Helmut Kohl was at the game. March 26, 1990 in Dresden, East Germany. That was not quite five months since the fall of the Berlin Wall and six months prior to the official reunification of the two Germanys following 45 years of Cold War antagonism.
So the event, an old-timers’ soccer match featuring a Unified Germany team for the first time since the 1964 Olympics, was far more about symbolism than competition. And it was much more about Kohl, who was in the process of deftly engineering Germany’s new coexistence, than about the former international stars who were scurrying around on the field.
The Unified Germany side was stocked with retired fellows from East and West Germany’s separate 1974 World Cup teams, and pitted against a Rest Of The World outfit that featured such former international stars as England’s Bobby Charlton and Brazil’s Jairzinho. Yet the hardiest pre-game cheers from an overflow crowd of 38,000 were for Kohl, the West German chancellor.
Aside from his physical heft—he was 6-foot-4 and at least 300 pounds—Kohl brought a social and cultural weight to the process. He walked with spectators into the stadium. He performed the ceremonial pre-game kick-off. He mingled with players from both sides after the game. For purposes of sports? Or politics? “Probably both,” German soccer luminary Franz Beckenbauer said then.
News of Kohl’s death last week, at 87, brought all this to mind. A handful of us American sports journalists, who had been in East Berlin to cover a World Cup tune-up match that week between the United States and East Germany’s national team, commandeered rental cars and drove to Dresden to spend another day on the front porch of history.
We had been staying at a hotel on the East side of the Berlin Wall, short blocks from the Brandenburg Gate, cite of President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 “tear down this wall” speech. Steps away in the other direction was the Allied Checkpoint Charlie, where sidewalk vendors recently had set up a flea market peddling concrete chips of the wall and virtually entire military uniforms of Soviet and East German border guards, as well as various military pins that had been worn by those guards. It was like some gift shop on the way out of a museum dedicated to the Iron Curtain era.
We could walk through ragged new holes in the wall, no problem.
But for Germans, particularly in the East, there was a state of confusion with the sudden arrival of democratization and reunification. For one thing, East German money had become essentially worthless.
“Mr. Kohl told all the people, ‘Vote for my party and you will get [West German] deutschmarks,’” Sigfried Koenig, an East German sports official, told me. “Well, I voted for Mr. Kohl”—actually for Kohl’s sister party in the East. “I voted for deutschmarks. That was March 18. What is it now? March 28 already. Where are my deutschmarks?”
In fact, Kohl fulfilled his promise with remarkable speed. By that summer, he allowed the 17 million East German citizens to adopt the mighty West German mark at a rate of 1-to-1, an extraordinary economic stroke that further solidified his popularity and likely stanched a destabilizing flow of refugees from East to West.
Meanwhile, though, there was our Dresden adventure.
Forty-five years before, Dresden had been hit by the Allies’ worst firebombing of World War II. (Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant 1969 novel, “Slaughterhouse Five,” was based on that horrific incident.) When we were there in March of 1990, the wartime ruins of the Frauenkirche church still were untouched. (Starting in 1994, the church was rebuilt as part of reunification.) The firebombing’s rubble from the city’s 16th Century castle, the Schloss, likewise was visible. (Some of the proceeds from that Unified Germany soccer exhibition were earmarked to restore the Schloss, finally completed in 2013).
Tickets had gone on sale two months before and were snapped up—at prices equivalent to $1.20 to $2.40, U.S.—in a half-hour. On the night of the game, scalpers were getting up to $40, U.S. We U.S. reporters were able to convince officials we belonged in the stadium by using the only word we could conjure in our rudimentary German: Zeitung. (Newspaper.)
Of no significance whatsoever was the soccer result—Rest Of The World, 3; Unified Germany, 1. But even that had its echoes of the hostile past that Kohl was working to mend. Charlton, the great English player who was then 52 years old, was mostly kidding when he said, “I suppose it would have been diplomatic to let the Germans win. But we’ve never been very diplomatic that way.”
That was reminiscent of one British sportswriter’s snarky advance story of the 1966 World Cup final, when Charlton and his English mates were about to take on Germany: “Fret not, boys, if on the morrow, we should lose to the Germans at our national game, for twice this century we have defeated them at theirs.”
The beauty to March 26, 1990 in Dresden was that it was about neither soccer nor war, and that sports sometimes can be more than just sports. Political? Yes. And having seen Helmut Kohl score was a memorable occasion.