Contrary to the widespread perception of the former East Germany as a villainous state, there were plenty of progressive features that a peek over the Berlin Wall would have unveiled, not least their world-leading recycling incentives, advanced traffic light systems or ahead of their time views on women in the workplace. This nostalgia for aspects of life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) is referred to as Ostalgie within German culture and can certainly be applied when reminiscing over the now-defunct DDR-Oberliga and its scattered teams of the past such as FC Magdeburg.
Football in East Germany thrived amidst chaos. With the Stasi pulling the political strings, clubs were renamed and relocated; players doped and referees bribed. Politics was embedded deep within the game and dictated almost every decision.
Erich Mielke, the infamous head of the Stasi, said of football in East Germany: “Football success will highlight even more clearly the superiority of our socialist order in the area of sport.”
FC Magdeburg, established in 1965, was rebranded under this political want for more competitive football teams within East Germany. Football in Magdeburg has been present since the end of the 19thcentury, albeit under different aliases as the political climate has continuously shifted.
In 1955, 21 sports clubs were removed from the sports association system in East Germany and re-established as centres of excellence for elite sport. Ten years later, Magdeburg, along with nine other focus clubs, the so-called Schwerpunktclubs, were granted permission to draw on the best players East Germany had to offer.
Although highlighting a clear bias, this decision also demonstrated what football in the GDR was doing right; investing in youth and outlining a clear academy emphasis, something that was not replicated in West Germany. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 2002, well after reunification, that these centres of excellence would be made necessary in the entirety of Germany.
Under the management of Heinz Krügel, Magdeburg’s reputation as one of the Oberliga’s most prestigious clubs would only strengthen. Krügel sourced local talent and established a foundation of young players that would go on to evoke a decade long yearning for silverware.
Their first Oberliga title in 1972 was celebrated by a squad with an average age of just 22.5; the youngest to ever do so. The following year, a 3-2 toppling of Lokomotive Leipzig to win their fourth FDGB-Pokal title would compensate for a third-placed league finish as well as secure European football for the following season. Magdeburg’s success would hit an incredibly high ceiling during the 1973/74 season where the club from the banks of the River Elbe would have its greatest ever campaign.
Although the least prestigious of the European trophies, the European Cup Winners’ Cup was as diverse and competitive as they come; never retained once in 39 seasons of competition. During the 1965/66 season Magdeburg, despite the setback of league relegation, would go deep into the competition. Their European adventure was only cut short that year at the quarter-final stage courtesy of a Bobby Moore led West Ham United.
Therefore, when Magdeburg swept aside Sporting Lisbon of Portugal at the semi-final stage in 1974, they were still not considered to be in the same realm as their awaiting finalists, Giovanni Trapattoni’s A.C. Milan. As defending champions, the match was predicted to be a straightforward win for the Rossoneri and therefore was stripped of any real worth. It would be the lowest attendance ever recorded at a European final as travel restrictions were firmer than ever at a time when defection to the west was as rife as Stasi suspicion.
In fact, aside from players’ wives, just 200 people travelled from East Germany, considerably less than the anything up to 45,000 that could be witnessed at Magdeburg home games. The result was match footage that featured three largely barren stands as De Kuip stadium in Rotterdam appeared to be hosting a closed doors friendly, not a European final. The vast majority of Milan fans didn’t even deem the fixture to be worth the trip, an infuriating realisation for the thousands of Magdeburg fans entrapped at home.
Nevertheless, the absence of an atmosphere certainly didn’t detract from the calibre of play on the pitch. The European minnows exuded brilliance, powered by a spine that included free-scoring midfielder turned forward Jürgen Sparwasser, the Oberliga ever-present Wolfgang Seguin and club captain Manfred Zapf in defence.
The former would score East Germany’s most important goal less than two months after the final in Rotterdam. Sparwasser’s strike would be the deciding goal of the only meeting between the two Germany’s as well as a gift-wrapped propaganda tool to the Eastern Bloc powers that be. Strenuously denying accusations that he was ever rewarded for the goal, Sparwasser would defect to West Germany in 1988 while participating in a veterans’ tournament there. Meanwhile, Zapf, who spent his entire senior career at Magdeburg, would go on to become a senior member of the ruling SED party, in addition to a short stint as head coach of the GDR national side.
Krügel’s fingerprints were also on that World Cup group game in Hamburg. Under his tutelage, Magdeburg had produced four players that were part of the 1974 East German World Cup squad; a testament to both his and Magdeburg’s sphere of influence within football at the time.
However, forget Capitalism and Communism; Krügel pitted against Trapattoni was the real clash of ideologies. Magdeburg, boasting of an industrious attack that operated from a 4-3-3 setup with inverted wingers, were coming off a season that saw them lift their second Oberliga title, scoring 50 goals in 26 games along the way. Milan, in line with Italian football at the time, kept to the script and played a 5-4-1 with sweeper Enrico Lanzi in defence.
Therefore, when the pacey Martin Hoffmann, later courted by Milan’s rivals Juventus, collected the ball at the halfway line and drove unimpeded at goal before crossing, Lanzi’s attempted clearance was sliced past his own keeper, sending Magdeburg into half-time with the lead. The 200 strong travelling support could be heard in full voice.
Magdeburg’s greatest feat was completed when Seguin doubled the lead in the 74thminute with a tight angled finish at the near post. Moreover, the decisive goal could not have been scored by a more deserving player. Seguin, a one-club man, is Magdeburg’s record appearance holder, including 219 Oberliga matches in a row between 1971 and 1979. Magdeburg would become the only East German side to ever triumph in European competition.
Even more remarkable than the victory itself was the fact that Magdeburg won a European trophy with a team that was entirely from Magdeburg. Their title-winning squad of just 20 players that season all called the greater Magdeburg region their home. The only other side with such a claim was Celtic’s European Cup-winning Lisbon Lions of 1967.
Magdeburg would lift their third and last Oberliga title the following season. One year later, Krügel’s decade at the forefront of East German football would come to an end in political strife, rumoured to have refused information collected by the Stasi on Bayern Munich, who were reportedly bugged ahead of the two teams playing each other in the 1974/75 European Cup. Adding insult to injury, Krügel was banned from coaching altogether in 1977.
In the 1977/78 UEFA Cup Magdeburg would beat FC Schalke 04 home and away, becoming the then only team to beat Schalke at the Parkstadion in European competition. They would bow out in the quarter-final stage that year to eventual winners PSV Eindhoven. Consecutive cup successes in 1978 against Dynamo Dresden and in 1979 against BFC Dynamo as well as consistent top three league finishes saw Magdeburg retain their spot at the table of East German football’s top clubs as the decade came to an end.
However, the 1980s brought with it a sharp downturn. Unable to compete at a high level in Europe and overtaken in league stature by Stasi propped BFC Dynamo, attendances plummeted to an average of just 10,000 by the mid-1980s. Their seventh FDGB-Pokal title in 1983 was nothing more than a mere consolation within the context of the decade, despite a reported 25,000 Magdeburg fans travelling to East Berlin to watch their side defeat FC Karl-Marx-Stadt 4-0 in the final. An attendance record that still stands today.
Low attendances, the rise of hooliganism and widespread corruption undermined East German football throughout the latter years of the 1980s, destabilising a once-great league.
With the gradual collapse of the Eastern Bloc well underway, Magdeburg entered a period of freefall. On the final day of the 1989/90 season, they crashed out of the title race, finishing in third place. This was the beginning of the end as two seasons later the once all-conquering Oberliga club found itself in the third tier of the newly unified German league. In fact, just two East German clubs made the cut for the 1991/92 edition of the Bundesliga; Hansa Rostock and Magdeburg’s old sparring partner of the 1970s, Dynamo Dresden.
In Magdeburg’s case, a series of boardroom mistakes set the club on a course of self-destruction. The following decades have seen the club struggle in the purgatory of lower league football, unable to navigate a successful promotion strategy. Despite moving to a new stadium in 2006, there has not been much substance on the pitch for Magdeburg’s ultra fan group, Block U, to shout about.
However, there have been sporadic bursts of hope in recent years. In 2015, Magdeburg’s return to the third tier of German football saw the club participate in a fully professional league for the first time since reunification and in 2018/19 they would play a season in the second division before suffering immediate relegation.
In the meantime, Magdeburg, one of East Germanys most cherished clubs of pastime, continue their struggle adrift in the open waters of lower-league German football, longing for a return to those great years of the 1970s and reminiscent of nights like that May evening in Rotterdam.