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Phil Baki takes a look at the awe inspiring story of Dynamo Dresden.
It was a Saturday afternoon in Dresden, and the sun seemed to be shining brighter than it often does. The air in the city was warm and as supporters of the city’s football club, Dynamo Dresden left the Stadion Dresden, the songs they often save for their time in the K-Block spilled onto the streets of the city. The club’s motto, “Im Herzen Vereint” or “United in Hearts” showed how the club’s fans feel about Dynamo and it was easy to see on a day like this. This was all because a 1-1 draw against Saxon rivals Erzgebirge Aue was enough to see Dynamo secure the 3. Liga championship. This achievement was secondary to that of promotion to the 2. Bundesliga, but the title has brought hope of a return to prominence for a club, and indeed a city, which have been seeking a return to their rightful place in the world for many years. Dresden has faced physical, legal, governmental, and financial barriers to their rise from the darkness, but are now climbing back into the light.
Dresden evokes a number of emotions depending on what you know about the Saxon city. To those who know what it was prior to World War 2, the city brings feelings of awe. Prior to 1945, it was a truly beautiful city full of Baroque architecture known as the “Florence of the Elbe.” The Frauenkirche, a cathedral built in the 11th century, was a hallmark of the Baroqe style that characterized the city. Those who know about Dresden because of World War 2 will feel horror and sympathy for the citizens who endured the Allied bombing of Dresden at the end of the war. The death toll was catastrophic. Refugees who were seeking shelter from the Russian advance from the east went to Dresden in search of sanctuary. Instead the sanctuary they sought was transformed into the very visage of hell on earth. Incendiary bombs dropped by Allied planes engulfed the city in flame and claimed nearly 200,000 lives by some estimates. Dresden was left in ruins. Smoldering buildings were left where there were once incredible monuments to human imagination and innovation. For those who remember Dresden after the bombings, they remember a drab shadow of the city that once was. 75,000 houses and apartment buildings were destroyed and when the Russians occupied East Germany, they let the city rot. The Russians wanted to punish Germany for the damage that had been done to their country and in many cases they did not allow Germans to rebuild the buildings ravaged by the firestorm. The recovery effort in the city lasted well into the 1950’s and the memory of the tragedy is quite literally burned into the very stones that the city was built from.
After a tragedy of the scale of the bombings, it would have been easier for Dresden to fade into history, another casualty of a war the likes of which the world had never seen before. However, that is not what the city of Dresden and its people are like. “Im Herzen Vereint,” is not reserved for football but rather embodies the spirit of the city. Dresdeners cleared their city of the rubble and began to rebuild. You would have thought that football would be the furthest thing from citizens’ minds after a tragedy of this scale, but as it has so many times previously, football provided Dresdeners with an escape. Dresdener SC 1898 was the city’s main club prior to the war. DSC was a founding member of the Deutscher Fussball Bund and was absolutely prolific. They dominated Saxon football for nearly 50 years. After the bombings, the Allies outlawed sports for a couple of years to try to disconnect Germany’s culture from the Third Reich. This did not stop DSC from reorganizing, with the same stadium, players and coach, as SG Friedrichstadt. This “what’s old is new again” club met an unfortunate fate after entering the DDR-Oberliga, brought on by unwillingness to conform to the new East German government’s Communist ideologies and an incident that has come to characterize and represent Dresden’s football culture to this very day.
The last game of the inaugural DDR-Oberliga 1949-50 season saw Friedrichstadt meet local rivals ZSG Horch Zwickau, level on points and facing a winner-take-all finale. You’d expect this to be a fiery affair and it certainly lived up to expectations. However, the drama was not created by circumstances on the pitch but rather off of it. The government was in its infancy and needed the culture of East German football to be associated with the regime. Zwickau’s club was aligned nicely with the ideals of the DDR. Friedrichstadt, on the other hand, were seen as counter-culture. Their pursuit of the first-ever East German league title was unacceptable to high-placed officials in the fledgling government and arrangements were made to ensure they would not reach the summit. The match started promisingly for Dresden, as they opened the scoring just three minutes in. However, things took a sharp turn during the match. Dresden were refused multiple substitutions and had three players sent off despite the aggressive play of Zwickau. The match ended 5-1 to Zwickau who claimed the first ever DDR-Oberliga title and the Dresdeners in attendance were beside themselves. The refereeing had been criminal in their eyes and they invaded the pitch, chasing the Zwickau team out of the stadium. Mounted Volkspolizei, the national police of East Germany, were called in to restore order. Little did Dresdeners know that this act was foreshadowing the future of their football club.
Three sendings off and a full-blown riot in Dresden was too much for SG Friedrichstadt to overcome. The government intervened and Friedrichstadt became SG Deutsche Volkspolizei Dresden. This was a team not only aligned with the government’s views but also literally affiliated with a portion of the government’s law enforcement. Players were drawn from around the country and they quickly established themselves as a force in the DDR-Oberliga. This success drew the attention of the Stasi, the East German equivalent of the Russian KGB, and they were incorporated into a growing network of Stasi-controlled clubs. With this incorporation in April 1953, SG Dynamo Dresden was born.
Dynamo wasted no time climbing to the top of the heap in East Germany and claimed the DDR-Oberliga title in their first season of existence. The affiliation with the Stasi had its perks. However, it was a double-edged sword. Erich Mielke, who was the head of the Stasi, was troubled by the idea of a Dresden-based team winning titles when the capital, East Berlin, was not enjoying any success. So Mielke made the obvious choice and just picked Dynamo Dresden’s team up and moved them to East Berlin. With the snap of a finger, one man had stolen Dresden’s club. With all of their stars gone, Dresden struggled. Within 4 years, they were playing in the 4th division of East German football while they watched the newly formed Dynamo Berlin rack up title after title with the squad they had plucked from under them. For the next ten seasons, Dynamo were fighting to reclaim their place in the DDR-Oberliga. In 1969, they reclaimed that place for good.
A mere two years after their return to the East German top-flight, Dynamo were title winners again. This return to prominence for Dynamo led to a total of five DDR-Oberliga championships and an entrance onto the European stage. Dynamo qualified for the 1973 European Cup and were able to show the club’s true mettle. They were drawn against Juventus and survived a 2nd Leg surge by the Italian giants to win 4-3 on aggregate. This set up a tie in the second round that captivated both Germanys. Dresden was going to face Bayern Munich. Circumstances in 1973 were not all that different from now. East Germany was under a communist regime and was generally economically lagging behind its Western counterpart. Bayern Munich were just gaining prominence in Europe with their star striker Gerd Müller leading the charge. This was the first time East would meet West in European club competition. The tie was absolutely thrilling, with Bayern securing a 4-3 win in the first leg in Munich. None other than Der Bomber himself grabbed the winner in the 83rd minute. The return leg in Dresden was equally enthralling, with Bayern and Dynamo trading blows in a 3-3 draw which was enough for Bayern to limp into the quarterfinals of the competition. Uli Hoeneß grabbed two goals for Bayern in the second leg, securing Bayern’s progress in the Cup. Little did Dresden know that their time in Europe would soon come to an end.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the restoration of unified Germany in 1991, the DDR-Oberliga was no more. Dresden found itself in the Bundesliga on the merits of its dominance of the Oberliga but found life amongst the rich, Western clubs very difficult. After 4 years of struggling, the club succumbed to the drop. The agony of relegation was compounded by the club’s accrued debts. With the total amount of debt over 10 million Deutschmarks, Dynamo was denied a 2. Bundesliga license and dropped to the Regionalliga level. The once proud club had all but faded from the public consciousness and it looked to most of Germany like they had seen the last of Dynamo. The difference then, as the difference remains, was that Dresdeners knew it was not the end. It was only the beginning of a rise. Dynamo spent most of the 2000’s in a constant state of flux. Up and down between the Regionalliga, which eventually was replaced by the 3. Liga as Germany’s 3rd tier, and the 2. Bundesliga, Dresden went through countless combinations of players and managers. By 2011, when Dynamo won promotion back to the 2. Bundesliga, it looked like the club would achieve some form of stability. The fans wishes were not granted, sadly. In fact, their hearts and unity were both tested to their absolute limits.
Dynamo battled against relegation in 11-12 and 12-13. The 13-14 season was another struggle as Dynamo sat in 16th going into the last game of the season. That place would at least give them the chance of staying up as they would enter a relegation playoff. That goal would be achieved as long as they avoided defeat to 17th-placed rivals Arminia Bielefeld in Dresden on that final day. Dynamo jumped out to a two goal lead and safety looked all but assured. Bielefeld had other ideas and scored three unanswered goals to win and steal that 16th spot at the death. The city was wracked by the defeat and there was an angry outpour of raw emotion against the club. The club was again in financial trouble and it felt as if this could actually be the end of Dynamo. (For the record, in the Relegation Playoff that year, Bielefeld were relegated by a little-known, up-and-coming team, SV Darmstadt 98, on a last minute goal. They are now in the Bundesliga.) Luckily for Dresden, they were able to call on the help of one of their former sons to help them out of trouble.
Matthias Sammer is known now for his role as the Sporting Director for Bayern Munich. He has overseen one of the most successful periods in the clubs storied history but never played for Munich. In fact, he came up through the youth academy of Dynamo Dresden. When the wall was still firmly in place, a young Sammer made his way to Dynamo at the age of 9. He established himself in the club and made his first team debut in 1985 when he was just 18. He went on to make 102 appearances for the club between 1985 and 1990. The Berlin Wall falling had an impact on East German players just like it did on East German clubs. The event left them in a position to make moves to the West in search of a more lucrative career. That call for Sammer came from VfB Stuttgart. From there, he went on to play for Inter Milan and finally Borussia Dortmund, where he made 115 appearances before retiring in 1999. Despite all his contributions to Dynamo as a player, Sammer was in his best position to help the team out of trouble in his position at Munich.
Due to his ties to Dresden as his hometown and Dynamo as his boyhood club, Sammer pushed for Bayern to play a fund-raising friendly on August 16th, 2015 in Dresden to help with the club’s debt. Bayern waived its normal “Friendly Fee” and Dynamo collected all of the gate receipts. Despite the fact Bayern ran out 3-1 winners, Dynamo were the true beneficiaries of the match. This infusion of cash went straight to debt repayment. The club also adopted a policy of signing young players or players who had been rejected by bigger clubs in an attempt to gain promotion back to the 2. Bundesliga. Their first season back in the 3. Liga was underwhelming even though the team showed flashes of brilliance. A midtable finish did not worry the resilient fans of Dresden though and the 2015-16 season promised to be one for the long-suffering supporters to enjoy.
The goal in 2015-16 was promotion. Let me rephrase; the club would not be denied promotion back to the 2. Bundesliga again. No one player embodied Dresden’s desire to reach the next level quite like Justin Eilers. A well-traveled 26 year old, Eilers had played in his hometown of Braunschweig, at VfL Bochum, and had most recently attempted to break into the team at Wolfsburg, where he was never able to rise above their reserve team. Dresden saw this player spurned as a potential star to lead their charge for promotion. As Dynamo comfortably climbed the 3. Liga table, Eilers lead the charge, scoring 23 goals and assisting 7 more on his way to being the division’s top scorer. His strike partner and the league’s 2nd top-scorer, Pascal Testroet, more affectionately known as “Paco” to Dresdeners, helped him achieve this feat. No player helped him more than a youngster by the name of Marvin Stefaniak. Marvin provided 17 assists in Dynamo’s charge toward the 2. Bundesliga. Stefaniak has been capped 11 times at the U-20 level of the German National Team and is very much seen as a rising star. His ability on the ball, his passing range and accuracy, combined with a great ability from set pieces, have tipped this youngster for great things down the road. This potent combination of three up top decimated 3. Liga defenses and put Dresden in a position to reclaim a higher position in the German football pyramid.
Dresden’s fans have suffered through these false summits before. Safety has been promised in the past only to be undone by the financial mismanagement and poor decision making of the club’s executives. This time, things are different. As of March 21, 2016, Dynamo Dresden are debt-free. They paid the last installment of their last loan and achieved a zero-balance for the first time in 25 years. This development, even more so than the promotion, has supporters hopeful of a true revival. The end of Dresden’s debt means more money to be used to improve the team and the club’s facilities. Dresden have survived this dark period of their history.
They are climbing back into the light.
As Dresden celebrate their climb back toward the heights they experienced in the DDR-Oberliga, the echoes of Dresden’s history seem to always ring out. The city embodies a spirit of unwillingness to quit. The foundation that the city is built on was literally constructed by its citizens and now the club is back on that same incredible footing. As the club climbs back toward the summit of German football, the rejuvenation of the city has mirrored the rejuvenation of this vibrantly supported club. It is no coincidence that “Im Herzen Vereint” is a reflection of not only the club but the city that it represents.
Written by Phil Baki