BBC News

The East German team that refused to die

By Tim Mansel
BBC World Service

image copyrightGetty Images

Twenty-five years ago, in 1990, Germany was reunified, and the state of East Germany ceased to exist. But in the dying days of the so-called Democratic Republic one international football match in Belgium remained to be played. Many of the best players saw no point in turning up - but those who did gave all they had.

It was on 12 September 1990 that East Germany's fate was sealed. At a ceremony in Moscow the foreign ministers of East and West Germany and the four occupying powers - Britain, France, the US and the Soviet Union - signed a treaty that brought about German unification three weeks later.

As the signatures were drying on the historic document a group of East German footballers were preparing for their own farewell, hundreds of miles to the west, in Brussels.

"I knew that that game would go into the history books. I was proud to be called up and we wanted to go out on a high note," remembers Uwe Rosler, then a 21-year-old striker playing for FC Magdeburg.

Communist East Germany had won more renown on the running track and in the pool than on the football pitch. In the last summer Olympics before the fall of the Berlin Wall - in Seoul in 1988 - it had come second only to the Soviet Union in the medals table.

image copyrightAFP
image captionJuergen Sparwasser (L) scores a goal against West Germany during the 1974 World Cup

Its best moments in football had come earlier, in the 1970s.

In 1976 the East German football team won Olympic gold, but the victory that mattered most was the one in Hamburg, in the 1974 World Cup, against the class enemy, West Germany.

In an exquisite piece of Cold War theatre, Juergen Sparwasser burst into the penalty area, thumped the ball into the roof of the net and turned a somersault in celebration. It was the only goal and the only time the two Germanys ever played each other.

But ironically, on the brink of its demise, East Germany had perhaps its strongest team ever. It needed only a draw from its final game against Austria to qualify for the 1990 World Cup. As the squad was about to gather at its training camp, however, in late 1989, the government opened the Berlin Wall.

Overnight East German footballers became hot property. Clubs from the West German Bundesliga sensed an opportunity to snap up talent, and the players realised that for the first time in their lives there was the chance of earning serious money.

Find out more

You can listen to Farewell to East German football on Sporting Witness, on the BBC iPlayer.

"I was in the training camp and it was surrounded by agents," says Rosler. "Players were continually on their phones trying to sort out their futures. The whole focus disappeared."

One West German club official actually managed to get on to the substitutes' bench on the night of the game in Vienna, disguised in a photographer's bib.

The upshot was that Austria won easily - and that the pick of the crop very soon signed lucrative deals to play in the Bundesliga.

In February 1990, East Germany's name went into the hat for the draw for the 1992 European Championship. But as it became clear that East Germany would no longer exist in 1992, the game that had been scheduled against Belgium was redesignated as a friendly.

That created a problem for the East Germany coach, who gradually realised his best players - several by now in the Bundesliga - had no interest in risking injury in what they saw as a meaningless game.

Rosler saw it differently. He was still playing in the East German Oberliga, and for him this game was a big opportunity.

"We knew there would be a lot of people watching that game, a lot of managers, a lot of scouts from the Bundesliga. For me there was no question of not playing," he says.

image copyrightAlamy
image captionUwe Rosler, who took part in East Germany's last match, pictured in 2014

The players gathered at a training facility near Berlin.

"I think there were probably only 10 players there at the beginning - and I remember that the coach and other people from the administration were on the phone all day long," says Rosler. "Every hour we would hear that this player's not coming or that player's not coming."

In total, 22 players turned down the opportunity to represent East Germany, offering an array of excuses. Several said they were injured. Four said quite simply that they lacked the requisite motivation. One claimed not to have a passport, and another said he no longer regarded himself as an East German citizen.

There was one notable exception - Matthias Sammer, 23, already an experienced international who was by then under contract to VfB Stuttgart in the Bundesliga. But even he took a bit of persuasion.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionMatthias Sammer playing for Dynamo Dresden in August 1990

Sammer has described arriving at the training camp and realising that none of the other big stars were coming. He says he checked to see if there were any flights back to Stuttgart that evening but found that there weren't. The coach indulged in a bit of arm twisting, told him that he needed him to lead the team and Sammer stayed.

"In hindsight, I'm happy there were no more flights," he says in a German television documentary shown last year, smiling broadly.

"Sometimes your good fortune has to be forced upon you."

A highlights video shows the group lined up for the national anthems before the game, grim determination on their faces. The squad comprised just 14 players, two of them goalkeepers. Three were making their debuts.

"Looking at these pictures, you can see the commitment we showed," says Rosler. "We ran ourselves into the ground. I don't think you'd believe that this was a friendly game from the way that we chased and blocked and tackled. The game meant a lot."

Rosler was involved in the build-up to the first goal, which was eventually bundled over the line by none other than the reluctant captain, Sammer. Shortly before the end, Sammer added an elegant second.

"I think everyone had massive respect for Matthias," says Rosler. "That he turned up and the way he played was phenomenal. He was a true captain on the day."

With victory assured the coach played his final card, a generous one. He sent on his substitute goalkeeper, Jens Adler, for the final seconds. Adler had never before played international football. He never would again. There's a shot of him spitting nervously on his gloves as a corner comes in. But Adler, the very last man to win an East German cap, didn't once touch the ball.

"My one regret," says Rosler, "is that I didn't keep my shirt. I swapped it, I think, with their number five. I should have kept my shirt."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionUwe Rosler playing for Manchester City, 1994

Three of the team that played against Belgium went on to represent the unified Germany, most notably Sammer, who made more than 50 appearances. Rosler's international career came to an end that night in Brussels. Competition became simply too stiff with East and West Germans vying for a place in the same squad. But he went on to play in the Bundesliga and in the English Premier League for Manchester City.

There's a postscript.

The East Germans should have played one further game, against West Germany, class enemy no longer, in November 1990 - a celebration of unification a few weeks previously.

But during crowd trouble at an Oberliga match in Leipzig in early November a fan was shot dead by police, which led to further clashes between police and fans at subsequent matches. The unification game was cancelled for security reasons - and the 2-0 victory over Belgium, with a makeshift squad of 14 men, a reluctant captain and a grateful goalkeeper, became East Germany's international footballing swansong.

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