“Are you a player?” the well-dressed man wanted to know as soon as he had taken his seat and fastened the belt. “Or do you have some sort of official function?”

“No, I’m a player,” his neighbour replied.

“Oh, what’s your name?” the man excitedly said. His unruly shock of dark hair almost touched the aircraft’s ceiling. “I probably know you, because I was at the game the day before yesterday.”

“My name is Hans-Jürgen Kreische,” the footballer replied.

“How interesting! I’m pleased to meet you,” the man said.

There are two versions of what happened next. They differ only very slightly, but details can be crucial. To this day, Kreische maintains that he didn’t really understand who the other man was and that he, Kreische, thus had no idea what he was about to get himself into. It’s not an entirely plausible version, because the man with the unruly shock of dark hair was by profession well-versed in etiquette and will most certainly have introduced himself. And even if he did so only partially, by giving his name but not his position, Kreische should have been able to place him. The East German players had been thoroughly prepared for their trip into enemy territory.

Some two weeks later, the State Security of the German Democratic Republic — the infamous Stasi — would very much doubt Kreische’s account of this chance meeting on a Lufthansa flight from Hamburg to Düsseldorf. Even though you should avoid being lumped together with these notorious sniffers, snoops and informers if at all possible, you can’t help but agree with them that the other version is the more likely one. So let’s continue according to this second story. It’s how the well-dressed man always recounted the tale.

“How interesting! I’m pleased to meet you,” the man said. Then he added, “I’m the Federal Minister of Finance.”

That was the moment the 26-year-old Dynamo Dresden forward Kreische should have looked for another seat. Or at the very least clammed up. But his curiosity got the better of him.

“You’re kidding me,” he replied.

“No, it’s true,” the man insisted. He was clean-shaven and had a friendly, slightly round face. “Do you want to see my ID?”

The football player nodded and so the man in the seat next to him fetched a diplomatic passport. It said that the man’s name was Hans Apel and that he had been born in Hamburg 42 years ago. It didn’t say that he was a most fervent football fan and a member of FC St Pauli since his teenage years. But it did reveal that in his capacity as the Minister of Finance, Apel was a member of the government of the Federal Republic of Germany. Put differently, he was not only Kreische’s sworn class enemy, he was also one of those warmongers and oppressors of the working man who were plotting to infiltrate East Germany with counter-revolutionary forces. Or something along those lines.

Kreische’s problem was that Apel was also an engaging, all-round nice fellow and someone who loved to talk football. And so the two men began to discuss the game, even though they came from different sides of a wall that had already cost more than a hundred lives. Six months before Kreische and Apel began their innocent conversation, a young man called Burkhard Niering had taken a border official hostage to force his way into the West and been shot dead near Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. And in May, less than seven weeks earlier, a 69-year-old pensioner by the name of Johannes Sprenger had walked into the guards’ gunfire at the Berlin Wall with such calm determination that his death was later classified as suicide.

“As you can imagine,” Apel said, “I wasn’t happy about the match. That was a terrible performance from our team.”

It was Monday, 24 June 1974. Two days earlier, one of the strangest and most famous games in German football history had been played in Apel’s hometown. With the exception of the 1954 World Cup final, no match has produced so many books, articles and television or radio features in Germany as this encounter, the final first-round game in Group 1 at the 1974 World Cup. It was the first-ever full international between West and East Germany. And although Kreische and Apel had no way of knowing this as they were chatting away in the aircraft cabin, it was also the last, for the winners had no intention of jeopardising their perfect record against the despised enemy by playing them again.

Having said this, there had been a few games between teams representing West Germany and East Germany before June 1974, some of them extremely odd. Most of them came about because the International Olympic Committee is a very stubborn and slow-moving organisation.

The East German football federation (DFV) was admitted to Fifa in 1951 and to Uefa three years later, but the IOC refused to accept the GDR as a full-fledged member until 1965. For three Olympic Summer Games in a row — 1956 in Melbourne, 1960 in Rome and 1964 in Tokyo — the IOC decreed that West and East Germany had to field a combined team. It was like telling Cain and Abel to kiss and make up and represent Eden together.

In 1956, the West German football federation (DFB) hemmed and hawed whenever the DFV attempted to discuss the matter until it was too late to come up with a workable solution. The East relented and the supposedly pan-German team that was sent to Melbourne consisted solely of West Germans. Four years later, the DFV had wised up to the West German time-wasting tactics and demanded two-legged playoffs between the GDR and the Federal Republic to see who would earn the right to compete in Rome.

The first leg was staged in East Berlin on 16 September 1959, at a stadium named for the GDR’s communist leader Walter Ulbricht. There were no flags and no anthems. There were no team photos and no handshakes. And there were no spectators. The GDR expected to have a considerable edge, because the IOC’s rules said that only amateurs could take part in the Olympics. It meant that the East Germans, like all other Eastern Bloc countries, could field their state-financed shamateurs while West Germany, even though still a few years away from the creation of the Bundesliga and the legalisation of full professionalism, weren’t allowed to play their semi-pros.

Yet West Germany prevailed. By all accounts, the GDR players visibly suffered from nerves (or maybe they were just bewildered by the surreal atmosphere) and lost 2-0. A week later, the West Germans also won the second leg, staged in Düsseldorf. The Dutch referee Johan Martens, referring to the fact that it was another match played behind closed doors, said, “I’ve never officiated such a strange game.” The Federal Republic’s triumph against all odds planted a deep and lasting distrust of football in the hearts and minds of East Germany’s politicians and officials.

Even the fact that the GDR got their revenge four years later couldn’t dispel these nagging doubts. This time, in September 1963, the games were played in Karl-Marx-Stadt and Hannover and the ban on spectators was lifted. Some 50,000 saw the first leg in East Germany and watched their team win 3-0. The return leg in West Germany attracted only 15,000 curious rather than fervent onlookers. The West won 2-1, but the GDR got through on aggregate and would win bronze in Japan.

These games remained the last between teams representing the two countries until the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, when East and West found themselves in the same second-round group. As if that wasn’t enough, they also met in the final game with a place in the bronze-medal match at stake. As usual, the GDR fielded their first team, whereas the Federal Republic had to make do with players who hadn’t yet signed professional forms. It wasn’t a bad side, though. The GDR twice went ahead and the two West German players who found the target to make it 2-2 were clearly destined for bigger things: Uli Hoeneß and Ottmar Hitzfeld. A draw would have been enough for the East, so the West, spurred on by 80,000 in Munich’s Olympic Stadium, threw everything forward. Eight minutes from time they were hit on the break and lost, 3-2.

After the game, there was not a hint of bad blood. Everybody was at pains to exchange pleasantries. “It was a good, sporting game and a sporting crowd,” the GDR’s coach Georg Buschner said. His West German counterpart Jupp Derwall seemed satisfied. “We played our best game,” he said. “I’m content because I know our limits.” The most interesting comment, with the benefit of hindsight, came from the East German substitute Harald Irmscher. Referring to some expressions of disappointment from the stands, he said, “The spectators shouldn’t measure this West German team by their senior side, that would be ridiculous.” If he was implying that the GDR could hold their own against a young West German amateur side but surely not against the team that had just won the European Championship, fate would soon make him reconsider his position.

Because fourteen months later, the GDR’s national team — so notorious for choking when it counted — managed to qualify for a World Cup for the only time in their history. It was, of course, the World Cup in West Germany.

The draw was held on 5 January 1974, in Frankfurt. An 11-year-old West Berlin choir boy by the name of Detlef Lange had been chosen by the DFB to make the draw. Worldwide live coverage began at 9pm, local time, and before the draw could begin the viewers and listeners were informed about a few decisions that had been made behind closed doors. The first was that Chile would be allowed to take part. The South Americans should have met the Soviet Union in a two-legged intercontinental playoff, but after a scoreless draw in Moscow, the Soviets refused to play the return match when they learned of the atrocities committed during Augusto Pinochet’s recent coup d’état. (The very ground where that match was supposed to be staged, the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, had been used as a detention and torture centre1.)

The second decision was that the previous World Cup winners would be kept apart and put into groups I to IV before the actual draw began: West Germany, Brazil, Uruguay and Italy. Then the remaining twelve teams were divided into three pots according to considerations of geography and quality. That was why Chile and the GDR didn’t end up in the same pot. Nobody seems to have given it a second thought, but it would soon cause headaches.

Then, at last, the draw began. The first name Lange drew from the first pot was, almost inevitably, Chile’s. The team thus went into group I — West Germany’s group. Lange then drew the other teams from this pot: Scotland, the Netherlands, Argentina. The West German officials must have been happy with that, as Chile was surely a better draw than the excellent Dutch, a strong Scotland or the feared Argentinians.

Now Lange put his hand into the pot that held the four Eastern European teams. He drew a capsule and handed it to Fifa’s Swiss general secretary Helmut Käser. Käser opened the capsule and shook his head ever so slightly. He handed Sir Stanley Rous the piece of paper and the Fifa president almost inaudibly said, “GDR.” You could have heard a pin drop. Then, for some reason, the Colombian delegate began to clap his hands wildly, prompting applause all around.

Not in East Berlin, though. Manfred Ewald, the most powerful man in GDR sport (and the driving force behind the country’s widespread and systematic doping scheme) threw a fit when he learned of the draw. Günter Schneider, the general secretary of the DFV, later remembered how Ewald screamed at him that he should have somehow fixed the draw to avoid this scenario. At this point, Ewald probably hadn’t even realised his team would also have to play Chile and thus undermine the Soviet Union’s boycott. What really worried the man who regarded football pitches as battlefields in the Cold War was that the GDR would most likely be defeated by the West Germans.

“Tell me that we will win this game!” he angrily demanded of Schneider.

“I can’t,” Schneider replied. “We’ll do our best, but I can’t promise victory.”

Perhaps nothing illustrates Ewald’s concerns (and his total disregard for the ideals of sport) better than the next exchange. “What happens if we withdraw from the World Cup?,” he wanted to know. When Schneider told him that the contractual penalties would financially ruin the East German Sports Association, Ewald dropped the idea and stormed out of the room.     

The West Germans, meanwhile, were much less worried about the footballing aspects of the draw. One reason was that the encounter wasn’t fraught with ideology for them. “For me and many others it was a normal international,” the left-back Paul Breitner later said. “Just like playing Japan or Tunisia or whomever. With the possible difference that we knew less about the opposition than if we had played Japan. The average person wasn’t very interested in politics back then. And since a football team is often a cross-section of the general public, there were no discussions whatsoever about what the GDR was or what communism, socialism actually meant.”

The primary reason, though, was simply that the West Germans considered themselves overwhelming favourites and never even contemplated defeat. On the day of the game, West Germany’s beloved icon Uwe Seeler reassured the nation by telling all football fans (in a widely syndicated ad for a chocolate company), “There’s no reason to be afraid, because we have much better players.” The country’s most influential newspaper, the tabloid Bild, went with the headline “Why we will win today” and had more or less the same explanation, namely that there was a lot more individual class in the Federal Republic’s side.

And yet many people in West Germany were as unhappy about the draw as Ewald and his fellow East German functionaries. That’s because there was a very practical problem: according to the Federal Republic, the GDR was not a proper country. West Germany insisted that it was the only sovereign state acting in the interest of the entire German nation. Bild even put East Germany’s name in inverted commas to demonstrate this. Technically, there was no other political position to take. The Federal constitution explicitly stated that all political activities had to aim for an eventual re-unification. And obviously you couldn’t postulate unification with another sovereign state that had no intention to do so, as that would amount to a declaration of war.

And for a large number of West German politicians, certainly for everybody in the conservative Christian Democratic Party and probably for the majority of Liberals, there was also no other moral position to take, because they considered the GDR a temporary aberration that could not — and must not — become permanent.

Hans Apel, though, was not one of these politicians, perhaps partly because he had a rebellious streak and liked to be contrary. That’s why he picked St Pauli over HSV, many decades before this choice would become fashionable. That’s also why he joined the Social Democrats in 1955. “I wanted to become involved with people who stood up against things,” he once said.

Two of the things the Social Democrats stood up against in the late 1960s was the widespread notion that you couldn’t trust the Eastern Bloc and the revanchist position that considered some parts of Poland to be German territories. When Willy Brandt became the first Social Democratic chancellor of the Federal Republic in late 1969, he launched an eastern policy that aimed for a reconciliation with Poland and the Soviet Union while also trying to establish a more realistic and practical, not to say normal, relationship between the two German countries.

Thus, in late 1972, West and East Germany at long last agreed to exchange ambassadors. Of course that’s not what they were called by the Federal Republic, as only sovereign states can post ambassadors. Instead, the term which the West used for the GDR’s highest-ranking diplomats was “permanent representatives”. The first was Michael Kohl, a 44-year-old doctor of law with not even a fleeting interest in football. He was officially inaugurated on 20 June 1974, a Thursday. His first public appearance as the GDR’s first permanent representative in West Germany was scheduled for June 22. Michael Kohl would be sitting in the VIP stand at Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion to watch the game between West Germany and East Germany.

In the late afternoon on June 22, a limousine with tinted and bullet-proof windows rolled through a depressing Hamburg drizzle. The man who was being chauffeured to the Volksparkstadion, though, was in high spirits despite the weather. He turned towards his bodyguards and smiled. “This is going to be an enjoyable evening,” Hans Apel said. “We will win 4-0.”

At about the same time, the West Germany coach was approaching the ground from the north-east. It came from the team’s camp in Malente, a small and scenic town seventy miles from Hamburg. But the national manager Helmut Schön felt very differently from Apel. He had seen the Bild headline and was sure it would fire up the East German players. He also felt there was a dangerous air of smugness around the country, as if nobody had any idea of how good GDR football really was. Magdeburg had just won the Cup-Winners’ Cup against the mighty Milan and Dresden had given Bayern a run for their money in the European Cup. Yet everyone seemed to think this was a second-rate team from a second-rate country. Finally, Helmut Schön had a personal reason to feel nervous about playing the GDR. He had been born in Dresden and had essentially been forced to leave the city in 1950, when — as he saw it — the Communists ruthlessly disbanded his beloved football club for political reasons.

While Apel and Schön were edging nearer to the ground, the GDR players were still in their team hotel in Quickborn, a town 60 miles northwest of Hamburg. The reason was that their coach, Georg Buschner, was watching the other game in the group, Chile versus Australia. He had told his squad they would leave as soon as one team scored — but at half-time it was still 0-0.

The delay gave Michael Kohl, the recently accredited East German diplomat, an opportunity to address the players. Unusually for any politician but especially for an East German one, he kept his speech very brief. Since everybody present was aware that Kohl knew only little about football, all he said was, “I know that you will give your all tonight. And I am convinced you will reach the next round.”

He was proved right on the second count only a few minutes later. Unexpectedly, Chile couldn’t break down Australia and the game finished scoreless. That meant that both Germanies were through to the second group stage. The only question was who would finish first in Group 1. It also meant that the GDR players, who were quite aware of what their political leaders expected of them, could breathe more easily, because now they had already achieved two of their three goals. They had somehow worked their way through the highly delicate Chile game, which wasn’t only marred by various political protests but also played in, of all places, West Berlin, which East Germany refused to regard as a part of the Federal Republic. At first the 1-1 draw hadn’t looked like such a great result, but now that Chile had failed to beat the whipping boys Australia, the GDR had also survived the first group stage. All they had to do now was avoid a drubbing at the hands of West Germany and they could go back home with their heads held high.

“Congratulations,” Hans Apel said on the Lufthansa flight two days later. “You won the game deservedly.” 

“Thank you,” Hans-Jürgen Kreische replied. “But I still think that the Federal Republic will win the World Cup.”

“Excuse me, but that is nonsense,” Apel said. “You are just too polite to tell me how rubbish our team is.” 

But Kreische insisted he was serious. West Germany were clearly struggling to find their form and their best line-up, he conceded, but there was just too much quality in the team. Kreische knew what he was talking about. He had seen pretty much the same thing seven months earlier, when Dynamo Dresden played Bayern Munich in the European Cup. (Kreische missed these games through injury.) Even though Dynamo had knocked out Juventus in the previous round, Bayern were over-confident, even arrogant. They paid for their attitude by conceding six goals over the two legs and almost suffering an embarrassing exit. But only almost. When the chips were really, really, really down, Sepp Maier’s calmness under pressure, Franz Beckenbauer’s raw talent, Uli Hoeneß’s pace and Gerd Müller›s otherworldly goal-scoring instincts had made the difference. This, Kreische argued, would now happen again.

“Tell you what,” Apel said good-naturedly, “I bet you five bottles of Scotch whisky that we are not going to win this World Cup!”

“I’m afraid this is impossible,” Kreische replied. “If I lose the bet, I will be in no position to make good on the wager.” Just in case the West German politician didn’t understand this position, he added that he didn’t have enough hard currency to afford proper Western whisky and, in any case, that he wouldn’t be able to get it out of the country.

“Who cares?” Apel said. “I have enough whisky, I don’t need it. But you’ll get yours if you win.” And with that he leaned back in his seat and considered the bet a done deal.

As is so often the case, there wasn’t one single reason why West Germany lost what many Germans on either side of the Wall considered the biggest game since the 1954 World Cup final. It was a combination of many things.

About an hour before the game kicked off, there were lively discussions in the press room. The Chile versus Australia result meant that a draw would be enough for the West Germans to secure first place in the group. The question, though, was whether this was a good thing or not. At this World Cup, there were no knock-out rounds after the first group stage. Two teams from each group went through and were put in two new groups, the winners of which would contest the final.

This system would give rise to a number of conspiracy theories over the ensuing years. One says that West Germany lost on purpose to avoid being put into the same second-round group as the Netherlands, Argentina and Brazil. The biggest flaw of this theory is that the final matches in the first-round Groups 3 (with the Netherlands and Sweden) and 4 (with Argentina, Poland and Italy) were played on the day after the Hamburg game, meaning the Germans didn’t really know whom they would meet (or avoid). Group 4 was totally open at that point. The Dutch, meanwhile, were huge favourites to win Group 3 — but of course they could just as well have taken it easy in their final game against Bulgaria and decided to finish second with a draw.

In any case, as Karl-Heinz Heimann, the editor of Kicker, the biggest German football magazine, mentioned in his column the following Monday, only the foreign press discussed the potential consequences of the Chile result. His implication was that the foreigners just didn’t understand the magnitude of the match. West Germany simply had to win, regardless of what was at stake.

This is also what the captain Franz Beckenbauer told the team in the dressing-room immediately before the kick-off. “We are not playing against a normal team today,” he said. “We are playing against the GDR. And this means that we are also playing for our coach. Do you understand this?” If Breitner is to be believed, not everyone fully understood what Beckenbauer was on about. The skipper himself would play a fine game, his commitment almost palpable. The diminutive man-marker Berti Vogts also put in a strong performance, even moving upfront in the final stages when the West Germans looked for an equaliser. And while Gerd Müller ghosted in and out of the game, that was just his style. In fact, five minutes before the interval he came agonisingly close to putting his side ahead when his great left-footed shot on the turn hit the outside of the right-hand post.

But too many of the other players seemed to lack focus. Schön, a man who wasn’t easily angered, became increasingly irritated by Hoeneß, Breitner and Jürgen Grabowski, who refused to get stuck in. During the half-time break, Beckenbauer addressed the team again. “If there’s still no score with twenty minutes left,” he said, “we go for a draw and let them come at us.” He seemed unaware of the fact that quite a few of his teammates were already playing like men who had mentally settled for a draw.

Yet it wasn’t merely an attitude problem that crippled the West German game. Today, the blame is squarely laid at the players’ feet and Schön is seen as the hapless victim of his team’s complacency. But in the days immediately following the debacle, the specialist press (as opposed to the tabloids) felt that Schön had been tactically outmanouevred by Buschner. Schön, they said, had expected Jürgen Sparwasser to play up front. Instead, the fleet-footed Magdeburg striker dropped deep, drawing his marker Georg Schwarzenbeck into midfield. Sometimes a teammate would take up Sparwasser’s role in attack, capitalising on the fact that Schwarzenbecker was now out of position. And sometimes Sparwasser himself would abruptly move upfield again, leaving the notoriously slow Schwarzenbeck in his wake.

Of course none of this was rocket science. What baffled the writers was that Schön refused to answer Buschner’s simple ploy. They argued that the national coach should have brought on someone like Rainer Bonhof to deal with Sparwasser. Instead, Schön did nothing until the 68th minute. Then he took off Schwarzenbeck — and put on Horst-Dieter Höttges, a veteran. Höttges was known as “Iron Foot” because there was never a 50-50 ball he didn’t win. But the nickname also hinted at the fact that Höttges wasn’t the fastest man alive.

With 12 minutes left on the clock, the GDR’s goalkeeper Jürgen Croy collected a header. He quickly threw the ball over to the right flank, where Erich Hamann picked it up. The West Germans tracked back only slowly and so Hamann saw acres of space in front of him. He accelerated and ran deep into the opponents’ half, then he looked up to see where he should pass the ball. At that moment, his teammate Jürgen Lauck picked up pace and made a diagonal run from central midfield into space on the right wing, giving Hamann the option to pass the ball into his path. Höttges correctly sensed that Lauck’s run was very dangerous and moved parallel to him, over to the flank. Suddenly he realised that Hamann had no intention of giving Lauck the ball. Rather, he was about to play a long pass into the path of Sparwasser, who was running in a central position at full speed from deepest midfield.

You have to give Höttges credit for instinctively knowing that Lauck wasn’t the real threat. Because at the last possible moment, in the very tenth of a second that the ball left Hamann’s right foot, he turned around, left Lauck alone and ran back towards the penalty spot. That is, it would have been the last possible moment for a quicker man. But Höttges wasn’t as quick as Sparwasser. The defender arrived in the danger zone, at the edge of the penalty spot, at the exact same moment when Hamann’s long pass took a big bounce. Without breaking stride, Sparwasser tried to nod the ball into his path. It didn’t quite work as planned, because the ball hit him in the face. His great technique, though, allowed him to control the ball with his chest and keep on running — past Höttges, who was wrong-footed because he had only just made it back. Sparwasser chipped the ball over the diving Sepp Maier and raised his arms even before the net had bulged. It was the only goal of the night.

After the final whistle, Michael Kohl walked into the VIP room, expecting it to be full of people animatedly discussing this exciting game. But there was almost nobody there, only those members of the West German squad who hadn’t made the team for the day. And, strangely, a few Dutch players. “They heartily congratulated us on this fantastic win,” Kohl later noted.

The most surprising and yet most obvious explanation for why West Germany lost the game was summed up by Paul Breitner. Almost twenty years later, after German reunification had become an unexpected reality, he was asked about the reason for the debacle. He replied, “Simple. What happened was nothing more and nothing less than that we picked up where we had left off.” It’s true. West Germany didn’t play any worse, or any better, than in their previous two group games, against Chile and Australia. “If we had played the first or the second game against the GDR instead of the third,” Breitner said, “we would have lost the first or the second game instead of the third.” 

It’s a painfully banal explanation, but to many who followed this World Cup closely, it was self-evident. The draw had been so favourable that the West Germans took qualification for the second round for granted and just couldn’t find the focus they needed to play good football. They were booed — by their own fans — after the Chile game (1-0) and they were booed after the Australia game (3-0). It took a really big wake-up call to jolt the team into action, and none was bigger than the GDR game. Even though the players had no way of knowing that they would never get a chance to really redeem themselves, they knew that their reputations would be ruined — unless they managed to win the World Cup. That is what Hans-Jürgen Kreische was trying to tell Hans Apel. And that is what happened.

On 8 July 1974, the day after West Germany had won the World Cup final against the Netherlands thanks to Bonhof’s cross and Müller’s goal, the phone rang in Michael Kohl’s offices in Bonn. He was more than just a little surprised to learn that the caller was Hans Apel. He was even more surprised to hear what the call was all about. Did he get that right? Had the Federal Minister of Finance just told him that he would be sending five bottles of whisky which he, Kohl, was then supposed to forward to a certain Hans-Jürgen Kreische in Dresden? Apel said yes, that was the gist of it. Kohl was piqued. This was nonsense, he said, he wasn’t a post-office clerk.

“I’m not asking you, I’m merely informing you,” Apel said. “If you lose a bet, you have to pay up. That’s what I’m doing now.”

The bottles arrived two days later. Apel included a personal letter to Kreische. It read, “What I never thought possible has happened. You have won our wager.” It also said, “I would like to use the occasion to congratulate you and your teammates once more for your excellent showing in the Federal Republic and wish you, personally, all the best and the sporting success you strive for.” Kreische later said that the real problem was the final sentence. Because the letter finished with these words, “Hopefully we’ll meet again one day soon.”

Apel didn’t hear anything back for many months. Then, late in the year, he received a typewritten letter. In strangely stilted words, Kreische thanked “Mr Apel” for the whisky. Not even the signature was hand-written. The letter had obviously been composed by Stasi officers. That’s when Apel realised that what he thought to be a harmless, humorous bet may have been regarded as something much more sinister on the other side of the Wall. The problem weren’t the bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label the fact that Kreische was seemingly on good terms with a capitalist politician who even wanted to meet him again. The desertion of prominent footballers was still a few years in the future, but Kreische now looked suspicious in the eyes of the secret police.

Two years later, in 1976, Kreische won the GDR’s Golden Boot with 24 goals, five more than the league’s second-best striker. “Six of my Dynamo Dresden teammates were called up for the squad that went to Montreal for the 1976 Olympics,” he says with a hint of bitterness. “But I wasn’t. I think this happened for political reasons.”

Kreische wasn’t the only member of the East Germany team who came to regard his country’s most famous football win as a curse rather than as a triumph. Jürgen Sparwasser, for instance, found the reactions back home very strange. Some people were jealous, because they — wrongly — assumed that he had been rewarded for his goal with money or even with a car, a luxury for which the average citizen had to wait seventeen years. (East German production could never keep up with the demand.) Many others treated with him with thinly veiled hostility, because they had secretly supported West Germany.

Finally, the party people tried to use the player and asked him to make public appearances during which he was supposed to explain that the GDR’s superior political system was the reason for the 1-0 win in Hamburg. Sparwasser refused, which didn’t exactly endear him to the politicians. In January 1988, he travelled to West Germany with Magdeburg Old Boys for a friendly. As the team left their hotel in Saarbrücken to go for a stroll around town, Sparwasser slipped away through the back door and jumped into a getaway car he had secretly organised. Few things better illustrated the imminent decline of East Germany than this act: the scorer of the GDR’s most famous goal had deserted his country.

The Berlin Wall fell less than two years later. But it wasn’t until late 2005 that Hans Apel and Hans-Jürgen Kreische would meet again. In the build-up to the 2006 World Cup, another one on German soil but no longer in a divided country, the two were asked to take a trip down memory lane. Accompanied by their wives, they met at Hamburg airport and retold the story of the game, the bet and the five bottles of Johnny Walker. And then they laughed about it for a long, long time

This article appeared on Episode Six of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.