The Benefits of Defeat – East Germany Versus West Germany At The 1974 World Cup

It was one of the few matches in World Cup history where both the winner and loser both ended up getting what they needed. The match took place in the first round of group play in the 1974 World Cup. It would be the only time East Germany and West Germany would face each other in the world’s most prestigious football tournament. The match coincided with the 1974 World Cup being held in West Germany. Fittingly, this was the only time East Germany qualified for the finals.

A match that was more than a game - West & East German captains shake hands before the historic match

A match that was more than a game – West & East German captains shake hands before the historic match

“To Prove To The World That We Could Play Football” – East Germany’s Challenge
The match took place before a packed crowd of 60,200 at the Volksparkstadion in the port city of Hamburg. The overriding majority of fans were West German supporters. In the same stadium eight days earlier, just 15,800 had shown up to watch the East Germans defeat Australia 2-0. The East German government had allowed only 2,000 hand-picked supporters to travel west of the Iron Curtain to cheer on their side. The majority of these were from the Ministry of State Security, better known as the Stasi. The secret police watched over and controlled every aspect of life on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. They were there to cheer, as well as keep a close eye on the East German team. As the lone vocal supporters of their national side, they gave a pre-planned cheer throughout the match, “7-8-9-10-Great.” The cheer was just as unimaginative as the communist system that had produced it.

West Germany came in to the match as heavy favorites, based on talent, form and history. They already had created quite a legacy in World Cup play, winning the title in 1954, a runner-up finish in 1966 and two semifinal appearances in 1958 and 1970. West Germany also came in to the tournament as European Champions. By comparison, the East Germans had achieved little in international play. Their greatest accomplishment up to that point had been a bronze medal finish at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. East Germany had produced many Olympic and World Champions in athletics. It was later discovered that much of their athletic success was due to doping, but drugs were of little help in fielding a world class football team. The 1974 squad was one of the best East Germany ever fielded. Yet no one believed they stood a chance against West Germany. As Bernd Brausch, the great East German midfielder later would say, “Everyone thought that we had no chance and we just wanted to prove to the world that we could play football.”  They would certainly do that.

“We Are Playing This For Schon” – West Germany’s Challenge
East Germany versus West Germany would be the final match in Group One play. While both teams had already qualified for the next round, the match result would determine future opponents for each team. Ironically, the winner would end up with a much tougher matchup in the second round of group play, though neither team thought much about this at the time. The truth was that both sides wanted to win badly, the West Germans to avoid embarrassment, the East Germans to prove they belonged on the same international football stage as their ethnic kin. One participant under immense pressure was the West German coach, Helmut Schon. Schon had been born in Dresden, a major city in what was now East German territory. Here was his chance for revenge and his players knew it. Franz Beckenbauer, West Germany’s star sweeper, made quite the statement when he said, “we are playing this for Schoen.” Those words would come back to haunt the team

Pressure was magnified by the heightened security situation. The World Cup was the first major international sporting event held in West Germany since the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics where eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage and murdered by a Palestinian terrorist group. There was a concerted effort by the West German authorities to ensure that this did not happen again.  The security measures were visible, police armed with guns all around the stadium and a helicopter hovering over the pitch throughout the match.

Jurgen Sparwasser (at left) scores the winning goal

Jurgen Sparwasser (at left) scores the winning goal

An Atmosphere Fraught With Tension – The Decisive Goal
Nerves certainly played a role in the shaky play of both teams during the first half. Neither team was able to capitalize on their best opportunities. The East Germans failed to score when they were gifted an open goal. The West Germans did not do any better.  Gerd Mueller, their brilliant striker, was denied when his shot hit the goal post. He created another excellent chance for Jurgen Grabowski who also missed. The first half ended in a scoreless tie. The second half was largely dominated by West Germany. They controlled play throughout, but were still unable to score.

The longer the game remained scoreless, the greater likelihood that the East Germans just might breakthrough. In the 82nd minute that is exactly what happened. Erich Hamann fed Jurgen Sparwasser the ball on the right, where he managed to get behind West German defender Berti Vogts. Sparwasser then unleashed a shot into the net. It turned out to be the decisive goal. When time expired a few minutes later, the East Germans had scored an upset for the ages. Their victory would be exploited by the regime for political purposes, but Sparwasser and the East German team got little reward. In the near term, the West Germans were devastated. Later that evening the team drowned its sorrows in a bout of drinking that continued until dawn. Strangely enough, they would realize the benefits of defeat.

To the loser goes the spoils - West Germany celebrates its 1974 World Cup title

To the loser goes the spoils – West Germany celebrates its 1974 World Cup title


Winning By Losing – West Of Victory, East Of Defeat

East Germany’s victory meant that they were the victors in Group One, while West Germany finished in second place. Unfortunately the East Germans had set themselves up for placement in the tougher of the two groups in the second round, having to face the Netherlands, Brazil and Argentina. Consequently they would not win another match in the tournament. Fortune smiled on the West Germans who were placed in a much weaker group with Poland, Sweden and Yugoslavia. They also reconfigured their lineup after the defeat against East Germany. The upshot was that West Germany went undefeated in group play and avoided facing the Netherlands until the final, a game in which they eked out a 2-1 victory. They had won the 1974 World Cup despite their devastating loss to East Germany. It was their reaction to that loss and luck with the draw that propelled them to their second World Cup title. They could not have asked for much more. The same could be said for the East Germans, who won the game that mattered most to them, their government and a nation that fifteen years later would cease to exist. Both East and West Germany had been victorious, even in defeat.

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