familiarity in many social, political and footballing aspects which was denied to clubs who had been better than them, who were faced with instant upheaval. Also their squad was not raided to the extent of a side like Dynamo Dresden simply because they didn’t have the country’s brightest talents.
That said, this was by no means Eduard Geyer’s dream appointment when he joined the club in 1994, and nobody could have predicted the fairy-tale success they were to have. Geyer’s journey with Cottbus might not have even come to pass. That summer, the coach was on a journey of a different kind: on the A4 to Erfurt, for discussions to take charge of Rot-Weiβ Erfurt. But the move never came to fruition. “It was an extremely hot day, so the Autobahn was completely blocked”, he said in an interview in 2000. “I was stuck in the middle of the Autobahn for maybe three or four hours, and called to tell them I wouldn’t be able to come”. By the time he and Erfurt finally spoke, they couldn’t come to an agreement. He was also in talks with Cottbus, and decided upon that job instead.
Life at Cottbus was tough to begin with. The facilities were terrible, and the attitude of the players was also well below what he was used to. “Nobody at the club was really interested in football… it was more… fun, and they may have wanted a bit more success but the conditions were amateurish, and there were far too few players there who wanted to resolve to play competitive football”. Energie achieved a 7th place finish in the Regionalliga in Geyer’s first season, but he was already looking for a way out. “I wasn’t very happy in my first year at Cottbus, because the club didn’t have a real goal and I didn’t see a realistic way forward.” In fact, Geyer was ready to re-join the club so close to his heart. “Dynamo came asking for me and I would have loved to have gone back”. His mission would have been to rebuild the club, who had just been relegated and lost their licence due to poor finance. They were to be sent to the fourth tier. But the move never materialised and Geyer stayed, rather reluctantly, with Energie despite a strong temptation to be reunited with his old flame.
It was then that Geyer started to achieve success with the side. His aggression and ruthlessness had started to have an impact. He had an easy solution to the lack of motivation and direction of some members: replace them with new ones. Gradually, the quality of the team started to improve. Results got much better, and Energie finished 3rd in Geyer’s second season, but an even greater achievement was to come the year after. The 1996/97 season saw Energie reach the final of the German Cup, beating three Bundesliga sides en-route. The season ended with even more success, as Energie won the Regionalliga and were promoted to the federal professional league for the first time.
In order to stay competitive among the professional teams from the west, Geyer and Cottbus had found a way to defy the financial demands of the Bundesliga, the loaded die which disadvantaged the rest of the east. They signed foreign players. The side that was eventually promoted to the Bundesliga contained players from twelve different countries, from Hungary, Croatia, Albania, even Brazil. “It simply wasn’t possible to sign German players because they were too expensive”.
It was a risky strategy, and there were bumps along the way. Cottbus had an uneasy season in 1998/99, and many of their players didn’t get on or understand each other. With such a large group of foreign players, Geyer’s style inevitably wasn’t for everyone, and his long-held attitude at the club of replacing players who were not performing continued. Unfortunately, not all players were welcomed with open arms either. Beninese Moudachirou Amadou was racially abused, unpopular with some for taking a woman from Cottbus as a wife. He cancelled his contract with the club in 2000 and joined Karlsruher SC.
The next season, Cottbus were promoted again. The Bundesliga didn’t want him, but Eduard Geyer was there. Despite Energie’s famous success story, they weren’t so popular with the rest of the league either. Geyer’s Stasi past had resurfaced in a Bild am Sonntag “exclusive” prior to the start of the season, while the club continued to annoy the rest of the country by bringing so few German players up with them. The national team had just crashed out of the European Championship, and serious questions were being asked about German talent and the impact of foreign players in the Bundesliga.
They were instant relegation favourites, but Geyer had other plans. His preparation and evaluation was among the most detailed in football, with Dynamo Dresden’s former director Bernd Kieβling calling Ede’s preparation“world class”. This had its greatest effect in the Bundesliga. In the week, players would train with detailed focus on their weaknesses. With his Kicker grading system, evaluation of weaknesses was an important part of Ede’s no-holds-barred coaching. “It was important to talk to the players about how their development was going, or from time to time swap players out of the team or even look for new ones”, he said of his methods at Energie.
It may not be instantly clear how Geyer, a strict middle-aged man with a thick Saxony accent, was able to communicate so effectively with a group of so many foreign players, and inspire them to such success. The players all lived practically door-to-door in the Sielow district of Cottbus, so the players and families could interact in their spare time too. Geyer’s bold step to create a solid team spirit worked. And Geyer, carrying the air of a strict schoolteacher, sent his players to the classroom too. In Cottbus’ best years, most of the foreign players were fluent in German.
Against all odds, Cottbus stayed up in their maiden season, welcoming some of Europe’s most famous clubs to the Stadion der Freundschaft for the first time. Bayern München came home from their first visit to Cottbus with a 1-0 defeat. They defied logic again the season after, a year in which they also fielded a side which contained no German players – a Bundesliga first. In his short time at the club, the Beninese Amadou impressed in central defence. Attacking player Franklin Bittencourt, from Brazil (his son, Leonardo, too played for Cottbus from 2010 to 2012 and recently transferred to Borussia Dortmund), was a fan favourite and skilled player, and Bosnian Bruno Akrapovic played an important role in defensive midfield.
The dream came to an end a year later. Energie finished bottom of the league and were relegated. The season after, they didn’t manage to win promotion after a tough campaign, and finished fourth. A section of the fans questioned Geyer, upset that they had not been promoted despite being in a strong position (they missed out on a playoff place to Jürgen Klopps’ FSV Mainz 05 on goal difference). This narrow margin also inevitably cost them financially, and a combination of these factors saw Eduard Geyer released from Cottbus in November of 2004.
By that time, he had completely transformed the club, and increased their stature further than anyone could have envisaged upon his appointment ten years before to an ambitionless club from the regional league. Looking back, it’s still difficult to believe that a coach, who had been written off, with a side full of unheralded foreign players, defied the times and took a club with no history or success, even in the GDR, up through the western professional system and into the Bundesliga – and kept them there for three years. Cottbus remain competitive in professional German football, and rebuilt under coach Petrik Sander to win promotion back to the Bundesliga, where they stayed for a further three years until 2008/09.
Energie were the last team from the east in the Bundesliga, and the story of how they rose two divisions into the top league should be there to inspire the current eastern teams short on cash to succeed them. “Money isn’t everything in football, but it’s a huge part”, admits Geyer. But he adds: “If you can play football with heart and understanding, and a huge portion of love, then things can happen that these groups of millionaires, who earn all this money, can’t actually grasp”. Few know this more than Eduard Geyer, FC Energie Cottbus’ miracle man.
By Jonathan Lines
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona