How they’re shaping up – the situation in top European leagues

THE 0-0 draw between Arsenal and Newcastle United underlined how much progress these two sides have made over the last year, but it also demonstrated, to a certain degree, that both will be challenged to last the pace in the Premier League. Manchester City are waiting in the wings and will have been pleased with the stalemate at the Emirates Stadium.

For the past decade, European football has stagnated in so far that most leagues are dominated by a single entity, maybe two at a push. The Premier League is one of the more democratic, although it is bossed by half a dozen clubs with more money than the rest. The Premier, since 2012-13, has had five different champions, although five of the 10 titles have gone to Manchester City, with four of those won in the last five years.

Here’s the situation in some of Europe’s top leagues as 2023 gets underway:

Austria

Red Bull Salzburg are top and six points clear of Sturm Graz, the only side to beat the champions this season. Salzburg have won the last seven Bundesligas, their financial advantages enabling them to dominate Austrian football. Although the Austrian league is a two-stage affair, it is difficult to look beyond Salzburg, who are also in the last eight of the Austrian Cup, which they have won for the past four seasons.

Belgium

Genk, who last won the Belgian league in 2019, are seven points in front of second-placed Union Saint-Gilloise. Club Brugge, who have won the past three titles, are not faring so well this season, although they are in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. They have recently appointed former Fulham and Bournemouth manager Scott Parker as their coach. Anderlecht, who were third in 2021-22, are floundering in mid-table.

France

It would be a major shock if Paris Saint-Germain were not top of Ligue 1 at the start of a new year. They have a four-point advantage over Lens, who beat them 3-1 to end an unbeaten run that stretched back to March 2022. PSG have Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé in their ranks and a wage bill that dwarfs the rest of Ligue 1. If nothing else, the performance of Lens (they have lost just once, too), suggests the French league will be more interesting than usual.

Germany

Unsurprisingly, Bayern Munich are on top once more and have a four- point lead over surprise club Freiburg. RB Leipzig, who have recovered after a poor start, are in third place. Bayern have lost just once (against Augsburg) and have qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League after ending the group stage with a 100% record. Four points is a relatively modest lead at the top of the Bundesliga, but Bayern are equipped to relentlessly go after their 11th consecutive league success.

Italy

Serie A is very interesting this season, but Napoli are winning all the plaudits for their exciting style. They have a seven-point lead at the top and are unbeaten. AC Milan, the reigning champions, are in second place and crisis club Juventus are third, but pressure has been building on coach Max Allegri after they were knocked out of the Champions League at the group phase. Napoli have impressed in Europe and are in the last 16 of the competition, along with AC Milan and Inter Milan.

Netherlands

Feyenoord went into 2023 on top of the Eredivisie, three points in front of Ajax and PSV Eindhoven. This should make for an exciting second half of the campaign, although Ajax have been very clumsy in losing points cheaply. They have lost twice, to PSV and AZ Alkmaar. PSV have beaten both Feyenoord and Ajax this season, but they have just lost the talented Cody Gakpo to Liverpool. All three Dutch giants are still involved in the UEFA Europa League.

Portugal

As ever, the Primeira Liga is being dominated by Benfica and Porto, with Braga and Sporting behind them. Benfica, who enjoyed a successful Champions League group stage, are top and five points ahead of Porto, who also qualified for the last 16. Benfica lost their first game of the league campaign in their first post-Christmas fixture, a 3-0 drubbing at Braga. A prolific player-trading club, they look set to receive another cash windfall if they sell Enzo Fernández to a top Premier league club in the aftermath of the 2022 World Cup.

Scotland

Already people are talking about Celtic as champions and that it is a case of “theirs to lose”. Certainly, their nine point lead over Rangers looks insurmountable at this stage of the season. The two sides drew 2-2 on January 2 at Ibrox, but their first meeting saw Celtic win 4-0. Both teams saw their shortcomings exposed in Europe, finishing bottom of their Champions League groups. They could yet meet in the Scottish League Cup final in February.

Spain

Inevitably, it is a two-horse race once more in Spain, with Barcelona and Real Madrid level on 38 points after 15 games. The two teams have almost identical records, but Barca are ahead on goal difference. Real Sociedad are in third place, but nine points worse off than the big two. Atlético Madrid are having a somewhat patchy season. Real Madrid are the only Spanish side in the last 16 of the Champions League, both Barca and Atléti, along with Sevilla, went out at the group stage, but Barca are in the Europa League, where they will face Manchester United.

Switzerland

While reigning champions Zurich are embroiled in a relegation fight, Young Boys Bern look poised to regain the crown they lost in 2022. They have a 10-point margin at the top of the Super League, with Servette in second position. YB are the league’s top scorers with 35 goals in 16 games, but they have also conceded just nine goals. They look red hot favourites to win the title.  

While most of the title-chasers are fairly predictable, there are possibilities of shocks, notably in England (Arsenal), France (Lens) and the Netherlands (Feyenoord). On the other hand, this list may just read Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Ajax. We can dream.

Magdeburg 1974: A surprise from the east

THE year 1974 was a notable one for East German football; 1.FC Magdeburg won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup and the Deutsche Demokratische Republic (DDR) beat their decadent neighbours from across the Berlin Wall in the World Cup. Two years later, East Germany’s football team won gold at the Montreal Olympics. On the face of it, this was the start of something significant, but it wasn’t to be. The Communist party didn’t really know how to capitalise on what was seen as a talented generation and they were never as successful again.

East German club sides made limited impact on European club football in the 1950s and 1960s, although Carl Zeiss Jena reached the semi-final of the Cup-Winners’ Cup as early as 1962. Dynamo Dresden made the last eight of the European Cup in the mid-to-late 1970s and in 1972, Dynamo Berlin were semi-finalists in the Cup-Winners’ Cup. In 1974, as well as Magdeburg’s success, Lokomotive Leipzig were one round away from the UEFA Cup final, losing to Tottenham Hotspur. Although most clubs from the DDR were never involved in the battle for honours, they were, nevertheless, difficult and stubborn opponents, particularly on their own soil.

East Germany saw the Olympics as an opportunity to emphasise the country’s sovereignty and to gain recognition from the international community. Athletes were used as missionaries for the state and to give socialism some degree of personality. Sport was encouraged across the DDR and dedicated sports festivals and societies were a characteristic of everyday life.

The sports system was very successful, producing world class athletes, although rumours persisted, with some justification, that mass doping was used to gain an advantage. In 1968, East Germany were ranked fifth in the Mexico games, winning nine gold medals to West Germany’s five. Four years on, in Munich, East Germany were ranked third and won 20 golds, 23 silvers and 23 bronzes. Olympic football was also seen as a benchmark of the country’s physical strength and in 1972, they shared the bronze medal with the Soviet Union. In the group phase, they beat the West Germans by 3-2 in the Munich Olympic Stadium in front of 80,000 people. The DDR team included names like Jürgen Croy, Jürgen Sparwasser and Joachim Streich, while West Germany had a young Uli Hoeneß in their line-up. Magdeburg provided five players to the DDR Olympic football squad in 1972 and most would play a key part in the club’s golden period.

The state presided over a radical change in East German football that saw them dispose of old club names and introduce sports groups attached to industry or government institutions. Hence, clubs had names that included Chemie (chemicals), Aufbar (construction), Stahl (steelworks) and Wismut (mining), as well as the notorious secret police link in “Dynamo”.

1. FC Magdeburg was formed in 1965 following a series of practical and political moves that started with BSG Stahl Magdeburg and then BSG Motor Mitte Magdeburg before SC Aufbar Magdeburg’s football department became the club that won three Oberliga titles in the early 1970s.

Magdeburg 1973-74

PlayerPosD-O-BBirthplacePrevious clubEG caps
Ulrich SchulzeG25.12.47DarlingerodeLokomotive Leipzig1
Manfred ZapfD24.8.44StapelburgYouth system16
Helmut GaubeD22.2.46MagdeburgYouth system 
Klaus DeckerD26.4.52Salzwedel, EGYouth system3
Detlef EngeD12.4.52SchwanebeckYouth system 
Jörg OhmD14.3.44HaldenslebenChemie Leipzigu-21
Axel TyllM23.7.53MagdeburgYouth system10
Jürgen PommerenkeM22.1.53WegelebenYouth system53
Wolfgang SeguinM14.9.45MagdeburgYouth system19
Detlef RaugustM26.8.54MagdeburgYouth system3
Jürgen SparwasserM4.6.48HalberstadtYouth system49
Siegmund MewesM26.2.51MagdeburgYouth system 
Hans-Jürgen HermannA4.9.48StendalLocomotive Stendal 
Martin HoffmannA22.3.55GommernYouth system62
Wolfgang AbrahamA23.1.42OsterburgLok. Stendal 

Magdeburg’s fortunes changed when Heinz Krügel was appointed coach in 1966. When he was a player, a bad knee injury curtailed his career at the age of 29. He went into management and had roles with Hansa Rostock, Vorwärts Leipzig, Rotation Leipzig and Chemie Halle. Between 1968 and 1976, when Krügel was removed from his job by the East German FA, Magdeburg were remarkably consistent, finishing out of the top four just once.

Krügel was never really trusted by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, who tried to influence figures like football club managers and players, some of whom were used as Informelle Mitarbeiter (informal collaborators), who would spy on their team-mates. On one occasion, the Stasi bugged Bayern Munich’s dressing room when they met Magdeburg in European competition. Krügel, when presented with the tapes, refused to cooperate, an incident that made him something of a marked man.

Magdeburg won their first DDR Oberliga title in 1972 with a 100% home record. They finished three points ahead of BFC Dynamo Berlin, the pet club of State Security Minister, Erich Mielke. The title was clinched in the penultimate game, a 1-0 victory against FC Vorwärts Frankfurt/Oder thanks to a goal from young midfielder Alex Tyll. Magdeburg didn’t start the campaign well, losing two of their first three fixtures, but their success was built on two long unbeaten runs, notably eight consecutive wins that culminated with the Vorwärts decider.

In 1972-73, they relinquished their title to Dynamo Dresden, but they won the FDGB Pokal, beating Lokomotive Leipzig in the final 3-2, with Sparwasser scoring twice. Sparwasser was to enjoy a stellar season in 1973-74 and would go on to make global headlines in the summer of 1974 for the national team.

Magdeburg were caught in a four-way fight for the title, with Carl Zeiss Jena, Dynamo Dresden and Vorwärts Frankfurt in the mix. It was only in the final fortnight that top spot was secured after a 12-game unbeaten run. But it was the European Cup-Winners’ Cup that really brought Magdeburg to the attention of the football world. They became the one and only club to win a major European prize, no mean achievement given they beat AC Milan – Gianni Rivera, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger et al – on a windy and wet night in Rotterdam.

Magdeburg’s team was youthful – they were considered a “focus club” by the state, one that had preferential access to talent – and very local, almost every squad member was drawn from the region and most were products of the club’s youth system. The player who attracted most attention was the diminutive Martin Hoffmann, a speedy winger who would surely have been snapped up by some of Europe’s biggest clubs if he enjoyed freedom of movement. Sparwasser was also rated highly and he was Magdeburg’s top scorer in 1973-74. Midfielders Jürgen Pommerenke and Wolfgang Seguin would also be part of the DDR’s World Cup squad at the end of the season.

Magdeburg disposed of Dutch side NAC Breda, Czechoslavakia’s Banik Ostrava, Beroe of Bulgaria and Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon to reach the final at Feyenoord’s iconic De Kuip arena. AC Milan, who had won the cup in 1973 by beating Don Revie’s Leeds United, were very confident of adding to their roll of honour, but their mood bordered on arrogant and they were certainly complacent. Schnellinger, rather foolishly, said a defeat to Magdeburg would be a disgrace for Italian football. Ironically, he was one of the players that was singled out for criticism after the game.

Milan started the final as if they meant to stroll to victory, but Magdeburg’s speed and fitness soon started to expose the Italian defence. The first goal came three minutes from the interval, Detlev Raugust racing down the flank, crossing for Sparwasser but seeing the ball skid into the net via Milan defender Enrico Lanzi. Sixteen minutes from the end, Magdeburg secured the trophy when Axel Tyll sent over a Crossfield ball and from a tight angle, Seguin fired past Milan keeper Pierluigi Pizzaballa.

Magdeburg were clearly the better side, but nobody had expected them to beat a club considered part of European club football’s royalty. Sadly, only 6,500 people saw the game, with just 288 from Magdeburg, most of whom were drawn from East German ships moored nearby. The team donned post-match bath robes to celebrate their victory, making for a bizarre scene, but the delight of the young Magdeburg players was there for all to see.

However, the success of Magdeburg drew praise from the media and Krügel was soon besieged with interest from clubs outside East Germany. Juventus, for example, were keen to hire him but there was a caveat – he should be able to take Hoffmann to Turin. Within two years, and another league title, Krügel fell from grace, accused of failing to develop East German athletes. He was suspended from football, later turning up in a menial role at a minor club. The state had effected punishment by simply humiliating him.

East Germany had a mixed World Cup, but they won their first stage group by beating the West in Hamburg, with Sparwasser netting the solitary goal. It was a major shock for the host nation, but they had the last laugh, winning the trophy against the migh-fancied Dutch. The scorer of the DDR’s most celebrated goal would later defect just before the fall of the regime. His name was written in very indelible ink in the chronicle of German football. As for Magdeburg, their success forms an important chapter in East German sport, an often forgotten slice of important social and political history shaped by the events of history.