Twenty years after the Berlin Wall crumbled and heralded German reunification, most football clubs from the former DDR have the look of flowers in the desert.
Energie Cottbus’ play-off defeat by Nurnberg in May removed the last trace of eastern representation in the Bundesliga and all the ex-Oberliga giants – Dynamo Dresden, Carl Zeiss Jena, 1.FC Magdeburg, Lokomotiv Leipzig, et al – now live a hand-to-mouth existence in the third, fourth and fifth tiers of the domestic system.
Certain eastern outfits have done themselves justice in the top flight. Cottbus and their band of cut-price Balkan and Brazilian buys did amazingly well to survive for a half-a-dozen years in the Bundesliga of the new millennium, while Hansa Rostock punched above their weight for a decade, finishing sixth in 1996 and 1998. Nonetheless, swimming against the tide is only possible for so long. Deprived of the financial resources which sides in the west take for granted, the Ossis (East Germans) were always going to struggle.
In the good old/bad old days, the east’s footballing finest were bankrolled by branches of the state. Dynamo Berlin – who won 10 straight titles between 1979 and 1988, many by apparently dubious means – were funded by the Stasi, the much-loathed secret police, Dynamo Dresden were also a police team and Lokomotiv Leipzig were backed by the railways. However, once the Wall fell and free-market economics swept in, the safety net was gone and, with the economy in these parts in precarious shape, making ends meet became a daily dilemma.
And it still is. Germany may be back together as an administrative whole but, economically, east and west remain poles apart. Unemployment in the east is close to double that of the west and the gross national product per person in the east is still only 70 per cent of a westerner. Given a choice between investing in the west or the east, the would-be sponsor looks to the former every time.
While the sight of Dynamo Berlin scratching around in the fourth division could be construed as divine retribution, not so the decline of other East German powerhouses; they only provoke pity.
Twenty five years ago, Magdeburg beat Milan in the Final of the 1974 European Cup-winners Cup – the DDR’s first and last continental trophy – and local hero Jurgen Sparwasser scored the national team’s historic goal in the 1-0 win against West Germany in that year’s World Cup finals. In 1981, Carl Zeiss Jena also reached the Cup-winners Cup Final, though they went down 2-1 to Dinamo Tbilisi.
The story in Leipzig is equally depressing. The city, whose 46,000-capacity Zentralstadion was the only eastern venue used during the 2006 World Cup, is enjoying something of a boom thanks to the arrival of BMW and Porsche factories. But on the football front, the best the Saxon metropolis can do is two sides – Lokomotiv and FC Sachsen – in the fifth division. Sachsen were declared insolvent early last year and were demoted a division, while Lok, runners-up to Ajax in the 1987 European Cup-winners Cup, have twice gone bankrupt (1999 and 2003).
However, an Austrian-based energy-drink company could be the saviour of football in Leipzig. Already the owner of clubs in Austria, USA and Brazil, Red Bull recently bought SSV Markranstadt, a fifth division club in the suburbs of the city, and the rebranded RB Leipzig recruited a clutch of second division players last summer, including the former Germany defender Ingo Herzsch.
They are not to everyone’s taste, however. Like Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga, they are regarded as artificially inseminated upstarts and some opposition fans were sufficiently angry to spray their home turf with herbicide and plant a wooden cross as a symbol of the death of the traditional club ideal.
Another ray of hope for the Ossis is Union Berlin. For so long the poor relations of Dynamo, Union won the third division title last season and are now pushing hard for a second consecutive promotion.
It’s easy to understand why many Germans see a reunited nation as the footballing equivalent of a derby match that is won 10-0 by the west every season.
Every prospect that has been unearthed in the east – Matthias Sammer, Thomas Doll, Ulf Kirsten, Andreas Thom, Michael Ballack, Bernd Schneider and, more recently, the Bayer Leverkusen pair of keeper Rene Adler and midfielder Toni Kroos – have all headed for the lucrative west at the first opportunity. And the drain of talent does not look likely to end any time soon.
“We simply cannot compete,“ says Magdeburg youth team coach Mirko Eichentopf. ”The big clubs from the west target our best 13- and 14-year-olds, offering cash to their parents, sometimes a job too.
“In this part of Germany, where unemployment is high and there is a lot of poverty. It’s hard to resist.”
Meanwhile, after heavily fining Italy striker Luca Toni and Germany full-back Philipp Lahm for breaches of club code, the powers that be at Bayern Munich probably would appreciate some old-style DDR player discipline at the moment.
Furious at being substituted at half-time during the 1-1 home draw with Schalke, Toni immediately stormed out of the stadium, while Lahm found himself in the dog house for a most untypical press tirade – one in which he railed against the club’s scatter-gun approach to the transfer market and its lack of long-term planning compared to its Champions League rivals.
Both of which put more pressure on the increasingly-beleaguered coach, Louis Van Gaal, and provide further scope for the FC Hollywood tag line. l