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The last days of football in East Germany

Uli HesseJune 3, 2016

It's 25 years since Hansa Rostock became the last side to win the East German cup. But that wasn't the end of football in the GDR. A host of teams played six games in 18 days that, for many, would determine their future.

DDR Oberliga 1989/90 1. FC Magdeburg - SG Dynamo Dresden
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rust

The goal came against the run of play. With three minutes left in the first half, Florian Weichert crossed and Jens Wahl found the target from ten yards. It was Hansa Rostock's first scoring opportunity of the game and it would remain their only one. Still, that was enough to win the cup final against a plucky Stahl Eisenhüttenstadt team who had finished the regular season way behind their opponents, in ninth place.

It was 2 June 1991. While the sun was slowly setting in the west, Hansa's captain Juri Schlünz proudly lifted the trophy his club had been chasing for a long time. This was Rostock's sixth cup final but the first they had won. Not before time, because almost exactly 25 years ago the unwieldy trophy known as "FDGB-Pokal", the East German cup, was handed out for the last time.

This explains why you sometimes read that the long and often strange story of football in East Germany (GDR) ended with that drab cup final watched by less than 5,000 fans. True, the 1991 FDGB-Pokal was the last trophy ever won in a country which had officially ceased to exist eight months earlier. But it was not yet the end of East German football.

At the post-match press conference, Hansa's West German coach Uwe Reinders said: "If Stahl have as much luck as we had today, they will do well in the qualifiers, for which I wish them all the best." Eisenhüttenstadt's coach Karl Trautmann smiled a sour smile. For his team and seven other GDR sides, the long season still wasn't over. They had to play six more games in 18 days - with nothing less at stake than their future.

"It was a gruelling schedule, but then again, the entire season was an ordeal," says Siegmund Mewes, now 65. Mewes made almost 300 league appearances for 1. FC Magdeburg and was a squad member when the club won the 1974 Cup Winners' Cup against Milan. In 1990-91, he was Magdeburg's coach and knew exactly what was expected of him.

"Everybody wanted to qualify for the Bundesliga or the Second Bundesliga," he says. "It was crucial, not just for the players. When we failed and dropped into amateur football, many people who had been working for the club for a long time lost their jobs, from secretaries to coaches in the youth set-up." Even though a quarter of a century has passed, Mewes's voice tells you that those final weeks of East German football haunt him to this day.

The end of the GDR meant the East German teams had to be distributed across the West German league pyramid. The question was how to do this. In 1963, when the Bundesliga was formed West German clubs were admitted according to regional considerations and based on a ranking that covered the previous twelve years.

DDR Oberliga 1989/90 1. FC Magdeburg - SG Dynamo Dresden
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rust

But when the GDR's Oberliga was dissolved, it all came down to how the teams fared during the final season. The top two teams were admitted to the Bundesliga (in the end, they turned out to be champions Hansa Rostock and runners-up Dynamo Dresden), the four sides that finished behind this duo would directly qualify for the Second Bundesliga (Erfurt, Halle, Chemnitz, Jena), while the two teams at the bottom of the table were demoted to the third division (Cottbus, Frankfurt/Oder).

However, there were two more Second Bundesliga spots reserved for the former East Germany. And so the six teams that finished in the places 7-12 were joined by the two clubs who would have won promotion from the league below, Union Berlin and Zwickau. These sides were put into two groups, with the two winners qualifying for the Second Bundesliga.

As Mewes says, it was a gruelling finale, because those few games made the difference between remaining a professional club and sinking into the abyss that was amateur football. That's why some teams took drastic measures. During the few days between the end of the season and the beginning of the group games, Lok Leipzig fired coach Gunter Böhme and replaced him with a marquee name from the west - the 51-year-old Jürgen Sundermann.

"I didn't know any of the players and I knew nothing about our opponents," Sundermann recalls. "What I remember is how difficult the situation was because we shared a group with the other Leipzig team, Sachsen. The rivalry was intense. Sachsen were seen as the people's club, while Lok were disliked because they used to have close ties to the (Communist) party."

But Lok won both derbies, home and away, and clinched qualification on the last day with a commanding win over cup finalists Eisenhüttenstadt. As jubilant fans invaded the pitch, Sundermann heaved a sigh of relief. "There was a lot of pressure," he says. "Lok, with their history, had hoped for the Bundesliga, so reaching the Second Bundesliga was the absolute minimum."

Similar hopes and aspirations were dashed in the other group. Both Magdeburg and Dynamo Berlin, two of the GDR's biggest clubs, missed out on the professional game, because small and unfashionable Stahl Brandenburg finished first.

A fan banner in Magdeburg declared: "We are ashamed of you" and Mewes, despite his status as a club legend, came under heavy criticism. "Too many players were distracted because they were already negotiating with other clubs," he says. "And our striker Uwe Rösler was sold during the season behind my back. It was tough. But I learned an important lesson during those weeks." Mewes pauses. Then he says: "I learned that people who smile at you may not be your friends."