40 years Bundesliga: 'Go West' - A football tale from flight to the fall of the Berlin Wall


East-West German football history has been written at Leverkusen. Andreas Thom and Ulf Kirsten are the outstanding players from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) who enjoyed great success at Bayer 04. Their predecessors Falko Götz and Dirk Schlegel took a great risk to escape to the West seven years earlier. A very special chapter from the 40 years  of Bundesliga football at Bayer 04.

3 October is a special day in Germany. From Dresden to Düsseldorf and Flensburg to Rosenheim the people are celebrating the 28th anniversary of an unforgettable event that led to tears during the emotional and moving turn of the year in 1989/90. The celebration of their reunion. To mark the occasion, Berlin, the capital, has called for a massive nationwide celebration under the motto 'Nur mit Euch' (Only with you) on historic sites between the main station, Potsdamer Platz and  in the Tiergarten park as well as the Platz der Republik, the place where the peacefully achieved unity was officially completed  and celebrated on 3 October 1990.

3 October in Germany is more than just a national day of remembrance. Memories lead back to an historical turning point when barriers fell in most people's hearts, people's horizons were suddenly expanded and when everything suddenly seemed possible that was unthinkable the day before. No superlatives can capture the rampant optimism of the time. Then Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl talked about "flourishing landscapes". Franz Beckenbauer, the manager of the German national team, allowed himself a bold prediction in the euphoria of winning the World Cup: "We are the champions of the world. Now we'll have players from the East as well. I'm sorry for the rest of the world  but I believe we will be unbeatable in the next few years." Berti Vogts, assistant and declared successor of the 'Kaiser', heard that with mixed feelings: That claim certainly placed a burden on the new Germany coach.

Excellent technique and incredible pace: Andreas Thom

In faraway Leverkusen, a man pulled out all the stops to bring in some of the 'players from the East' mentioned by Beckenbauer not necessarily to make the local Bundesliga club Bayer 04 unbeatable for the next few years but rather strengthen over the long term to have a significant effect on the balance of power in the Bundesliga. The East Berlin striker Andreas Thom, a first choice for East Germany for years, was signed by Reiner Calmund, the Bayer 04 general manager. He achieved a notable coup in winning out over rivals in the league. The 24 year-old, playmaker and goalscorer at the BFC Dynamo, the club supported by the Stasi boss Eric Mielke, was considered to be the most sought-after pro from the East with his brilliant knowledge of the game and his excellent feet.

Bringing such a star from the strictly protected reservoir of the now not real existing socialism to the bastion of West German capitalism, that was the football business, must have shaken a man like Mielke to the core. Although, in 1990, he had other existential worries. But this is a special course of events as the feared state security boss was furious seven years earlier about two of his footballers in relation to Bayer 04 and Leverkusen. In 1983, the talented youngsters Falko Götz (21), an ambitious striker, and Dirk Schlegel (22), a strong defender, defected to the West after a European Cup game between BFC Dynamo Berlin and Partizan Belgrade. Their target: The hallowed land of football with its Bundesliga.


Falko Götz (l.) and Dirk Schlegel with the then Bayer 04 coach Dettmar Cramer

They exploited a moment of inattention by their  minders during a shopping trip to a department store to escape via a side entrance before heading for the West German embassy. With diplomatic support and their own resources they succeeded in catching a night train to Munich from Ljubljana. The adventurous flight led them to a new life. With more room to manoeuvre. Both on and off the pitch.

It was important for me to make contact with Jörg Berger. He was my first port of call.

According to FIFA rulings, players from East Germany were banned from playing football in West Germany for 12 months after they arrived. Falko Götz recalls: "It was important for me to make contact with Jörg Berger. He was my coach with the East Germany youth team and therefore my first port of call."Berger, who also defected from the GDR via Yugoslavia in 1979 and was now doing well as a coach in West German professional football, contacted Reiner Calmund, who gave the two of them contracts. The GDR defectors described themselves in limited public statements as "sporting refugees". In order to avoid a similar fate to their former team-mate Lutz Eigendorf (Kaiserslautern), who lost his life following an accident under suspicious circumstances, they strictly followed Berger's advice to definitely avoid provoking the GDR regime or outing themselves as 'political refugees'. Nevertheless, Stasi files on Götz Indicated there were plans to kidnap him.

It was all done and dusted on 3 November 1984. Falko Götz and Dirk Schlegel fulfilled their dream of playing in the Bundesliga. The duo made their debut for Bayer 04  in a 1-1 draw away to Armenia Bielefield. Götz went on to make 115 appearances (26 goals) for Leverkusen, became a UEFA Cup winner in 1988 (scoring with a header to make it 2-0 in the second leg of the final) and then he moved to the other side of the Rhine. The stats reveal Schlegel played 24  games in one season (four goals).

That was 1983. There were signs of possible confrontation Between West and East back then. That was considered to be one of the Bad periods of the Cold War. But now it is all history.

The Wall has gone and now there's a thaw. 'Gorbi' and 'Wind of Change' instead of concrete and blockades.

The world looked completely different in 1990. The Wall has gone. Scrapped. There's a thaw. Instead of concrete and blockades everything points to detente. 'Gorbi' and 'Wind of Change' instead of Erich and Erich. Instead of Mielke and Honecker. Nobody has to risk their lives any more trying to escape from the GDR. The same applied to footballers wanting to display their talents in the West. Reiner Calmund in Leverkusen discovers a dramatically changed basis for negotiation in his search for the best players from socialism. In Germany's Vaterland there is now the free exchange of games and players  and of goals and talents. From now on, he was helped by his principle that often helped him in this bare-knuckle business: "The quick devour the slow ."

Master goalscorer: Ulf Kirsten is still "my best ever transfer - in spite of all the Brazilians," according to Reiner Calmund.

The mover and shaker at Leverkusen is a man of action complete with Rhenish jollity and affability. On 9 November 1989, he celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall in the capital and then at home he put together a plan of how his club could benefit from the historic development. He thought up a bold piece of knavery with a calculable risk. On 15 November, East Germany played Austria in a qualifier for the following year's World Cup in Italy  at the Prater Stadium in Vienna. There were hundreds of scouts, talent spotters and players' agents among the 57,000-strong crowd, who eagerly awaited the performance of the East German footballers.

And Bayer 04 were also represented. But in the thick of it rather than on the sidelines. At the stadium with eye contact with the protagonists. Calmund sent in an almost unknown Wolfgang Karnath, a chemical lab assistant and coach of his U19s. And he had accreditation as a press photographer.His job was to secure important information on the lads (addresses, telephone numbers etc) for his boss.

He sat with us on the bench with a photographers' bib on and he didn't put a foot wrong.

The general manager has often talked about what happened next. To be "factual and objective", as he often like to say, and embroidered to a certain extent so that the absurdity of the situation was clear. While the game was being played, Karnath moved ever closer to the subs bench of the visiting team and he finally sat down there. Andreas Thom recalled: "He sat with us on the bench with a photographers' bib on and he didn't put a foot wrong." Impudence wins.

That wasn't the end of it. The supposed photographer managed to gain access to the GDR team hotel in Lindabrunn after the game due to his smart appearance and he even managed to secure permission to fly back to Berlin with the team. It was a done deal. The next day, Calmund received a crib sheet at the Grand Hotel on Friedrichstraße with all the crucial information he needed and which players had said they were interested in moving to the west. That included Andreas Thom. 'Calli' Is on fire  and at that moment on the way to collect autographs.

A pioneer who scored on his debut: Andi Thom was signed in December 1989.

'Andi' Thom signed a contract nine days later in his system-built flat. It was important to him that the deal was officially handled via the East German FA as he was determined that his family would not suffer any problems due to his move under any circumstances. At the beginning of December 1989, agreement is reached with the GDR officials. The transfer fee was 2.5 million Deutschmarks. On 12 December, the first transfer of a player from the GDR to the Bundesliga was officially announced and the player presented. Bayer 04 made a significant contribution to a good part of West and East German sporting history.

You could see I only had one head and two legs.

Thom was due to make his debut for his new club in the home game against FC Homburg on 16 December. The game was called off due to the state of the pitch. His first game finally came at the same place on 17 February 1990. Thom opened the scoring with his first goal for Bayer 04 with an assist from Andrzej Buncol in a 3-1 victory. During his five years at the Werkself, he scored 37 goals in 161 appearances. He soon got used to his initial experience of being a sort of exotic attraction from the East and that started to vanish after six weeks: "You could see I only had one head and two legs."

The Thom transfer gave the go-ahead for the dominant phrase in football in East Germany: 'Go West'. The bustling Calmund had two other first-class candidates in his sights. He persuaded the international players Ulf Kirsten and Matthias Sammer, both outstanding personalities on the ball, both known as players who can make the difference and key members of the Dynamo Dresden team, that Leverkusen would be the best starting point in their career in the West.

He was a hotshot: Ulf Kirsten was top scorer in the Bundesliga three times.

The man from Leverkusen quickly got what he wanted, two valuable signatures and he believed he had achieved his desired targets. However, it did not run as smoothly as hoped; there are problems in completing the deal. The management of the group fears image problems if Bayer signs the three best players in the GDR in one go. The contracts with Kirsten (24) and Sammer (22) Are cancelled with a heavy heart. Sammer then joins VfB Stuttgart at short notice. Borussia Dortmund are very interested in Kirsten but have difficulty meeting the financial demands from the Dresden management required to complete the deal. As the issue goes on, Calmund intervenes again and agrees a watertight deal with Kirsten. This time it sticks.

Along with his mate Thom,  'Guaranteed goalscorer' (the title of his biography) Kirsten from Riesa forms a congenial striking partnership and soon becomes a solid favourite with the Bayer 04 fans. That appreciation lasts to this day. Up to 2003, he scored an incredible 181 goals in 350 games for the Werkself to earn his deserved place in the record books. He made 100 international appearances with 49 for the GDR and 51 for Germany. He received several mini canon awards from Kicker for his trophy cabinet as the most successful striker in the league and he is also an enthusiastic motorcycle fanatic.

Matthias Stammann was the third East German player to sign for Leverkusen in the summer of 1990. The midfielder joined from PSV Schwerin and he went on to play 41 Bundesliga games for the Werkself in four seasons as well as winning the DFB Cup in 1993.

Eight years at the Werkself as goalkeeping coach: Werner Friese, who passed away in 2016, here with coach Erich Ribbeck

Bayer 04 are now seen as a serious and popular starting point for young footballers from the new federal states. 1992 sees the arrival of Mario Tolkmitt (21), a midfielder from FC Berlin, who went on to play 55 Bundesliga games, René Rydlewicz (19/midfield) from Dynamo Berlin, who stayed for two seasons  (15 appearances), and East Germany international Heiko Scholz (25/midfield) from Dynamo Dresden (75 caps). In the following season, the Cottbus-born central defender in Cottbus Jens Melzig (27), more a solid rather than delicate player, joins Bayer 04 from Dresden and he makes 53 Bundesliga appearances up to 1995. In 1994,Mike Rietpietsch (20/midfielder) joins Bayer 04 from Union Berlin and makes 22 appearances in three seasons. For eight years (from 1993 to 2001), the former East Germany goalkeeper Werner Friese (Lokomotiv  Leipzig) is the goalkeeping coach at Leverkusen. He looked after successful shot-stoppers like Rüdiger Vollborn, Dirk Heinen, Adam Matysek or Pascal Zuberbühler. Friese died in 2016 at the age of 70.

And he became an international at Bayer 04: Stefan 'Paule' Beinlich.

Another talented player signed a contract for Bayer 04 in 1997: Stefan 'Paule' Beinlich, born in East Berlin and brought through the ranks at BFC Dynamo, joins from FC Hansa Rostock, spends three years in Leverkusen and makes his international debut while at the club. The midfield maestro and free-kick expert made 111 appearances for the Black and Reds scoring 34 goals.

A leader in Black and Red: Michael Ballack

Of course, there are two names that would never be left out of a Bayer 04 Bundesliga best eleven. Bernd Schneider, an honorary captain really well respected by Werkself fans, joined Leverkusen from his home club in Jena in 1999 after a year on loan at Eintracht Frankfurt. Known as the "white Brazilian", the popular super talent, who ended his career in 2009 with an unforgettable farewell game, made 263 Bundesliga appearances (35 goals) and earned 81 caps for Germany. Also in 1999, the then 22-year-old Michael Ballack signed for Leverkusen. The Görlitz-born midfielder won the  German league title the year before under Otto Rehhagel at FC Kaiserslautern. He became a leader at Leverkusen during his three-year stay (79 games/27 goals). 'Balle', as he's called by friends and fans, joined Bayern Munich in 2002 and then Chelsea before returning to Bayer 04 as a world star in 2010 (35 games). He retired from the game in 2012. On matchday eight in 2011/12 in the game against VfL Wolfsburg, he made his 100th appearance for the Werkself as the most prolific goalscoring midfielder in the national team.


An unforgettable experience: Bernd Schneider in his final game at the BayArena in 2010.