Two Germanys, One Game

How Football Brought A Divided Germany Together

During the 28 years of the country’s division, East and West Germany played as separate football teams.

The deep rift the East-West divide had carved into its landscape turned Germany into the centrepiece of the conflict. The sporting landscape between the warring nations was no different.

For years the East Germans rejected West German overtures to play football. It was seen as too much of a risk – there was a far greater chance of defeat than in sports such as swimming and weightlifting.

But in a World Cup, there was no choice.

Amid rising Cold War tensions, the 1974 World Cup brought the two together on the pitch for the first and only match in World Cup history, where East and West Germany would ever face each other.

Following World War II, the ensuing geopolitical tensions between the powers of the Eastern and Western Blocs that developed into the Cold War became painfully apparent in the division of Germany.

It was only through the Basic Treaty of 1972 that East and West Germany had even recognised each other as sovereign states. Though the decade had also initiated a process to normalise interaction between them, political relations remained precarious.

But when in 1974 the World Cup was hosted by the West Germans, the tournament brought its Eastern neighbour across the Iron Curtain to play.

As fate would have it, the teams immediately found themselves face to face after being drawn in the same group along with Chile and Australia.

Prior to the meeting both German teams got off to a good start: West Germany defeated Chile and Australia, while East Germany won against Australia and claimed a draw in the match with Chile.

But it was in the final group match that the two German teams would finally go head to head for one of the most politically charged games of all time.

It was a game dubbed ‘ein kampf zwischen brüdern’ ­­­­– meaning ‘a battle between brothers’ –  and on June 22 1974 the “two Germanys” stepped onto the pitch of Hamburg’s Volksparkstadium.

The encounter not only had the people of both countries, but also a number of politicians, on the edge of their seats. The match drew a crowd of over 60,000 spectators yet only 1,500 East German fans were given permission to travel to the port city to cheer on their team.

"The officials were hoping it wouldn't be a disgrace," says Hans-Jürgen Kreische, a former East Germany striker who played in the landmark game.

"The players didn't feel any pressure though. On the contrary, we were looking forward to comparing ourselves to the West.

"It was something we repeatedly strived for, but the authorities always prevented."

Prior to kick-off, as the players were taking off their tracksuit tops, and the refs whistle not far away, the crowd burst into rapturous chants of “Deutschland, Deutschland.”

Was this simply for the home team or was this some kind of statement being sent to both sets of players by those in attendance? A message of unity, perhaps.

While the pitch had an Olympic-sized running-track around it, creating a sizeable distance between the players and crowd, the emotions on the terraces engulfed the 22 men on the pitch.

Though the desire to win from both the East and the West was there for all to see, so too was there an appreciation of the immense pressure thrust upon the players on the pitch.

“It wasn’t quite the Cold War subsumed into a football match, but it wasn’t a million miles away from it,” said Gary Thacker in These Football Times.

Tackles lacked the punch usually seen in 1970’s football and tempers were subdued, with perhaps a measure of fraternal understanding for each other’s situation coming to the fore, making for an understandably sterile opening half that finished scoreless.

The match was characterised by mutual respect from the outset. With defeat unthinkable for both protagonists, the teams largely nullified each other and penalty-box action was scarce. The game was played with commitment and competitiveness but with a spirit of fairness, Uruguayan referee Ramon Barreto Ruiz producing just three yellow cards – all for East German players.

In the second half, West Germany had one big chance of note, with a ball from Gerd Müller sending teammate Jürgen Grabowski into space, but his shot was skied high into the abyss of the surrounding running-track.

A draw looked to be an inevitable conclusion until East German striker Jürgen Sparwasser controlled a bouncing ball and swivelled through the West German defence, striking the only blow of the game in the 78th minute to ensure victory.

But it was after the game that the players showed that the division of the country was not down to the layman, but rather those politicians at the behest of the cold war the world found itself in.

Though players were banned from swapping shirts, they did so anyway.

"Following the final whistle all the players swapped shirts, although we didn't do it on the pitch because officially it was forbidden," Kreische says.

"But we got on very well. We spoke the same language after all. It was a hard but fair battle."

Against all of the odds, East Germany had won not only the match, but also the group. The West German team would, however, later erase the memory of their defeat by winning the tournament outright.

Both East and West Germany had been victorious, even in defeat. The East Germans, who won the game that mattered most to them, their government and a nation that fifteen years later would cease to exist.

While West Germany went on and won the 1974 World Cup despite their devastating loss to East Germany, with their reaction to that loss and luck with the draw that propelled them to their second World Cup title.

But beyond the respective victories of two sides of a divided nation, the match once again showed the game’s capacity to break down the biggest of barriers, even just for a day, or even just for 90 minutes.

It would be the only time the East would face the West in a major footballing tournament.

Many years later, the two German teams were once again drawn to contend against each other in the qualifiers of the 1992 European Championship. But before the match could take place, political events overtook them: The Berlin Wall fell, Germany was reunified and their two teams became one.