The Cold War spread insiduously into every aspect of life between the end of the second world war and the end of the 1980s, and sport was no exception to this rule, whether it was the Soviets and Americans boycotting each others’ Olympic Games or Bobby Fischer facing off against Boris Spassky at chess in Rekjavik in 1972. Football was no exception to this rule, and perhaps the definitive meeting of captialism and communism on the football pitch came at the 1974 World Cup finals, when West Germany played East Germany in the group stage of the competition.

Although the match was played at a time of relative detente in the overall scheme of the war itself, it was played at a time of high tension. The 1972 Olympic Games had been the scene of the Munich hostage crisis, and the recent actions of the Red Army Faction further intensified the nervousness surround the competition. Security was tight to the extent that guards with dogs patrolled the entrance of the West German team’s training camp, and the sense of unease spread into the camp itself, where a dispute over pay that threatened the appearance of several of the squad’s key players. Even the weather seemed to descend into pathetic fallacy, with pouring rain marring much of he early stages of the tournament.

The dispute was resolved, but West Germany’s opening two matches showed that some of this nervousness had spread onto the pitch. First of all, they beat Chile 1-0 in Berlin in a skittish performance that drew criticism from the crowd. They at least secured their qualification with a 3-0 win against Australia in their second match, but their performance against one of the tournament’s weakest teams. They were through to the next group stage of the competition, the winners of which would play out the final in Munich. First, though, they had a match that would at least determine which group match but was more about local and international pride – a competitive match against East Germany.

The split into West Germany and East Germany had formally come, in a football sense, in 1952, when East Germany was admitted into FIFA. The DFB had opposed their application and, although their two teams had met a couple of times at amateur level in the Olympic Games, the senior teams had never met. On the whole, the East German wasn’t as strong as its West German counterpart. They had a smaller population to pool players from, and 1974 was the first and only World Cup finals that they would get to. However, they had won and drawn their first two matches against Australia and Chile, and had also already qualified for the second round.

By contrast, West Germany had become one of the most successful football nations on earth, with a World Cup win in 1954, a place in the final in 1966 and a semi-final appearance in 1970. The current team had emerged like a butterfly from a chrysalis at the 1972 European Championships, when Gunter Netzer put in perhaps one of the most accomplished performances ever seen at Wembley as they won 3-1 in the quarter-final. They then swept past Belgium and won the tournament with a 3-0 win in the final against the Soviet Union in Brussels. With the holders, Brazil, being in decline, West Germany started as one of the favourites to win the World Cup, especially on home soil.

Unsurprisingly, control of the East German travelling support was strictly limited to Communist Party members, for fear of defection, and around 2,000 were allowed into Western Berlin for the final match in a crowd of 60,000 at the Olympiastadion. Anyone expecting West Germany to be relaxed by having already qualified for the next round was to be disappointed. In the very first minute, a defensive error almost gifted a goal to East Germany through Jurgen Sparwasser, but West Germany came back, with Gerd Muller hitting the post in the first half, but something wasn’t quite right. West Germany were’t dominating to the extent that they should have been, and East Germany were playing like a team with nothing to lose.

With thirteen minutes left to play, East Germany struck. A long, angled ball from just inside the East German half seemed to skid up off the pitch, catching Sparwasser somewhat by surprise and full in the face. Somehow, though, he regained his composure and, having bundled the ball past Franz Beckenbauer, lifted the ball over Sepp Maier and into the net. The tiny contingent of East Germans went wild, but the rest of the stadium fell silent. The West Germans, who had been off colour for much of the match, had nothing left to offer. When the match was over, the West German team was treated as a laughing stock at home. They had qualified for the second round of the competition but had been beaten by (and finished below in the group to) East Germany and would play Poland, Sweden and Yugoslavia. It has been suggested that, in a winner-takes-all second group stage, they lost on purpose to avoid playing Brazil, Argentina and the Netherlands, but there is nothing to suggest that there is any truth in this, and the shame of losing to East Germany must surely have been a stronger incentive for them to win than their group position in the next round of the competition.

East Germany finished in third place in the second group stage, with just a single point from a draw against Argentina to show for their three matches. West Germany, however, finally started to galvanise their performances with wins against Yugoslavia and Sweden to set up an effective semi-final against Poland, in which a Gerd Muller goal fourteen minutes from the end of the match was enough to guarantee their place in the final. The Dutch team that they would face in the final in Munich had been charming the watching world with outstanding performances against Argentina and Brazil in the second round, and West Germany seemed to be in serious trouble when they conceded a first minute penalty, but first half goals from Paul Breitner and Gerd Muller which gave them a 2-1 lead that they held onto to become the world champions for the first time in twenty years.

In East Germany, the celebrations were muted outside of the Communist Party itself. Some informal estimates claim that over 50% of the watching East German crowd were quietly supporting West Germany that night. The party, however, never underestimated the potential political capital to be made of the result. They never played West Germany again, and their 100% record against them remained intact until the reunification of the two countries’ football associations in 1990. East Germany’s final match was a 2-0 win in Brussels against Belgium, a match which started its life as a qualifying match for Euro 92 but ended up as a friendly after the East German team withdrew from the competition too late for the match to be called off altogether.

In the years prior to the reunification, several people involved with the game in East Germany had defected to the West. One of the highest profile was Jorg Berger, who had coached Carl Zeiss Jena before going on to become the coach of the national under-21 side. He used the opportunity of a match in Belgrade to escape to the West with a false passport. Lutz Eigendorf, however, was less fortunate. He defected in the same year, using a match between Dynamo Berlin and 1FC Kaiserslautern, and was banned from playing for a year by UEFA for his troubles. He died in a car crash in 1983 which was later confirmed to have been orchestrated by the German secret police, the Stasi. Meanwhile the domestic game became so stultified by constant match-fixing that crowds shrank to a whisper before the Berlin Wall came down.

In 1990, there were some concerns about the strength of the newly reunified German national team, but this team has not dominated football in the way that may expected that it might. It has won one title in the last twenty years – the European Championships in 1996 – and failed to lift the World Cup on home soil four years ago. Indeed, it could even be argued that the West German team was considerably more successful than the reunified German has been, and expectations have levelled accordingly. Consider the breathless reaction to Jurgen Klinsmann’s team to the semi-finals in 2006, for example.

The East Germany vs West Germany football rivalry only significantly existed for the one match and was never played in East Germany itself, and the reunification of Germany paved the way for the footballing map of Europe to alter in many different ways in the early 1990s. On the pitch, West Germany may have lost their battle against East Germany, but they went on to win the far greater prize of winning the overall competition. East Germany may have won their one match against their Western rivals but never qualified for the final stages of a major tournament again. Sometimes, football mirrors life so closely that it’s eerie.