Half a Century of Distinction – Turbine Potsdam’s Rags-to-Riches Story

Potsdam, late 1970. At the end-of-year party in the company canteen of state-owned energy supplier VEB Energieversorgung, a watershed moment in German football history transpired. As the players of trifling men’s club Turbine Potsdam, the organization’s sports sector, were chewing over the trials and tribulations of a team stuck in lower league purgatory, their female colleagues decided to chime in, scolding the lads for their underwhelming performances in recent months. The men’s rebuttal? When it comes to football, women should keep their mouths shut.

Instead of simply blowing over, this confrontation snowballed into something much, much bigger. Indeed, mere days after the incident, a note was found affixed to the company’s bulletin board. In the fashion of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses onto the door of the All Saints’ Church, an anonymous employee had posted this landmark epistle with a straightforward, succinct appeal: “Establishing women’s football team. Please get in contact. March 3, 1971. 6 pm at the Walter Junker clubhouse. BSG Turbine Potsdam football department.”

Turbine’s women’s department was founded on the fundamental belief that the supposed “weaker sex” can play football just as well as – and better than – their male counterparts. Half a century later, it’s fair to say that they’ve gone out and proved exactly that. While the men’s department slowly withered away, the women have thrived, taking Turbine right to the very summit of the club game. Funnily enough, their success was essentially built on a coincidence.

Bernd Schröder, department manager at the energy supplier, was in attendance on that historic March evening in 1971, but not because of the football, he was really only there to have dinner. Hilariously, he did actually read the infamous letter when it originally appeared on the company newsboard, but by the time of the gathering, he had forgotten all about it. On his way to the bathroom, he noticed a group of confounded women sitting in the room usually reserved for the football team. It was an unusual sight, to say the least, so he decided to join in. This ostensibly trivial, spontaneous decision would change his life forever. 

“Nobody [at the gathering] wanted to take the initiative,” he recounted in an interview with Märkische Allgemeine in 2011. So he took matters into his own hands and started drawing up plans for the future. When asked if he wanted to take charge of the new side, he agreed despite having no previous coaching experience. “To this day, I still don’t know why [I agreed],” he would later confess with an impish smile. It turned out to be a match made in heaven, their fates inextricably intertwined ever since. Over the next 45 years, Schröder would build this team from the ground up, winning everything there is to win as Turbine Potsdam grew from recondite provincial minnow into a household name.

When die Turbinen commenced operationsthey encountered a somewhat unique football landscape. Women’s sides had only fairly recently begun sprouting up thanks to Vladimir Zvetkov, a Bulgarian expat who founded the GDR’s first formally sanctioned women’s team at Empor Dresden in 1968. Whereas the DFB had banned women’s football in West Germany, the Marxist teachings of equality and women’s emancipation whereby the GDR was governed precluded such a thing from occurring in the East. However, since women’s football wasn’t an Olympic competition, the state had little to gain from amplifying it like it did the men’s game. Thus, the sport was regarded purely as a recreational activity and there was no professional infrastructure in place to support it. Although Zvetkov’s pioneering engagement helped reshape the narrative around women’s football, it would still be quite a while before anything resembling a coherent league system would appear.

Under these unusual circumstances, Turbine established themselves as a force to be reckoned with right from the off, going their first 12 games unbeaten as they ended their debut year with just one loss to their name. Training under Schröder was rigorous and relentless, but there was always a marked comprehension of the human element. Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno – one for all, all for one – was his motto. At Turbine’s first training session, which took place the very next day after that memorable meeting, 38 enthusiastic women showed up. That number would grow to 50 for session two. Schröder, however, maintained from the outset that he would not cut any players from the roster as he felt it would be morally wrong, so instead, he gradually ramped up the intensity of his exercises. Eventually, only 12 determined girls and women remained.

As a wonderful anecdote from Birgit and Heiko Klasen’s book, “Elf Freundinnen – Die Turbinen aus Potsdam”, showcases, Schröder always beseeched his players not to lose sight of the things that mattered more than football. When two of his starlets, 16-year-old twins Iris and Sylvia Lessig, told him that their mother had issued an ultimatum demanding an immediate improvement to their school grades or else they would have to stop playing football, Schröder turned his exhortations into actions: whenever his busy schedule allowed it, he would team up with the girls to help them study maths and physics; an endeavor that met with extraordinary success as both ended up passing their A-Levels with flying colors.

Despite Turbine’s spotless form – only losing once in their first eight years of existence – they would have to wait for tangible success in the form of silverware, because, well, there simply did not exist any leagues or cup competitions. It wasn’t until 1979 that the first nominal GDR champions were crowned; Turbine, however, didn’t actually make the cut until 1981, when they not only finally qualified for the new competition but even won the title on home turf at the Karl-Liebknecht-Stadion in front of 6000 captivated spectators. Each player received 50 marks as a championship bonus, approximately enough to cover rent for a month or two.

Money was always tight in Potsdam – and it still is nowadays – but thanks to Schröder and his autodidactic streak, which drove him to become a proficient coach and an expert scout, they were able to make do with what limited resources they had. Schröder had an eye for talent, but he didn’t limit his scope to merely footballers, he also scouted athletes from different sports that had been discarded by their organizations. When he thought he had unearthed a hidden gem whose expertise could be put to good use on the football pitch, he brought them to Potsdam even if their previous experiences with the ball at their feet were paltry at best.

One of those persuaded to change her occupation was former runner Sabine Seidel whom Schröder brought to Brandenburg in 1979. The prolific, speedy right winger was instrumental as Potsdam went on to dominate East German women’s football during the 1980s, eventually being recognized as a professional team in all but name: they would train five times a week with players allowed to leave work early, new signings were guaranteed an apartment and a job at VEB Energieversorgung, and Turbine were even invited to play internationally, although both trips abroad ended catastrophically since they were not allowed to face opponents from capitalist countries.

After a decade of unprecedented dominance that yielded six championships, a new era beckoned. Reunification brought a swift end to any aspirations Turbine had of continuing their rich vein of form. The de facto annexation of East Germany and the subsequent collapse of its economy effectively spelled the end of the glory days, and Turbine were not impervious to these newfound hardships. With the privatization of the energy sector, the club’s financial backbone was essentially dissolved. In simpler terms, the organization was completely broke. Several players even lost their day jobs – “they [the now-privatized business] were no longer prepared to pay full-time wages for half of the work,” as the Klasens put it – and on-pitch performances suffered as a result, culminating in missing out on qualification to the brand-new Frauen-Bundesliga in 1991.

Schröder stepped down from his post as head coach the following year due to the time-consuming nature of the job, but he still remained close to the team in a supervisory capacity, pulling the strings in the background and trying to secure what little opportunities for funding he could find. Five head coaches in five years followed. One of them was Frank Lange, undoubtedly the most successful of the quintuple, but even his stint would only be short-lived. Buoyed by the first foreign signings in club history – Russian Veronika Pimenova, a 34-year-old veteran who had experience of playing professionally in Sweden, and Moldova-born Russian international Natalia Bunduki, a former javelin thrower, both joined in the winter of 1993 from Serp i Molot Moscow – Lange guided die Turbinen into the top flight.

The opening day of their first-ever Bundesliga campaign put a lid on any promotion euphoria as Turbine were humiliated 11-0 by FC Rumeln in front of their own fans, the first(!) home defeat in club history. Interestingly, Rumeln themselves had only been promoted the year prior, but unlike their opponents on the day, they had the means to attract elite players: current German women’s national team coach Martina Voss(-Tecklenburg) and international Melanie Hoffmann had been brought in to strengthen a team that already boasted the likes of Maren Meinert, top scorer in the North Division of the Frauen-Bundesliga that season and a future three-time European champion and one-time World Cup winner. In 1995, legendary striker Inka Grings was signed and in 2000, they would win their only top division title before rebranding as FCR 2001 Duisburg (now MSV Duisburg).

The demolition job at the hands of Rumeln was just the beginning of what turned out to be a season to forget for Turbine. Lange was dismissed under questionable circumstances – leading to five players, including the captain, going on strike and never playing for the Potsdam outfit again – and by November, the club was in grave danger of dropping back down. Schröder desperately needed to bolster the roster, and he again looked eastward, to the former USSR, to do so.

Schröder had no idea who he was signing, though, as he was operating through a middleman with contacts in Russia. In fact, he was under the impression that his new foreign arrivals would be retired players who could still do enough of a job to save his team; in other words, he was prepared for the worst. Upon arrival at the airport, he could scarcely believe his eyes when three internationals from reigning champions Samara stepped off the plane. Kulistan Botashova, Tatyana Egorova, and Irina Grigorieva arrived in Potsdam with massive expectations and a sizeable wage package – unlike their German counterparts, the Russian contingent received a professional salary. Despite their undeniable talent, the trio failed to have the desired impact at Turbine, refusing to adapt to life abroad, and they all departed again after just four months. The season did, however, finish on a positive note: the aforementioned Sabine Seidel was brought in on an interim basis after doing some excellent work with the academy and steered the club to safety.

Four of Turbine’s five Russian imports: Grigorieva, Bunduki, Egorova and Botashova (Source)

Moreover, they slowly managed to establish themselves as a solid top-flight team, eventually qualifying for the new, single-division Frauen-Bundesliga. Schröder returned to the dugout in 1997, a post he wouldn’t leave again until 2016. “It was an impulsive decision,” he relayed to MAZ on the club’s 40th anniversary. “We were in dire straits, we had no money. That’s when I decided to jump in. My wife found out about it [the appointment] in the news.” Schröder managed to get the best out of recent signing Ari Hingst, who was purportedly reluctant to join a side from the former GDR and therefore initially found it tough going. Over the next decade under Schröder’s tutelage, she would develop into one of the best players in German football history.

On April 1, 1999, the women’s football department broke away from the overarching framework of SSV Turbine and became an independent organization, refounding as 1. FFC Turbine Potsdam. This landmark decision would set in motion their rise to the very top. Their incredible 4-4 draw with FFC Frankfurt that same year – in which Turbine came back from 4-0 down – would also mark the beginning of the fiercest rivalry in German women’s football. In 2004, Turbine’s trophy drought finally ended when they claimed their first pieces of silverware in the new united Germany, doing the double (treble, if you count indoor titles) and becoming the first – and, to this day, only – team from the former GDR to win a post-reunification top-flight championship in men’s or women’s football.

Bernd Schröder lifting Turbine’s first FBL title (Alexander Heimann/Bongarts/Getty)

They did it in style, too. With a side boasting the likes of Nadine Angerer, Anja Mittag, captain Hingst, and a whole host of other stars, they went to Frankfurt on the final day and obliterated their rivals 7-2, having already bested them shortly before in the DFB-Pokal final. It was a fitting way to cap off the season, not least because it meant that they had finally gotten revenge for what had transpired the previous year when Frankfurt controversially claimed the title on Turbine’s patch in the first Frauen-Bundesliga match to be shown on live television. The hosts thought they had won the encounter and, ipso facto, the league when Petra Wimbersky sent the 8000 supporters at the KarLi into raptures with her 89th-minute goal only for it to be disallowed; the scoreless draw on the day was enough for Frankfurt to secure the title.

After finally getting the better of the Hessians in 2004, Turbine went out and built on that success by retaining the Pokal for three years on the bounce while also reaching the final of the UEFA Women’s Cup in 2005 – in their debut season in the competition no less – where they comfortably defeated Djurgårdens IF. The following year, Turbine managed to pip Frankfurt to the league title again, but they were comprehensively dispatched by their foes in the first-ever women’s European Cup showpiece fought out between compatriots.

The next few years were marred by transition, with Potsdam having been forced to move on from their talismanic characters and to blood in youth. As it turned out, though, the kids were alright; by 2009, they had already reclaimed their throne and they had no intentions of relinquishing it (let’s not talk about the 7-0 defeat versus Duisburg in the Pokal – the biggest-ever loss in the competition’s final – that same year). Henceforth, Turbine had a vice grip on the Frauen-Bundesliga, winning four consecutive league titles between 2009 and 2012 – as you do. Their apotheosis under Schröder would come in 2010 when they defeated the mighty Lyon on penalties in a thrilling final to claim the inaugural UEFA Women’s Champions League.

Over the years, as superstars like Yuki Nagasato, Fatmire Alushi (née Bajramaj), Ada Hegeberg, Christiane, Nadine Keßler, and Genoveva Añonma came and went, die Turbinen demonstratively entrenched themselves at the very summit of the food chain, persistently racking up silverware at all age groups. Since 2012, however, things have changed dramatically. Football’s inexorable mutability eventually caught up with Turbine and brought them to heel. A runners-up finish to upstarts Wolfsburg in 2013 portended darker times to come.

Fatmire Alushi kissing the Champions League trophy in 2010 (Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

Witnessing the gradual atomization of his legendary side, Schröder called it quits in 2016 after 45 incredible years of service, leaving behind a remarkable legacy and cementing himself as one of the greatest coaches in the history of German football. Losing such an influential figure after eons of relative continuity inevitably took some time to get used to. Unfortunately, time is a rare commodity in this sport. As clubs like Bayern, Wolfsburg, and more recently Hoffenheim have flexed their financial muscle, the old guard of Potsdam and Frankfurt have fallen by the wayside.

Unable to keep up with the sides aflush with men’s Bundesliga money, the old powerhouses had to resort to similar measures. Following Frankfurt’s merger with Eintracht last summer, Turbine established business ties to nouveau riche Hertha. There is a distinct contrast in ambition, however. Frankfurt are clearly intent on trying to get back on their perch; big names have been brought in and a couple of games have already been staged at the Deutsche Bank Park. Regrettably, the same can’t really be said of Turbine.

While Potsdam is still undeniably an exceptional place for young players to hone their skills, the days of international superstars calling Brandenburg’s capital home are a distant memory. Whenever players do show themselves to be worthy of playing in the metaphorical big leagues, they are bound to get picked off by more attractive sides before long, as recently exemplified by Sarah Zadrazil and Lara Prašnikar. Jojo Elsig, one of the very few internationals that they still boast, is the latest of the club’s prominent players to announce that she will depart for pastures new this summer.

Even though Turbine are coming off a decent season – at times even looking like genuine challengers for that last Champions League spot – one can’t help but question how sustainable their current model really is seeing as though the rising tide of men’s Bundesliga clubs is looking more and more unstoppable. In addition to Hoffenheim and Frankfurt, Leverkusen and even Freiburg are now threatening to surpass Turbine in terms of appeal – as has already been well illustrated by the fact that the former was able to bring in Japanese star Mina Tanaka last term, albeit only on loan; that’s the caliber of player the Potsdam outfit used to be able to attract.

One person keen to rejig Turbine’s fortunes is ex-player Tabea Kemme. The 29-year-old challenged incumbent Rolf Kutzmutz in the latest presidential election, but she was ultimately defeated in a closely fought referendum. A lot has been made of this race in the German media and not just for sporting reasons. Kemme, who vowed to restore Turbine to their former glory, would have been the first woman president in the Bundesliga had she come out on top. Moreover, an added layer of tension was provided by what can only be described as a generational battle. 73-year-old Kutzmutz has come to typify the antiquated status quo at fault for this once-great club’s stagnation whereas the millenarian Kemme would have been a breath of fresh air, someone more in tune with the desires of players and fans alike.

In the end, this election probably did more harm than good because it elucidated the growing schism at Turbine, with one side determined to take the club in a new direction while the other is content with staying the course. When two camps in an organization pull in different directions, it is usually bound to end in a veritable train wreck. Let’s hope that Turbine will be an exception to the rule. It’s lamentable that a year that should have been one of celebration is being overshadowed by a power struggle of such magnitude. But perhaps it is a sign of the times. German women’s football at large finds itself at a similar crossroads: stick to your guns and risk getting left behind or adapt and improve. One thing is clear, though: the cost of superficial incrementalism or, worse, complete inertia could prove to be extortionate.

Thankfully, no matter what happens from here on out, Turbine will always be Turbine. You can’t erase history, you can’t erase the work Bernd Schröder and all the phenomenal players past and present have done. Perhaps one day, Potsdam will be back on top. But at the moment, keeping up with the pacesetters of the Frauen-Bundesliga is proving increasingly arduous, if not downright impossible, and that is surely cause for concern. No doubt, this iconic stalwart of the women’s game would have liked to celebrate half a century of existence with something to cheer about, but alas, as the last 50 years have shown, football is cyclical and Potsdam currently find themselves in another slump. Or in the words of Gennaro Gattuso: “Sometimes maybe good, sometimes maybe shit.”

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