Home Uncategorized All’s Quiet on the Eastern Front – The Decline of Football in East Germany

All’s Quiet on the Eastern Front – The Decline of Football in East Germany

Einigkeit (Unity) is very important to Germans. So important, in fact, that it is the first word in their national anthem.

“Einigkeit und Rechts und Freiheit für das Deutsche Vaterland”.

Germany as we know it today is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the ascension of Kaiser Wilhelm I to the throne as Emperor of all Germany, the country was a collection of hundreds of smaller kingdoms and dominions. Fast forward 50 years and the nation was once again splintered with Danzig (Gdansk as it is known today) isolated from Germany by the Polish Corridor.

Roll forward 40 more years and you have the Federal Republic of Germany (West) and the German Democratic Republic (East) dividing the country in two once more. While it’s been a quarter century since the fall of the Wall and the reunification of Germany the divisions between East and West are still to be seen.

East Germans have lower life expectancies, higher rates of unemployment, lower average incomes, only one player in Germany’s 2014 World Cup Squad (Toni Kroos) and no team in the top flight of German football.

Germany has the most non-EU born inhabitants of any EU nation with 6.4 million, which accounts for 12% of the population. The DFB (Deutscher Fussball Bund – German football’s national governing body) has done well in incorporating second and third generation immigrants into the German national team with players such as Jerome Boateng, Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira and the Polish duo of Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski but since the reunification of East and West in 1990, the numbers of East Germans in the national side is depressingly few.

The DFB recognises itself that the team playing post 1990 is identical in appearance to that of West Germany but “has benefitted from an increased membership and player pool” by the inclusion of the Eastern States. However, the victorious Euro ’96 team included only two East German players.

Granted that the 2002 World Cup squad contained five East German players, which could be seen as more representative, the reduction of the number of East German players in the national team is worrying.

Association football is by far and away the most popular sport in Germany. Basketball and Handball come in a distant second and third. So why, if the sport is so popular in Germany, are the national representatives almost exclusively selected from the West?

The answer doesn’t lie in a top level government conspiracy; or at least we should hope not. There are two possible explanations that one could point to.

Firstly, East German sport tended to focus more heavily on individual sports such as swimming, gymnastics, cycling, weightlifting and track and field. One could consider this strange, that a system of government i.e. socialism, so inherently focused on social togetherness would promote sports characterised by single athlete isolation. But in saying all that East Germany’s fairly good record at Olympic Games has been called into question by a series of doping accusations. Most of Germany’s footballers are too young to have been thrust into athletics programmes rather than football, indeed a number of the current team weren’t even born when the Wall collapsed, so as far as this journalist is concerned, that argument is fairly weak.

The second, more convincing argument is that the lack of top flight East German teams and top flight East German players is to blame. Young people respond predominantly to success and role models when choosing sport to pursue. This is most evident in the United States where African American children are far more likely to play basketball than ice hockey, and girls are far more likely to play soccer and swim than they are to play basketball or hockey. This can be put down to the success of athletes in those sports.

The US Women’s national soccer team is the most successful female team on the planet, while there are comparatively few African American top level swimmers and as a result the sport is not pursued to the same extent by African American children.

Some may argue that this is not a problem at all and that places on the plane to Brazil were awarded on merit not geographical location. True. This journalist isn’t arguing for quotas of East Germans on the national team. In a competitive sport, such quotas are in all eventualities, uncompetitive. But the absence of any East German team in The Bundesliga 1 this year and only the one East German in the national team creates a hysteretic effect, meaning that a lack of top quality football and footballers breeds a lack of top quality football and footballers in the future.

The DFB must do their utmost to increase participation rates in former East German states and invest heavily in football there in order to achieve the unity that Germany so craves.

Daire O’Driscoll, Pundit Arena.

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