At the Olympiastadion

Donald Mahoney

The Swiss artist Massimo Furlan performed his Re-Enactment of the 1974 East Germany-West Germany Match in Munich’s Olympiastadion on 30 April. There were only two players on the pitch: Furlan took the role of the West German keeper, Sepp Maier; Jürgen Sparwasser, who scored the winning goal for East Germany, was played by the actor Franz Beil. Everyone else – the other players, the referee, the linesmen – along with the ball, would be imagined. The original match commentary of both state radio broadcasters was streamed on FM frequencies inside the Olympiastadion. Small radios were distributed to the crowd, which was also reduced: in the 70,000-seat stadium, we occupied only the midfield loge, once reserved for dignitaries.

Re-Enactment was among the first of twenty performance art commissions taking place as part of Public Art Munich. Speaking before the match, PAM’s curator, Joanna Warsza, compared the opening of the Olympiastadion in 1972 to the foundation of the Bavarian Soviet State in 1921 and the welcoming of refugees at Munich’s Hauptbahnhof in September 2015. On the PAM website, she describes them as ‘visible game changers in how societies reinvent themselves’, though they also inspired reactionary political violence.

For the West German team of 1974 – Beckenbauer, Hoeneß, Müller – defeat to their near neighbours was inconceivable. But East Germany snatched an unlikely 1-0 victory with Sparwasser’s magnificent second-half goal. The triumph was short-lived. East Germany lost to Brazil and the Netherlands in the next phase of the tournament; West Germany went on to lift the trophy in Munich. By 1988, even Sparwasser had defected to the West.

Furlan has been recreating famous football matches in the name of art for years. He’s played Platini in Paris and Boniek in Warsaw. According to his website, the performances are rooted in his childhood, when he sat alone in his bedroom with a radio, spellbound by football commentary.

The original fixture was held in Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion, but Munich seemed a better site for its recreation. As a sports arena, the 46-year old Olympiastadion is now a relic. Built as a corrective to the Nazis’ 1936 stadium in Berlin, the Olympiastadion was decommissioned as a football ground after Bayern Munich and TSV 1860 Munich relocated to the Allianz Arena in 2006. It was no longer fit for purpose. Its revolutionary design – a bowl in the ground, with tensile roofing to evoke the Bavarian Alps – left no space for the tiers of corporate seating that help pay for today’s sports-entertainment palaces.

For many in the crowd, Furlan’s piece was a first opportunity to attend a World Cup match. Minutes before kick-off, Furlan and Beil emerged from the tunnel, defiantly middle-aged and fully serious. Both national anthems were played. For the next ninety minutes, Furlan, dressed all in black, mostly shuffled around his box while organising the imaginary defence in front of him. Beil, in East German royal blue, started in midfield and lazed along the sidelines. His occasional darting runs into the penalty box drew roars from the crowd. Very little happened otherwise. It was like watching an absurdist, live-action version of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.

But then, in the middle of the first half, Beil tumbled to the ground while attempting a tackle. He stayed down, clutching his left ankle. Once it was clear he wasn’t getting up, stewards and medics ran to attend to him. Confusion reigned: was the performance diverging deliberately from the real life events of 1974, or had something gone wrong? Eventually an ambulance arrived and Beil disappeared into the back of it, never to return.

‘This is the magic of the performative moment,’ Warsza said afterwards, a place where fiction and reality merge.

It wasn’t the only unscripted moment. In the middle of the injury scare, an audience member stripped naked and sprinted onto the pitch. He embraced Furlan before hurling himself into a long-jump pit. Stewards pursued him to the stadium’s gates. Furlan said afterwards that streaking is common at his events.

In the stands, the piece triggered various reactions. In the row in front of me, a man in his fifties clutched a large radio and listened intensely, transfixed by his memories of the match. Beside him, a child used his father’s phone to ask Siri questions about the 1974 game: had Sparwasser actually been taken away in an ambulance?

True to football, Re-Enactment was often incredibly dull, especially with Beil’s absence from the pitch. The wait for the 77th-minute breakthrough grew agonising. A moment before it arrived, the floodlights went dark, and a spotlight was fixed on the goalkeeper. I’d watched the goal countless times on YouTube. After a long ball from the East German keeper up the far sideline, Sparwasser breaks from midfield in a sprint, possessed, certain of his fate. A cross is played in to the edge of West Germany’s penalty box. Sparwasser is surrounded by three West German defenders, but taps the ball on with his chest. He has the space to shoot now and he does.

The commentary rose in anticipation. Furlan threw himself to the ground, arms flailing at the ghosts around him. ‘Tor! Sparwasser!!!’ There was no stopping history. The pixelated scoreboard was updated to read DDR 1-0 FRD.

Furlan stood disconsolate, utterly alone on a vast green pitch in an empty stadium, a failure to a nation and a way of life. An hour earlier, Sparwasser, the hero, had turned into a phantasm before our eyes.

After the final whistle blared through the radio speakers, Furlan trudged towards the tunnel. The crowd rose in appreciation, and showered him with the flowers handed out to us on our way into the stadium. Had the great Sepp Maier, World Cup champion, European champion, Bundesliga champion, ever been cheered so boisterously in defeat? Unlikely.