There are certain badges of honour in my world, the most important remains the absence of the USA on my 51 country travel CV. Another is borne of a longstanding fascination with the old DDR, East Germany, and a desire to watch football only in this part of the unified land! It all started in the mid ‘70’s when Lokomotive Leipzig were involved in my first ever European match at Tynecastle versus Hearts, and what a night that was, with Hearts 4,2 down from the first leg, and conceding first in Edinburgh, only to storm back and win! No other European match has come close to that drama when I have been in a stadium since! Lokomotive brought an exotic name from a mysterious land to my city. In the days long before the Internet and freer communication, the closed off nature of the Eastern part of Europe only brought anything from these lands to the West only largely for sporting occasions. This mythical feel was perpetuated by older Meadowbank Thistle chums who would return to the frozen lands of the now demolished Meadowbank Stadium (the coldest stand in the world!) regaling tales from beyond Checkpoint Charlie; of quaffing Isle of Skye whisky straight from an East Berlin fridge et all! Anna Funder’s exceptional book “Stasiland” shone a light on the DDR, and modern day movies like “Goodbye Lenin” and “The Lives of Others” all put the reality of life in the East into true perspective, as have the more recent TV “Deutschland ‘83 and ‘86” series’. However my fascination remains unbowed with a deep seated fascination of principally borne from football, with a nagging regret I didn’t get to visit before the wall came down, just to see! Dynamo Dresden, Karl Marx Stadt (now Chemintzer), Magdeburg, Carl Zeiss Jena and the aforementioned Lokomotive Leipzig all names that conjured up a sense of mystery in me. Sadly, no one has ever written a history of East German football, even in German as far as I am aware, a proper gap in the market!
Now while I keep an eye on the old DDR clubs in the German leagues these days, watching Dresden or Magdeburg when I can only online, Italy will always be my true European passion. It took a friend, Sir Alex of Munchen, housing himself in Germany for a few months for me to scrutinise the German fixtures for potential tasty ties to coincide with my visit! Prior to this recent expedition I had been to Berlin a couple of times, but not for football, and my only ever game in the country had delightfully been in the East, but for Spain v Ukraine at the 2006 World Cup in Leipzig! The new stadium there has been cleverly housed inside the enormous bowl arena, complete with obligatory running track of what had been the occasionally used bigger venue used by Lokomotive Leipzig. Walkways into the new ground take you across what once were the terracing of the vast stadium. Leipzig that day was a riot of red or blue and yellow from both sets of fans. Ukraine were making their debut in the finals and they got a right old going over, 4-0, but as the venue was the closest of all the stadiums in Germany to Ukraine they were very well supported. Indeed, our tout purchased tickets, down an alleyway from a bloke from London, were for the Ukrainian end, and while they left that match down hearted, they did go on to make the quarter finals, a round further than Spain went!!
I always mentally noted to go back to Leipzig to see the city without its colourful fans and bright decking that was strewn everywhere in the centre, but sadly, despite having been to Dresden now three times in the intervening period I haven’t been back, yet! Leipzig has of course, courtesy of the significant backing from Red Bull broken the cosy “Western” orientated Bundesliga with a clever move to invest in a small time team and take them on a journey. This would largely be something lauded in other lands, but RB Leipzig have yet to be accepted by a predominantly sniffy elite, despite the rules of the Bundesliga being written to allow the exceptions of company owned clubs at Leverkusen and Wolfsburg! This is the modern world of business orientated top flight football, no matter how they dress it up, so suck it up and embrace a little Eastern spice in the German top flight I say! There rise might not have as yet have sparked a more “classic” DDR side to return to the Bundesliga, but the signs are that one or two might join them in the near future, Union are certainly leading the charge. Following an amusing chat with a Chemitzer and Zwickau fan at Inverness a few years, as you do, drawn as they were to my bright yellow Dynamo Dresden tracksuit top, they amusingly call RB Leipzig, “Austria” Leipzig!! It kind of stuck with me as an amusing name and while I hope Lokomotiv can make it higher than their present 4th tier, and Chemie will return from the Oberligas, I still embrace RB’s involvement at the top table, even if they are not my team!
A scrutiny of German football fixtures for a trip was a new gig for me. If you consider 150+ of my 186 games outside the UK have been in merely three countries, Italy, Uruguay and Argentina, and 4th best with eight games being the Faroe Islands, Germany edging from one to three games after this trip was quite a leap. Wonderfully I found two fixtures on the same weekend that embraced my DDR fascination as all four teams would hail from the East, starting in the third tier at Jena.
Jena is a nice little town, with just a population of 110,000. It is surrounded by high hill’s, sitting in the valley with the Saale river meandering by. Jena is a University town, and judging by its many statues of famous students, this is either a legacy of the Communist celebration of high minds, or a more recent expose of those who made a name for themselves having studied in the town. One area we strolled certainly teemed with fine mansion houses, a tipping of the hat for a town also renown for its high end technology and research. And yet, high on the hill behind these houses, an old East German look out post still stands, the only such sighting we’d see, as even the once fraught border crossing areas have seamlessly fade back into nature. Carl Zeiss is perhaps the most famous son of Jena, forever preserved in the name of the camera production, and it’s local football team, whose close colleague and equally eminent scientist buddy Ernst Abbe recalled by the name of the football stadium. None of this naming the ground after a famous ex-player mullarky in the highbrow world of Jena!
Carl Zeiss Jena (known as FCC locally) dropped into my psyche in the early ‘80’s when the most unlikely Cup Winners Cup Quarter Final brought the East German side face to face with Newport County! I even took both programmes from these occasions back to Jena with me, and I am pleased to report that a Welsh flag and a Newport/FCC banner were draped around the ground, the friendship wonderfully still exists to this day. Carl Zeiss went on to the final, where an equally unlikely CWC Final with Dinamo Tbilisi took place in Dusseldorf. It remains, and quite possibly will never be beaten as the lowest ever Euro final crowd at around the 13,000 mark, but given the majority of both sets of fans would have been banned from travelling, it was a bit of UEFA error not to move the game behind the Iron Curtain as it was then! The then Soviet side from Tbilisi won the day, Georgia’s only ever European success, and FCC’s failure left Magdeburg as the only DDR Euro trophy winner. When will we see the likes again? Probably never, sadly, money has taken away the curiosity and the anomalies.
Energie Cottbus were in town for a vital match at the bottom end of the third tier. The Bundesliga name doesn’t extend to the third league, and this level will allow the bigger clubs second teams in. Delightfully season 2018/19 has been “II” free, and given the size of Germany, and the number of well supported teams in the lower leagues, if ever the DFB had the chance to close the door on entry beyond the Regionalliga (4th tier) to these reserve sides it was now!
The Ernst Abbe stadium has a running track around it, never great from getting involved in the action perspective. The main stand is sizeable, with low terracing behind both goals, and uncovered seating running the length of the field opposite the stand, with only maybe ten rows of seats. There is scope to expand behind here should FCC ever need too. With a 17,000 capacity in a town of 110,000, it seems more than adequate at its present size. Just shy of 7,000 were in the ground for this clash with an old foe! The curious thing about the ground is that both the visiting fans and the hardcore local support are at the one end separated merely by an old electronic scoreboard! It made for a cacophony of noise from the one end, with both groups endeavouring to out point each other. The FCC fans had gone to town to get their message across, unfurling a “Cottbus not welcome” banner just ahead of kick off, followed by an array of cleverly crafted boards to make their point, and I will let my photos do the further explaining! Suffice is to say, the legacy of the DDR days has left it mark!
Carl Zeiss are only in their second term in the third tier this time around having been in the lower league wilderness for too long. That tricky second season syndrome has seen them struggle, drawing too many games, and not scoring enough largely being the issue. The home sides need for the three points was greater, and they set about Cottbus with an energy that Energie weren’t displaying. After some near things FCC took a deserved lead, but that merely poked the bear and for the next passage of the game they were pushed back as Cottbus looked fleetingly accomplished. The equaliser came, a comedy own goal, but the red and white brigade of Energie weren’t bothering about that. Just before the break a rocket of a shot rocked the Cottbus crossbar, and the follow up save from the keeper will be hard to top as my save of the season, top notch stuff! FCC dominated after the break against a side who oddly seemed happy with a point. Despite the greater possession Jena weren’t unduly troubling the keeper, but when a penalty was awarded, the dispatched spot kick sent the stadium into raptures, and upon the final whistle great scenes of delight. They still had a long way to go to get out of the bottom four, but this win might well have proven pivotal in getting them to safety.
The Ernst Abbe stadium is in a large park area on the edge of town, with the river cutting through it. Jena Paradies railway station is the nearest and you want to come out the back of the station towards the river and start walking right as close to the water as the path will allow, then cross the bridge near the stadium and you are on your way. It is no more than a 15 minute brisk walk. An iconic wooden clock tower with Carl Zeiss Jena that sits behind one terracing on top of the “club house” is a thing of great history.
That evening we set off from Jena, via Halle and Leipzig where we changed trains on both occasions to Dresden. I took a mental note that either of these cities would be the ideal base for future DDR plundering, as I especially want to see Magdeburg play at home. Leipzig/Halle has an airport between them too, future plans already taking shape! I love Dresden, this was my third time in the city, but the first to include football. The last time I was in Dresden it was the day after they’d played Chemitzer in what would have been another great DDR tussle in the third tier, but I did at least get the chance to raid the club shop. From my first visit in 2006 until now the central area of the city has changed beyond recognition, with the complete restoration of not just the iconic church the Frauenkirche but all the surrounding buildings, bringing back a feel of how Dresden may have looked before that end of war bombing that destroyed so many of its wonderful facades. My favourite place is the Zwinger Gardens, a lavish group of buildings with ornamental gardens, but it is now undergoing extensive restoration work.
I had a soft spot for Dynamo in the old DDR days, they were always the most likely to take trophies away from the hated Dynamo Berlin with all their Stasi governmental fudging behind them. The clubs best period came in the 1970’s when they won five league titles pulling in crowds of 25,000 the envy of the rest of the league the East German teams. Benfica, Juventus and Porto were all beaten during a decade of continual European football in Dresden, but three times they lost out to Liverpool, who would go on to win the trophy on all three occasions. Unlike the East German national side who won their only competitive game with West Germany, 1-0 at the ‘74 World Cup, Dynamo came up against Bayern Munich in that ‘70’s period losing a classic two legged joust 7,6 on aggregate. Dresden lacks a Euro final on the CV unlike others from the East, indeed, they floundered regularly in the quarter finals, which was the furthest they ever got.
A revamped version of the old Dynamo stadium is across the Elbe river near Neustadt station, which now plays host to DD II and FC Dresden who bob around in the lower reaches of the German pyramid. From the train, the ground is clearly visible and it has been scaled down as well as buffed up for much lower attendances, but the classic electronic scoreboard is still there behind the goals. In 2009 as part of the city’s revamping, SGD ( SG is short for Sportgemeinschaft) as Dynamo are also known moved into the magnificent Rudolf Harbig Stadion (a famous athlete, not ex-player) at a cost 43 million Euros. It is owned by the local council, rather than the club as a safeguard against any financial issues the club might face, but it is Dynamo’s home, Dresden is largely a one club city and what a fervent support they have too!
Despite having watching a lot of SDG’s Bundesliga 2 clashes online, nothing compares to be being in the stadium, wow what an atmosphere. It was almost a sell out for this encounter with Union, and even minutes after public sale opened online, the only seats together were close to visiting fans in the stand opposite the main one. The Union fans were great, but being so close to them was a pity as they were messing with desire to focus more on the magnificent home support. The Dynamo fans had no menacing banners or choreography like the FCC fans the day before for the visit of the capital’s “eastern” team, but they started with a massive “Poznan” and then turned to enjoy the game amid a riot of flags, scarves twirling and passionate singing. Enjoying the game might be pushing the limits as Dynamo’s mid-season tumble down the table has seen them sent out to sit in and play on the counter attack, even at home. With two agendas of survival versus promotion, Union were the slicker team in the first half, and as they grew increasingly more desperate, Dresden were finding some gaps to exploit, and only choosing the wrong pass or over exuberance failed to bring a home goal. A goalless draw was sadly about right, both had ultimately been powder puff, but neither team seemed disappointed at the end.
The extraordinary number of police vans outside the stadium at the end was a reminder that Dynamo fans come with a certain reputation, and while nothing seemed to be about to kick off, the police weren’t taking any chances. The stadium is about a twenty minute walk from Dresden’s Hauptbanhof (Central Station) and maybe a good thirty minute walk from the centre of the historical area.
A need to compare the Italian game with the German one was inevitable for me! In many regards the German fans are a throwback to Italy pre-turnstile/individualised ticketing, as neither are a prerequisite in Germany surprisingly. Somehow as attendance stay positive in Germany, especially in the lower Italian leagues, the fans are staying away in droves, whether due to dissatisfaction with the product or the endless mucking about of the kick off times. The style of game is different, with the German version largely played at a faster pace, but it is less technical! I enjoyed my German experience, and I will return for more DDR action, but in a few weeks I will be back in Italy and looking forward to a Serie B or C play off encounter which is more familiar surroundings, after all this is my land, and I am a loyal tifoso!