It’s something of a cliche these days to say that X obscure footballer is the best player you’ve never heard of. In the current YouTube compilation era, no one is unheralded anymore. Even Robin Friday is famously unfamous, and his renown is tempered by the fact he never played at a higher level than the English second division.
The person with the strongest claim to the title of Best Player That You’ve Never Heard Of may well be Jürgen Croy. With this particular genre of football legend, there are two key questions to answer: Were they actually any good? And what were the circumstances which conspired to stop them making a name for themselves?
Usually, if the first answer is yes, then the second is something to do with the nature of the person rather than the player – Friday’s dedication to drink and drugs, for instance. For Croy, however, the answer is much more complicated.
There’s no doubt that Croy was an immensely gifted player. However, while he should be celebrated as a legend of the German game, his cause was harmed by the fact that he hailed from a part of the country which steadfastly refused to create heroes of its footballers. While the Soviet Union had Yashin, Poland had Boniek and Hungary had Puskas, East Germany had no comparable figures. Though they created magnificent individual players – Matthias Sammer and Michael Ballack to name but two – the German Democratic Republic (GDR) prioritised collective strength and teamwork.
Croy, who kept goal for the East German national team for 14 years between 1967 and 1981, was considered the equal of his western counterpart, the legendary Sepp Maier, and among the very best custodians in the world in the 1970s. He was named East German Footballer of the Year three times (1972, 1976 and 1978) and latterly the greatest player in the history of the GDR in 1989.
His time with the national team coincided with their greatest ever achievements, including an Olympic gold medal in Montreal in 1976 and a defeat of West Germany at their own World Cup in 1974, a game in which Croy kept a clean sheet against the might of Gerd Müller, Franz Beckenbauer and co.
Anecdotally, Croy was peerless. Contemporary sources describe him as a keeper with superlative reflexes, superb shot-stopping abilities and excellent distribution – his smart throw began the move from which Jürgen Sparwasser scored the goal that beat West Germany on the biggest stage of all.
“I was, like most keepers, strong on my line,” Croy later told German football magazine 11Freunde, “and not one of the worst coming out. If I had had any serious weaknesses, I wouldn’t have played for so long in the national team.”
That quote gives an insight into the character of the man, which perhaps in turn helps to explain why he remains almost totally unheard of outside of the former East Germany. Croy remains, even in his old age, headstrong and confident, the sort of man who set his mind to goals and went out and achieved them, a man totally sure of his own place in the world. That place was Zwickau.
Croy is very much a big fish in a small pond: not only is his fame largely confined to East Germany, he himself has never shown any desire to live, work or play football anywhere other than his hometown, a nondescript city close to the Czech border.
It goes without saying that Croy is the greatest player in the history of Zwickau football, but he might just be the overarching figure in the modern history of the city in general. He played for Sachsenring Zwickau for 16 years, then managed them for another four, before becoming president of the club and vice-president of the East German FA. He later turned his hand to local politics, a profession he remained in until retirement in 2010.
It was Croy’s dedication to Zwickau that prevented him from gaining the profile he deserved during his playing career. Standard policy within East German football was for the best players to be funnelled into teams who competed regularly on the European stage: Dynamo Berlin, Dynamo Dresden, 1. FC Magdeburg and Carl Zeiss Jena. Zwickau, though regulars in the top division, were usually also-rans.
Croy convinced the men who mattered most in the East German FA that, as a goalkeeper, he’d be better off in a lesser team who faced more shots. In reality, he just wanted to play for his boyhood club and live in his hometown.
His decision didn’t go down well with the higher-ups. The Stasi, or secret police, had a long-standing interest in football: the organisation’s infamous head, Erich Mielke, was in charge of the Dynamo clubs in Berlin and Dresden, and was intent on using the game to further the interests of the regime abroad, famously saying that the success of clubs in Europe would “highlight even more clearly the superiority of our socialist order in the area of sport.”
The Stasi were used to getting their way. Mielke later manipulated referees and player transfers to win his beloved Dynamo Berlin the title 10 years in a row between 1979 and 1988, with Dynamo Dresden having won it in each of the three years before that. Croy, however, was a man they couldn’t manipulate.
The goalkeeper was called in for a meeting with the head of the East German sports federation, Franz Rydz, who told him in no uncertain terms that his fate wasn’t entirely in his own hands and that, should the federation insist upon it, he could be drafted into the army and prevented from playing football completely. Still Croy didn’t budge.
The national team manager, Georg Buschner, vowed that Croy, who at the time had 20 caps, would be in the goal as long as he was in charge. Eventually, the shot-stopper got his way. He remained in Zwickau, working in a factory producing the iconic Trabant cars and turning out for his hometown team at the weekend.
With Croy in the team, Zwickau enjoyed the greatest period in their history. They won the East German Cup in 1967 and again in 1975, with the goalkeeper denying Dynamo Dresden legend Hans-Jürgen Dörner – possibly the only player close to him in the all-time East German list – in the penalty shoot-out before converting the winning kick himself. Zwickau qualified for the Cup Winners’ Cup and overcame Panathinaikos, Fiorentina (Croy again scored the shoot-out decider) and Celtic, before losing to eventual winners Anderlecht in the last four. By this stage there was no doubt that Croy was the best player in the country, and again the Stasi came knocking.
“After a game, one of them came to me and told me to transfer to [Lokomotive] Leipzig or Magdeburg,” Croy said in 2015. “The man told me that I could end my career as an amateur in Thuringia. He gave me 10 minutes to make a decision.”
The secret police were used to getting their way. Croy’s telephone was tapped and team hotels were bugged – and he wasn’t lacking for attention elsewhere, either. On away trips with the national team, he was regularly approached and asked to defect, but was unwilling to risk the safety of his family or to leave Zwickau. Croy was also asked to spy on his team-mates and report back to the Stasi, but he refused. On one occasion, he had a gun pulled on him by an officer, yet he remained inured to the threats from the secret police.
The Stasi simply couldn’t believe Croy wouldn’t do as they said, but they had nothing to pin on him and were thus unable to act. After all, they were dealing with a model citizen, a family man and a local legend. Even the Stasi couldn’t touch him.
“As a national team player, it would have been hard to get rid of me,” Croy said. “More than that, I had the whole club and lots of workers in the city behind me.”
Croy stayed put – and he’s still there today. Now in his early 70s, he’s written two autobiographies and remains an influential figure in football in Zwickau and the former East. He still has his gold and bronze medals from the Olympics, his two East German cup winner’s medals and his three East German Footballer of the Year trophies from the 1970s.
One suspects Croy doesn’t spend his days staring at the accolades in his house in Zwickau, though. His reluctance to leave his hometown is the primary reason why he remains largely unknown beyond Saxony, but it was also the making of him as a man. Few with such talent would have gone through so much to play at such a low level, but as Croy points out, there are more important things in life than success.
“I have never regretted the decision to play for Zwickau,” he said in a recent interview. “I had lots of fun with the team, had great team-mates and a very professional environment. My family liked living in Zwickau. It was never vital to earn 400 marks more playing in Dresden or Leipzig. At the time, I felt it was more important to be close to the fans. I simply saw a connection that I had with these fans, who gave me so much.”