We head back behind the Iron Curtain for our next bunch of European Unlikely Lads – East Germany’s FC Magdeburg.
BY CHRISTOPH WAGNER
The story of FC Magdeburg contains everything: a rapid rise with a short span of success and an incredible, unexpected success in 1974. In the wake of this success a slow decline began to set in that accelerated after 1989 and almost led to the death of the club. This shock notwithstanding, the club achieved little success in gaining promotion, but at large, the picture stayed the same: sporting success was followed by a collapse because money was spent that was not there. One season in the history of the club stands out that almost suffocated the club for years to come.
This story begins with the signing of Heinz Krügel as a new coach for Magdeburg in 1966. He originated from Saxony – from Planitz – a small town just outside Zwickau. Planitz had a renowned football school and were the first winners of the east zone championship in 1948. They later changed to Sachsenring Zwickau and were the only club to have played every season in the Oberliga from 1949 until 1991.
Krügel had to end his career at 29 years of age due to a knee injury. Since the early 1950s he was a coach and he managed in Leipzig and Halle but also was national coach of the East German national team between 1959 and 1961. From 1966 until 1976 Krügel coached Magdeburg and achieved the club’s and his personal biggest achievement: The Cup Winners’ Cup in 1974 against AC Milan.
This competition seemed to suit Magdeburg as they always fared well even before 1974. During the 1965/66 season they reached the quarter-final where they met West Ham United who were the cup holders. After a 1-0 defeat in the first leg in London, a 1-1 in Magdeburg saw The Hammers go through.
Despite this European experience, the club went down at the end of the season but returned immediately and managed to get a foothold near the top of the league for the rest of the 1960s and came close to the league title in 1968/69, falling short by just three points. Winning the Cup in 1969 and three years later their first league title marked the beginning of the most successful period in the club’s history. Two more league titles were to follow in 1974 and 1975. Between 1972 and 1975 Magdeburg had an impressive trophy haul: the Cup Winners’ Cup, three league titles and one FDGB-Cup.
What is often highlighted in Magdeburg’s Cup Winners Cup victory is the fact that exclusively all players who were on the pitch in Rotterdam in 1974 came from within a 50 kilometre radius of Magdeburg; they were local boys. Magdeburg had a very good academy and almost all of the winners of ’74 were part of various teams that took part in the UEFA Junior Tournament; Jürgen Pommerenke, for instance, played in three of these and won bronze, silver and gold. The Boerde Boys blossomed slowly but steadily under the guidance of Heinz Krügel. In the GDR, June 1st was an important day: it was international children’s day. On that day in 1971, Magdeburg won their first Oberliga title with an average age of 22.3, the youngest team ever to win the GDR league.
From Rotterdam to Rotterdam in 8 Months
It all began in September/October 1973 against NAC Breda who opted to play at the De Kuip stadium in Rotterdam for the occasion as they expected a large crowd for the game. After a 0-0 draw in Rotterdam, a 2-0 win at home in the Ernst-Grube-Stadion saw Magdeburg progress. It was almost over in the next round as Banik Ostrava surprisingly beat Magdeburg 2-0 away and the club needed extra time to secure a place in the quarter-final. For the first time Magdeburg had to deal with away fans as around 1,000 supporters made the long journey from Bulgaria to the banks of the River Elbe to support their team, Beroe Stara Zagora. It was a hard fight as captain Manfred Zapf stated after the first leg: ‘we tried too hard and wanted to go with the head through the wall. It almost cost us dearly.’ Magdeburg made life difficult fo themselves – it was not the last time. Magdeburg opened the scoring as late as the 70th minute and two minutes later it was 2-0. This second goal was vital. In the second leg the goals came late and first it was Beroe who scored from a penalty. The crowd saw hope and increased the noise. It lasted until the 82nd minute when Magdeburg scored, and with that, the game and the tie was secured.
The nature of the Cup Winners’ Cup often saw teams participating that didn;t necessarily dominate their national leagues. This was clearly the case in Magdeburg’s European journey up to the quarter-finals of the competition in 1973/74. However, this is no disrespect to the opponents they faced. Breda have won thr Dutch league title in 1921 and the cup in 1973. Banik Ostrava were of a higher calibre, having won the Intertoto Cup in 1970 as well as winning the Czechoslovakian Cup in 1973. Since then they have added the Mitropa Cup and Mitropa Super Cup in 1979, three Czechoslovak league titles, two Cups and another 5 Intertoto Cups. On the contrary, Beroe are relatively unknown and to this date have 2 Bulgarian Cups in 2010 and 2013 but in the early 1970s were only successful in the Balkans Cup of 1968 and 1969. However, they eliminated Atlético Bilbao before playing Magdeburg.
The Cup Winners’ Cup of 1973/74 really became interesting from the semi-final stage onwards as Jürgen Sparwasser stated before the draw: ‘Now we have to face a really tough team, regardless who this might be.’ The teams in question were Borussia Mönchengladbach, AC Milan and Sporting Portugal, often referred to as Sporting Lisbon, one of the Big Three in Portguese football. AC Milan were cup holders, Gladbach one of the best teams in Europe at that time, even though Günter Netzer was no longer playing for them; he went to Real Madrid in 1973. Borussia Mönchengladbach versus AC Milan in the final, that was what many hoped for and expected. As always, fate has a very different opinion about every one else’s expectation and Gladbach and Milan had to play one semi-final, Magdeburg and Sporting the other.
According to eye witnesses and reports, this game was one of the best games in the club’s history. In front of 55,000 people it was a huge effort to keep their nerves in check and save a 1-1 that kept all options open for the home game. Wolfgang ‘Paule’ Seguin remembers: “There were 55,000 there and when you play such games at a young age, you get nervous. When I played my first European game, you can’t imagine what i looked like.” Theoretically, a 0-0 would have been sufficient to get through but it would have been a betrayal of Krügel’s idea of fluid and attacking football. After nine minutes, Jürgen Pommerenke made it 1-0 and 60 minutes later Sparwasser made it 2-0. Sparwasser would later describe this goal as the most important of his career, even more important than the famous one he scored in Hamburg on June 22, 1974 against West Germany in the World Cup. This second goal secured Magdeburg’s progress to the final.
This was a historic moment in itself as for the first time an East Geman club team had reached a European final. Lokomotiv Leipzig had previously come closest but lost in the semi-final of the UEFA Cup against Tottenham Hotspur.
The match fell neatly into the David vs. Goliath category. The Goliath, AC Milan, had plenty of collective and individual European experience. On top of that they won the competition in 1968 and 1973 and also had 2 European Cups on their letter head. In contrast, Magdeburg had only just over 20 matches in any of the European Cups and nowhere near the experience the Milan players had. Among those playing for the Rossoneri was Karl-Heinz Schnellinger and the captain Gianni Rivera, one of Italy’s most elegant players of the 1970s. He scored the decisive goal against West Germany in the semi-final of the 1970 World Cup in what many sports journalists have since dubbed ‘The Match of the Century.’ Yet, Krügel pulled off one of the biggest moves of his career and placed the unknown Helmut Gaube as a defender against Rivera. Gaube marked Rivera out of the game. Though the selection of Gaube was not unanimously popular among the team, the success proved Krügel right. This was not the only surprise Magdeburg had in store for Milan.
Italian football had a reputation for playing a defensive minded catenaccio. It came to replace the Danubian style of football in the 1960s as Jonathan Wilson notes in Inverting the Pyrmaid and pointed towards a more practical approach to playing than was the case previously. Magdeburg, with their lack of experience at this level did what they could do best: play forward without thinking too much about the consequences. It was the best they could do and it unsettled Milan thoroughly. Giovanni Trapattoni was appointed Milan coach just a over a week before the match but his prophecy proved right: ‘The team who scores the first goal wins.’ Just before half time Milan scored an own goal. It reflected their game so far. Milan had no chance. Before the game they behaved like England in 1953 before that inamous Hungary match: arrogant and over-confident. It was a lesson in humility learned the hard way by Milan that night. With Rivera out of the game, their set up lacked shape and cohesion.
The goal rattled them and they came out playing in the second half. It gave Magdeburg space to pierce Milan time and again. The longer the game went on, the more confident Magdeburg became. They were rewarded. With the clock approaching the 75 minutes mark, Sparwasser mistimed a shot, the ball bounced back to Axel Tyll who crossed to the right where Seguin was left unmarked. He evaded a Milan defender before finishing from a tight angle under the cross bar into the back of the net from the right side of the 6 yard box. Milan fought on but could not find a way back, Magdeburg did not retreat and defend, Sparwasser had the chance to make it 3-0 but his shot hit the outside of the net. Once the referee Arie van Gemert blew for full time, history had been written.
Sadly, the match was the least attended final in the history of UEFA competitions, only 5000 attended. The cause for this was surely the rainy weather but also the fact that Magdeburg had beaten the local side Breda, and Milan were not popular in the Netherlands, where Feyenoord, Ajax and PSV Eindhoven dominated the league. There were only 500 ‘fans’ from East Germany. These were selected by the party and thus were no real fans of FC Magdeburg. Heinz Krügel remembers: “There were ‘fans’ who asked ‘Which side is Magdeburg?’ Ridiculous.”
At the time of Magdeburg’s success, no one thought that this may be the end of the road for the team. The historian Christopher Young noted on England’s success in 1966:
‘What Ramsey, his team’s victory and the legacy of 1966 stood for in fact was not the beginning of anything, but the end. In hindsight and over the years, it has come to stand not even for the end of a glorious past, but the end of believing there ever had been one.’
This is just as fitting for Magdeburg and 1974. The shadow of those men and their coach grew over time and became a burden rather than an inspiration. To make matters worse, the end of the GDR meant that Magdeburg as well as other East German clubs had to re-adjust to a new world that was completely unknown and hostile. From a Magdeburg perspective this revolution added insult to injury. The club missed out on professional football on various occasions in the early 1990s. The past, administrative imcompetence and misfortune made life for Magdeburg difficult. It lasted 25 years before this trauma came to an end in 2015. The chances of them reaching any European Cup competitions any time are minimal.