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Jacob Sweetman: The ghosts of football past

Yesterday, Sweetman had the chance to watch anything he liked from the GDR archives, absolutely anything. That he chose to watch an old pre-match press conference tells you and us everything we need to know about his sort.

Image for Jacob Sweetman: The ghosts of football past
Georg Buschner. Photo by Rainer Mittelstädt (courtesy of the German Federal Archive)

There are ghosts hidden away in Babelsberg, ghosts with brown jackets and perms hidden behind the streets with the chintzy new, but still heroically ugly, middle class homes. Behind the enormous façades of old Berlin that loom over the huge lots of the film studios, there is a new citadel in red brick – the RBB (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg) headquarters, sets and archive. It houses cack like Fritz FM and is where they film the ludicrously bad soap opera Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten. But it is also home to a resource that is as beautiful in its grandeur as it is awesome in its size. Its relevance grows by the day as we try to forget the country that spawned it.

Here is held the GDR press and film archives. Everything written down, or recorded for the screen, film or radio during the divided Germany is housed here – everything. The scope is simply unbelievable – the vaults and vaults and vaults compelling to the history buff, to the political scientist or the dramatist. The building controlled by 21st century cooling and heating techniques contains the most comprehensive view of life in a certain part of the 20th century imaginable.

“What do you want to see, then?” is not a question to be trifled with when faced with such a behemoth of an archive. There was only one answer… obviously it would be the press conference before the World Cup match between East and West Germany in Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion in 1974. It was the only time the East and West clashed on the field, partly because the GDR only ever qualified for the one major tournament, but also partly because they won – it would have been foolish to sully the record if one didn’t have to.

Coach Georg Buschner is resplendent in an orange and brown combo over a pink shirt. His hair immaculately slicked back as he leans back in his chair, a fag on the go in the ashtray in front of him. His translator, achingly pretty but with a sour, bored look on her face, is wearing the green and yellow that the team had worn en-masse as they flew out of Schönefeld a couple of weeks previously, flying to the country next door that shared their name.

You just don’t get colours like it any more in football. This was the World Cup of Zaire with huge leopards on their shirts; it was the World Cup of the GDR, of outrageous collars and big sunglasses. It was also, of course the World Cup of the solitary goal-scorer in this match, Jürgen Sparwasser, who was announced in the press conference as being doubtful for the game – one that Buschner acknowledged (though he tried to play it down) was of huge importance, despite the fact that both teams had already qualified for the second round.

Sometimes things are compelling in spite of themselves. There was a piece of footage on a tape that must have been from the early 1970s of 1. FC Union Berlin players going on a boat trip on the Spree. There is no sound and no colour. A more expert eye could make out the faces of the players; I think I saw Michael Paschek but can’t be sure. I played the couple of minute long clip again and again. There was something about the scene, so recognizable (footballers are still footballers, all cocky grins and innocent faces, money hasn’t changed the naughty kids on a school trip routine), yet so alien and innocent.

Then there was a video from 1987, the European highlights show from mid-week, hosted by a young Gottfied Weise and a permed, slightly ageing Jürgen Croy. Now this was exciting, Croy is mentioned in Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger’s story about the history of German football, Tor. He famously represented the GDR 94 times in goal, but stayed as a player in lowly Zwickau, managing to avoid the attentions of the powerhouses in Dresden, Leipzig and Magdeburg. According to Hesse-Lichtenberger it was because Buschner himself convinced those in power that he was better off playing in goal for a rubbish team who would be under a lot of defensive pressure than one who were not.

Somehow it worked, and by ’87 he is obviously a revered man. Weise wishes him well for Zwickau’s campaign for promotion back to the Oberliga, and shows a reel of highlights, including an incredible penalty save from Gianni Rivera in a Word Cup qualifier against Italy, when he flies the wrong way initially, but sticks a hand up straight and strong, periscope style. Germany always made ‘keepers like Croy, always did and always will.

That night Bremen beat Spartak Moscow 6-2, Panathanaikos knocked Juventus out of the European cup, Croy went home to Zwickau to look after his perm in his softly spoken manner, while many of us slept soundly in our beds, blissfully unaware that anything of importance was going on anywhere in the world. Or anything of complete unimportance for that matter – as many will think is what I was watching. I don’t care.