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Thirty years ago this week, on November 9 1989, the Berlin Wall crumbled and the Cold War began to thaw. Exactly 37 days later, a 23 – year-old midfielder called Andreas Thom joined Bayer Leverkusen for a fee of 2.5m Deutschmarks, becoming the first East German player to sign for a West German club.
Celtic fans will remember Thom as their crafty play-maker from 1995 to 1998, a wily attacker sporting a mullet who belted in a howitzer at Ibrox in an Old Firm classic. What many might not have realized, then or now, is his part in a monumental moment of world history.
In flitting from east to west, Thom left behind not just any club, but the mighty Dynamo Berlin – the dominant force that side of the wall whose president Erich Mielke was head of the hated and feared state security police, the Stasi.
It was a hugely symbolic switch that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks earlier, when the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) remained a sealed-off country that kept its citizens trapped behind concrete and razor wire. The Eastern Bloc state guarded its top sport stars closely, regarding them practically as weapons in their battle of power and prestige against the capitalist west.
What was it like to play football behind the Berlin Wall under an oppressive regime? How did it feel to become the first player to cross the great East-West divide? And what does Thom remember of his days in Scotland?
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(The Dynamo Dynamite)
Thom was the true star of East German football in the late 1980 s, winning five GDP Premier League titles and 51 caps for the East German national team.
The midfielder was a prized asset at Dynamo Berlin, and was reminded of it on occasion by Mielke’s Stasi stooges, who would offer him modest privileges much beyond those which average citizens in a country of shortages and austerity were allowed to enjoy.
“They would speak to me sometimes, to ask if I felt good, to ask maybe if I needed a new flat or something, “Thom remembers.
He and his team-mates knew that there was an undertone of coercion and control to such interactions. “But what could we do?” he ponders. “We could do nothing. We couldn’t tell them ‘Hey, no’.”
The reception Dynamo Berlin got from opposition supporters everywhere, because of their ties to the Stasi, would more than prepare Thom for the highly charged atmosphere he would later experience at Old Firm matches.
“I remember when I played my first game in the first team, an experienced player told me, ‘Hey, you must know, when we go in the stadium everybody is booing and whistling against you. Don’t let it get to you! ‘ It was good for my head, “he says.
Dynamo were often accused of influencing referees – did Thom ever witness decisions in his team’s favor that seemed suspicious?
“Sometimes, maybe,” he shrugs. “But it is not possible to win so much only because of the decisions from referees. We had a lot to do.”
Four arms, two heads, four legs
Unlike the vast majority of his fellow East Germans, Thom was fortunate to be able to leave the country from time to time in play in European Cup fixtures with Dynamo Berlin, or to represent the national team.
But he knew that he was being closely watched everywhere he traveled. Particularly following the high-profile escape of two of his former Dynamo Berlin team-mates, Dirk Schlegel and Falko Götz, prior to a European Cup match at Partizan Belgrade in 1983.
Did Thom ever consider trying to flee himself? “I had so many chances,” he admits. “But I stayed. Because my parents, my family, would have had so many problems.”
The night the Berlin Wall fell, Thom was with the national squad in Leipzig , preparing for a crunch World Cup qualifier against Austria.