In this series, Ben Wheatland takes a look at some clubs from around Europe that at one point in their history dominated their domestic league or were a leading power in European competitions, but have recently fallen on hard times. To kick us off this week, we take a trip to the German capital, Berlin, to the club that, thanks in part to strong political support, was number one in East Germany.
Berliner Fussballclub Dynamo have had a relatively short but confusing history. In the past been intricately linked to politics, particularly during the days of the German Democratic Republic. The current version of the club was founded in 1966, after an old version of the club was relegated from the Oberliga – East Germany’s top flight.
After reforming, BFC Dynamo were promoted again to the top flight, and remained an also-ran for much of the next ten years.
Crucially for BFC, they were the favoured team of the head of the East German secret police – the Stasi – Erich Mielke. Mielke was also the Chairman of the Dynamo Sports Association, which originally ran BFC Dynamo until the football club broke away to become its own organisation – hence Mielke’s support for BFC. This patronage brought with it a number of benefits – although initially even the support of one of the most powerful politicians in East Germany was not enough to bump BFC to greatness.
Between the club’s foundation in 1966 and 1979, the club only won the second division title – and that was in their first season as a club. They did manage to finish as runners up in the Oberliga in 1972 and 1976, but this was nothing compared with the success that was to come.
Ten-in-a-row: Domestic dominance
Once BFC had won their first Oberliga title in 1979, however, they never looked back. Having won only the second division title in their first 13 years, BFC went on to win the following ten Oberliga titles. This was enough to make BFC Dynamo the most successful team in Oberliga history. They also won the East German Cup in 1988 and 1989, giving the club 12 trophies in just ten years.
However, there have been many suggestions that BFC’s dominance was directly due to the patronage of Mielke and the East German state. Allegations that referees deliberately favoured BFC were rife. Incidences such as the “Penalty of Shame” became famous and are pointed to by fans of other clubs that BFC were receiving support from the establishment by way of favourable refereeing decisions.
Moreover, Mielke’s influence was such that many of the best young players in the state were pushed towards the youth team in Berlin.
Despite domination on the domestic front throughout the 1980s, BFC never really came close to challenging properly in European competitions. The closest they came to European success came even before their domestic dominance began, as they reached the semi-finals of the 1971/72 Cup Winners Cup. There they were eventually knocked out on penalties by FC Dynamo Moscow, in a match that pitted the team of the East German secret police against that of the Soviet Union’s secret police, the KGB.
Since then, the quarter-finals were the furthest that BFC could manage in continental competition. BFC were unable to make it past three English teams in their pursuit of European glory, with Liverpool, Aston Villa, and Brian Clough’s legendary Nottingham Forest side all seeing off the Berliners with relative ease.
This failure to turn domestic dominance into European success hints at the relative strength of the rest of the Oberliga. It may also suggest that the rumours that BFC did not win all of their titles on sporting merit alone may have been true, as they were clearly not able to transfer their Oberliga form into Europe.
BFC Dynamo today
Once the reunification of Germany was completed, and with it the unification of the Oberliga and the Bundesliga, BFC’s fortunes tumbled. Initially inserted into the third tier of the unified German football pyramid, things did not go well for the Wine-Reds. A spell of near insolvency crippled the club financially, and it has spent all of the time since 1991 in the fourth or fifth tiers of German football. The club also spent time under a different name (FC Berlin, in an attempt to steer clear of the tainted image of the Cold War-era club) and had a number of controversies regarding its badge, all of which distracted the club from on-the-field issues.
However, recently things have started to look up for BFC. They resurrected the old name of the club in 1999, and found a solution to the issues surrounding the badge of the club. They have also slowly begun to work their way back up the leagues. In 2014 BFC won the fifth tier, and now find themselves battling it out in the fourth tier against other former East German giants FC Carl Zeiss Jena. They currently sit in sixth position, 13 points away from the one and only promotion place in the division.
If their resurgence in form and support can continue, BFC Dynamo could soon be plying their trade higher up the German pyramid, and may be able to retake their crown as the biggest club in East Berlin back from 1.FC Union Berlin.