The Guardian- Stasi FC review – the astonishing tale of the secret police’s football team
28th Nov, 2023
longside the inevitable horror, there is always a certain comedy involved in the collapse of authoritarian regimes. The performative projection of strength and infallibility reaches a point of absurdity at which it starts to look like obvious weakness: brittle, slightly silly and too fragile to withstand even the slightest challenge. Power becomes paranoia – and it becomes impossible not to laugh.
So it was with East Germany through the 1980s. The country struggled to establish much in the way of cultural soft power so sport became critical to the government’s sense of itself. Athletes were co-opted into the service of the state whether they liked it or not. “Medal intensive” sports such as track and field events and gymnastics were prioritised. There was a ruthless churn of contenders until the best prospects were identified. Many were pumped full of performance-enhancing drugs before being unleashed upon the sporting world like a squad of tracksuit-wearing Terminators.
But in some (although not all) ways, football was different. Football – and the culture surrounding it – has a truculent, unbiddable quality. Football’s mass popularity and universal appeal makes it difficult to control in quite the same way. Still, as this fascinating documentary shows, that isn’t to say that no one tried. It’s just that happily, they didn’t quite succeed. Or at least, their success had huge, unintended consequences.
We begin with the simultaneously nasty and pathetic figure of Erich Mielke. Mielke was the head of the East German secret police, the notorious Stasi. The Stasi specialised in close observation and interference; in infiltrating every aspect of East German life. At some point in the late 1970s, Mielke decided that it was the turn of his favoured football team, Berliner FC Dynamo (BFCD) to become successful. The best players found themselves inexorably nudged in their direction. Certain referees were chosen for crucial matches with predictable results. Much of the footage makes it hilariously clear that some games were effectively show trials – manipulated by officialdom until the “correct” outcome was arrived at.
But all was not well. Using interviews with players and fans, Stasi FC traces the cracks in the facade as they widen. The first real wobble came in 1979 when BFCD midfielder Lutz Eigendorf sought political asylum after a game in West Germany. He left behind a wife and children in the East – who soon became intimately acquainted with the ways of the Stasi. Eigendorf himself didn’t have much better luck. He died, in what remains a mysterious and contested traffic accident, in 1983. That his fate didn’t dissuade other players from attempting similar escapes tells its own story – two other East German players later escaped to the West after slipping their state-appointed minder in a department store on an away trip. Amusingly, the minder seems to have been distracted from his duties by the trappings of western decadence that surrounded him.
Photograph: Sky/Embankment Films/imago images/Rust
It is around this point that a documentary about football becomes a documentary about pretty much everything but football. BFCD were, by the mid-80s, cruising to title after title. But, in a development that should have been surprising to absolutely no one – although it apparently was to Mielke – the choreography of success was getting boring. Furthermore, to the regime, it was getting dangerous, too. By 1987, as BFCD were celebrating their ninth consecutive title, their fans had started turning their backs on the pitch during games. As one fan says, by that point they “weren’t really there for the football”. By the following year, as the team achieved a tenth “triumph”, their fans could have travelled to the game in a single taxi. Elsewhere, crowd unrest and violence was growing – but in stark contrast to football hooliganism in the UK around this time, it was taking on a revolutionary and almost heroic quality.
It’s hard to decide the extent to which this atmosphere of dissent fed into the events that followed. And wisely, the documentary pulls back from making any grandiose claims about football having brought down the Berlin Wall. But what does seem certain is that anti-BFCD feeling on the terraces began to feed into and interact with a more generalised anti-authoritarianism. The anonymity and relative safety in numbers provided by football fandom has always incubated a certain wildness – it’s striking to see that used as a force for good.
As for BFCD, the club now competes in the fourth tier of German football. But it’s hard to imagine that despite this apparent fall from grace, supporting them now isn’t more fun. For Stasi FC, a certain redemption has been achieved in failure. And their tragicomic journey goes on.
Stasi FC aired on Sky Documentaries and is available on Now TV