The World Cup draw has always had a sense of humour, whether it be Italy and Chile reunited four years after the Battle of Santiago, or Argentina and Nigeria renewing their acquaintance for a fifth time in 2018. But in 1974, nobody was laughing when the draw paired hosts West Germany with tournament debutants East Germany.

After the fall of Nazi Germany, the fractured country was divided into four zones of occupation: American, British, French and Soviet. Over time, three of the zones were unified and granted the right to self-govern, while the Soviets installed a socialist one-party system to act as their puppet in the eastern sector. This became an independent country as East Germany in 1949.

The governments of West and East Germany initially refused to recognise each other as sovereign states, and would not do so until the Basic Treaty of 1972. But they could not ignore the enthusiasm of supporters in both countries, particularly the East, to see the best teams from their respective leagues meet on the football pitch.

A number of high profile friendly matches were arranged in the 1950s, most notably a hotly-anticipated encounter between two times West German champions Kaiserslautern and reigning East German champions Wismut Karl-Marx-Stadt in 1956. Over 100,000 spectators were in attendance to see Kaiserslautern win 5-3 in Leipzig.

The two nations didn’t clash in a competitive match until Bayern Munich and Dynamo Dresden were drawn together in the 1973-74 European Cup. Excitement levels reached fever pitch in East Germany, with over 300,000 people applying for tickets at Dresden’s 32,000 capacity home. Bayern won 4-3 at the Olympiastadion, before scraping through with a 3-3 draw in Dresden.

Ahead of the World Cup, tensions between the two countries skyrocketed when West German Chancellor Willy Brandt resigned, after it was discovered that an East German spy had infiltrated his inner circle. Only 1500 East German fans were allowed to travel to Hamburg for the match -most of them members of the Stasi.

Given the fraught political situation, security at the tournament was as tight as you would expect.

The spectre of the 1972 Munich Olympics, in which 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists, loomed large over the event, as did the threat of an attack from the far-left German militant faction known as the Baader-Meinhof Group.

This even extended to the West German training camp. Sepp Maier said that he and his teammates felt ‘incarcerated’; while Paul Breitner remembers the camp being ‘like a fortress’. At the match, all police were armed with guns, and a helicopter hovered above the stadium throughout.

West Germany were clear favourites. The core of their team was formed from the Bayern Munich side who had won the first of three consecutive European Cups the previous month. Gerd Müller and Uli Hoeneß scored 69 goals between them during the season, and captain Franz Beckenbauer had become the first defender to win the Ballon d’Or in 1972.

East Germany were not to be underestimated though. They also had a continental champion to their name, with FC Magdeburg beating AC Milan in the 1974 Cup Winners’ Cup final. And Dresden’s performances against Bayern had already shown that they could compete with their neighbours at the highest level.

From a purely footballing perspective, the match didn’t really matter – both sides were already through to the second round. But of course it did matter, particularly to the East Germans, who knew that they were viewed as the weaker team. “Everyone thought that we had no chance and we just wanted to prove to the world that we could play football,” said captain Bernd Bransch.

The West Germans had nothing to prove. But they still wanted to win, if not for themselves then for their manager, Helmut Schön. 

Schön was born in Dresden, so became an East German citizen when the country was split after the war. However, he defected to West Berlin to play for Hertha in 1950, and wanted to prove that his change of allegiance had been worth it.

The game itself was poor. Müller hit the post for West Germany early on, before Jürgen Grabkowski dragged a difficult effort wide. East Germany missed a glaring opportunity to take the lead when Reinhard Lauck’s cross found Hans-Jürgen Kreische with the goal gaping. Lauck raised his hands to celebrate, only to put them on his head in disbelief as Kreische skied the opportunity.

The second half was even worse, but as it wore on East Germany sensed the opportunity for a famous triumph over their under-par opponents. They got it when substitute Erich Hamann launched a long ball into the path of Jürgen Sparwasser. The Magdeburg striker beat Berti Vogts, before firing high into the net past Meier.

At full time, the two sets of players did not shake hands or exchange pleasantries, but only because they feared the repercussions if they acknowledged each other. The game itself had been a clean and fairly-contested affair. East Germany had picked up a couple of late yellow cards as they fought to defend their lead, but that was nothing unusual.

Away from prying eyes and camera lenses, East German hero Sparwasser and West German defender Breitner exchanged shirts. Whatever political connotations the two countries may have attached to the match, the players saw it only as Die Bruderkampf – a fight between brothers.

The win did East Germany no favours in the second round. They were drawn into one of the toughest groups of death in World Cup history, alongside the Netherlands, Brazil and Argentina. West Germany ended up in a much more favourable group and went on to win the World Cup, beating the Netherlands in the final.

Did East Germany mind? Ask Jürgen Sparwasser. “If one day my gravestone simply says: ‘Hamburg 74’, everybody will still know who is lying below,” he said. He knew what his goal meant. Sparwasser defected to West Germany in 1988, but he will be forever associated with East Germany’s greatest moment.

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