25 years after Berlin Wall fell, Germany’s best soccer players still come from the west

As the Berlin Wall was chipped into souvenirs, what used to be known as West Germany won a World Cup soccer championship. It was to be a last great separate accomplishment, as East Germany and West Germany were at the time in the process of becoming simply Germany.

The coach of that championship team, soccer legend Franz Beckenbauer, looked at that victory, then voiced what Germans and soccer fans around the world were thinking: Part of a divided Germany had just been crowned world champions. How much greater would a united one be?

“The German national team will be unbeatable for years to come,” he said. And it was clear to those here and many abroad that while he was talking about sport, much more was implied about this no longer divided house. West Germany, already an economic power, would add the potential of the East and be better for it.

So this summer, as Germans celebrate both the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and their soccer team’s appearance Friday in the quarterfinals of this year’s the World Cup, more than a few are scratching their heads over the fact that the team representing this unified nation still hails mostly from the old West Germany.

The concerns go far beyond a game.

“Everything about the division between East and West that still exists today is reflected in football,” says Niklas Wildhagen, a soccer writer for Bundesliga Fanatic who has written about the divide. “The eastern clubs weren’t prepared to switch from a communist system to a capitalist one, and failed. The rich western clubs came in quickly and picked up what talent there was and took it home with them to the West. Still to this day, soccer in the East is without money, without a full understanding of how to be successful and increasingly without hope.”

That division persists in many ways.

The unemployment rate remains substantially higher in the East than the West. In a recent deal to establish a minimum wage, unions and employers agreed it should be lower in the East. Old eastern cities that grew with the industries of a planned economy now spend their budgets ripping out block after block of apartments so that they won’t look too deserted. Even pensioners note that those who did the same work in the East survive on half to a quarter of what westerners receive.

In World Cup soccer, the former East Germany, which was a little less than half the size of West Germany and had about a quarter of the population, comes up short, too. Of the 24 players on the national team in Brazil this summer, only one, Toni Kroos, is from the old East. Just two other easterners were serious contenders to make the squad.

In 2002, when Germany lost in the final to Brazil, there were six “Ossies,” or easterners, on the team. In 2006, when Germany hosted the World Cup and finished third, there were four. By 2010 there was one, and experts note that the youth systems from which Germany draws its national team don’t point to much change in the next World Cup cycle.

In fact, soccer made in Germany these days is almost exclusively a western affair.

In Germany, the professional game is organized in a multilayer Bundesliga. The best teams play in the 1st Bundesliga, while lesser teams compete in 2nd Bundesliga, or Liga 3 or the semi-professional leagues. Successful teams move up the ladder. Unsuccessful teams slide down it.

Every team in 1st Bundesliga this year is from the old West. The highest ranking former eastern team finished ninth out of 18 teams in the second tier. A number of storied soccer clubs from the old East, such as FC Magdeburg, which was crowned European champion in 1974, now struggle in the semi-professional ranks.

In the old East Germany teams didn’t work with a profit motive, and money wasn’t really an issue. Players were spotted at early ages under a comprehensive scouting program run by the communist government, then trained in the government sports program. Once a player reached the top of his game, he played for his hometown club or was assigned to a team elsewhere.

Today, the last of the players spotted and reared in that system have retired. Scouting and development of talent no longer is a government function, but falls to professional teams, the best of which are in the old West.

German soccer writer Martin Schuster says many have been puzzled by the situation.

“The Schere (gap) between East and West football is an open question,” he said. “Of course it reflects the fact of the economy. But honestly, I haven’t got a clean answer now.”

The phenomenon worries the German Football Association, which recently commissioned sports historian Jutta Braun to figure out why there are so few easterners playing at the top level of the game. Kids, after all, are kids, and all German kids play soccer.

Braun cautions that she’s just beginning her research, but she has noted one aspect of German sports that seems to separate the country from others: In Germany, there appears to be no link between kids struggling to get out of poverty and success in sports. That runs counter to what the rule appears to be in much of the world, where sports stars come from the mean streets.

Soccer worldwide is especially known for this. All that’s needed for a game is a ball, and sometimes not even that. The Brazilian legend Pele famously grew up playing soccer with rolled up socks and grapefruit _ legend has it that he developed his soft touch on the “ball” because he played with a grapefruit that his family still had to eat.

In contrast, Braun said, the top German players tend to come from middle-class and upper-middle-class families. Those are the kids whose parents join soccer clubs and who get access to the highest level of training and the best facilities.

Braun offers another idea: The structure of soccer clubs in unified Germany, which mimics what existed in the West, may remind easterners too much of a system that in the East meant repression and steroid use. In the East, for example, important soccer clubs such as Dynamo Dresden and Berlin F.C. Dynamo were known to be sponsored by the East German secret police agency, the Stasi.

“In general, you find a significantly lower rate of people being organized in sports clubs and associations in the East than in the West,” she said. “The reason for that might be that in (East Germany) there had not been the concept of clubs as a free association of people, but as state-run agencies. And because of that, this cultural thing called ‘Verein’ (sports club) does not mean the same in the East and the West.”