The begrudged success of recent Bundesliga leaders RB Leipzig hides a more authentic phenomenon in what was once East Germany.
Manufactured by an Austrian energy-drink billionaire, the much-maligned title contenders have beaten the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Schalke this season in front of a full house at the Red Bull Arena. But away from the former national Zentralstadion, clubs from the old DDR-Oberliga days have also been attracting crowds and putting in championship challenges.
Take a fixture scheduled for later this month. In the second tier, Dynamo Dresden host Union Berlin, each with a realistic chance of earning a place in the Bundesliga in 2017-18. The pairing has echoes of the same game in the former GDR, its boardrooms controlled by the State but with genuine grass-roots affection on the terraces.
Moving past the sleeping giants of Kaiserslautern and Nuremberg in this season’s Zweite Bundesliga, Dynamo and Union bring in 20,000-plus gates as each side from the old East aims for a play-off place currently occupied by Stuttgart.
For Union, the Bundesliga is terra incognita. For Dresden, promotion would mean a return after a 22-year absence.
After 1989, the top six finishers in the former GDR Oberliga gained places in the highest two echelons of the new all-German league. Yet flummoxed by the free market and the loss of key players to Western clubs, all soon sank to the then third-tier Regionalliga Nordost, the elephant’s graveyard of former East-German superpowers.
Others fell even deeper. Infamous Dynamo Berlin, ten-time consecutive GDR title-winners backed by Secret Police chief Erich Mielke, were later marooned in the local Berlin league, akin to a bankrupt Chelsea playing park football on Hackney Marshes.
This would have inspired a few wry smiles in Dresden—their successful side of 1954 was ordered by Mielke to move to the capital to become Dynamo Berlin. They later infamously won ten straight GDR titles, key matches sometimes decided on strange refereeing decisions. Dresden’s remaining youth and reserve players struggled on and climbed back up the league ladder and won a string of East-German titles—legitimately—in front of 25,000 crowds.
This is the club that produced, and quickly lost, Matthias Sammer and Ulf Kirsten, who would become major stars in a united Germany. The fans stayed, however, their passion best illustrated by East Germany’s fiery international swansong: the visit of Red Star Belgrade to Dresden in March 1991 for a European Cup quarter-final, abandoned when the Dynamo fans pelted the already qualified Yugoslavs with any objects they could find.
This was only months after a hands-across-the-Wall reunification friendly between East and West Germany had to be cancelled because of similar behaviour by fans from Leipzig—Lokomotive Leipzig, that is. Promoted in May 2016 to the Regionalliga Nordost, ‘Loksche’ are another former GDR side currently on the up. Dissolved in 2004, the club was revived by its own fans and started life again in Germany’s 11th (!) tier.
Based then at the vast Zentralstadion—today’s Red Bull Arena—Lokomotive Leipzig set a record attendance for a local-league match when 12,421 watched them play Eintracht Großdeuben reserves that same year of their fan-led resurrection, 2004. Cup-Winners’ Cup finalists in 1987, Loksche link back to football’s earliest days in Germany.
Predecessors VfB Leipzig won the very first national championship in 1903, the achievement marked by a plaque at Lokomotive’s current ground, the Bruno-Plache-Stadion. Three years earlier, the German FA, the DFB, was founded here on Büttnerstraße. It is truly Leipzig, not Munich or Dortmund, which can lay claim to being the cradle of German soccer.
As can Dresden. The Dresden English Football Club was founded in 1874, the first in Germany and among the first outside Great Britain. Ex-members formed Dresdner FC, and ex-members of Dresdner FC joined the post-war Dynamo Dresden whose players, of course, became Dynamo Berlin.
For today’s Dynamo Dresden, last season was the most successful season since the collapse of East Germany. A 2-2 draw at Magdeburg—the only GDR club to have won a European trophy—earned the Saxon side its first silverware since 1990. Winning Germany’s third tier attracted average crowds of 27,545, healthy even by Bundesliga standards.
Now in the Bundesliga 2, Dynamo field home-grown talent like midfielders Marvin Stefaniak and Niklas Hauptmann, moulded by coach Uwe Neuhaus, best known for his previous long-term stint at Union Berlin.
Finishing a highest-ever sixth place in the Zweite Bundesliga in 2016, Union have also been winning trophies: the Fan Experience Award at the industry’s Stadium Business Summit. In 2014, the club ranged 800 sofas around its ground to create the World Cup Living Room, an initiative that typified the supporter-centric attitude of an organisation headed by life-long fans.
Union, too, lost star youngsters after 1990, including Robert Huth, a Premier League winner with Leicester in 2016. But ‘Iron Union’, authentically working-class, never lost their contempt for city rivals Dynamo Berlin, not even after Erich Mielke’s televised demise.
And what of the ten-time GDR champions? Dissolved in 2002, Dynamo Berlin bounced back to win the NOFV-Oberliga Nord in 2014. The 2015-6 season was the club’s best since 1992: fourth place in the Regionalliga Nordost. Its stadium, the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn Sportpark, lies next to the Mauerpark, at the former frontier between East and West. At the nearby U-Bahn station of Eberswalder Straße, the walls of the authentic Zur Insel bar tells the story of football in the GDR, the heroic club badges in beermat and pennant form, the framed photograph of Jürgen Sparwasser’s historic goal that beat West Germany at the 1974 World Cup.
No-one has yet thought to display any piece of merchandise pertaining to RB Leipzig.
Budapest-based Peterjon Cresswell runs www.liberoguide.com, a worldwide travel guide for soccer fans