FSV Zwickau – From GDR Fairytale to Modern Success Story

FSV Zwickau will forever be etched into the annals of history as the little club that could. From being crowned the first-ever GDR champions to reaching the semi-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup, to, nowadays, being an established club in the third division, a team from a city as small as Zwickau has no right to boast as much high-level, tangible success as die Schwäne (the Swans).

The club’s roots can be traced all the way back to the earlier 20th century when they were known as Planitzer SC, but things only started to get truly interesting after World War II. In May of 1950, Planitz became BSG Motor Zwickau; BSG being the acronym of Betriebssportgemeinschaft, meaning that Zwickau was part of, and financed by, a local Betrieb (company), in this case, automobile manufacturer Horch. A month earlier, Zwickau had controversially won the inaugural DS-Liga title (which would later become the DDR-Oberliga) under the name of ZSG Horch; two years before that, back when East Germany was still under Soviet occupation, they won the first-ever Ostzonenmeisterschaft as SG Planitz.

Even though that 1950 DS-Liga success was to be their only top-flight GDR championship, Zwickau had established themselves as somewhat of a powerhouse in the fledgling nation. But that all changed after 1955 as the Oberliga became a diarchy between Wismut Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz) and Vorwärts Berlin. In fact, that shift in power already manifested itself in the 1954 edition of the GDR’s domestic cup competition, the FDGB-Pokal, when Zwickau were beaten by Vorwärts in the final. The Swans lost their way a bit and slowly slipped further down the table.

In the 60s, BSG found their golden touch again, but a sustained period of success wasn’t forthcoming. Their 1963 and 1967 Pokal achievements were more of a flash in the pan than anything resembling their former glory days. They finished smack dab in mid-table of the 14-team Oberliga in 1963 and although that 1967 triumph was accompanied by third-place in the league, it was soon followed up by yet more mid-table mediocrity.

BSG Motor again changed their name in 1968 to better represent their parent company which was now known as VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau and mainly produced the iconic Trabant; thus, the club took on its most fondly-remembered moniker: BSG Sachsenring Zwickau. The following year, fellow Zwickau outfit Aktivist Karl Marx was incorporated into the organization. Aktivist can be credited with nurturing Jürgen Croy, the man who is widely regarded as the GDR’s best-ever player and who, as a goalkeeper, came to define this very distinct underdog mentality that both Zwickau and the GDR at large demonstrated.

The name change didn’t engender an upturn in league form, on the contrary, their results gradually worsened, but as Sachsenring, Zwickau produced one of the biggest fairytale stories not just in the GDR but in all of Germany. In 1975, they again reached the final of the FDGB-Pokal, where Dynamo Dresden awaited. Despite only coming third in the Oberliga that season, Dynamo were still unquestionably a juggernaut; as a matter of fact, they would go on to win three consecutive league titles, starting in 1975/76, before having their grip on the Oberliga wrested away by Stasi-backed capital club BFC Dynamo.

Zwickau pulled off a major upset in front of over 50,000 captivated spectators at Berlin’s Stadion der Weltjugend. With the scores level after 90 minutes, the game went to extra time. Sachsenring were dealt a crushing blow in the 110th minute when Dresden took the lead for a second time that afternoon. As time was slipping away at an almost rapid pace and with just a little over a minute left to play, Zwickau looked dead on their feet. But, as the old cliché goes, cometh the hour, cometh the man, and in this case, the man was the relative no-name Peter Nestler, who hit the back of the net in the 119th minute to take the match to penalties. In the shootout, it was Jürgen Croy who would write his name into the history books by saving two penalties – including one from arguably Dresden’s greatest ever player Dixie Dörner – before then stepping up himself and converting the game-winning spot-kick.

Croy (far left) and Dörner (center, bending down) receiving Olympic gold medals in 1976 (imago images/Werner Schulze)

By winning the FDGB-Pokal, Zwickau qualified for the Cup Winners’ Cup. However, their glory days were but a distant memory at that point, so GDR leadership mulled over the idea of picking a more distinguished representative for the country rather than a team bordering on Dorfklub (village club) status. This wasn’t the first time Sachsenring were derided by state leadership either. The previous year, with the World Cup in West Germany on the horizon, a representative of football’s governing body made Jürgen Croy in no uncertain terms clear that he had to join one of the more illustrious sides; he was even threatened with forced conscription to the military, but the goalkeeper refused. The only thing protecting him from receiving a hefty punishment were the Sachsenring workers, who declared that they would go on strike should they be robbed of their hometown hero. Croy stayed and became a Zwickau legend.

In the end, the club was allowed to take part in the Cup Winners’ Cup and this is where their story really took off. The unfancied side from little old Zwickau knocked out Panathinaikos, Fiorentina, and Celtic on their route to the semi-final. The only team able to stop the burgeoning Saxons were eventual winners Anderlecht. To this day, it’s the club’s greatest achievement. Unfortunately, it was also Zwickau’s last great accomplishment.

Not even a decade later, BSG were relegated after 23 years of continuous Oberliga football. From then on, Zwickau were consigned to a mere peripheral, yo-yo role, bouncing around between the top-flight and the second tier. Around that same time, Sachsenring, the parent company, began to flounder. For all the great things that socialist thought yielded, automobile innovation wasn’t one of them, and Sachsenring’s Trabbi production began to stagnate. Maybe it was this failure to adapt that also doomed the football club, but that’s perhaps a bit harsh given that everything in the GDR began to unravel during the 80s; hell, even the Oberliga lost its appeal because BFC Dynamo, with external help from the Stasi, essentially turned the competition into an annual dog and pony show, a dull slog with a predetermined outcome.

Weirdly, things only began looking up for the Swans after reunification. I say ‘weirdly’ because they might very well have been the only Eastern team to have actually benefitted from the annexation by the West. Football – just like the people living in the former GDR territory – was plunged into a seemingly perpetual state of uncertainty. While the average Joe had to deal with unemployment, inadequate healthcare, and overpriced housing (or no housing at all), football clubs had to be restructured, and most, if not all, fell victim to the cutthroat capitalism of the new united Germany.

Financial struggles would eventually catch up with the Swans, but initially, things were going unexpectedly well. Rebranded as FSV Zwickau, they fell at the final hurdle in 1990/91 and narrowly failed to qualify for the 2. Bundesliga. In 1994, after a couple of seasons in the Oberliga (back then the third tier), they did ultimately reach the fully professional second division. They almost went one better two years later, but they just missed out on promotion to the Bundesliga. After another two years, their brief second-tier adventure was already over; insolvency soon beckoned.

FSV hit rock bottom in 2005 when they were relegated to what was then the fifth division, the Sachsenliga (nowadays it’s the sixth tier). In addition to the fiscal problems, misfortune also began rearing its ugly head: a couple of years after Zwickau returned to the Oberliga – which had now been demoted to fourth-tier status – the 3. Liga was established which meant that the Regionalliga became the new fourth division and subsequently, the Oberliga was again downgraded, this time to the fifth level of the pyramid. So, essentially, Zwickau were back where they started. In 2010, the club had to go through insolvency proceedings once more.

After that latest economic setback, things had to change. Luckily, things did change. That same year, it became clear that Zwickau needed to modernize their iconic stadium, the Westsachsenstadion. Back in the good old days, some matches, chiefly the games against European opposition, attracted up to 50,000 spectators, more than half of Zwickau’s entire population. Following the club’s unfortunate demise, however, 15,000 was deemed a more reasonable capacity, and even that was a generous estimate. As it turned out, though, stadium renovations are quite pricey; so pricey, in fact, that it made more sense for the city and the club to build an entirely new 10,000-capacity stadium from scratch rather than to cling on to the memories enshrined in the hallowed chambers of what was formerly called the Georgi-Dimitroff-Stadion.

It was a sad, abrupt and, some would argue, untimely end for a stadium that had served as the background for some of Zwickau’s greatest achievements. The most remarkable feature of the Westsachsenstadion was undoubtedly the tower, which transformed it from a bland multi-purpose ground into something resembling more of an actual fortress. The cavernous entrance tunnel in the bowels of the tower ominously vibrated with supporters’ chants and stadium music prior to matches, which made it perhaps the most conspicuous section of this majestic arena for the game’s protagonists. Some supporters – and players – even petitioned the club to construct something mirroring the tower and the tunnel in their new stadium. Sadly, that never materialized.

Jürgen Croy making a save in front of the famous tower in 1974 (Frank Kruczynski)

While their new home, the Stadion Zwickau, was being built, FSV relocated to the Sportforum Sojus 31, named after the Soviet Soyuz 31 Interkosmos mission that saw Sigmund Jähn become the first German in space. It wasn’t a pleasant ground – far from it, actually; it was essentially just a shoddy high school pitch – but it more or less did its job given the circumstances, i.e. Zwickau playing fifth-division football.

Funnily enough, it was during the Sojus era that FSV finally got back on track. In less than half a decade, the Swans went from playing amateur football back to the professional ranks. After winning their provincial Oberliga in 2012, they established themselves as one of the better teams in the Regionalliga Nordost which culminated in them winning the league in 2016 and reaching the 3. Liga for the first time after a playoff series against Elversberg. That same year, the Stadion Zwickau, which is now known as GGZ-Arena, was opened. Everything was coming up Zwickau, but they weren’t done just yet. Despite a poor Hinrunde in 2016/17, FSV managed to shoot up the table and, remarkably, finish fifth.

But what goes up must come down and, unfortunately, Zwickau kind of regressed to the mean after that initial burst of euphoria; in other words, they began to slip down the table into a more natural realm for a club of their stature. However, it must be acknowledged how extraordinary it is that, four and a half years after originally coming up, these perennial minnows are still in the 3. Liga. Just in terms of size, they have no right to be in the same league as the likes of Kaiserslautern, 1860 Munich, and Duisburg. Thankfully, that’s not how football works. To put into perspective how absurd an achievement this is: Zwickau is the fourth-smallest city in the 3. Liga; only Unterhaching, Meppen, and Verl have a more modest population. In fact, Zwickau is smaller than even some of the cities represented in the Regionalliga Nordost – the likes of Cottbus, Jena, and Chemnitz spring to mind, not to mention Leipzig and, of course, Berlin.

After barely surviving last season, people naturally predicted more of the same for this term. And for the first few months of the season, it certainly did look like Zwickau would have a mighty battle on their hands to escape the drop – and, who knows, they still might get sucked into another relegation scrap – but as of right now, things are actually looking fairly rosy in Western Saxony. Their form has dipped somewhat recently: a 1-0 win over 1860 Munich was followed up by a draw and two defeats, but the Swans still sit comfortably in mid-table, five points above the drop zone.

The most recent defeat – and the game that prompted me to write this – was their encounter with Dynamo Dresden. The fact that the table-topping Dresdner came away with a 2-0 win, was only of marginal importance on the day, as this was the first time in almost two decades that Zwickau hosted Dynamo in a competitive match. Why was this unlike any other 3. Liga fixture? Not only was this a Sachsenderby or Ost-Derby, which are labels attached to matches between clubs from Saxony or teams from different former GDR states (quite often, it’s actually a misnomer perpetuated by the media to create artificial hype for games between teams that historically aren’t even rivals), but this encounter also served to invigorate the long-standing friendship between these particular clubs that dates back to when they were both laboring in the Oberliga. Dresden described the history of the mutual appreciation on their website as follows:

“It’s the year 2001. During the spring and the summer, supporters of Dresden and Zwickau frequently crossed paths whilst groundhopping. . . . They quickly realized that they were on the same wavelength; over the years, this good rapport between ultra groups developed into a friendship on a much larger scale. In the early days, this [friendship] was solidified and brought to life mainly through visits [of each others’ games] and parties.”

Nowadays, this affiliation has taken on a way more professional structure. In 2013, both clubs began cooperating on the sporting front, especially in the field of youth development. Since then, several players have been transferred between the two clubs (it’s mainly been one-way traffic from Dresden to Zwickau). A friendly game was also arranged between the two in 2017, with FSV allowed to keep all of the revenue. That same year, Dynamo played their DFB-Pokal first-round match versus TuS Koblenz in Zwickau; the previous year, FSV played a couple of games at Dresden’s home ground because the Stadion Zwickau wasn’t finished in time for the start of the 2016/17 season.

Since no supporters were permitted to attend the latest encounter, the two clubs came up with the Eene Bande! (one gang) initiative. Zwickau took a page out of Dynamo’s book by selling virtual tickets – Dresden had sold more than 72,000 for their Pokal encounter with Darmstadt a few months earlier – and when the initial goal (the stadium capacity of 10,134) was reached after just two days, they allowed for more to be bought; in total, 16,185 pretend tickets were sold.

Additionally, to really drive home the whole friendship thing, Zwickau refurbished their entire main stand to display the message “Eene Bande!” and the clubs’ distinct colors and (old) badges, making for a striking scene in the absence of fans. The game may have ended in disappointment, but the whole spectacle around it was a resounding success. Some COVID-related financial issues notwithstanding, ‘a resounding success’ is also a great description of what the Swans are these days.

FSV Zwickau have constantly defied the odds; these perennial underdogs can boast one of the richest club histories in all of East German football. Their upcoming schedule is extremely tough, but if they manage to stay in the 3. Liga again this term, it will be another tremendous achievement. People – myself included – wrote them off before the season, but they could very well prove everybody wrong yet again.

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