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Eastern German problems play out on the pitch

How its dismal football performance reflects former East Germany's challenges.

Germany's Michael Ballack (R) shoots to score against Wales during their 2010 World Cup qualifying soccer match at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff April 1, 2009. Ballack is the most prominent star to come from the former East Germany. (Russell Cheyne/Reuters)

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.”