RB Leipzig face Tottenham for the first time this week, but it’s not the first time Spurs have played a Leipzig team. In 1974, they played Lokomotive Leipzig: a different club, at a different time, in a different world.
The charter flight from London to Leipzig on August 10, 1974, was just about to enter East German airspace when the captain requested the passengers pull down their window blinds.
Most of the 150 passengers were Tottenham Hotspur supporters. They were the lucky few permitted to travel to the UEFA Cup semi-final first leg against Lokomotive Leipzig, but they weren’t allowed to peer out of the windows and into the German Democratic Republic.
Several others, however, were not football fans, and now they made themselves known.
“Seven or eight men suddenly stood up. They checked all our passports and told us to leave everything on our seats,” recalls Spurs fan Glen Crook. “Passports, money, cameras. No photos allowed. They said we could pick everything up when we came back to the plane.”
It was Crook’s first encounter with the East German secret police, the Staatssicherheit, or Stasi. “They told us that we mustn’t talk to any Germans when we landed. Not even to the stewards on the turnstiles at the stadium. No interaction, not even to say thank you. It was very intimidating.”
Once off the plane, the English fans boarded buses with blacked-out windows which took them directly to the Zentralstadion. They saw nothing of the city of Leipzig. They took their places up at the top of the cavernous bowl. The official attendance was a 74,000 sell-out, but Crook is convinced there were more.
“The noise was unbelievable,” he remembers. “It wasn’t hostile or aggressive. The Leipzig supporters were absolutely magnificent, but it must have been intimidating for the players on the pitch.”
Yet Tottenham were unfazed. They raced into the lead with goals from Martin Peters and Ralph Coates putting them 2-0 up inside half an hour. Lokomotive pulled one back in the second half but they’d left themselves a mountain to climb at White Hart Lane, where Spurs hadn’t lost in their previous 25 European home games.
“Tottenham took us completely by surprise,” recalls former Lokomotive midfielder Rainer Lisiewicz, who played every game en route to the semi-final, a journey which had already seen “Lok” eliminate Torino, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Fortuna Düsseldorf and Ipswich Town.
“We didn’t have much hope going into the second leg, but we weren’t too disappointed – we had one more trip to England and could buy some more clothes on Carnaby Street!”
Shadowed by the Stasi
As footballers, Lisiewicz and his teammates were in a privileged position in the former GDR, whose citizens weren’t usually allowed to travel abroad, and certainly not to the West. But there was a catch.
“We were always well prepared for the trips by our Genossen,” says Lisiewicz, as he sarcastically refers to his old “comrades” from the ruling Social Unity Party (SED).
“We were told that we were traveling to a country where the workers were exploited by the ruling class, where many couldn’t afford expensive food and had to eat rancid butter. They told us not to be deceived by what we saw, by the nice gardens and facilities. They weren’t the houses of the working class. This was a capitalist system.”
Not that the players really believed any of it. West German television and radio was accessible in many parts of East Germany (illegally, of course) and the players knew exactly what to expect on their trips into “non-socialist foreign territory,” as it was known. Nevertheless, they were still accompanied by officials from the Stasi who would keep an eye on their movements.
“There were always people who travelled with us where you thought, ‘yeah, he’s from the Firm,'” says Lisiewicz, using an old East German slang term for the Stasi. “But we weren’t scared. It wasn’t that tight and we could move around freely.”
Security had been especially tight in the last-16 first leg away at Fortuna Düsseldorf, since contact with West Germans was particularly frowned upon. The players weren’t even allowed to make contact with West German relatives.
“But then as soon as we landed in Düsseldorf, our family members were at the airport anyway, cheering and hugging us!” laughs Lisiewicz. “Our Stasi minders were all there watching but they couldn’t stop people hugging each other.”
Several high-profile East German footballers defected to the West during the Cold War, including BFC Dynamo players Falko Götz, Dirk Schlegen and Lutz Eigendorf. The latter defected in 1979 but died in 1983 from injuries sustained in a car accident in which the Stasi are suspected to have been involved. But Lisiewicz insists that defection didn’t cross the Lok Leipzig players’ minds.
“We felt like they trusted us,” he says. “It would have been pretty easy [to defect]. We had the time and you could have done it, but none of us intended to sneak off. We all stuck together. We were a good team and we were hungry for success.”
Lok were indeed one of the most successful East German clubs and, although they never managed to win the domestic Oberliga, they developed a reputation as a cup team. Lisiewicz was part of the side which won the 1976 East German Cup, the first of four for Lok, who also reached three more finals and the 1987 European Cup Winners’ Cup final against Ajax.
“We were the best counter-attacking team in the GDR,” says Lisiewicz. “We were tight at the back and we had fast players up front such as [East German international] Wolfram Löwe, who we always looked to play long.”
Lisiewicz believes football behind the Iron Curtain was more progressive than many western contemporaries gave it credit for.
“Pressing was normal in the Oberliga, that was our advantage,” he tells DW. “Bundesliga sides wanted to move the ball around, but we always marked so tightly. Then, once we’d won our individual battles, we had the freedom to play our game. That’s how we beat Düsseldorf. We actually played a very modern style of football.”
Fast-forward 46 years and the city of Leipzig is once again known for its “modern football” – in more ways than one. Tottenham’s Champions League opponents this week are not Lokomotive Leipzig, but RB Leipzig, also known for their aggressive pressing style and quick transitions under young head coach Julian Nagelsmann.
However, they also embody the commercial excesses of the modern game and have faced consistent criticism since their creation by Austrian energy drink manufacturer Red Bull in 2009. Many German fans consider them a plastic construct, a marketing vehicle which makes a mockery of German football culture. Nevertheless, they do enjoy support in Leipzig, including, surprisingly, from Lok legend Lisiewicz.
“You just have to accept them,” he says. “You can pump in as much money as you like but it’s been used well by people who understand football. We can be happy that we have a top Bundesliga team in Leipzig. Of course, I would prefer it to be Lok! But we made too many mistakes in the past.”
Following German reunification in 1990, Lok reverted to the name of their predecessors VfB Leipzig, the first ever German champions back in 1903 and who even played a friendly against Tottenham in May 1912. Despite one season in the Bundesliga however, VfB quickly plummeted down the leagues. Drowning in debt, the club was wound up and reformed again as Lokomotive Leipzig in 2003, with Lisiewicz as coach.
They’ve since climbed back up to the regional fourth division and are top of the table at the time of writing. But it’s a far cry from the heady days of 1974 when they lost 2-0 at White Hart Lane, exiting the competition 4-1 on aggregate. Tottenham would go on to lose to Feyenoord in the final.
“The atmosphere was always fantastic in England,” says Lisiewicz. “The fans were so close to the pitch and they even applauded us for our performance in the second half. So we weren’t too upset in the end.” But the damage had been done in the first leg in Leipzig.
“After the game, it was straight back on to the coaches and onto the plane,” remembers Spurs fan Crook. “When we re-entered West German airspace, the pilot said we could lift our shutters up and look out of the windows again.”
– Rainer Lisiewicz (70) made 143 league appearances for Lokomotive Leipzig from 1968-78 and won the East German Cup in 1976. When the club was reformed in 2003, he led the team from the 11th tier to the 5th tier as head coach. He returned briefly to the first team coaching staff in the 2018-19 season and is still involved in the club.