When a Soccer Star From the Stasi’s Favorite Team Defected

Why you should care

The Eigendorf episode reveals how you weren't safe from the Stasi even after you defected.

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It was 1979, the Berlin Wall was up and the Cold War was on. Lutz Eigendorf was an acclaimed midfielder for the East Berlin soccer side BFC Dynamo. As the beautiful game has a tendency to unite people — and sometimes feuding countries — it was hardly uncommon for clubs from West and East Germany to compete against each other in European championships.

But in March that year, Eigendorf made a risky move off the pitch. After a friendly between BFC Dynamo and FC Kaiserslautern from West Germany, Eigendorf’s team had stopped on its way back at Giessen in the West German state of Hesse. It was then and there that Eigendorf seized his opportunity to flee from the team, defecting in search of a better life — and leaving his wife, Gabriele, and young child behind in Berlin. 

Eigendorf’s defection was embarrassing for the Stasi, the official state security service of East Germany, which was a major supporter of DFC Berlin and saw the player’s decision as tantamount to betrayal. It set in motion what some researchers and writers say was an almost personal campaign by Erich Mielke, the then–head of the secret police, to track down Eigendorf.

Rumors swirled: Some thought the Stasi was behind Eigendorf’s death.

Four years later, the midfielder died in mysterious circumstances that many believe were engineered by the Stasi. But Eigendorf had his own regrets, suggests Eduardo Verdú, a Madrid-born journalist. Verdú has written a book on Eigendorf titled Todo Lo Que Ganamos Cuando Lo Perdimos Todo (translated to English as Everything We Gained When We Lost It All).

“This was a man who had everything,” says Verdú, who is in talks with a production company to make a film or TV series about Eigendorf’s life. “He was strong, handsome and gave up his wife and his little daughter searching for a new life. It was very brave, but on the other hand, he also felt like a betrayer leaving a wife and a kid so little.”

Eigendorf was last seen having a drink after his new team, Braunschweig, had lost 2-0 to Bochum on March 7, 1983. He reportedly wrapped his sports car around a tree on his way home. He had been driving at high speed, and his blood alcohol content was 0.22 percent, well above the legal limit. Eigendorf would die in a hospital two days later at the age of 26. West German authorities ruled the case an accident, and he was buried without an autopsy.

Rumors swirled: Some thought the Stasi was behind Eigendorf’s death; that they had followed him and even engineered his divorce from his wife; that they had managed to get her to marry a man who was their plant so he could track correspondence Eigendorf might send her.

“Most West Germans never doubted the police’s explanation for Lutz Eigendorf’s death and accepted the theory that it was an accident as the most likely cause of his death,” explains Uli Hesse, the best-selling author of Tor!, Bayern: Creating A Global Superclub and Alles BVB! Hesse has also written about Eigendorf.

But it was six years after Eigendorf’s death, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, that secret East German police files became more accessible. Extensive research by Cologne journalist and filmmaker Heribert Schwan, who could not be reached for comment, eventually led to a documentary — one showing that Eigendorf was much more than just a soccer player in the eyes of Mielke. Schwan found that Mielke had at one point up to 50 undercover agents spying on Eigendorf. His documentary and book Tod dem Verräter (Death to the Traito“) were released in March 2000.

“Until that book came out, I myself — being West German — had no idea to what extent the secret police would go to infiltrate people,” Hesse adds. “They did in fact do that.”

Hesse has written articles quoting Schwan as telling him that, while many secret service files had been destroyed, he found one that mentions “flashing” — which he interpreted to mean that, on the night Eigendorf had his accident, a car in the dark suddenly turned its headlights on, potentially blinding the athlete.

Verdú, who was drawn to Eigendorf’s story by the love, betrayal, courage, hope, loss and, of course, conspiracy that shaped it, has visited the soccer player’s home and stadiums where he played in both Germanies. “The end, of course, was really moving,” he says. “This was revenge by Mielke … because Eigendorf was not only a traitor to the country, but he also played [on] Mielke’s team, the team of his heart and the team of Berlin. So this was also treason for [Mielke].” 

Hesse adds that in the years after defecting, Eigendorf failed to truly leave his mark as a player — like many others who defected. “He was a dynamite player, and I would say he was an important player for East Germany,” says Hesse, who currently is an editor at 11 Freunde, the biggest German soccer monthly. “Most of them tended to struggle after defecting and found it hard to adapt. He was a good player who didn’t quite become the player he could have become.”

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