Football is an exceptionally good lens to look through to understand people and places. The graphic below shows the distribution of 1st and 2nd Bundesliga teams in the 2015/16 season. One thing stands out bold as brass: East Germany is desperately lacking. You see a giant hole in the centre, which is the underpopulated regions of Thuringia and East Hessen, and three dots in the eastern half. One is Hertha BSC, which is a West German team (being located in West Berlin). Otherwise last season only two East German teams played in the top 2 tiers of German Football.
One is RB Leipzig, the team purchased by one of Europe’s largest corporations, an advertising behemoth that uses Football as a marketing tool. RB Leipzig do not struggle for capital and have better infrastructure, staff and players than any other in East Germany. The other is 1. FC Union Berlin. Although being truly Ossi and a great club to follow, Union have the advantage of being located in the capital, closer to centres of investment and in reach of a larger pool of potential fans, increasingly more of various nationalities. This gives Union a growing fan base which provides resources to stay afloat comfortably in the 2. Bundesliga. These two teams are understandably producing Football good enough to remain in the higher divisions.
But why are there only two? Are there simply less East German teams in existence than in the West? Well, yes; with all other conditions controlled you would naturally expect a lower amount of East German teams in the top 2 tiers of German Football. But when you look at the size of some of the East German clubs, the picture changes. Dynamo Dresden’s average attendance last season was 27,544, 1. FC Magdeburg managed 18,393, Hansa Rostock saw 12,855 (these three being some of the fiercest in terms of reputation). In the higher leagues, Eintracht Braunschweig attracted 21,193 to each game. FC Ingolstadt 04 had an average attendance of 14,836. SC Paderborn 07 had only 10,929 each game. The latter 3 are West German teams that have played first division Football in recent seasons and are still higher than their Eastern counterparts despite being a similar size in terms of fans. East German teams clearly are big enough to compete against Western teams. So why are they absent from the top 2 Bundesliga?
Investment. Communist-led East German industry and its high unit labour costs died quickly after reunification. In the GDR the Football teams were often related to and sponsored by the national companies such as the military, chemical works, iron works, rail networks and even the Stasi (all eyes on you Dynamo). The eastern clubs suddenly didn’t have the source of capital that their West German counterparts enjoyed and moreover their stronger players would’ve quickly gone to play for and live in the West, using their talent to guarantee a better quality of life in the affluent West. The end result was a serious drop in quality in East Germany relative to the West, culminating in stagnation and an Abstand that has endured 26 years, almost exactly mirroring the country culturally and economically; in spite of progress, East Germany and its inhabitants still have a lower GDP per head, claim lower life satisfaction and suffer from a higher unemployment rate than the Westerners.
So what is the future for the Ossis? It could be promising. We have this year seen RB Leipzig break into the 1. Bundesliga, the first East German team to do so in 6 years (albeit artificially and with much grief from within the German Footballing community), and Dynamo Dresden and Erzgebirge Aue are once again 2. Bundesliga teams. We are aware that this is a short time-frame to use as a generalisation. But East German Football fandom follows a similar pattern often seen in countries experiencing economic hardship. Higher unemployment means that young people and predominantly young men gravitate toward team sports to get their sense of purpose, as they struggle to feel a sense of great achievement by themselves. The lack of a job means that there is also less negative incentive to not get involved with hooliganism and misbehaviour, which is why the East German clubs’ Ultras are some of the most extreme and the most feared in Central Europe. But this does also protect the club and help keep attendance high as people feel very loyal. Large solitary clubs in populated catchment areas are always going to be a good target for investment, as there is guaranteed high attendance. The large amount of fans who take the club very seriously could well prove to be their biggest asset, helping attract capital. Time will tell. For now, the East unfortunately remains behind on and off pitch.