Dixie Dörner was the best player of a country that no longer exists. This is not even half of what can be said about Hans-Jürgen „Dixie“ Dörner who has died on January 19, 2022 aged 71.
From 1968 until his retirement in 1986 as a player he was the face of Dynamo Dresden and the embodiment of the club’s most successful period in its history. The 1970s were the golden era of East German football, no other decade has brought more success to GDR football than this one. There was the Bronze medal at the Munich Olympics 1972, Magdeburg’s success in May 1974, the famous 1-0 victory in Hamburg a couple of months later and the Olympic gold medal in 1976 at the Montreal Games. Dresden, Magdeburg and others played some magnificent games in the European Cup competitions.
If there were a team to represent East Germany in the 1970s, it would have been Dresden – and Magdeburg its counterpart. Between 171 and 1978 both decided the league between them, with Dynamo winning 5, Magdeburg 3 titles. The latter were grafters while Dynamo were playing in a style resembling Ajax and Bayern: a free flowing attacking football. At the epicentre at Dresden was Dixie Dörner. The environment, most notably the coach, Walter Fritzsche, allowed this to happen – even though Fritzsche was not very fond of the over-reliance on technical skills but instead he preferred hard work.
Their style won them many admirers, among them Franz Beckenbauer who labelled them world class after their European Cup encounter in autumn 1973. Alas, their relentless going forward had cost them dearly. It was similar against Ajax and Liverpool. His career ended with Dresden’s nightmarish defeat at Uerdingen in 1986. A sad end to Dörner’s international career.
He was often labelled the „Beckenbauer of the East“ but this has sat uncomfortable with him and his colleagues. It meant that he was a mere copy of Beckenbauer, which of course he was not. Their style may have been similar but that is all that there is in similarities.
Once his playing days were over he stayed at Dynamo in a coaching role and began in the youth section of the club before taking over the GDR squad for the Olympics. After 1990 he became the first East German to work in a coaching role for the DFB – it was Berti Vogts who made him join his team. And yet, he could have turned them down as his first impression of the DFB delegation to Italy during the 1990 World Cup was a negative one. In an interview with the Kicker magazine he stated that the West Germans largely ignored the East Germans. The exception was Berti Vogts who was to inherit the post of national coach from Franz Beckenbauer and who took the time to speak to Dörner and his colleague Eberhard Vogel. His, Dörner’s presence at the DFB helped to facilitate the integration of the kickers from the GDR into the all-German team a process that was crowned in 1996.
Managing a club is of course the highest achievement in football and Dörner could be forgiven to accept the offer from Werder Bremen in summer 1996 to take over their Bundesliga team. It was not the best decision. Werder Bremen had been managed by Otto Rehhagel and with him had achieved enormous success, thus filling the gap Rehhagel left behind was a gargantuan task for Dörner, one he had difficulties to live up to. He lasted only one year. Apart from coaching a youth team and working at the DFB Dörner had no other experience and it was Vogts who attempted to persuade him to stay but Dörner argued that he needed to earn some ‚serious‘ money and saw this as the chance of a lifetime.
Reading interviews with contemporaries: players, coaches, opponents, they all agree that Dörner was one of the best, if not the best player of his generation and of the GDR. He had this particular capability that he anticipated moves before his team mates and opposition players. Like Beckenbauer he interpreted the position of the sweeper completely different, than has been done before. If there was one weakness, it was that he was a bad loser.
„When a famous footballer dies, the lasting image will always be youthful and invigorating, as if he had played his last game only a few days earlier.“ (David Lacey)
Dörner will be remembered for great European ties with the best, for Dynamo Dresden’s most successful time and his elegance on the pitch. And for his humility, for his footballing knowledge.Good writing does not come by chance, so consider this:
featured image credits: © Hans Peters via Wiki Commons under CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication