Boys of Sammer: East Germany’s Last Hurrah

Posted: September 30, 2020 in Uncategorized
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On 9th November 1989, the players of the East German national team were tucked away in a Viennese training camp, focused on one of the biggest games in the country’s history, just six days away. A point in Austria would take the GDR to Italia ’90, only their second ever appearance at a World Cup finals. It was a squad talented enough to make an impression too, with a midfield featuring the cultured likes of Thomas Doll and captain Matthias Sammer, and a potent strike force of Ulf Kirsten and future Celtic star Andreas Thom. As the players sought to relax after a hard afternoon’s training, someone turned the TV on. And suddenly, the World Cup didn’t seem quite so important…

As they watched Germans on both sides of the border chip away at the Berlin Wall with hammers and chisels, the enormity of the ramifications sinking in with each piece dismantled, any focus on the Austria game understandably evaporated. “Their minds were already in the West,” lamented coach Eduard Geyer. In the days that followed, agents and officials from Bundesliga clubs descended on the camp, eager to be at the head of the stampede with so much fresh talent suddenly available. Bayer Leverkusen even managed to sneak an official onto to the sub’s bench during the Austria game in the hope of doing some serious tapping up.

In Cologne, Franz Beckenbauer was having similar difficulties keeping his West German charges’ minds on their crucial final qualifier with Wales. With the Netherlands having sewn up the group, only a win would get West Germany to Italy as one of the best runners-up. The nervy, distracted hosts quickly found themselves a goal down against a Welsh side propping up the group. They rallied to lead 2-1, but Millwall’s Malcolm Allen would’ve changed football history had he not missed an 88th minute sitter. The world champions in waiting very nearly failed to make the party at all. “We were almost stopped by the wall,” conceded ‘Der Kaiser’. East Germany, meanwhile, were very much stopped, waving goodnight, Vienna to Italia ’90 with a 3-0 hiding.

Countdown to Reunification

Giddy in the champagne-drenched aftermath of a World Cup victory nine months later, Beckenbauer, reasurringly hubristic, gushed about the prospects of a unified German football team: “I’m sorry for the other countries,” he said, “but now that we will be able to incorporate all the great players from the East, the German team will be unbeatable for a long time to come.”

With the official date of reunification set for 3rd October 1990, German football set about tying up its loose ends. The final Oberliga season served as a qualifier for the Bundesliga – and quickly descended into chaos, with violent clashes in the stands and things little safer on the pitch, referees dishing out 544 yellow cards and 29 reds over the course of the campaign. Hooliganism had become a serious problem; a planned friendly between East and West Germany was scrapped after a supporter was killed in the midst of a riot between Chemie Leipzig and Dynamo Berlin.

The two German national sides had been drawn in the same qualifying group for Euro ’92, but once reunification was confirmed, the GDR withdrew. It was announced that their planned first qualifier, away in Belgium, would go ahead as a friendly – and would be the last-ever game for the East German team.

Over and Out

On 12th September 1990, before a crowd of 12,500 at Anderlecht’s Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, the GDR strode out for the final time – though they were much changed from the side that had so nearly joined their counterparts in Italy that summer. Enthusiasm for the game had been in short supply among senior members of the squad, unwilling to risk an injury that might scupper a big money Bundesliga move. Thom, Kirsten and Doll were among 22 players who declined to make themselves available for selection.

Of the ragtag group of 14 who did turn up, only three could boast more than 10 caps. Both goalkeepers made their first and only international appearance, with Chemie Halle’s Jens Adler, introduced as an 89th minute sub, given the honour of being the last ever player capped by East Germany. A young Uwe Rosler led the line, while Sammer captained the team for the final time – though he too nearly pulled out on realising so many of the big names hadn’t travelled. It was only a lack of available flights back to Stuttgart that led to him playing.

Belgium, as England had almost found to their cost in Bologna, were a strong side, pockmarked with quality of the likes of Preud’Homme, Scifo and Degryse. Yet East Germany had long been renowned as ‘World Champion of Friendlies’ – a backhanded compliment stemming from years of seeing off such great teams as Cruyff’s Netherlands and Platini’s France in exhibition games but bottling it the moment anything was at stake. Here, they lived up to that reputation one last time, rousing themselves to go toe to toe with superior, more experienced opposition. Enzo Scifo was completely subdued by the excellent defensive midfielder Jörg Stübner (nicknamed ‘the Vacuum Cleaner’) until injury forced the Dynamo Dresden star from the field. Sammer led brilliantly, with no trace of ambivalence to the occasion in his performance. Deployed as an attacking midfielder at this point in his career, it was he who poked home a deserved opener 16 minutes from time, before adding an elegant punctuation mark at the death, snaking round Michel Preud’Homme before calmly stroking into the empty net.

A stakes-free victory inspired by their talisman was a fitting end to East German football on the international stage. Could anyone now stop Beckenbauer’s prophecy?

‘Society with Elbows’

Things started well enough; a 4-0 friendly win over Switzerland in December 1990 saw Sammer become the first former GDR interational to win a cap for the reunified Mannschaft, while Thom, the second, scored within 25 seconds of his arrival as a second half substitute. For all the talent the East German stars possessed, however, many found integrating difficult. “They were holding something back at first,” claimed Pierre Littbarski in Simon Hart’s excellent World in Motion. “They’re fantastic in terms of quality, but…they’ve grown up in a different training environment.” Indeed, rubbing shoulders with the stars of ‘FC Hollywood’-era Bayern Munich proved quite a culture shock for players used to a culture of collectivisation, where individualism was frowned upon.

Berti Vogts, succeeding Beckenbauer after Italia ’90 as coach of the unified Germany, came to curse his predecessor’s ‘unbeatable’ line, and soon found himself being pressured to incorporate more East German players into the setup. “With the players, everything ran smoothly,” he said. “With the officials, there was theatre. We were the reigning world champions and they wanted to persuade me to build in four or five of the GDR players…it was not possible.”

Vogts’ Germany looked a lot more mortal – not so much down to tensions between players from East and West as to a slightly creaky team stuttering towards transition. Wales inflicted a shock 1-0 defeat at Cardiff Arms Park in June 1991, and a late Roberto Baggio penalty in Turin brought another loss against perennial bogey side Italy nine months later. Germany would reach the final of the European Championships, but were humiliated by the Dutch, then the Danes.

Nor was there any regular injection of new blood from the East post-Wende, with most East German clubs, now shorn of state sponsorship, losing their best players to the Bundesliga for low fees and falling into disrepair. Many would never recover. By the end of the decade, once-feared Oberliga sides such as Dynamo Dresden and FC Magdeburg found themselves slumming it in the fourth division.

One last golden generation of East German talent did emerge early in the 21st Century – Michael Ballack, Jens Jeremies and Carsten Jancker were among nine Eastern members of the class of 2002 who helped guide a recovering Mannschaft to an unexpected World Cup final. Yet by the time Germany’s long-awaited coronation finally arrived in 2014, the East could lay claim to just one world champion – Toni Kroos.

While Sammer, Doll, Thom and others enjoyed great success in the West, the transition remained a difficult one for many. Rosler, another used to the shared goals of the collective, felt bruised at being thrust into a ‘society with elbows‘. Kirsten and Geyer would be haunted by their past lives as Stasi informants, the former a constant target of crowd taunts, the latter’s presence as ‘honorary captain’ of Dynamo Dresden a regular source of controversy.

Worst affected was Stübner. With pop star good looks and an on-field reputation as the GDR’s answer to Lothar Matthaus, he’d seemed destined for megastardom; but Stübner floundered after reunification. His big Bundesliga move never materialised, and he quit football in the mid-90s. “If the reunification of Germany had never happened,” he later said, “I would have a family, kids, a house and a coaching position.” By the time Sammer was lifting the European Championship at Wembley in 1996, Stübner was working as a harvester for minimum wage in the Canary Islands. Falling into alcoholism, he died in 2018 aged just 53.

For all the heights the German game would reach post reunification, the melding of football from both sides of the wall never quite produced the almighty supergroup Beckenbauer foretold. In the East, despite the (very necessary) progress made overall, there lingered in places a sadness for the parts of the fabric lost forever when the wall came down.

”What happened in football was a microcosm of the unification experience in the East,’ wrote Alan McDougall in The People’s Game: Football, State and Society in East Germany. ‘Initial euphoria gave way to disappointment, displacement and – among some people at least – an embrace of the GDR past in all its absurdities.’

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