The fall of the Berlin Wall created the opportunity for him and other talented colleagues from the former GDR (German Democratic Republic) to show their abilities on a pan-German stage in the Bundesliga. In this exclusive chat with bundesliga.com on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, Freund, born in Brandenburg, recounts his extraordinary life story...
bundesliga.com: Steffen Freund, 9 November 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. What does that date mean to you?
Steffen Freund: The fall of the Wall will always remain a very special date - it turned my life upside down overnight. Obviously, it wasn't just my life, but those of all citizens in the GDR as well.
bundesliga.com: How did you experience that day personally?
Freund: We’d all just assumed that the Wall would never come down and open up the West. Then suddenly it all happened. On one hand it was a real shock, but on the other I was delighted. The next move was obviously to get across to West Berlin as quickly as possible. Because I'd already played in the youth teams of the GDR national side, I’d had the opportunity to travel through Western Europe, and so I crossed after three or four days.
bundesliga.com: How do you look back on the fall of the Wall?
Freund: I don’t think you can compare it to anything else in German history. Overall, German unity was the decisive, but positive, moment in the lives of the former GDR citizens.
bundesliga.com: Uwe Rösler [currently coaching English side Wigan Athletic FC] has said that he was directly approached by the Stasi [the Ministry of State Security] to report on his team-mates. Did you have any similar experiences?
Freund: Exactly the same thing happened to me, and it happened just as you’d imagine it to. With a very bright light shining in my face, I was asked if I could report on my team-mates. I was 17 at the time and it was a really difficult situation for me. But I held out and turned them down in no uncertain terms because it completely contradicted my understanding of team spirit. What you have to understand, though, is that the Stasi were everywhere in the GDR. We had respect for these people, even though it was tinged with a certain degree of fear. Fortunately I was in a clean environment and could protect myself from such attacks and not be blackmailed or coerced.
bundesliga.com: We’ll come onto the sporting side of things now. You really developed as a player at BSG Stahl Brandenburg and after the fall of the Wall. But while plenty of East Germany's footballing stars made their way immediately into the Bundesliga, you stayed for a while. Why was that?
Freund: Correct. I played until the end of the season and then remained involved for another year or so. There was a simple reason: in the 1990/91 season, the integration of the Eastern clubs into German professional football was taking place. Because the East German national team had been dissolved, it was obvious that something would be done with East Germany's clubs too, so in the final season we were playing for places in the Bundesliga and the Bundesliga 2. It was an easy decision for me to stay and get everything out of my time with BSG Stahl.
bundesliga.com: How would you assess that integration into the Bundesliga?
Freund: It wasn’t too bad a transition for the East German clubs. When you consider that today, there’s no team from the former East playing in the Bundesliga, it was actually the best year for GDR football and I still wanted to achieve things with Stahl Brandenburg. We weren’t doing too badly on the pitch at the time. Our contracts had also improved, so in the final year of the GDR Oberliga (East German top division) you could earn decent money.
bundesliga.com: What was the atmosphere like amongst the team, given that it was the final season?
Bundesliga.com: On one hand, there was a certain optimism which prevailed, the dawning of a new era. I was a young player right at the beginning of my career and I had a good ten or 15 years as a professional ahead of me. On the other hand, it was a more worrying time for the experienced players, who suddenly had the chance to make the leap into the Bundesliga. We had a great opportunity [for promotion to the Bundesliga] and were second in the league until just before the end of the season when we slipped up, dropping out of the top five, and we eventually had to play for a place in Bundesliga 2. We won our group with 1. FC Magdeburg, BFC Dynamo and 1. FC Union Berlin. All in all, it was a great final season.
bundesliga.com: You moved to the Bundesliga and FC Schalke 04 in 1991. How excited were you to move to the West? Was it inevitable that you had to take this route if you wanted to establish yourself in professional football?
Freund: Obviously I was hugely excited. The opportunity to play in the Bundesliga had been a dream that was suddenly coming true. Two years before 9 November and the fall of the Wall, such a step would have been unheard of, but I had the chance to take it as a young, ambitious player. I had to make the most of it straight away.
bundesliga.com: Were Schalke the only option for you?
Freund: I could have moved to FC Hansa Rostock or SG Dynamo Dresden, the two East German clubs who did manage to make it into the Bundesliga. I was actually quite close to an agreement with Dresden, but Schalke came in at the last minute with a better offer.
bundesliga.com: What was it, then, that decided matters in Schalke’s favour?
Freund: Well, Dynamo Dresden had actually always been my favourite team and I would have quite happily gone there. But Schalke were just something else, a club which back then, just like now in fact, possessed real charisma. Obviously the financial aspect also played a part, but I took the riskier path in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be easy. I certainly wasn’t going in with the security that I would be a key player. In the East, I was almost picked automatically by virtue of being part of the national side’s youth set-ups, but I really had to earn my corn in the West as a young East German footballer. In hindsight, however, the move was absolutely the right decision.
bundesliga.com: Were there any of your contemporaries who didn’t make the move to the West?
Freund: At Stahl Brandenburg, I was the only player to receive such a big offer and after going into Bundesliga 2, the club managed to keep a lot of the squad stable. There could easily have been an exodus of players if the club hadn’t managed to get into Bundesliga 2.
bundesliga.com: How did the contact with Schalke come about? Did you have an agent?
Freund: It all happened pretty quickly. After the Wall came down, the market opened in a flash. My then-agent was Jörg Neubauer, today one of the best-known player representatives in Germany. At the time, he travelled from club to club and contacted the players, even me.
bundesliga.com: How big a turning point was moving to the West for you after your transfer, not just in terms of the football but also on a more personal level?
Freund: The offer from Schalke was obviously a dream come true. Schalke was, and is, like a religion. When you get the chance to play there, you have to take it. That was the big turning point, because the effect was that I felt like I'd well and truly moved to the West.
bundesliga.com: How were you received by your new team-mates? Do you recall any reservations towards you?
Freund: Yes, there were a few. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in moving to the club. There were two other ‘Ossis’ [a term for someone from the former East] there with me, Henning Bürger from FC Carl Zeiss Jena and Hendrik Herzog from BFC Dynamo, and so we shared our experiences with each other. The ‘Wessis’ were always a little bit reserved when it came to East Germans.
bundesliga.com: What was your day-to-day life like? Did you struggle at the start?
Freund: Yes, there were struggles. I had to get used to the differences in finances and taxation, for example. When I saw my first pay slip, I was shocked! Half of the money wasn’t there. There were a few technical issues and insurance matters as well, which were a bit difficult to deal with.
bundesliga.com: Were there positives to the move as well?
Freund: Yes, of course, and they completely offset the difficulties. I lived with my wife, who was heavily pregnant at the time, in a big apartment in Gelsenkirchen-Buer. You could go into the shops and buy whatever you needed, you could travel when and wherever you wanted. We hadn’t been able to experience or enjoy things like that up until then. It was crazy. You could even order a Mercedes and get it delivered.
bundesliga.com: How did you manage to integrate yourself into the team? How long did it take?
Freund: It was purely down to performance. Anyone who knew me then, or still does now, knows that I can go up to and beyond the absolute limit. My coach, Aleksandar Ristic, introduced me into the team very quickly and it took exactly three weeks until my new team-mates realised that I was someone whom it was better to have on their team than against their team.
bundesliga.com: How did you finally manage to make the leap to a fully-fledged Bundesliga professional?
Freund: In this business, you have to be prepared for everything. I didn’t have bags of experience but I was mentally and physically strong. I wanted to be a Bundesliga footballer more than anything and I managed to achieve my aim. Stahl Brandenburg had been a very good education for me as a player. There were tough times with them, particularly when I needed a year and a half just to make an appearance for them. That made me grow up.
bundesliga.com: The clubs from the former East have struggled since the Fall of the Wall. How do you view the Bundesliga today? Is there still a division between East and West German football?
Freund: There’s certainly a division between the East and West when it comes to sport. Cities such as Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin definitely have the potential to produce a Bundesliga side. At the same time, though, it’s obviously tough to strengthen in the former East due to a lack of sponsorship. The structural problems within clubs from the East are still yet to be dealt with and there’s a lack of quality in leadership positions, so it remains tough for clubs from the East to return to the Bundesliga.
bundesliga.com But it could happen in the near future…
Freund: That day is certainly coming, perhaps even already in sight. With the rise of RB Leipzig, an East German club will play in the Bundesliga again soon, and I don’t agree with all those people who have problems with the club’s backing. I actually see it the other way. Finding a sponsor who will lead the club and the city into the Bundesliga is absolutely vital. It’s creating employment and making people happy. At their last game, there were 25,000 people in the stadium and it’ll be full in the Bundesliga as well. That’s definitely the way forward.
Yannik Schmidt/Daniel Thacker