Thursday, 7 April 2011

No club left behind?

East German football since reunification

It's been a difficult twenty years for the football clubs of the former East Germany.

Take FC Lokomotive Leipzig. A successful club in the years of the German Democratic Republic, they reached the Cup Winners Cup Final in 1986/87, losing out to opponents Ajax, with legendary striker Marco van Basten scoring the winner. In the 1993/4 season, Lokomotive, renamed VfB Leipzig, were competing in the Bundesliga. But by 2004 they were bankrupt, and the club was dissolved. Reformed again as Lokomotive Leipzig, they have since climbed back into Germany's fifth tier, but while the new club's name invokes the past heyday of the GDR time, and while the club has certainly retained a loyal fan base, they cannot escape the feeling that their team's glory days are not only over, but will never happen for them again.

Falling down the leagues

Clubs rise and fall, and any fan of what they might call a 'once great' club anywhere in Europe will tell you that 20 years is a long time for a football club to fall far. But the plight of Leipzig is symptomatic of a much wider problem in the former East Germany. After reunification in 1990, East German clubs had to be immediately incorporated into an existing, and itself already highly competitive and successful capitalist sports system. It was inevitable that most clubs, saddest of all the successful GDR clubs, Dynamo Dresden, Carl Zeiss Jena and FC Magdeburg, the Manchester Uniteds and Liverpools of a country that no longer existed, struggled in a system their owners and administrators were not used to. While support was there after reunification, just as East Germany was heavily subsidised by the West after 1990, most East German clubs soon found they could not compete with the Western ones. Added to this, with East and West reunified, western clubs quickly snapped up the best talent from the eastern teams, with the players available at low cost and themselves keen to play at the top level. The German FA, the DFB, was particularly keen to see the best eastern players, such as Jens Jeremies, Ulf Kirsten and Carsten Jancker, move to the bigger western clubs, something which became a feature of 90s German football. All of this meant that over the course of the 1990s, the once-great heroes of the East found themselves falling down the leagues one by one. This season is the third in the past six years without a club from the former GDR in the top-flight.

Trouble in the stands

Not only have eastern clubs struggled on the pitch, but there has also been trouble in the stands. The rise of right-wing extremism among fans of eastern clubs became a worrying trend, reflective of a wider political problem in eastern areas after 1990.

In truth, critics as well as club owners have struggled to define exactly why neo-Nazism has risen in the stands of eastern clubs. Of course, as eastern areas continue to struggle with economic and social woes following the reunification in 1990, eastern Germany has become fertile ground for right-wing extremism. As this extremism has grown, so it has manifested itself in the stands of many of the football clubs. Since reunification, several clubs have suffered problems of right-wing extremism from their stands, with racist chants, political demonstrations and fires often seen at games, particularly local derbies. This peaked around the mid-2000s, at a time when unemployment was still at 20% above in some of the 'new' states. This has led to clubs banning its supporters from showing symbols and carrying flags of far-right groups inside their stadiums, which had previously been a particular problem at clubs like Dynamo Dresden and Rot-Weiss Erfurt. While a positive and necessary step for the clubs' administrators, it does not seem to have fully curtailed the problem. The local derby between fierce rivals Erfurt and Carl Zeiss Jena is often marked by crowd trouble and anti-Semitic chants from Erfurt fans towards their rivals.

Dynamo Dresden

Here, Dynamo Dresden can be looked at as an example of how to act against extremism. Dresden have worked very well to stamp-out extremism, including appointing their own fan-liaison co-ordinator, and claim to have had no incidents of extremism at the club for the past few years. Dynamo overcoming their reputation for hooliganism and Neo-Nazism among its fan base will be crucial if they want to become a big and attractive football club.

But it will take much more than that if eastern teams like Dynamo are to rise again. In both footballing and economic terms, the most obvious solution is investment and time. Dynamo, currently in the 3rd national league and pushing for promotion, have signalled their ambitions to become important on the national stage again with a new 32,000 capacity stadium. Just as with Leipzig, Dresden is a huge and beautiful city, and Dynamo have a large and extremely dedicated fan base, with an average attendance this season of 15,000, potentially very attractive to investors and players. If they can keep on their path of gradual improvement and increased revenue, the tools are certainly in place for them to reach the Bundesliga again. But in truth, it will be difficult for them to reach the level they once did, and compete long-term with the big-money, big-reputation teams of the itself-growing German league.

RB Leipzig

A more interesting development can be found in Dresden's city neighbours Leipzig. This "little Paris" is one of Germany's biggest and best cities with a population of over half a million, and its locals are deserving of a football club in a higher league than the fifth tier.

Enter Red Bull. With the city yearning for top-class football, Red Bull have invested heavily in a minnow team from the city, essentially founding a brand new club, RasenBallsport (RB) Leipzig for the 2009/10 season. RB have already been promoted to the Regionalliga Nord (Tier IV), and the club has made no secret of its ambition to reach the Bundesliga within ten years. They have also moved into the Zentralstadion, now Red Bull Arena, the fabulous 44,000 capacity stadium which was renovated for the 2006 World Cup, the only one from the former GDR to be used for it.

It remains to be seen whether Red Bull's Leipzig experiment will work. But, understandably, they seem to have popular support, with 70% of those polled in the local newspaper Leipziger Volkszeitung saying they would support the new club, something which had been a huge potential stumbling block in a city with two traditional football clubs already there. Germany has made some important breaks from the past over the last 20 years, and while for some it will never be what it was, there are signs that teams from the East can rise again. What a wonderful occasion it would be to see Leipzig take on Dresden in the next few years in the Bundesliga.

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