The secret police with its own football team
- 12 July 2014
- From the section Magazine
On Sunday, Germany meet Argentina in the World Cup final - but fans in Berlin may spare a moment to remember a different, more political time in the game's history.
The idea of playing the Stasi at football seems odd - but that's what used to happen.
In the old East Germany, the secret policemen used to have their own football team, and not just any old football team but the best in the top league.
How could it be any other way since its biggest fan was the head of the Stasi himself who had ordered that the best of the rest should be transferred to his favoured side, BFC Dynamo - Berliner Fussballclub Dynamo (pictured above).
Football clubs in the old East Germany were often works sides. FC Carl Zeiss Jena was the club of the Carl Zeiss lens manufacturer in Jena and there was Traktor Gross-Lindau and Turbine Potsdam.
Clubs with Vorwarts (Forward) in the title, as in Vorwarts Leipzig, were usually army sides and Dynamo was the tag for a police team.
In Berlin, BFC Dynamo was the club of the Stasi and its biggest fan was Erich Mielke, the Minister for State Security for more than 30 years until East Germany collapsed.
Mielke's hands were drenched in blood. He had actually pulled the trigger in a political killing in 1931, for which he was jailed once the Berlin Wall came down.
In the 1930s he fled to the Soviet Union where he became one of Stalin's henchmen in the murderous purges there.
After the war he was reintroduced to East Germany as head of security and Stalin's hard man.
Mielke loved Berlin Dynamo - the Stasi archives have pictures of him smiling, starstruck next to players or kicking a ball at the club. The players smile back, though I think nervously, as you would if your biggest fan had the keys to the torture chambers and a finger on all the triggers.
But it hadn't always been his chosen team. According to the Federal Commission for Stasi Records, he had returned from Moscow in love with the idea of having sides called Dynamo, as was the Soviet fashion.
He dreamt of a brave new world where teams called Dynamo from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) would play teams - no doubt, fraternally - from the Soviet Union.
Mielke saw football as a way of aggrandising East Germany and socialism.
"Football success will highlight even more clearly the superiority of our socialist order in the area of sport," he said.
To this end, he set about creating strong teams, unilaterally transferring players.
In 1953, police teams in Dresden were amalgamated to form Dynamo Dresden.
As the articles of association put it: "The sports club, Dynamo, is an organisation built on the principle of democratic centralism. Members of the Sports Club, Dynamo, would be characterised by their revolutionary vigilance."
Whatever the levels of revolutionary vigilance of the members of Dynamo Dresden, their footballing skills were not quite what Mielke wanted, or not at least in Dresden.
In 1954 Mielke decreed that Dynamo Dresden's players should be transferred to the newly formed Dynamo Berlin.
The Dresden Stasi team became Berlin's Stasi team - Mielke's Stasi team. As a result, relations with rival fans could be frosty.
In Berlin there was a rival club - FC Union Berlin - which is still thriving.
When the two sides met, the phrase "grudge match" doesn't quite do the animosity justice.
The chant from the Union supporters would be "Wir wollen keine Stasi schweine" or "We want no Stasi swine".
In one game benches were ripped out and the Dynamo Berlin stadium trashed.
Having the boss of the Stasi as the boss of a football club wasn't easy for the players either. Sure, they were hand-picked and favoured as the chosen ones.
But a mass-murderer as your number one fan has minuses as well as pluses.
In 2006, when Berlin Dynamo celebrated six decades of football, the former player, Christian Backs, related how he had injured his ankle and found himself sitting next to Mielke in the stand. Except he couldn't sit for long.
The head of the Stasi got very excited and kept leaping into the air to cheer the Stasi side on.
All the flunkeys around him felt obliged to do the same and Backs could hardly be different - what kind of disloyalty would Backs signal if he sat while the head of the Stasi stood?
Backs took the safe option and stood despite his injured leg. He spent much of the game in pain.
If it was tough for Dynamo Berlin's players what must it have been like for the opposition? They might have wanted to give the Stasi side a good clogging but they must have thought twice.
Since German unification, post-Stasi Berlin Dynamo has languished, playing in the lower reaches of the league but its big rival in the city is thriving.
FC Union Berlin - Eisern Union, Iron Union, as it's sometimes called - is going strong, and getting stronger.
It is like no other football club, with a stadium for 21,700 people deep in a forest in an eastern suburb.
To get to what's known as the "stadium by the old forester's house", you trek through the trees and suddenly, there it is like a landed spaceship in a clearing.
The club came up with the brilliant idea of inviting fans to take their own sofas to the ground for the whole of the World Cup, and that's what they've done, hauling 750 sofas through the woods and placing them on the pitch in rows in front of the big screen.
The pitch has become a living room.
Thursday's semi-final was magical: soft lights on lounge tables in the open air in the forest, and hundreds of fans sinking into sofas: couples snuggling, children and men with tattoos, and older ladies who walked over to say "Guten tag" to strangers.
There was beer and sausage and a thick stew of cabbage and pork.
Union Berlin is in the second division of the Bundesliga, and the fans are happy with that.
Some were worried they might get promoted and what would happen to the atmosphere then?
The club scarf remains the favoured adornment. The over-priced replica jersey remains rare. But they're not against change, not quite.
There are now 3,800 seats at the ground, as against nearly 18,000 standing places on the other three sides which remain as terracing.
When they built the new-fangled seating extension, the fans did it themselves: their money, their muscle.
The people who built the club that beat the Stasi team will be watching the World Cup Final from the sofas they brought themselves. They will have beer and they will have sausage.
It doesn't get much better.
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