East Germany v West Germany – Football and the Cold War

Football is more than just a game, writes Erik E. Cleves, as the “real” world unfolds, football becomes caught up in it, and particular matches have particular political symbolism. One such typical match was when West Germany played East Germany in the 1974 FIFA World Cup.

world cup 1974From the end of World War Two, divided Germany had become a focal point for the ongoing Cold War between East and West. While the World Cup in West Germany had been decided back in 1966, the early 1970s were full of political tensions that indirectly affected the 1974 World Cup: the USSR did not participate after they refused to play a play-off match against the newly installed Pinochet regime in Chile, and security during the tournament was intense after the Palestinian terrorist attacks at the Olympics Games in Munich two years before, as well as the fear of the German Rote Armee Fraktion, the terrorist Red Army Faction, more commonly known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

It was thus part of the Cold War tension that West Germany and East Germany drew each other in the first round of the 1974 World Championship, hosted by West Germany, to play in what was surely the most politically tense match in the history of the World Cup. (The two Germanys had started the process of normalization in the early 1970s, and had only recognised each other in the Basic Treaty of 1972.)

1974 World Cup

As soon as it became clear that the two teams would face each other in a serious match for the first time (they had met in Olympic amateur matches), the ‘brotherly’ game between the two German nations become more than just a football match, catching the attention of not only the political leadership but also the people’s of both countries. But while the West Germans were a team of professionals, the East Germans all held down routine jobs back home.

The East Germany v West Germany match was to be the last tie of the first round, which had started well for both teams: West Germany had defeated Chile and Australia, while the East Germans had defeated Australia and drew against Chile. As Australia and Chile drew 0-0 in their last match, it became clear that both German teams would qualify, no matter the result of the match in Hamburg.

Still, it was an important event, with the West Germans as huge favourites: besides being at home, the team were defending European champions, and had a core of players from the Bayern Munich team that a month earlier had lifted the European Champions Cup trophy after crushing Atlético Madrid in the final.

Nevertheless, the East Germans had a good team as well; the East German champions, FC Magdeburg, had also won European glory a month before when they won the European Cup Winners Cup by defeating AC Milan 2-0. Many players had good Olympic experience, having won bronze at the 1972 Olympics (and they would win gold in 1976).

The players from both sides were very aware of the importance of the match. Still, the West Germans were, prior to the game, largely dismissing the East Germans, sure of a victory that would give them the group victory. In spite of this apparent arrogance, many East German fans supported the West German side, living as they did under a communist regime that was highly restrictive. Only 1,500 specially selected East German fans were allowed to travel to Hamburg by train, for a match with 60,000 spectators.

(Pictured in action are Franz Beckenbauer and Berti Vogts for West Germany and Martin Hoffman for East Germany. Click to enlarge.)

The tie, which took place on 22 June 1974, was not the best of matches. The West Germans were perhaps surprised by the well-organised East Germans, and the first half didn’t flow well, although both teams had chances. This theme continued in the second half, until a long ball was kicked towards the Magdeburg striker Jürgen Sparwasser, who in full speed got in between three German defenders and kicked the ball over the legendary West German goalkeeper Sepp Maier (see the 25 second clip of the goal below).

This goal was enough for the East Germans to win the group, and they celebrated. This was a victory that resounded across the world.

However, as the World Cup continued, things went differently for both teams. East Germany, who had won the group, now paradoxically had the tougher challenge of facing Brazil and the Netherlands in the next round, and were indeed eliminated. On the other hand, West Germany had an easier draw and won the rest of their matches, including the final against the Netherlands, to become world champions, erasing the humiliation of losing to East Germany.

In the qualifiers for the European Championship of 1992, East and West Germany drew each other again. However, before they could meet, political events overtook them: the Berlin Wall fell and the two Germanys were reunified, and has since played as one country.

Still, their encounter in 1974 will be remembered as the most important match these two nations played at a time when Germany was divided into two.

The goalscorer in this infamous match, Jürgen Sparwasser, later wrote, ‘Rumour had it I was richly rewarded for the goal, with a car, a house and a cash premium. But that is not true’. In 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Sparwasser defected to the West.

Match Statistics:

  • 22 June 1974, Volksparkstadium, Hamburg
  • Attendance: 60,350
  • Referee: Ramón Barreto Ruiz (Uruguay)

West Germany-East Germany 0-1

Goals: 0-1 Sparwasser (77)

Erik E. Cleves
See Erik’s fine football blog: http://footballfanaticos.blogspot.co.uk

For more about the Cold War, see Cold War: History In An Hour available in various digital formats and audio.

See also article on the East German athletes and other articles on the history of the FIFA World Cup.