Dirk Schlegel and Falko Götz had been friends for years by the time they decided to risk everything.
They had grown up together, two football-obsessed kids from the same side of a divided Berlin. They lived close to the wall that had defined their city since it was built in 1961. Their world as children was divided into good and bad, west and east, capitalist imperialism and communist utopia. They both knew not to mention the western TV they secretly watched at home.
Schlegel and Götz rose through the same Dynamo Berlin youth teams. They were part of a sporting organisation embraced tightly by the Stasi – East Germany’s brutal and invasive secret police. Erich Mielke, the infamous Stasi leader, was Dynamo’s honorary president.
The two players had something else in common. In the eyes of the state, neither could be fully be trusted.
“We both had problems with the authorities and with Dynamo because our history was the same,” Schlegel says.
“He had family in West Germany and I had an aunt in England. That kind of thing was not good for our future. There was suspicion. But it was better for our friendship.”
Götz made his senior debut for Dynamo in 1979, at the age of 17. Schlegel made his two years later, aged 20.
The two friends broke into their country’s strongest team, despite difficult years in the youth academy. They say they were often wilfully overlooked, and their parents were told it would not be correct politically to see them rewarded – not with their background.
But their talent was impossible to ignore. As they developed, both players also began to appear for East Germany’s national youth teams. As athletes, they were part of a very select number of citizens who travelled abroad – always under close scrutiny.
The Stasi monitored every aspect of East German daily life, gathering intelligence through a network of informers – and informers who informed on the informers. Some estimates suggest it employed one in every 63 people. The structure was sophisticated, bold, all-powerful. The purpose was to keep order: to further the Communist cause. Football also played its role.
Mielke believed Dynamo should become the most successful side in East Germany. They won the league a record 10 consecutive times between 1979 and 1988. There were often accusations of officials giving them preferential treatment, and – as Schlegel recalls – opposition fans hugely resented their victories.
While playing for East Germany’s Under-21s in Sweden, Götz began to seriously consider an alternative.
“As I started to play regularly for Dynamo’s first team, and internationally too, I began to understand more about what a career in football could mean,” he says.
“I had to then ask myself the question: Where do I want it to take me? Do I want to play all the time in East Germany with a club that doesn’t offer the best treatment? That from one day to the next could say, ‘thank you but now because of who you are, football stops’?”
Schlegel was having similar thoughts, brought to a head by the experience of playing abroad in May 1982 at a youth competition in France.
By the summer of 1983, the friends had decided. They had to get out of East Germany. And they had a plan. But they would have to be careful.
You couldn’t just talk anywhere, not about something like this. Schlegel and Götz did a lot of walking – just the two of them. They would go off for hours in the forest. It was the only safe place.
“We discussed it,” says Schlegel. “Could we do this big thing? It was not so easy.
“We had to think about the Stasi and the other people in our club. It was a big secret for me and Falko – no-one else.”
As champions of East Germany, Dynamo would qualify each year for the European Cup. In those days, the competition featured a straight knockout format – home and away in each round. The best Dynamo achieved was reaching the quarter-finals in 1980, when they lost to eventual winners Nottingham Forest.
The first idea was to try to escape wherever the competition might take them that season – 1983-84. The draw was kind.
In the first round came Jeunesse Esch – champions of Luxembourg. It was an easy tie that would guarantee another chance to escape if the opportunity didn’t present itself. And they had a friend who they thought might be able to help.
The first leg was at home. Götz opened the scoring in a 4-1 victory. The second leg was on 28 September 1983.
Their friend had recently been granted permission to move to West Germany – there was an official process by which it was difficult, but not impossible, to legally emigrate – and was living close to the border with Luxembourg.
They had considered the possibility of getting him to meet them and whisk them away in his car, but the timing was off. The friend wouldn’t be able to help – he still hadn’t received his full identification papers and so couldn’t travel across the border into Luxembourg from his new home in West Germany.
Still, Götz and Schlegel thought there might be a chance.