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Germany vs Spain: Euro 2024 quarterfinal reopens east-west football divide | UEFA Euro 2024 News

Germany vs Spain: Euro 2024 quarterfinal reopens east-west football divide | UEFA Euro 2024 News

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Berlin, Germany – Host nation Germany will meet tournament favourites Spain in the business end of the Euro 2024 football tournament with a crucial semifinal spot at stake in Stuttgart.

With a doubling of beer and bratwurst sales on its national rail provider and an expected boost of 1 billion euros ($1.08bn) to a shaky German economy, the hosts look set for a win whatever the result on Friday evening.

Yet beyond some of the bigger headlines, the tournament has shone a spotlight on how German football today is still shaped by the legacies of its divided history.

It’s noteworthy that as the Euro 2024 quarterfinals are played on Friday and Saturday, not even one of the four matches – or the resulting semifinals or the final – will be staged in the former East Germany. The west is best, it seems, when showcasing Europe’s largest football tournament as it reaches its zenith.

Of the 10 cities that have hosted Euro 2024 matches, including Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Dortmund, only one club stadium is in a part of the country that formed part of the former East Germany – Leipzig RasenBallsport, known as RB Leipzig.

Yet even this club was formed controversially two decades after German reunification in a commercial takeover by the giant Austrian global soft drinks maker Red Bull. Although legal, it was an unpopular move amid Germany’s unique fan-majority ownership structure, known as 50-1.

Additionally only one player in the current German squad – 34-year old midfielder Tony Kroos, who is set to retire from football after the tournament – was born in the now-defunct communist German Democratic Republic, or GDR as it’s more commonly known.

The Deutscher Fussball-Bund (DFB) – the German Football Association – didn’t respond to questions on its efforts to address any post-reunification historical gaps or the selection criteria used for host cities and stadium geography for Euro 2024, which was the first major football tournament staged in Germany since the 2006 FIFA World Cup and only the second one since Germany’s 1990 unification. It instead pointed Al Jazeera to UEFA stadium size requirements for hosting bids and how its application was built around that.

Yet commentators say the issue is indicative of the ongoing gaps between eastern German and western German football that range from stadium infrastructure, wide revenue disparities and representation in the two Bundesligas, the national leagues. Disconcertingly, there are currently just two teams from the former eastern part of the country among the 18 teams in the top-flight competition.

Ulrich Hesse is a journalist, author and editor of the football site 11Freunde. He tells Al Jazeera: “Unfortunately, it’s probably a fair reflection of the divide that still exists and may even be widening. One of the two former east clubs in the Bundesliga is based in Berlin, which is and has always been a special place. The other – RB Leipzig – didn’t even exist when the [Berlin] Wall was still up and thus hasn’t any links whatsoever to the GDR.”

“This goes back to the history of the initial post-unification period from the 1990s onward and relates to older east-west divides,” says Alan McDougall, a professor and author of The People’s Game: Football, State and Society in East Germany.

He adds: “The political and economic nature of unification in the 1990s meant East German football, economics and politics were all folded into the West German republic. Unification may be history, but I do think the patterns of German football since then reflect what happened in the 1990s.”

Football player warming up on sidelines.
Germany’s star midfielder Toni Kroos will retire after the country hosts Euro 2024. Kroos is the last footballer in the national team to have been born in the former East Germany, closing the chapter on players originating from two separate German nations [Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters]
INTERACTIVE - EURO 2024 host cities-1717665571
The 10 host cities in Germany for Euro 2024. Eight of the venues are in the former West Germany and the Olympic Stadium in Berlin is situated in what was called West Berlin, which was controlled by the Western Allies until October 3, 1990. Only Leipzig was part of the former East Germany [Al Jazeera]

Two nations, two teams

The German national football team played its first match against Switzerland in 1908, losing 5-3 in Basel.

After its loss in World War II, Germany was divided into two nations – the USSR-backed East Germany and West Germany, governed by France, Britain and the United States under a democratic, capitalist system. Berlin was an anomaly. It was geographically situated in East Germany, but it was also carved up along the same lines into East and West Berlin.

Commentators say the two nations had different styles of football and varying degrees of success.

Eleven teams were formed within the five East German states from the 1960s onwards, including SG Dynamo Dresden, FC Hansa Rostock, FC Lokomotive Leipzig and FC Karl Marx Stadt.

McDougall says the GDR national squad wasn’t a top-ranked team internationally.

“East Germany was in the middle rank of European countries and were nicknamed the ‘world champion of friendly matches’ as they tended to do well in friendlies and then choke when a big match came up. It was a small country with a small footballing league, but it was strong in developing young talent, and there were some famous GDR-born players who went on to have successful careers, including in the national team, after reunification.”

The most famous among them is former national team captain Michael Ballack, who played professionally from 1995 until 2012 for European powerhouses like Bayern Munich and Chelsea and was selected by Pele as one of FIFA’s 100 Greatest Living Players.

Over on the other side of the divide, the West German national football team was recognized by FIFA in 1950 and went on to have one of the strongest reputations in the world. It won three FIFA World Cups – in 1954, 1974 and 1990, the year of reunification. Star players such as national team captain Franz Beckenbauer were central to its success as were club giants Bayern Munich.

During the time of the division, East Germany and West Germany played each other just once – in the World Cup in 1974. In a game dubbed “ein Kampf zwischen Brudern” – “a battle between brothers” – West Germany embarrassingly lost to East Germany 1-0 on home soil at Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion.

Footballer kicks goal.
Little brother upsets big brother. East German forward Juergen Sparwasser, far left, scores the winning goal on June 22, 1974, in Hamburg during the first-round World Cup match against West Germany [AFP]

As the country unified, the task was laid out to bring two footballing nations together.

As McDougall explains:  “At the time, GDR sport was considered by some as a tainted sport due to major doping scandals and alleged ties between teams and the Stasi [the GDR’s secret police]. West Germany was more powerful and wealthier, so the German Football Association took over the old East German football structures and its association.”

Of the 11 GDR teams, just two were absorbed into Bundesliga 1, Germany’s premier professional league.

Hans-Georg Moldenhauer is a former footballer from the GDR who was the head of its football association at the time of reunification. Now in his 80s, he tells Al Jazeera: “It was an incredibly emotional time, and it brought new problems almost every day.  What I liked, though, was that everyone thought Germany was a football country and we all wanted to help the country realize that again.”

Moldenhauer joined the DFB post-1990 and says the organisation kept elements of eastern football going, including sports schools. “Youth development in the GDR was a very good concept that was adopted by the west,” he adds.

Hesse says the differences between the two sides ran deep – and the west profiteered with sometimes disastrous long term outcomes for former East German clubs.

“In the years following reunification, there was a structural and likely even a psychological disadvantage,” he says. “A lot of eastern clubs were not necessarily destroyed, but problems were created that still have repercussions to this day. They were thrown into a system they didn’t know anything about, and there were a lot of businessmen from the west who came to run the clubs into the ground intentionally or not intentionally, and they lost all their best players. This may explain why the clubs basically vanished from the map for a long time, but it doesn’t quite explain why they haven’t returned.”

Moldenhauer contends, in hindsight, that things could have been done differently but describes reunification as ancient history that has little impact on the domestic or national footballing front, including when it came to the selection of the 10 host cities for Euro 2024. He instead regards some of the ongoing gaps between clubs as a regional issue.

“It’s a very general problem linked to management and the regional economy. Clubs that are well managed like Bayern Munich hold on, but then there are clubs such as Hamburger Sport-Verein, which has gone downhill for a variety of reasons,” he says.

Corner flag pitched in front of football stadium.
Dresden’s Rudolf Harbig Stadion, home of third-division side Dynamo Dresden, holds just under the 30,000 spectator limit required by UEFA. This stadium – like several other large football clubs in eastern Germany that are struggling financially as a result of the player drain to large, rich western German clubs  – was not considered for host city selection for Euro 2024 despite Dresden’s large population and tourist attractions [Matthias Rietschel/Reuters]

Regional revenues – the rich get richer!

The difference in economic revenues between clubs across Germany is high.

In 2021, Bayern Munich recorded the highest commercial revenues for any football club in the world with sponsorship partners including telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom. Its market value stands at about 800 million euros ($865m), more than double that of Leipzig RB. The club is also based in the state of Bavaria, one of the most affluent regions in Germany.

A similarly wealthy region in western Germany is North Rhine-Westphalia, which hit the jackpot when it came to carving up the economic benefits of the Euro 2024 economic pie.

As Hesse points out, the state is where many – 40 percent to be precise – of the Euro 2024 venues are located: Dortmund, Gelsenkirchen, Dusseldorf and Cologne. With official figures showing economic output of about 705 billion euros ($762bn), Germany’s largest state by population generates more than a fifth of Germany’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Football, though, is just one strand within a wider picture of post-reunification east-west disparities that continue to shape all aspects of life: politically, socially and around identity.

Although the gap has been declining since reunification, in terms of GDP per capita, the five eastern states still trail the western states by 18 percent, and individual disposable income in the east is still around 86 percent of that in the west, according to data from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action.

While output in the eastern states for next year is forecast to grow by 1.2 percent, the rate is slower than in Germany as a whole (1.5 percent), meaning that GDP per capita in eastern Germany will remain about 80 percent of the level in western Germany.

Erik Meier, a sociologist and expert in the sporting economy at the University of Munster, says football is just one element of a more complex socioeconomic picture shaped by reunification.

“In general, the east German economy never truly recovered from the shock transformation and the deindustrialization following reunification, so the economic gap remains. The east German service economy is characterized by lower GDP and wages as well as higher economic vulnerability, and the economy lacks industrial clusters needed to generate sufficient employment opportunities to keep or attract well-educated people,” he tells Al Jazeera.

Exterior view of stadium
Bayern Munich’s home stadium, Allianz Arena, reflects the wealth and size of Bavaria, Germany’s most prosperous state, with football facilities far surpassing any venue in the former East Germany. With capacity for 75,000 spectators, Allianz Arena holds more fans than the former East Germany’s two largest football venues combined [Andreas Gebert/Reuters]

Amid this wider context, inviting outside money into the football system may be one solution. However, Germany’s unique ownership rules make this route harder.

Germany applies a 50-1 rule whereby no major investors are allowed to buy clubs. Majority ownership is in the hands of fans. The only time a company has found a loophole in the system was Red Bull with its acquisition of the former Leipzig team, SSV Markranstadt.

Hesse says the buyout is still a thorny subject.

“RB Leipzig may not have broken the letter of the law, but I do think they broke the spirit of the law. So it actually would take another club to follow that, and I’m not sure if people would allow it again,” he says.

Moldenhaur says he thinks the current issues aren’t too big to tackle and prioritizing youth development would help bridge some of the gaps.

Hesse is not as optimistic.

“Right now, the major problem is economics. If you look at the list of the biggest and most wealthy German companies, almost all of them are based in the west. There just isn’t a lot of infrastructure, and there isn’t a lot of money in the east, and the Leipzig story proves this. So the economic divide has to be overcome before football can follow.”

Spectators at football match holding banners.
Outside money might be the only chance for former East German clubs to close the gap with the west, as it did for RB Leipzig in 2010 when Red Bull purchased the team. But such a move would change the social fabric of German club culture for the next generation, requiring the possible abandonment of the cherished 50-1 rule [Annegret Hilse/Reuters]

Translation services provided by Josephine Boelhoff



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