Oberliga Echoes: Soccer in post-Wende Leipzig

“Chemie-Schweine ‘raus! Chemie-Schweine ‘raus!”
“Chemical Pigs Out! Chemical Pigs Out!”

“Lok-Schweine ‘raus! Lok-Schweine ‘raus!”
“Locomotive Pigs Out! Locomotive Pigs Out!”

The chants reverberated around the large hall on Leipzig’s new Trade Fair Grounds as the groups of opposing fans hurled their chants at each other. Rows of riot police ensured that the supporters were kept in their assigned sections and that none slipped out to confront their “enemies”.

Leipzig fans climb over security fence seeking to join others storming the Sachsen fan bloc (photo: author).

VfB Leipzig fans climb over security fence seeking to join others storming the Sachsen fan bloc during the May 1999 derby at Bruno Plache Stadium (photo: author).

The scene was like nothing I had witnessed before: exciting, frightening and more than a little bewildering. It was January 1999 and the occasion was an inconsequential indoor soccer tournament being put on by the German Football Association in the eastern German city of Leipzig during the long winter break in the German Bundesliga schedules. Taking part were the two local clubs, VfB Leipzig and FC Sachsen Leipzig, two top teams from eastern Germany (Hansa Rostock (1st div.) and Energie Cottbus (2nd)), along with a handful of western German clubs from the 1st and 2nd divisions. Coming from Canada, where a hockey game between the country’s two greatest rivals could be staged under the supervision of couple dozen policeman with little to no violence, real or threatened, the vitriol on display was hard to process.

LPZ Football - DFB Hallenfussball Neue Messe

Also confusing were the epithets being thrown around. Who were Chemie and Lok? I had come to Leipzig a “soccer fan” (not saying much in a country where, at the time, there was precious little soccer to be a fan of!) but almost completely ignorant of the city’s footballing history. I worked up my courage and asked a teenager standing near me if he could explain and I learned that the fans were referring to the East German predecessors of VfB (1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig) and FC Sachsen (Chemie Leipzig). These two teams, he told me, really don’t like each other.

It turned out that I hadn’t seen the half of it.

Roots of a Rivalry

The passions on display at that rather inconsequential indoor tournament were the product of a long-standing antipathy, the rough outlines of which are as follow below.

FC Sachsen Leipzig / Chemie Leipzig: The Legends of Leutzsch

Chemie Leipzig's championship team immortalized in cement at Alfred-Kunze-Sportpark (photo: author).

Chemie Leipzig’s championship team immortalized in cement at Alfred-Kunze-Sportpark (photo: author).

As founding myths go, Chemie Leipzig, the GDR-predecessor to FC Sachsen Leipzig, had one that is hard to beat.

Chemie has its roots in the run up to the 1963/64 season of the East German Oberliga. To that point, football fans in the “Saxon metropolis” had made do with two chronic Oberliga underachievers, something the local Party bosses felt cast the GDR’s second city in a poor light, They lobbied the country’s highest sporting authority, the Deutscher Turn- und Sportbund (DTSB), to rectify the situation and it  did so with a declaration that bore all the  hallmarks of the exercise of power that had become de rigeur in state socialist East Germany. The DTSB ordered the dissolution of Leipzig’s two existing clubs and the redistribution of their players to two new teams with those identified as “the best” assigned to the newly-founded SC Leipzig, while “the leftovers (“der Rest von Leipzig“) were delegated to BSG Chemie Leipzig.

You can probably imagine the rest: Chemie turned its home ground in Leipzig’s working class west end into a fortress and parlayed this strength into a most unexpected Oberliga title. In the process, the team’s trainer Alfred Kunze became a local sporting hero and the Chemie established its reputation as a loveable underdog independent, or even defiant, of state control (Not necessarily true, but no one at Chemie was arguing). While this early success was the club’s high water mark in the GDR-era, the experience of the championship year buoyed the team and its fans in the years that followed when Chemie became what German soccer fans calls an “elevator team”, constantly going up and down between two divisions.

VfB Leipzig / 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig

On the other side of town, Chemie’s privileged rivals at FC Leipzig gained the reputation as the team of the Party “Bonzen”, of “fat cats”, an image it maintained even after the club was renamed 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig in 1965. And though the authorities’ initial efforts to establish FC as Leipzig’s first team failed, it didn’t take Lok long to establish itself as Leipzig’s first address for football, regularly placing in the Oberliga’s upper echelons. In 1987 the team even reached the final of UEFA’s Cup Winners Cup falling there 1-0 to Johann Cruijff’s Ajax Amsterdam.

Post-1989, both teams underwent significant restructuring in a bid to find their place on the newly-unified German football map. Lok dropped its “East Bloc” sounding name to assume the historical mantle of VfB Leipzig, one of Germany’s first football clubs and the country’s first champion (1903). Chemie, meanwhile, merged with another team on the Oberliga’s fringes, Chemie Böhlen, to become FC Sachsen Leipzig.

The teams’ starting positions in the newly unified German football landscape were quite different, however, reflecting their relative positions as they exited East German football after the 1990-91 season. For VfB, the first port of the call in 1991-92 was the German second division where a third place finish catapulted the team into the Bundesliga for the 93-94 season. The top tier proved to be rather inhospitable to VfB and the team finished in last place beginning a decline that would continue for the next decade or so. For FC Sachsen, the path led to the German third division, a level of competition which at that time was organized on a regional, not national, scale. This meant that any path upwards to the national 2nd Bundesliga would be very difficult with teams having to get past multiple contenders for one of the few promotion spots available each year. This would prove to be a hurdle that FC Sachsen would never be able to clear.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJPR9K1HArY
Here a glimpse of Lok at home versus Schalke 04 during their one Bundesliga season. At that time, the team was still playing in the mammoth Zentralstadion, a dilapidated ground that had been built in the mid-1950s by volunteer labourers who piled up masses of war rubble to create a giant bowl. The stadium originally held 120,000 spectators and regularly played host to large crowds for matches by the GDR national team and Lok Leipzig (something that is difficult to imagine based on this clip!)

Leipzig Football in 1999

At the point I arrived in Leipzig in January 1999, both Leipzig sides VfB and Sachsen were playing in one of the brackets of the third division (Regionalliga). This was the first time the rivals had been in the same class in eight years and the locals were up for it. As VfB were the more successful and ambitious of the two, I initially gravitated their way. In what was a classic constellation in eastern German football at the time, VfB had a West German sugar daddy and a high profile trainer both of whom liked to  talk up the team’s prospects to anyone who would listen.

80s-era football-themed mural decorating a building near Bruno-Plache (photo: author)

80s-era football-themed mural decorating a building near Bruno-Plache Stadium (photo: author).

I took in my first matches at the VfB’s home ground, Bruno-Plache-Stadion, a modest stadium in the southern Leipzig neighbourhood of Probstheida which could easily hold the VfB faithful. The ground had retained all of its GDR-era charm, which wasn’t hard since it had little. The playing field was surrounded by a track which was in turn ringed by a high metal fence keeping spectators some distance from the action. An old wooden grandstand, filled with middle- or retirement-aged men smoking and perpetually shaking their heads in disgust, stood on one side of the field while terraced standing stands encircled the rest of the field. There was a VfB fan curve but it was even less appealing than the grandstand due to the relatively high proportion of neo-Nazis it held.

While I made it out to a view matches, it isn’t the football that I saw there which has stayed with me (my diary entries from the time often describe the matches using the word “Grottenkick“, a term that would translate roughly as “crappy match”). Rather my overriding memories of those matches at Bruno-Plache tend to centre on the atmosphere of barely bridled menace that was present both in the ground and on the streetcar to and from the matches. That season the Regionalliga Nordost had essentially become a reconstituted East German Oberliga allowing old rivals to rekindle long held animosities. In addition to VfB and Sachsen Leipzig, the league also included FC Berlin (successors of the widely hated, Stasi-affiliates BFC Dynamo), 1. FC Magdeburg, 1. FC Union Berlin, Rot-Weiss Erfurt and Carl-Zeiss Jena.

One match of which I have some memory was the first I attended that featured VfB versus 1. FC Union Berlin on a wintry Saturday afternoon. The stadium was nicely filled, but the action on the field was largely overshadowed by constant attempts by VfB fans to climb out of their section and into the guest block to confront the visiting fans and vice versa. An entire section of the stadium had been left empty between the two tribes, a sort of “no man’s land” that was patrolled by a few dozen police officers in full riot gear. There was something very ritualistic about the whole scene, but I got the sense that both sides would be up for a bit of aggro if the opportunity presented itself. Even the stadium announcer got in on the provocation, reminding Union fans of the departure times for their trains and announcing that buses had been arranged to transport them to the station “as a sign of our hospitality”. But not all the friction could be filed away under “harmless shenanigans”. My diary records the appalling behaviour of a number of VfB fans: a kid near me screaming “You Jew!” at the ref whenever he made a contentious call; the fan curve joining together to make “ooh ooh” noises when Union subbed in a black player. Oh, and they also liked to play “Live Is Life” over the PA system. Bad enough in its original, but at Bruno-Plache, the favoured version of that 80s classic was the cover version done by Laibach, the Slovenian industrial music specialists with a penchant for totalitarian trapping. As I noted at time, “Pinheads seem to be the only ones who go to these games.”

After a couple more matches along the same lines, I decided that I’d had enough and decided to check out the competition.

Leutzsch-Kanadische Freundschaft

So one Saturday at the end of April 1999, I hopped into an old Czechoslovak-made Tatra streetcar for the trip out to the western district of Leutzsch where Leipzig’s other team, FC Sachsen, were taking on FSV Zwickau at Chemie’s old bastion, the Alfred-Kunze-Sportpark. As the tram made its way west, we quickly left behind us those areas adjacent to the city centre that were beginning to gentrify. Soon, the scenery was filled with unrenovated apartment blocks, their facades crumbling and dirty from years of exposure to brown coal smoke. The neighourhoods we passed through were traditionally working class and for most of the preceding century they had been home to thousands of Leipzigers who had worked in the city’s vast textile mills located nearby. With unification, these factories had all been shuttered and, passing through the district’s high streets that Saturday afternoon, the collateral damage of this economic contraction was everywhere. When the streetcar entered the Georg-Schwarz Strasse, the Leutzsch district’s narrow main thoroughfare, we rattled past scenes of dilapidation and decay punctuated by the odd, newly renovated building.

I was transfixed. I had come to Leipzig in search of remants of life in the GDR and the #7 streetcar seemed to be the portal to this past.

LPZ Football - Alfred Kunze Sportpark

The match report I found online while preparing this post tells me that there were 1,800 paying customers at the Sportpark that day. This seems about right as I recall having plenty of room to maneuver in the park’s north block, a huge terrace at the foot of which was Sachsen’s fan section. To my right, on the stadium’s west side, there stood an old wooden grandstand covering the seated section while a small “guest block” was tucked in behind the southern goal.

To set the stage: guests Zwickau sat 3rd in the table, but too far back of the leaders to have any hope of making up the necessary ground over the season’s four remaining matches. Sachsen meanwhile sat 14th, safely above the relegation zone. In other words, the match was an irrelevance to the home side. Not that you would’ve known from the reaction of Sachsen’s fans. The first half was uneventful and scoreless, something the locals could live with, but when Zwickau opened the scoring about 15 minutes into the second period, voices of protest grew louder. Chants of “Wir wollen euch kämpfen sehen!” (“We want to see you fight!”) rained down on the players from the fan block and something approaching an atmosphere threatened to erupt. Next to me a fellow in his mid-30s sporting a Sachsen jersey and a rather spectacular mullet shook his head at the team’s display. When Zwickau doubled their lead in the 83rd minute, he looked on with horror and kept repeating “Dett kann ja nit wahr sein!” (“This can’t be happening!”) to himself over and over. From the Zwickau fan block the melody of “Hey Jude” drifted over: “Nah nah nah na-na-na-na Zwick-aaauuu!”. A few minutes later the final whistle blew and several dozen of the Sachsen fans ran for towards the exit. I assumed they had a train to catch, but once I made my way down from the top of the terrace I saw that they were lining a chain link fence that ran from the playing field, across the path leading to the exit, and to the Sachsen clubhouse. The team had to run the gauntlet to get to their changing room. On either side of the fence the team’s most ardent fans let them have it, raining them with abuse and calling them out for their performance. One fellow, no doubt fueled by several beer, was scarlet red and screaming himself hoarse.

If there had been any doubts to that point, there were none anymore: this was it.

The Leipzig Derby: May 15, 1999

Sadly, the season was winding down, but the schedule promised one final spectacle: a derby match between Sachsen and VfB at Bruno-Plache on the last match. I was determined to go.

When game day rolled around, it was a pleasant, slightly cloudy day. At the stadium, a large crowd had gathered to witness what was only the second league derby match between the old rivals in eight years. The fall fixture in Leutzsch had produced a 3:3 tie featuring an equalizer by Sachsen as the clock was winding down. Would we get another such spectacle? Well, sort of . . .

The match took a while to get rolling. VfB opened the scoring in the 22nd minute, but it was what would transpire two minutes later that a local paper described as “a moment that will go down as a high point in Leipzig football history – albeit a negative one.” (Sachsen Sonntag, May 16, 1999, pg. 17). It was then that a group of more than 100 VfB hooligans managed to open a lock to the security fence surrounding the playing the field and storm onto the pitch to attack the Sachsen Leipzig guest bloc. As they raced across the grass, several smoke bombs and flares flew. Riot and mounted police gave chase while the players fled for safety. For the next fifteen minutes police using their truncheons and dogs cleared the hooligans from the pitch while the crowd looked on, some amused, others bemused, a few horrified. Then the game resumed with authorities apparently calculating that a cancellation would only provoke worse scenes. Regardless, what I had seen only cemented my allegiances and not even the 5-0 shellacking that VfB gave the boys in green could change that!

1999/2000 Season

When the new season opened later that year, I made my way out to Kunze-Sportpark regularly to catch FC Sachsen’s home matches which once again featured many clashes with old GDR rivals including VfB Leipzig. While the new season appeared to be a repeat of the year before, in fact, the balance of power in Leipzig had shifted. Despite going “all in” the previous season, VfB had just missed promotion but it’s budget had assumed success. When VfB’s high-priced team and coach failed to deliver them to the promised land of the professional second division, the gap in the club budget could only be closed by drastically reducing their expenditures. It didn’t take long for the results of this penny pinching to be reflected in the table and VfB quickly found itself firmly ensconced in the no-man’s land of a mid-table existence. At the same time, things were coming up roses in Leutzsch as FCS got off to its strongest start in years and found itself nipping at the heels of a the league leaders.

This set the stage for the first derby match of the year in September 1999 hosted by FCS at Kunze-Sportpark. Given both team’s recent form, there was much speculation in advance that FC Sachsen might actually manage its first derby win in 23 years, a possibility that stoked interest in the derby. On match day, 11,000 fans made their way to the stadium and there were literally dozens of riot police on hand, even a helicopter hovering over the proceedings. Security was tight, but once inside, the atmosphere was electric, but hostilities were limited to loud and raucous chants (at least until after the final whistle). Once the match kicked off we were treated to a hard fought, entertaining contest. Despite a good effort from VfB and long stretches where they were clearly in control, Sachsen took its chances and came away with a not entirely undeserved 2-0 victory.

And when the final whistle went, the place went nuts. Strangers hugged one another, tears flowed and chants ensued. It was really something to behold.

For a sense of the match and the celebration, check out this new report on the match (begins at about 1:10 mark):

Witnessing that celebration was a remarkable experience. I’d been part of sport-related celebrations in my native Canada, seen Torontonians celebrate two World Series, the city go nuts when the Leafs threatened to make the Stanley Cup finals in ’93, but those were big time teams, the scale way beyond the reality of FC Sachsen in 2003. But the fact was that this team, marginalized and eking out an existence in the middle reaches of German football, mattered and mattered greatly to these fans. It was part of their collective identity and its success was, in some way, theirs too.

The crowd at Chemie was always more sympathetic to me than what I found across town at Bruno-Plache. I didn’t belong in either place, but my impression was that Leutzsch seemed to be home to more of those eastern Germans who would’ve been tallied on the “Losers” side of unification ledger. At VfB, there was a preponderance of well-dressed middle-aged men, guys who had made the transition without too much apparent difficulty. These were the people who would manage to arrange themselves in whatever system was prevailing, not that there’s anything wrong with that per se. However, my heart belonged to those who had to struggle for what they got and who expected their team to do the same.

FC Sachsen in Regionalliga in 2003/04

In retrospect, that derby match in 1999 may was probably the high point of my FC Sachsen fandom. I returned to Leipzig in the fall of 2003, just in time to find FCS on a bit of an upswing. The previous year the team had managed its first promotion since 1985, from the 4th division to the northern bracket of the Regionalliga or 3rd division. This meant leaving behind almost all of Chemie/FCS’s traditional eastern rivals, only Dynamo Dresden and Chemnitzer FC (formerly FC Karl-Marx-Stadt) were present here, but a few faded luminaries of West German football including KFC Uerdingen 05 and Eintracht Braunschweig helped spruce up the new surroundings.

FCS had difficulties acclimatizing to the thinner air of the 3rd division however and the team quickly found itself mired in the relegation zone. That didn’t mean there weren’t highlights though. Chief among these was a great game against FC St. Pauli on a beautifully sunny October Saturday where a good crowd, including a sizable traveling contingent from Hamburg, helped create a good football atmosphere. My account of this match recounts that the visiting fans, well known as German football’s most politically progressive, used their visit to the former-East to unfurl a huge anti-Nazi banner reading “Good Night White Pride!”. I also recorded seeing a FC Sachsen fan in a t-shirt featuring a Droog over a text in the Gothic typeface then favoured by neo-Nazis which read “A true Leutzscher is a barbarian and an Aryan”. And at other matches that fall, I recorded hearing Sachsen fans call referees and opposing players “Jews”. VfB may have had more of them, but there was no hiding from the fact that FC Sachsen was also home to many who subscribed to what can only be called racist and fascist thinking too.

As for the match itself, my diary records that when FCS conceded the tying goal in the 89th minute, the fans were “remarkably fatalistic about it. It would seem that a strong belief in Murphy’s Law is part and parcel of being a Chemiker. This attitude does not, however, preclude the ability to celebrate when good fortune does come Sachsen’s way though, something I experienced when FC managed to shove in the 2-1 winner in extra time. A great football moment!” It was and to prove it, check out the match report here:

The only derby match that season came in the Sachsen Cup, the competition which produced the state’s participant in the German League Cup competition. FC Sachsen drew VfB in the quarter finals for a match that was played at Bruno-Plache in December 2013. FCS won 2-1 in what would be the last match against this hometown rival as VfB finally was forced into bankruptcy at the end of that season after years of limping along.

That February, during the winter break, I had another memorable stadium experience at the Kunze-Sportpark when my good friend Steve came to visit. An enthusiastic football fan, he was easily convinced that we should make our way out to Leutszch on a chilly, weekday afternoon for a training camp friendly between Sachsen and SV Babelsberg. The snow covered pitch bathed in a milky, winter light, the near empty ground and Bockwurst served from a Thermos all combined for a unique and unforgettable match.

Thankfully I left town before the season ended and so was able to miss the death throes of a campaign that saw the team end up second from the bottom and 17 points from safety. FC Sachsen remained stuck in the fourth division for the next few years, and club bosses grasped at numerous different straws in an attempt to heave the team into the proximity of respectability. During these years, the team was convinced to leave its traditional home of the Alfred-Kunze-Sportpark for the newly renovated Zentralstadion, a venue for the 2006 World Cup. Many fans were put off by this move and the club’s already meager attendance plummeted. I took in a Sachsen match at the stadium at the end of the 2005/06 season. There were no more than 2,000 fans in a stadium built to hold almost 43,000, and it was more than a little sad as the photo evidence below will attest to.

During the 2006/07 winter break, team managers entered into takeover negotiations with Austria energy drink manufacturer Red Bull. Under the proposed plan, Red Bull would take over the ownership of FC Sachsen and rename the club Red Bull Leipzig. The plan was met with fierce opposition from the club’s remaining fans, but it was ultimately the statues of the German Football Association prohibiting the integration of a sponsor in the team name that caused the failure of this arrangement. This may have been the last real opportunity to save whatever it was that FC Sachsen had become.

After my depressing stadium experience in 2006, I lost touch with the team, but registered their troubles through the German soccer press. By chance during a 2011 visit to Leipzig, I picked up the local paper to find a banner running across the front page informing readers that a bankruptcy lawyer had confirmed the FC Sachsen’s insolvency and with this, the heirs to Leipzig’s two GDR-era soccer traditions were joined in a final futility.

Leipzig Football in 2016

Despite their evident failures, support for Chemie and Lokomotiv, persists in Leipzig.. Fans of both FC Sachsen and VfB Leipzig reacted to their club’s bankruptcies by refounding each club with their “original”, GDR-era names. 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig started in the 11th tier of German soccer in 2004 and has just won promotion to the Regionalliga, or what is now the country’s 4th league. BSG Chemie Leipzig also exists as a club and its members see themselves as the legitimate heirs of the Chemie tradition. Its first team plays in the 6th tier of German football, and carries out their home matches at the club’s traditional home ground, the Alfred-Kunze-Sportpark.

However, the undisputed number one on the Leipzig football scene these days is RB Leipzig. As the name, and club logo, suggest, this team is the project of the Red Bull company. When the proposed takeover of FC Sachsen fell apart. the company did not go quietly into the Saxon night but rather sought a new point of entry into what it had correctly identified as a football market with considerable unsatisfied demand. Seeking to skirt the control of the German Football Federation, Red Bull purchased the license of a 5th division side from suburban Leipzig, SSV Markanstädt. With this license in hand, Red Bull dubbed its new team RB (short for, of course, Rasenballsport (a word created by the company which translates as ‘lawn ball sport’) Leipzig, or RB Leipzig for short. With Red Bull’s deep pockets, the team completed the march from the 5th division to the German first division, the Bundesliga, this past spring. Soccer purists are horrified, but as someone who witnessed the reality of post-unification football in Leipzig first hand, I am less critical than many.

My arguments can be summed up as follow:

  • the city’s two traditional teams had more than 20 years to establish themselves as the first address of Leipzig soccer; sure, the cards were stacked against them, but they had many, many opportunities to become the team and neither could do so;
  • the residents of the former-East have been victims of the globalized economy for decades, so in my view it’s only fair that they reap some of the benefits that this economic order has by letting them enjoy some first class football in their city;
  • the corporate nature of Red Bull’s ownership structure already has existed in German professional football for decades (see VW Wolfsburg. Bayer Leverkusen and Audi Ingolstadt); why is RB Leipzig subject to further scrutiny than those other clubs? (Is there an-East bias in the attitudes of many in the German soccer establishment?);
  • change is inevitable and football allegiances are fluid; Leipzig has had numerous teams that enjoyed significant fan support over the 100+ years that game has been played there and there’s no law that says fans have to remain loyal to their clubs in perpetuity.

 

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