1964 – 1974 – 1994 – 2004 – 2014 These 5 dates stand for important dates in the history of FC Magdeburg’s history, one of East Germany’s most popular and successful clubs, before and after 1990. After 1990 with an altered omen. In a series of articles, An Old International recounts the history of ‘The Greatest of the World’ from Magdeburg. Part 2 looks at historical events in 1990 that affected the whole of the GDR.
Part 2 of this series looks at the period from 1989 until 1991 during which the Berlin Wall came down after 28 years and East German Oberliga suffered its heaviest loss of talent in its 40 years of existence.
A laughing and a crying eye
When the events in 1989 gathered pace no one could have foreseen that this would mean the deathknell for East German football. Surely, the end of the regime in East Berlin was a liberation as incarceration by the Berlin Wall came to an end. The citizens os the GDR were allwoed to travel freely wherever they wanted since 9 November 1989, an important date in German history.
However, the the end of East Germany in hind sight has to be seen with a laughing and a crying eye. Laughing as freedom was granted at last to the East Germans and it was achieved by themselves in a peaceful revolution, without any weapon fired. A crying eye as the status of the Oberliga, the GDR’s top flight was questioned and finally dissolved in 1991. Further, the national team by 1990 was a team with no purpose as its end was determined.
There is a twist to this history as many East Germans supported a West German club and the West German national team. So much so that Eastern European neighbours of the GDR experienced an influx of East Germans when clubs or the national team from West Germany played in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. Thomas Urban reports that in 1971 around 6000 East Germans made the trip to Warsaw to see the West Germans play a Euro qualifying match against Poland. The East Germans outnumbered their West German fellows as only 2500 of them made the trip across the GDR to Poland.
The Bleak Decade
The 1980s for Magdeburg were nowhere near as successful as the preceding decade. The FDGB-Pokall triumph in 1983 was the only time the club from the Elbe made head lines. A visit of Diego Maradona at the Ernst Grube Stadion in the 1983/84 Cup Winners’ Cup was the major lime light in Europe. It is fair to say that the 1980s were a bleak decade for FCM. Early during the decade most of the players successful in 1974 had retired and the succeeding generation simply was not in same mould as the heroes of Rotterdam.
The club hardly finished among the top 5 of the Oberliga. This however changed towards the end of the 80s when the club had a generation good enough for a title challenge. A surprise third place finish (only 2 points behind league winners Dynamo Dresden!) in 1989/90 meant qualification for the UEFA-Cup but also gave hope that with the fate of the Oberliga decided, the club might have a chance to qualify either for the Bundesliga or the second division. Alas, it was not to be. The decisive season 1990/91 proved to be desastrous. Adding insult to injury, it was the last season of the Oberliga which was also the decider for which division the clubs would qualify. The first 2 spots would qualify for the Bundesliga while the places 3 until 6 would be mixed into the second tier. While Hansa Rostock secured the league and alongside Dresden qualified for the Bundesliga, Magdeburg missed the chance to play professional football by a meagre 2 points and finished in 10th place. No need to lament as too many points were dropped in silly draws and not enough goals have been scored.
The reasons for this desaster were simple. After a 3rd-place the previous season, many appeard to think that promotion would be guaranteed and thus dropped their focus and their effort. From the beginning of the season it was too late. From the first 5 games of the 1990/91 season Magdeburg managed to secure 7 points, albeit versus teams that normally would be sent home with 3 or more goals. In total only 8 wins, 8 draws but 9 defeats were clear that record Cup Winners of the GDR were not good enough for professional football as they showed nerves when cool heads were required.
The last straw were the promotion play-offs to secure the passage into higher echelons of the German professional football system. Since the season already set the tone, Magdeburg managed no win in 3 matches and was left back at the station while the others jumped on the gravy train that is the Bundesliga.
Indoor Masters 1991 and the DFB Cup 1993
However, one positive remains, alas only by the simple appearance of the name FC Magdeburg alongside big names. As winners of smaller qualification tournaments, Magdeburg aquired the ticket to play in the final tournament, the DFB-Hallenmasters in Dortmund in January 1991. Pitched in a group with Mönchengladbach, Bayern and Stuttgart, Magdeburg got no win but at least were present at the tournament to represent the East of Germany.
Roughly, two and a half years later Magdeburg became a little cup sensation in beating Wuppertaler SV in the German Cup on penalties. This made people listen up and Leverkusen came to Magdeburg alert and with the knowledge that the club is a typical cup team. Alas, Leverkusen was too much. The good thing that the game brought was the atmosphere of a 20000-strong crowd watching. Arguably, Leverkusen were a good side then and regularly made it into the UEFA-Cup. They came with Andreas Thom, one of East Germany’s prodigal strikers of the late 80s early 90s who duly scored after 72 minutes to put the game beyond the home team’s reach. If there is something of a collective pride in East Germany, it was restored in the quarter-final when Dynamo Dresden beat Leverkusen 5-4 on penalties.
No Wall but New Boundaries
Of course, Magdeburg did not suffer alone in this period; yet their stumble and subsequent fall was surprising as they were arguably a powerhouse in the GDR. As a whole, all of East Germany is still suffering in football terms, except of course those supporting RB Leipzig – a topic which wil be covered later. Despite success such as Dresden’s semi-final achievement in the DFB-Cup 1994 and various teams gracing the Bundesliga, there was no Cup, no League title for any team from the former Soviet Occupied Zone. Hansa Rostock and Energie Cottbus, 2 of the most unlikely teams to reach the Bundesliga to date have spent a combined 20 years in the top division. With Dresden and VfB Leipzig, who have since folded, East German clubs have spent up to a quarter of a century in the highest tier of German football.
Currently, there are 9 teams in the top 2 divisions; yet of those 4 are in danger of relegation. Only Union Berlin – who enjoy great popularity in England, Halle, Magdeburg’s arch rivals and Rostock are relatively safe in their respective divisions.
With the Berlin Wall now history, it seems regions such as Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia or even Saxony will struggle to keep up with the rest of football in Germany, i.e. establishing themselves in the professional football pyramide. The events of the revolution in the GDR therefore liberated the people from an ancient regime but torpedoed the clubs into mediocrity. Partly, their downfall was not their own fault and partly the clubs were to blame. It is the overall economic weakness that persists in East Germany that continues to work like a glass ceiling for years to come.