In the muddy ground next to the Bruno-Plache-Stadion lies a small section of railway track. Perched upon it is a smallish, bright yellow train carriage. This, the club’s website proclaims, is Lokomotive Leipzig’s very own locomotive. “Lok’s very own Lok”. 

The train is a gift from the club’s new sponsor EGP, a railway company from Potsdam. It has only been there since January 2016 and was conceived as a 50th birthday present. The half-century celebrations of the once famous Lok Leipzig amount, more or less, to this little yellow carriage in its bed of mud. 

The European nights and cup magic Lok once enjoyed are, like their stadium, a relic of the past. The train, though, is a defiant middle finger to the ignominy into which this proud club has sunk. They may be in the fifth tier, says the train, but on their fiftieth birthday, Lok and their tradition endure. 

It didn’t begin with the train. It began with 1. FC Magdeburg. On 19 December 2015 the MDCC-Arena shook with emotion, as every corner of it was consumed by an enormous, blue and white mosaic tifo. The chorus “50 years of FCM” nearly drowned out the stadium announcer. 

That sunny winter afternoon sparked a wave of birthday parties. In the next few months, more and more clubs from the former East Germany celebrated their 50-year anniversary. Energie Cottbus released a commemorative book and their fans marched through town lighting flares on a cold night in January. Berliner FC Dynamo hosted an official evening of festivities, as did Lok Leipzig. Union Berlin opened a temporary exhibition. Hansa Rostock fans planned a two-kilometre long fan march at their Ostsee-Stadion, complete with rock bands and the compulsory fireworks. 

You wouldn’t think it, looking at those anarchic, emotional revellers. But the 50-year-old football culture they were celebrating had been conceived in the corridors and conference rooms of the East German government. On 18 August 1965, the Secretariat of the Central Committee passed a resolution that elite level club football should be restructured. By the winter of 1965-66, the GDR had ten new “Fußball-Clubs”. 

It was not the first restructuring of its kind. For twenty years, the East German authorities had renamed, rebranded and re-founded clubs as they strove for totalitarianism. The idea to separate the football sections from the sports clubs and “workers sports associations” was the one that stuck. That winter, East German club football finally found a narrative which would endure. 

50 years on, the FCs are celebrating. Some are doing so with gusto while others dwell quietly on an unwanted birthday. A few have some on-field success to celebrate while most are partying in spite of their current misery. East German football, like East German society, has struggled to integrate into the capitalist, globalised world. It is subject to stereotypes of racism and crippling, nostalgic provincialism. Above all, it has lost its footballing grandeur. 

The Bruno-Plache-Stadion is home to Leipzig’s most iconic football club. It is a stadium which saw glorious European nights, title challenges and endless, dramatic fairy-tales in the cup. You wouldn’t notice it now. 

As you drive in past the birthday train, a dusty training pitch opens up to your right. Looming over it is the oldest surviving wooden stand in continental Europe, on the other side of which lies the arena itself. The grass of the football pitch has long lost a defined shape, fading seamlessly into the gravel of what was once the running track, before rising into shallow, concrete terraces. Only the floodlights and the elegant old scoreboard give the slightest hint of grandeur. 

On the steps leading up to the north curve “1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig” is emblazoned in yellow and blue capitals. Murals depict the club’s emblem on nearly every wall. The modest outside toilets are lovingly painted in the club colours. 

A few years ago, an elderly Tottenham fan came to have a look at the stadium. He had seen his Spurs win here 40 years earlier in the European Cup Winners’ Cup and he wanted to see how the place had changed. When he arrived, he was dumbfounded. Everything looked exactly the same.

That is how they like it. Alex and Karl [names changed] are hardcore Lok fans in their mid-twenties. They beam with pride as they wander freely down the dimly-lit tunnel and onto the pitch. They happily show off the train and the murals they and other fans painted. They know everyone in the Casino, the stadium’s only bar. “At this club, you feel like you can really be part of something, like you have an influence,” they say.

How do they feel about Lok turning 50? “How will you feel when you celebrate your 50th birthday?” counters Karl. Of course he enjoyed the celebrations. At the same time, it’s questionable whether they should be celebrating at all.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lok were renamed VfB Leipzig, in honour of their famous early 20th century predecessor. In 2003, VfB went bust and was re-founded for a second time as 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig. Legally speaking, this 50-year-old club is only 12 years old.

But, as Alex says, it’s the emotional tradition that counts, not the legal one. The same fans are there in the same stadium. For most of the older ones, the Lok they love is the one founded in 1966, the four-time winner of the East German FDGB Cup. When that generation rebirthed the club in 2003, it was that identity that they assumed. 

The new Lok, though, has its own identity. Since 2004, the club has never been higher than the fourth tier, a regional league to which it has only just returned. When they have garnered outside attention, it has been for the typical curses associated with East German football – poor management, another near bankruptcy and problems with far-right extremism. 

The associations with communism, a general demographic exodus and the lack of footballing success meant that many fans abandoned their clubs after German reunification. In some places, that exposed – and liberated – the far-right factions among the hardcore support. 

Just a few weeks before Karl and Alex meet in the Casino, Leipzig had been shaken by riots in the left-wing avant-garde district of Connewitz. 250 right-wing extremists set fire to cars and vandalised shops. Reports said that Lok fans were among the rioters. The club immediately condemned the violence. But it did nothing to assuage the received wisdom that Lok is a breeding ground for the far right. 

“The club’s statement wasn’t just lip service,” argues Karl, “they really mean it. It’s annoying that there are these clichés, but we know that they’re not completely unjustified. The media work themselves into a frenzy with the subject, which makes it very difficult to address it objectively.”

He speaks openly and eloquently, but Karl’s tone is naturally defensive. The club’s chief executive Martin Mieth strikes the same tenor a few days later. “We work well with the police and we do our best with fan projects, but we can’t be responsible for educating people.

“At university, people were surprised when I said I worked with Lok,” Mieth goes on. “‘They’re all just Nazis,’ people would say. But they didn’t have a clue. Most of them had never even been to this district of Leipzig.”

A fierce vein of provincial pride runs through Lok’s modern spirit. It has only become fiercer since the rise of RB Leipzig, the Red Bull-funded bogeyman which has dwarfed the city’s traditional clubs. “I hate the people who go to that club, because they embody something which I consider to be against football,” says Karl. “But I don’t think of them as a rival. RB is just an alien entity in my town.”

Even as they celebrate a more glamorous history, Lok’s localism sets the tone around the 50-year anniversary. For Alex, it felt strange to celebrate at the same time as other clubs. He and other fans had thought of choreographing something with pyrotechnics to mark the anniversary on YouTube. “But why do we have to do something for the world?” he says. “Can’t we just mark it with our own people?”

In the end, that is what they did.  Lok held their official gala on January 23 at Leipzig’s historic Felsenkeller beer hall. It was an evening worthy of Lok, says Alex. 450 guests were well fed and treated to a cosy evening among members, officials and former club legends. At the end, the long-lost FDGB trophy from 1987 was presented as a final flourish. 

“Everyone was dressed up, but 95% of the guests were just people like us,” says Karl. “There weren’t 200 sponsors there or anything, just all us nutters coming together and having a good time.” But one sponsor was there and made his presence known. Josef Wernze, head of Lok’s major sponsor ETL, told revellers that the club should be aiming for the second tier. For Alex and Karl, that is an irrelevant, if not dangerous, target. 

“Of course we are Lok fans, no matter what division they’re playing,” says Karl. But the community spirit, the feeling of local engagement, is something both he and his friend are wary of losing in the higher tiers of modern football. 

“The fear is that it would become more difficult to live Lok like we live it now,” he says. “That we’d be more at odds with the ambitions of the club. That’s the fear with perspectives for the future.

“I don’t know, maybe I’m just too East German.”

Too East German can mean many things. What is certain is that the former GDR remains different, even 26 years on from reunification. If you discount the former Eastern part of Berlin, all five East German federal states have a population per square kilometre which is lower than the national average1All five have a higher proportion of over-65s than the western states2. All five have an unemployment rate higher than the national average3.

Since the euphoria of reunification, successive governments have struggled to replace old industries, old securities, old jobs. Populist parties on left and right are far more successful here. In the last two years, Eastern cities like Magdeburg, Erfurt and Dresden have become backdrops for the stark rise of Germany’s new populist, hard-right party, AfD. 

Football, as ever, is a historical microcosm rather than a historical vacuum. After winning the World Cup in 1990, Franz Beckenbauer famously predicted that Germany would “become unbeatable” after reunification. Not for the first time, reality showed the Kaiser’s wisdom to be rather hollow. Western clubs spied opportunity and pillaged most of the best talent from the East, while the clubs of the former Oberliga suffered under mismanagement as they tried to assimilate into the new system. Thus, the easterners’ general suspicion of the West grew in football as well. As one club official put it: “Why did Dresden get docked four points and their league licence taken away in 1995, but Eintracht Frankfurt only got docked two points five years later, even though they had much higher debts?” The fact that the German football federation resides in Frankfurt only adds fuel to the fire of that particular conspiracy theory. 

Conspiracy theories or otherwise, East German football has undoubtedly suffered. Today, clubs from small western towns like Heidenheim and Sandhausen, boosted by long-standing local businesses, are more successful than the old eastern giants. In the recovering east, the clubs can’t rely on their local economy. After all, why should a fresh-faced internet start-up save a gnarled old football club? 

Magdeburg had those problems. One of the proudest of the ten FCs, FCM were the only East German club ever to win a European title. Since reunification, they have plummeted, flirting with insolvency and never rising higher than the third tier. Only in the last couple of years has hope sprung anew. A fairytale cup run and promotion back into the 3. Liga has the Magdeburgers dreaming. 

With all eyes on sporting success, the club decided against an official 50th birthday party. The best present, the board argued, would be promotion. They delivered. Nonetheless, says FCM fan Oliver Wiebe, the lack of an official celebration rankles a little.

“It is expensive to come to the stadium every two weeks, to buy your scarf and your beer, to pay your membership fee,” says Wiebe. “A lot of our most reliable fans are the ones on unemployment benefit who have three kids to feed. It would have been a nice chance for the club to give something back to those people.”

Instead, Wiebe and others from the Magdeburg fan scene were left to their own devices. They organised the tifo themselves and hosted an unofficial evening in a Magdeburg theatre. “The club is important for the city of Magdeburg,” argues Wiebe. “Particularly in an era when identification is becoming more difficult, traditional ideas of the family are changing and jobs are becoming more short-term.”

It is a familiar refrain. Magdeburg is one of many old East German towns where time appears to have stood still. The only certainty is the emptiness of the train station. In a world like that, a famous old football club is a powerful thing. No matter how far it has fallen. 

Many of the old clubs, like Magdeburg and Hallescher FC, are threatening to rise again as they turn 50. Others, like Energie Cottbus and Lok, cannot stop falling. At Hansa Rostock, things were so bad in December that the club had to postpone their official birthday celebrations until May. 

Yet there are success stories, too. Stories like the one nestled away in the woods of Köpenick, in East Berlin. Stories like 1. FC Union Berlin. 

In the cold streets of Friedrichshain, the posters are everywhere. They are on the walls of the old railway warehouses which now host Berlin’s world-famous drug-fuelled nightlife. They are pasted over the anti-TTIP posters on the lampposts. They are in the windows of the endless smoke-filled bars. The posters are an orange-reddish colour and adorned with black block capitals. Es lebe der 1. FC Union Berlin! Long live Union Berlin. 

Here in Friedrichshain, where Europe’s stag parties and techno nerds have annexed the crumbling concrete of old East Berlin, 1. FC Union are marketing their 50th birthday. The celebrations will take place in Berlin’s famous old Volksbühne theatre, a more bombastic version of Lok’s cosy evening in the Felsenkeller. Among the guests will be club legends, the old guard of East Berlin workers and, dotted here and there, a few hipsters. They are the ones who have seen the posters in Friedrichshain. They are the ones who only recently bought into the mythology of this club. 

“I always choke on the word mythology; it isn’t part of my vocabulary,” says the club’s official annalist Gerald Karpa. “What we have here isn’t a mythology, but just a history, with some success and a lot of defeats. It isn’t much more than that.”

Union’s simple history, though, has been mythologised. In the eyes of many, they are the perennially likeable underdog. A dissident force under communism, an anti-commercialist bastion under capitalism. Is it all true? Not quite, says Karpa. “Firstly, Union was never against the state. It was founded by the Party, and without the Party you have nothing.”

Of the ten old clubs, Union were the afterthought. Berlin was given a secret police club in BFC Dynamo and an army club in FC Vorwärts. At the last minute the decision was made to add a “civilian” club, an idea supported by Politbüro member Paul Verner. Without one of the highest officials in the East German government, the supposed rebels’ club would probably not exist. 

Initially, the East German government had attempted to rid their socialist state of the traditional, bourgeois football clubs. Hence the constant restructuring, the “workers’ sports associations” which lumped everything from chess to football into one organisation. The GDR was neither the first nor the last dictatorship to acknowledge that football could not be managed on the same terms as other sports. There was nonetheless a certain irony in their solution. The FC model, and above all Union’s civilian identity, revived echoes of the old “bourgeois” romance of the football club. 

“Our likability was inevitable. We were rivals of the Stasi team,” says Karpa. While Union’s emblem was designed by somebody who won a newspaper competition, BFC adopted the familiar “D” worn by secret police teams all over the Eastern Bloc. BFC, with all their privileges, won 11 consecutive Oberliga titles, while Union’s greatest success to date remains winning the FDGB Cup in 1968. Everyone loathed BFC. Union loathed them the most. 

The rivalry certainly irritated the Stasi. In 1977, Erich Mielke sent a report to the Politbüro detailing the “society-endangering, negative-decadent behaviour of young people in relation to Union matches.” But a cool relationship with the secret police does not amount to full-blown opposition. Union’s board, after all, was filled with Party officials. 

So what of their post-reunification identity? For Karpa, Union’s soul didn’t change much after 1990. “For most people, Union was all that was left. In Friedrichshain particularly, but all over East Berlin, the upheaval was overwhelming. Many people thought life and work in the rotting old factories would just go on as before, just with western money. When it didn’t, they were shaken. Union was a place of retreat.”

Many of those in Friedrichshain literally did retreat. As the district was invaded first by the anarchist squatters and then by the party tourists, rents shot up and many of the traditional working class emigrated further into East Berlin. To places like Köpenick, home to Union. 

They were the fans who stayed with Union through the dark times. Through the late 1990’s, the club was in such dire financial straits that they had to cheat their way around repossession. When the bailiffs were circling, the official ticket sellers are said to have run off into the woods with their takings before kick-off, only to return a few days later and put all the money into a vase. “If the bailiffs had ever thought to look inside that vase, we probably would have gone bankrupt,” chuckles Karpa. 

Such tales are ten a penny at Union. When they were struggling for cash in the early 2000s, fans formed an organisation called “Bleed for Union”, where they gave blood to raise funds for the club. Volunteers turned out in droves to do shifts pouring concrete and painting handrails as the club renovated its stadium. The terraces of the Alte Försterei were literally built by those who stand on them. 

The stories are the backbone of Union’s modern identity and many share a border with mythology. The stadium’s new roof was built by contracted professionals. The “Bleed for Union” campaign paid for only a tiny portion of the debt. In the romance of the myth, darker elements like the Ultras singing anti-Semitic songs at reserve team games go woefully underreported.

Yet the myth is not unfounded. When the hipsters wander in from Friedrichshain they find the romance they are looking for. They are there on the terraces, the Dutch, English, French and affluent southern Germans. They are there for the half-century celebrations at the Volksbühne. A few of them are even there at the “50 years of Union” exhibition. Among the mullets and the denim jackets of the local fanbase, there is the odd, scrawny musician type. Along with the others, he stares intently at the exhibition’s centrepiece: the replica of the hideous first iteration of the FDGB Cup trophy, Union’s one great triumph in a defeat-ridden history. 

Just under three hours’ drive away in Jena, the celebrations were a little less extravagant. Carl Zeiss Jena, one of the most famous of the ten “FCs”, don’t consider themselves to be 50 years old. 

“The club doesn’t recognise 1966 as our founding year, and rightly so,” says Michael Ulbrich. “It was simply a renaming.” 

Ulbrich is a board member at the Jena Supporters’ Trust. On January 20 the Trust organised an evening in which players from the current squad shared a beer with club legends. That was the extent of FC Carl Zeiss’s half-century celebrations. 

Carl Zeiss Jena are an anomaly. They were initially founded in 1903 as a club for employees of the Carl Zeiss company, which specialises in optical mechanics. The 1966 re-founding really was just a renaming. Yet their story is much the same as the other FCs. In the 1990s, when the Carl Zeiss company moved west to integrate with its sister company near Stuttgart, the club was left in familiarly dire financial straits. How different it might have been. For, as current events are proving, a successful corporation may be the only thing which breeds success in East German football. 

Until this season, the last East German representative in the top tier was Energie Cottbus. They were relegated in 2009, the same year the Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz added Germany to his sporting empire and founded RB Leipzig. 

To comply with German football’s stringent regulations, RB did some clever gymnastics. They call themselves “RasenBallsport Leipzig”, so as to be RB without using the name Red Bull. They made token alterations to their badge. They became the most hated team in the country. But it didn’t matter. After New York and Salzburg, the Red Bull company finally had a team in Germany. 

When that team held their promotion party last season, Silly were booed off stage. The German rock band thought that the event was a celebration of East German football’s return to the Bundesliga. So they donned the official shirts of various East German clubs: Union, Magdeburg, Dynamo Dresden. The crowd of RB Leipzig fans were incensed. Silly had lived up to their name. They had effectively tried to do an Oasis tribute gig in Blur t-shirts. 

Nowhere are the most hated club in Germany more hated than in their own region and opposing fans never miss a chance to show it when they host RB. Last season, Erzgebirge Aue supporters held up a banner comparing Red Bull's founder Mateschitz to Hitler. Union fans wore black one year, held a silent protest the next and dedicated the “Meet the Visitors” page in their match programme to a potted history of bulls.

RB’s meteoric rise has seen them promoted five times in seven seasons. It has seen them overtake the struggling old guard of East German clubs, which has only deepened the hatred locally. But this is no mere jealousy, as RB often claim. Ask anyone what is wrong with RB Leipzig and they will give you good reasons. Their identity was invented from one day to the next. They have no tradition. They were founded to improve the image of a corporation. 

The problem is, you could reframe all those criticisms and apply them to the 10 “Fußball-Clubs” founded 50 years ago. What, after all, is the difference between a club invented by a multi-national corporation and one invented by a dictatorial state? 

Not much, say some. One defence of RB is that they have succeeded where the old clubs failed in providing East Germany with a club which can provide both high quality football and excellent conditions for youth development. That, in essence, is no different from what the East German government did in 1965/66.

“If we’re honest, we have to accept that football in the GDR was a system,” says Oliver Wiebe. “If you criticise BFC Dynamo for their Stasi links, you have to criticise the whole thing.” That RB Leipzig poach the best young talent from the region is nothing new, Wiebe goes on. His own FC Magdeburg did the same thing in the 1960s, suffocating smaller clubs and establishing a stranglehold over the region which lasts to this day. The tifo unveiled for the 50th anniversary was designed and built in fan clubs across the state of Saxony-Anhalt. 

Yet, Wiebe concedes, there is a difference. Even though they were founded by the state, the “Fußballclubs” invited fans to become members. They were clubs in the true sense that members came together and, albeit within the restrictive realms of autocracy, had a say in how their club was run. 

That principle is also embodied in the footballing structures of the liberal West. Of all the rules and regulations that RB Leipzig have circumvented, the most controversial is the 50+1 rule, which gives the members of a German football club a democratic majority. As if to deliberately provoke the traditionalists, RB comply with the rule, but have only allowed 17 people to become members. 

For Wiebe and others, this is the key difference between their identity and RB’s. “The people who go to RB are just consuming football,” says Alex, propping up the Casino bar at Lok. “People who come here do so because they are part of the club.”

There are those at RB who are more than just consumers. There are fans of the club who push tirelessly for more fan power, for a less brand-focused identity. Against all the odds, these people want to build a soul for their club in the same way that fans of Union, Lok and Magdeburg have done over the last 50 years. 

From where he is sitting in Jena, Michael Ulbrich thinks they are fighting a losing battle. “Do you think Mateschitz will ever allow the slightest bit of participation? I don’t think so. That’s why I reject RB.” It is a reasonable position. Despite endless criticism from inside and out, RB show no sign of treating their fans as anything but consumers. 

“With commercialism, it’s a question of how you package it,” says Gerald Karpa of Union. While RB’s quest for profit is unashamed, Union are proud to have found a third way. Sponsors are welcomed but red lines are drawn, such as never selling naming rights to the stadium. “We’ll see which model is still there in the future,” says Karpa. 

Union are well-placed to last another 50 years. Yet even in the provincial depression of Lok’s Bruno-Plache-Stadion there is the eternal optimism of the football fan. Sitting in their wooden stand, looking over the empty terraces and the humble little birthday train in its bed of mud, Karl and Alex have a message.

“We were here before RB. We are still here. We will be here forever.”