Eastern German problems play out on the pitch

BERLIN — When the soccer fans of FC Union turn out on a Saturday afternoon in eastern Berlin to cheer their team, it’s as if they’re fans of Manchester United or AC Milan, not a lowly, third-league team playing in a no-frills stadium. Before the players — whose names are known only to Union fans — trot onto the field, the red-and-yellow swathed loyalists of “Iron Union” belt out song after song.

But the condition of soccer in former eastern German states — called the new federal states (NFS) — is grim, and it functions serviceably as a metaphor for the state of much of eastern Germany nearly 20 years after the falle of the Berlin Wall.

Eastern German teams are currently experiencing their worst year ever since joining the western soccer federation in 1990. In the top league, only one team stems from the NFS — FC Energie Cottbus, based in Cottbus near the Polish border. It is presently in second-to-last place with just five wins in 22 games, and thus faces relegation to the second league. (In European soccer, the first three teams advance to the next higher league, while the bottom three are demoted.) Remarkably, the second division also has only one eastern team, FC Hansa Rostock from the Baltic coast, which is near the bottom of its league. One-time East German giants such as Leipzig and Chemnitz are buried deep in obscure amateur divisions.

The most obvious explanation for this dismal state of affairs is, of course, money. Despite an upward swing before the economic crisis hit, much of the east still lags far beyond the west in almost all economic categories. The eastern teams have neither the corporate sponsors nor the moneyed fan base to compete with their western counterparts. Cottbus’s budget, for example, is about a 10th of that of German international soccer powerhouse Bayern Munich.

But even modest teams from the west out-bankroll the eastern teams and offer their players significantly better playing and living conditions. Talented young eastern German players inevitably make their way west, just as the German national team’s superstar midfielder Michael Ballack, originally from Gorlick and now with FC Chelsea, England’s version of the New York Yankees, did a decade ago.

"After the wall fell, there were a lot new things for the [eastern] clubs,” explained Steffen Heinrich, the Cottbus manager and former East German national team player. “Completely new structures were put in place. And a lot of mistakes were made, too.” Many eastern teams, for example, experienced gross mismanagement in the aftermath of unification, a legacy they are still recovering from.

“The precarious financial state of soccer here reflects the tough economic situation that much of the region faces,” said Christian Arbeit, a spokesman for FC Union. “Just look at the standings and it’s clear who has the money. You don’t need any statistics.”

According to Arbeit, the dismal condition of eastern German soccer deprives many easterners of a positive source of identification, “something you can be proud of and happy for,” he said. “I think it would be great if fans had more to rally around than their team not being demoted.” FC Union, at least, has that: It is the only eastern team that will jump up a league and play next year in a higher division.

Since unification in 1990, opinion polls have consistently shown that eastern Germans feel themselves to be second class citizens in the Federal Republic. Over 70 percent of eastern Germans say they do not feel like full-fledged German citizens. Every second easterner feels threatened by poverty and a precipitous drop in social status. They make less money, suffer greater joblessness and even have shorter life spans than western Germans.

Another plight that expresses itself on the German soccer pitch is far-right extremism. Although east and west German stadiums alike have been the scenes of ugly fan violence, in the east it has between markedly more pronounced — and explicitly racist. Recent nasty clashes in Dresden, Erfurt, Jena and Berlin resulted in bloodshed and vandalized stadiums. Certain areas outside of Berlin during the 2006 World Cup were designated as “no-go” areas for people of color. This provoked howls of outrage from eastern soccer fans, most of whom are neither violent nor bigoted.

Yet the pattern reflects polls that show higher levels of racism in the NFS. Seven percent of eastern Germans express sympathy with a far right group and 40 percent claim that there are too many “foreigners” in Germany. Only in the NFS have far right parties been able to secure places in regional legislatures.

The German Soccer Federation has taken action to raise the level of the sport in the NFS. In addition to extensive anti-racism and conflict prevention work conducted with fan clubs in the eastern states, it has invested heavily in developing young soccer talent in the east. Since 1996, the new sports-oriented high schools the Federation has sponsored, 15 total, are in the NFS. The first results: the 15- and 16-year old national teams now have more eastern players than ever.

German soccer expert Christoph Biermann, the author of several books on the game, said that fans in the east are more conscious of the east-west divide in soccer than those in the west. “When an easterner sees Michael Ballack playing for the national team,“ explained Biermann, “he’s seen as one of their own. But most people in the west just see him as just another a German soccer player. They don’t pay attention anymore about where he came from. Though more slowly, I think this will happen in the east, too.”

More GlobalPost dispatches from Germany:

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