Uwe Rösler interview: Playing behind the Iron Curtain

Floodlights have a way of creating atmosphere and illuminating something that should otherwise be left for the darkness. On September 12, 1990 the European floodlights of Anderlecht’s Constant Vanden Stock stadium provided the perfect setting for a friendly affair of non-descript international football.

Renowned for its liberalism, Brussels would now accommodate an international friendly of polar ideologies. Belgium versus East Germany was the final game for the ‘Politicians in Tracksuits’. The reluctant sporting representatives of the enclaved GDR had been summoned for a final demonstration of a regime in the midst of combustion.

Links between socialist oppression and Lancashire towns are sparse, but the current Fleetwood Town manager is perhaps the only one. Uwe Rösler had quietly cultivated a career in the Oberliga before his international call-up by East Germany, representing working clubs including Chemie Leipzig and FC Magdeburg.

I met Rösler on a bitter January day at Fleetwood’s training ground, a modern complex nestled among low-lying greenery, flat-roofed pubs and Lancashire tenancies. We spoke about that final game for East Germany, divided countries, and his enigmatic life behind the Iron Curtain.

“When people ask me, ‘How was your life? How could you live under this regime?’, I always say that when you’re living in it you don’t know any better and you adapt. With human nature you will adapt to anything that is put in front of you. As far as I remember I had a good life,” says Rösler.

“My parents and then the government supported me with my dream of becoming a footballer and gave me non-stop football. A lot of things that we see now with big academies and youth systems, I went through. We were ahead of the time in many ways but obviously there were restrictions which limited us in East German football and we couldn’t go out and get experience and play in the biggest leagues.

“We were more or less behind the Iron Curtain and made to play against one another. For me I was privileged to be a footballer and I enjoyed every minute. I was never involved in any politics.”

Any remaining footage of the Belgium fixture exists only on YouTube in the form of a seven-minute example of classic ‘90s football coverage; the hiss of the overly dubbed white noise, the intense hued contrast of the pitch saturating the white strips of the East Germans.

Despite the exhibitionism of the game it signified the end of something far greater. It poses a reminder of a time when Germany and the rest of the world was beginning to repair itself after a long period of separation.

The game in Brussels ended in a 2-0 victory for the East Germans with Matthias Sammer scoring both goals. But many of the regulars from the East German side were missing. The fall of the wall had created new social and footballing opportunities, and the chance to play in the Bundesliga distracted them from what, at the time, seemed an insignificant fixture.

For Rösler, though, it was an occasion he was not willing to miss.

“Unfortunately some players who’d played before didn’t turn up. Some of them had already made the move to the Bundesliga and some of them just didn’t want to play for their country anymore,” he explains.

“In East Germany we always admired the Bundesliga – we watched it on television with illegal satellite dishes on the roofs. We always looked up and we never thought we were equal to them. Things did change overnight and our league got demolished more or less.

“I always felt that I’d grown up in that country and I was always proud to represent East Germany. We had come so far and I’d always felt that that game would be a historic one. It was a great way to say goodbye.

“You can forget a lot of games in between but you will never forget the last one and I felt it was never an option to not turn up. I turned up, I was in good form. I played the game, we had a great party and both I and the team will always be remembered for that evening.”

For many of the East German team that night it would be their first and last appearances for their country. For others, it was one last opportunity for defiance in the face of the socialist regime; their own contribution to the protests in Leipzig that had occurred throughout the previous months.

Rösler disagrees. “It wasn’t a political thing. I was a young boy who came through the ranks and only ever had one aim, and that was to finish as high as I could. That meant playing in the Oberliga, for your country and in Europe. I achieved all that and never thought one little bit about politics.”

“Of course, the regime used sport in general to make sure that everybody could see the East German model was more successful than the capitalist model, especially when we look at the medals achieved in the Olympic Games. Football was always the number one sport even if we didn’t win medals or World Cups.”

The modern game is antithetic to what it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but the academy training Rösler experienced in his formative years is one of the reasons behind his future success.

“It was hard in my day but it was make or break, you come through and be a real player or you don’t. Now, as a coach, I can never coach or manage people like they did [back then]. Obviously, I know where I come from and have certain things in my DNA but I needed to adapt in terms of leadership and man management to a new generation of players and to a new system.”

East German football often overshadowed its Western counterpart, but the quality of player and modern facilities in the footballing GDR were largely wasted amid the regime’s scepticism towards professional football.

Stasi powers found Olympiads easier to corrupt and manufacture; football was a classless beast, an uncontrollable venture where victory didn’t necessarily mean respect and admiration.

The years leading up to the collapse of the GDR were turbulent yet meandering. By this time, life behind the Iron Curtain was less oppressive, but the propaganda was beginning to fall short. Sport was an opportunity to flex the muscles but football was a harder medium to quantify.

In 1974 the East Germans had peaked. Qualification for the World Cup in West Germany enabled the East to record a 1-0 victory over the host country. A goal from future defector Jürgen Sparwasser would seal the victory.

A month earlier Sparwasser’s FC Magdeburg became the first and last East German side to win a European competition, beating AC Milan in the final of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. Similar times of prosperity would only be matched by the teams of the late 80s and 90s, the era of Thomas Doll, Sammer, and Rösler.

East German sides developed strong hooliganistic followings built on news coverage of working-class English firms. Armies of Rubchinskiys clad in Adidas would converge on the squares of quaint East German provincial towns. By contrast, Karl Marx Square in Leipzig would be the location for a mass peaceful anti-regime demonstration that surrounded a 1990 World Cup qualifier against Austria in November 1989. The protests would later become known as the Monday demonstrations.

Before the Austria match in Vienna, a Stasi Police chief tried to calm the nerves of the young East Germans. The pep talk revealed his delusion that the protests were in vain. “Don’t worry about the protests because tonight it will all end,” he told the players. “We have surrounded Leipzig centre and will move in with the military and end it once and for all.”

The speech had an adverse effect as the East Germans lost 3-0, signalling an end to competitive national football in the Eastern bloc state.

“I was hoping before the last game versus Austria, if we had of gotten a draw we would have gone to Italy and (the East German national team) would have continued. But we didn’t qualify and it was easy to put everything back into one pot,” Rösler recalls.

“The reunification of the football associations obviously for the East was very difficult. Germany had just won the World Cup and there were not many chances for the East German national players to continue for the reunified Germany.”

Germany now had two national sides; world champions in the West and a talented, hardworking set of players with defection on their minds in the East. Had the East German national team qualified for the 1990 World Cup, dissolving the setup would have been a much harder task. But for Eastern teams and players, reunification brought problems with exclusion as they battled for opportunities.

With the fall of the wall came an unanticipated division that was ingrained in mentality rather than concrete. Reunification was both a liberating and difficult time for East German players, who were now tasked with forging a career in the commercial Bundesliga. It truly was fight or flight.

“The top two teams got to go into the Bundesliga and at Dresden we qualified for that. We were playing against all our idols and that needed a bit time to adjust to,” says Rosler.

“Growing up in the East, our first thought was about the team and the collective understanding, whereas in the west or the free world it was a lot about individualism and how far I can come, how good I am. And so I had to start to think more selfishly.

“I was in East Germany and the wall fell down with great timing for myself. I was at the beginning of my twenties and one of the top scorers in the league. I was young and had a lot of offers.

“I went to Dresden, we won promotion, but in the Bundesliga a lot of players needed to adapt. I struggled for a while with football and injuries but then got a new chance and had always been a fan of English football.

Following two years at Dresden it was time for Rösler to move to the English Premiership and Manchester City, where his tenacious style and a lofty chip over Peter Schmeichel in the Manchester derby quickly established him as a Kippax favourite.

His name was sang to the tune of the apt Pet Shop Boys classic ‘Go West’.

“English football was what we could see on East German television. East German teams like Dynamo Dresden and Lokomotive Leipzig were very successful in Europe so we saw a lot of games against British opponents and this is where the love for England came from.

“I wanted to fulfil that dream and now I could. Before I couldn’t and now the situation in Germany was that I needed to go out and reinvent myself and that’s what I did by going to City.”

Meanwhile, the Bundesliga began to capitalise on new levels of commercial sponsorship as Eastern clubs slipped out of the top flight. The teams that had represented the societal changes of the East eventually subsided into the lower divisions of German football.

The demise of East German football is evident in the current Bundesliga standings, with no representatives of the former GDR present. RB Leipzig highlight the sporting successes of the maturing reunified country where capitalism has truly infiltrated the old Eastern ideals.

Twenty-seven years have passed since that night in Brussels, when Rösler won his fifth and final cap for East Germany against Belgium. It is a long time in the world, a long time for football and a long time in one man’s life.

Now guiding Fleetwood Town in League One, Rösler is eyeing automatic promotion to the Championship. There is no doubt that his experiences growing up in East Germany have helped to shape an impressive career.

Uwe Rösler interview: Playing behind the Iron Curtain
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