Around the Wall


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The controversial reputation of sport in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) rests on the performances of its Olympic athletes. Football played little part in this story. The mediocre record of the country’s most popular sport was brought into sharp relief by the achievements of West German football. The GDR qualified for the World Cup finals just once (in 1974). The West Germans won the tournament twice (in 1954 and 1974) and became European champions in 1972 and 1980. East German clubs routinely faced early elimination from European competition. West German clubs such as Bayern Munich established themselves among the continent’s elite. In football as in many areas, the GDR laboured in the shadow of the West. Using material from communist party, secret police, and sports archives as well as interviews, this paper examines the relationship between East German players and fans, and football on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Attention is focused on leading GDR footballers who escaped, or attempted to escape, to the West and the response of GDR citizens to the sole meeting between the East and West German national teams at the 1974 World Cup finals. Encounters with the West served as an important means by which players and supporters asserted the primacy of their interests over those of the state – a conclusion that reinforces recent research on the limits of dictatorship in the GDR. My findings also illustrate a dual identity at the heart of East German football. If the game was played and watched with one eye on the West, it also survived, and sometimes flourished, as a home grown product. Embracing both international and insular perspectives, football was a repository for national and local sentiments that were antithetical to the ideals of communist sport.