Jonathan Lines on the life and times of a German footballing institution.
Things are going well for SG Dynamo Dresden at the moment, a club rich in history as a former giant of East Germany. Back in the 2. Bundesliga this season for the first time in five years, a positive atmosphere at “Dünamö” is growing rapidly, as they seek to put recent troubles behind them.
Dresden, the “Florence of the Elbe” is one of Germany’s most politically and culturally important, and most beautiful, cities. Saxon neighbour Leipzig has always been seen as the more modern city compared with Dresden’s classical and traditional atmosphere, a city better-known for its Baroque architecture, as an important centre of art and music in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and as the proud centre of the old Kingdom of Saxony.
With this in mind, there’s a belief that the city’s chief football club, Dynamo Dresden, are, not just in footballing terms but historical ones too, bound to tradition. Typically of the German language, there’s a short way of summing up a complicated term – Tradition-verpflichtet – conveying this notion of bound to tradition, as well as a pride and even a duty to it, and Dynamo is a club with plenty of this. It was one of the most successful clubs of East Germany, winning eight GDR Championships (dominating the 1970’s in East German football), and providing the East German national team with thirty-six players over the course of that country's existence.
After reunification, Dynamo were eligible to compete in the top tier of football in the new Germany. However, they immediately struggled and were relegated in the 1994/95 season. In a short space of time, Dynamo went from the being the heroes of a country which no longer insisted, to suffering financial hardship and relegation when integrated into West Germany’s capitalist system, and their fate exemplified a wider problem both for society and football clubs of the former GDR. A well-documented consequence of the fall of eastern clubs in the 1990’s and early 2000’s was the rise of right-wing extremism in the terraces, something Dynamo has seen amongst its own following.
Enough about the past, and of recent troubles. Thousands of fans took to the streets of Dresden to celebrate the club’s promotion back into the 2. Bundesliga for this 2011/12 season after a long absence from the highest leagues. It’s a new generation at Dynamo. While it is in no small part the club’s proud sense of tradition that has kept them relevant since unification, their recent reputation has seen a need to address some issues regarding the club’s identity.
Club officials have worked extremely hard over the past few years to improve the image of Dynamo Dresden, to distance themselves from the minority of extremist hooligans who have given the club a bad name over the past few years, and to bring a new generation of followers to a modern, exciting (and Tradition-verpflichtet) community.
Robert Koch was the two-goal hero of Dresden’s 4-3 defeat of giants Bayer Leverkusen in the first round of the German Cup earlier this season. Born and bred in Saxony, and a lifelong Dynamo fan, the 25 year-old Koch is the perfect poster-boy for Dynamo’s new image.
“Hello, my name is Robert Koch, and I worked in a pigsty for Dynamo”, he announces in Part One of large German cable channel Sport 1’s miniseries “Neues von Dynamo” [News from Dynamo]. The fan-favourite may have fulfilled a childhood dream when he earned his first professional contract with die SG. But Koch’s income at the fairly poor club was so low that, as recently as last season, he lived and worked on his brother’s farm in order to make ends meet, and pursue a career at the club he loves. “When I had to train”, he continues, “I still helped out in the afternoons, cleaned the sty, put in new hay and straw and fed the animals”. Koch’s humble story is the exact type that Dynamo want to tell.
But there’s another point here too, that of the public image the Black Yellows (the other ones) want to convey. Dynamo is shown to be normal, youth-centric and in touch with its community, as well as a vibrant and welcoming community itself.
Real change can’t be brought about through changing appearances and new facades. But Dresden’s vibrancy and attitude is definitely not for show. There’s something genuine behind the new face of the club. We are told stories from behind the scenes too, the less-appreciated aspects which the club publicly acknowledges, like Stefan Grossmann, the dedicated fanzine creator, and “Dynamo-grandma” Ingrid Beyer.
The series is also very funny. 22 year-old defender Florian Jungwirth struggles with bike-painting as he takes part in a “Dynamo Fanhaus” project of converting old bicycles into Dynamo-styled ones, and in a later segment he and Romain Brégerie take a camera around the dressing room, as Jungwirth, the former Germany U-19 captain, takes glee in exposing a clearly embarrassed Pavel Fort as he receives treatment. The personality of the players and the club shines through during the series, which really succeeds in making fans feel like they know their heroes and their team, something which should be applauded in any club in the modern game.
The concept of the series, taking a closer look into a specific club, is also a radical one, showing how important the rebranding of Dynamo’s image is to its officials, and how well they have done in conveying the message.
Added to that, there’s a feeling that this promotion means far more to the club than just entering a higher league. There’s a renewed confidence and spirit about Dynamo Dresden, in both fans and staff, something which “Neues von Dynamo” has neither created nor fashioned, but rather tapped into. The positivity and mood is genuine. And Dynamo have made it clear they don’t just belong in the higher leagues spiritually, on the pitch too, bringing an exciting brand of attacking and entertaining football with them. Almost everything about Dynamo’s play, defensive frailties aside, has suggested they belong there.
Despite all these positives, the hooliganism issue lingers. When thinking about reconstructing an identity, Germany has typically done excellently at memorialising its past appropriately as part of its looking forward. You need only walk the streets of central Berlin to see how well living history, and measures of atonement, have been incorporated into the new positive identity of the city. When it comes to Dynamo, it’s clear that they must address the issue of the far right as part of their own renovation.
In their Ost-Derby against Hansa Rostock in July, a league match, Dynamo switched from their usual black and yellow strip to play in white, with their usual shirt sponsor replaced by the slogan “Love Dynamo, Hate Racism”. The action, according to the club’s Chief Executive Volker Oppitz, was to “strengthen the message against racism, xenophobia and discrimination”. Especially considering this was done in a league game, this is an extremely important step in ridding Dresden of its bad reputation, not to mention it being a great message in its own right, and something else the Dynamo marketing department deserves a lot of credit for. The U-23 side will wear the slogan on their shirts at every match.
So far in the new 2011/12 season, it’s been all quiet on the hooligan front, which will come as great news to the club’s fan liaison officers, who have been working at stamping out the far right at the club for a few years now. The only incident reminiscent of the club’s recent dark days came in their home game against Eintracht Frankfurt at the end of September. And it was the Eintracht fans, not those of Dynamo, who made the headlines for the wrong reasons. In a senseless gesture, the fans in the away end of the Glücksgas Stadion sported a banner headed “Bombs on Dynamo” and an image of planes dropping bombs on the city and the fans. The public image of Dynamo is much-improved, especially this season.
Having said that, this might not convince everyone that Dynamo has fully overcome its problems of the past few years. Only last season, “Dünamö” fans were still making the news for their bad behaviour. There were isolated incidents of violence at certain games, and fans embarrassed themselves after the club’s promotion playoff return leg in Osnabrück. The match had to be stopped when a fire was started in the visitors’ end after Dresden’s equalising goal, while after the match a group of supporters invaded the pitch, started fires and tore chairs from the stands of VfL Osnabrück’s ground.
Even in non-footballing terms, tensions between the radical right and other social groups are still fairly charged, especially in Dresden, where probably the biggest Neo-Nazi – and anti-fascist – demonstrations in the country take place. Added to that, hooliganism and right-wing extremism at the club is still too recent in the memory. So perhaps it’s inevitable, and understandable, that the rest of society, particularly the youth whom the new-look Dynamo seem highly keen on attracting, still associate them with the negative elements of its recent history. I have spoken to many people, with ages ranging from late teens to late 20s, the majority of whom do still see Dynamo, and eastern clubs by-and-large, as unattractive.
It’s not that what Dynamo has done recently isn’t enough, but it’s probably more a question of time. The excellent work that the club has done needs to continue, and a club is being created which is really worth supporting.
As for the new generation, Dynamo have embarked on a journey back to where they belong, among the giants of German football. In a fairly new state-of-the-art stadium, with an exciting group of players, and in a new league they look comfortable in, their immediate future looks extremely positive. But Dynamo have never lost sight of their past, and it’s this tradition which is driving their resurgence. “I can remember the last time we were promoted, I lived it with my brother”, Robert Koch concludes, now a part of the class of 2011 as thousands took to the streets again, just like seven years previous, even meeting the team at the airport. “It stays in your heart for life, which is why this tradition – we say Tradion-verpflichtet – that’s a slogan for our team and I think it has a great effect”.
“Dynamo Dresden really is my dream club”.