The history of European football is littered with the names of once famous and successful teams that have, for one reason or another, fallen on hard times and plunged headlong down the dumper. Sometimes they can still be found slugging it out in the obscurity of local amateur leagues – but often they simply cease to exist altogether.
Nowhere is this more common than in the former Eastern Bloc, where football clubs were often little more than a plaything of the various wings of the State and found themselves unloved and unwanted when the old regimes either got bored and moved on to something else or stopped existing themselves. One-time giants of the East German game, Vorwärts, are a perfect example. Regular competitors in the European Cup in the sixties, the name has now completely vanished from football. A brief run through the complicated history of this club reveals that it had a confusing time of it over the years, to say the least.
Founded as the army club KVP Vorwärts Leipzig in 1951, the authorities evidently felt the lack of immediate success meant a change was required, so two years later moved the club 100 miles to Berlin and renamed them ZSK Vorwärts Berlin. The next season they underwent another subtle transformation, being re-named ASK Vorwärts Berlin, a decision that clearly had the desired effect, setting the club off on a period of success which saw four Oberliga championship wins between 1958 and 1965. A further change to FC Vorwärts in the mid-sixties preceeded another couple of league wins, before the club moved again, this time to the city of Frankfurt an der Oder, to replace the local secret police sponsored side. After re-unification in 1990, the club dropped its affiliation with the army and became FC Victoria Frankfurt/Oder before changing again to Frankfurt/Oder FC Viktoria 91 and sinking into the depths of the German non-league. In 2012, they merged with another local club to form 1 FC Frankfurt.
It is all a far cry from their Oberliga-winning glory days of the fifties and sixties and their regular forays into the European Cup. It was during one of those European campaigns, in 1961, that the players of Vorwärts and Rangers found themselves at the centre of a Cold War political and diplomatic storm. In the preliminary round of the European Cup, Vorwärts had been drawn against Northern Irish champions Linfield. After a 3-0 win in Berlin in the first leg, the East Germans were refused visas to enter the UK, and as Linfield couldn’t raise the money to travel to a neutral, alternative venue, Vorwärts were given a bye into the next round where they would play Rangers.
The first leg in East Germany in November 1961, took place only months after work had begun on the Berlin Wall, which would physically divide the two halves of the city. The decision by East German leader Walter Ulbricht, and approved by Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev, to create the partition was made in a bid to stem the flow of economic migrants from east to west and secure the future of the East German economy. With defectors facing being shot if they tried to cross the wall, tensions were high on both sides of the Berlin divide.
It was in this context that Rangers travelled to East Berlin to face Vorwärts at the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark. The Scots won the first leg 2-1 through a penalty by Eric Caldow and a header by Ralph Brand and, although he had not been prominent in what was a scrappy match, Jim Baxter reportedly cheered up the 14,000 East German fans with his skill in setting up the second goal.
Under normal circumstances, Rangers, of course, would have defended their lead at Ibrox in the second leg a week later. However with the Cold War at its height, these were far from normal circumstances. The East Germans were again denied visas to travel to Britain for the return, so the game was moved to the Swedish city of Malmo. As well the obvious footballing disadvantage, this was something of a financial blow for Rangers. European football then, as now, was a money spinner and a home tie with a capacity 80,000 crowd could have pulled in £20,000 for the Ibrox coffers. Against Vorwärts, two overseas trips meant the Scots actually lost £6,000 from the tie, a fair amount in those days.
Despite concerns about the thick fog which had hung over Malmo for much of the day, the match got under way in front of a crowd of around 4,000 at 7pm. A mere 45 minutes later the game was over, having been abandoned due to the re-appearance of the heavy grey fog which was rolling in from the sea. Rangers apprentice Willie Henderson, making his European debut at the age of 17 in place of the injured Alex Scott, had been the only scorer in the first half, and in fact, was the only player to provide any sort of entertainment for the miserable, freezing spectators.
The match was rescheduled for a 10am kick-off the following morning, meaning an early rise for the players and a surreal atmosphere. But not before more drama. After the abandoned game, two of the Vorwärts party, including interpreter Karl Ernst Zelm, defected, vanishing from the hotel where the teams were staying. Earlier in the evening, at a reception organised by Rangers, Zelm had approached Ibrox secretary James Simpson and some of the players, pleading for help in his bid to be reunited with his fiancee in West Germany. Suspecting they were being set up by Communists, the Scots declined to help, but the club officials still managed to make their escape and handed themselves in to Swedish police.
Surprisingly 1,800 spectators attended the following morning’s game, which Rangers eventually won 4-1. Henderson, making his second ‘debut’, scored again and put in a man of the match performance. Back home in Lanarkshire, Henderson’s dad John was waiting for a full account of the game. It was the first match he had missed since his son had started playing – because he couldn’t get a passport in time.
As an aside, the match was also notable for the appearance in the stands of the legendary Danish forward Carl Hansen, who was the first foreigner to play for Rangers in the 1920s. Hansen, known in his homeland as Carl Skomager (Shoemaker), had been a superb player who specialised in scoring against Celtic, but his Rangers career was blighted by two leg-breaks which eventually forced him to return to Denmark. During the war he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp, for shouting ‘Quisling’ at a local who was too friendly with the occupying Germans.
After the war, Hansen had divided his time between coaching and journalism, and he was working at the Danish paper Politiken when Rangers were playing across the sea in Sweden. He joined up with the Rangers party, and when he couldn’t get a room in the team hotel, bunked up on a chair in the room of a Scottish newspaper reporter.
* Despite their heavy defeat, Vorwärts went on to win the East German championship again that season, while Rangers were beaten to the Scottish title by Dundee. In the next round of the European Cup, the Ibrox club were knocked out by Standard Liege of Belgium.