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The Tainted History of the ‘Dynamo’ Team Name

When Houston’s MLS franchise decided to call itself ‘Dynamo,’ it unwittingly extended the history of a moniker with roots in Soviet-era clubs that were controlled by various secret police regimes.

The baseball player Moe Berg’s foray into espionage came during the heyday of the intersection of sports and foreign policy. When his film of Tokyo — taken during an exhibition tour of Japan before World War II — was used to plan the bombing of that city, it was an instance of sports reaching out and touching the national security apparatus. Some of the darker moments of the next half-century resulted from the national security apparatus returning the favor.

When Major League Soccer relocated the San Jose Earthquakes to Houston in 2005, some controversy surrounded the team’s name. After a decade of decidedly 1990s-style branding, the league began a shift to more traditional European-style team names, eschewing the embarrassing Tampa Bay Mutiny, for instance, and paying homage to the sport’s giants with Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, and so on.

The original Houston team name, Houston 1836, played on the convention of naming a club after an important year — in this case, the year Texas won independence from Mexico. But after protests from Mexican and Mexican American fans for whom the legacy of 1836 wasn’t so positive, the franchise dropped the name and rechristened itself Houston Dynamo, after the many clubs in Eastern Europe named in that style.

After ditching one offensive name, Houston stumbled onto something worse, either not knowing or not caring that “Dynamo” carries with it perhaps the darkest connotations of any team name in modern European soccer.

In a communist dictatorship, sports franchises obviously aren’t for-profit businesses the way they are under capitalism. Instead, the major soccer teams in Eastern Bloc countries were founded as club teams for various state-run entities. You’ll see repeated names throughout former Warsaw Pact countries: CSKA for the army, Lokomotiv for the transportation ministry, and Dynamo for the secret police.

A generation after the fall of the Soviet Union, we’ve somewhat forgotten how horrifying and repressive it and its satellite states could be, but the authors of some of the darkest moments of modern European history were the heads of domestic intelligence in these countries.

Lavrentiy Beria, one of Josef Stalin’s top lieutenants, oversaw the Soviet secret police. A key figure in the Great Purge, Beria had a hand in the rape, torture, abduction, imprisonment, and/or execution of tens of millions. Then as now, powerful men wanted to illustrate that power through leadership of sports teams. Beginning in the mid-1930s, Beria was the patron of Dynamo Moscow and took an active hand in the team winning four of the first seven Soviet League titles. In his book Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper repeats an anecdote from Nikolai Starostin, who founded Dynamo’s rival Spartak Moscow. After Spartak beat Dynamo for the league title in 1938 and 1939, Beria authorized Dynamo’s coach to pay higher wages to attract better players, then insinuated that if Dynamo failed to win the title in 1940, the coach would be shot. In 1942, Beria had Starostin imprisoned and tortured for two years on charges that he’d plotted to assassinate Stalin.1 Dynamo won four league titles and finished second twice in the next six years.


1.

Beria himself was arrested and executed in December 1953.

Meanwhile, the East German state was overseen by its own secret police, the Stasi. The Stasi might have been the most pervasive domestic intelligence service in modern history. “It would not have been unreasonable to assume that at least one Stasi informer was present in any party of ten or twelve dinner guests,” former Associated Press foreign correspondent John O. Koehler wrote. For 40 years, the Stasi undertook a terrifying campaign of domestic surveillance and psychological warfare, and for 32 of those years, their leader was a Soviet-trained strongman named Erich Mielke. Like Beria, Mielke had a preternatural skill in wielding paranoia and cruelty, and like Beria, he was a huge soccer fan.

Mielke was team president of Berlin FC Dynamo, or BFC. In the early days of the East German league, the dominant force had been the Stasi-sponsored Dynamo Dresden, whose roster Mielke moved, more or less wholesale, to East Berlin in 1954, so the country’s best team would play in the capital.

“Mielke loved his club, and made all the best players in the GDR play for it,” Kuper wrote. “He also talked to referees, and Dynamo won lots of matches with penalties in the 95th minute.”

BFC won a lot of matches in that manner — enough to win the East German title every year from 1979 to 1988, a run unmatched in modern European soccer. However, BFC was unable to match their domestic success in Europe during that time. The deepest they went in the European Cup (the predecessor to today’s Champions League) was a quarterfinal loss in 1980 to the eventual champions, Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. BFC won the first leg, 1-0, before losing 3-1 at home on the return leg.

The disparity between BFC’s domestic and continental record had a twofold cause. First, Western Europe just had better teams during the Cold War. The European Cup was dominated early on by Real Madrid (which, as the favored club of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, has its own troubled political history), then later on by Italian and English sides. Since 1955, only four times has an Eastern European club so much as made the final, and they’ve won just twice.

The second reason is that when BFC played outside East Germany, the match wasn’t called by an East German referee.

In 1985-86, BFC’s main title rival was Lokomotive Leipzig, and the league title — which was decided by only two points that year — came down, more or less, to one play. On March 22, 1986, Leipzig led BFC 1-0 in stoppage time of the second half. Leipzig was playing with 10 men, as referee Bernd Stumpf had earlier issued a second yellow card to Leipzig’s captain for leaving the wall too early during a free kick.

With the clock ticking down and BFC trailing, Stumpf called a penalty on this play:

The match ended in a tie, and BFC went on to defend its title, but the “Penalty of Shame,” as it came to be known, had a lasting effect: Stumpf was suspended for a year under intense public pressure, and Mielke’s iron grip began to slip. BFC won its last title in 1988. On November 7, 1989, Mielke resigned. Two days later, German citizens began to tear down the Berlin Wall, and in the months that followed, Mielke was arrested on charges that ranged from murder to treason to embezzlement, and received a prison sentence in 1992. He died in a retirement home in 2000 at the age of 92.

In his book The People’s Game: Football, State and Society in East Germany, historian Alan McDougall notes that the three institutions Mielke served — BFC, the Stasi, and communist East Germany — declined in parallel.

“Indeed,” he writes, “BFC’s decline serves as a persuasive metaphor for the collapse of the GDR [German Democrtic Republic]: a seemingly impregnable institution, outwardly successful despite widespread domestic grumbling, but always struggling for international credibility, suddenly reduced to impotence.”

There’s not an easy and uplifting moral to the story of the legacy of the name “Dynamo” in soccer, but stories that involve Beria and Mielke this heavily are seldom easy or uplifting. It’s just another reminder that sports and politics are inextricably bound together, and that when sports glorify the national security apparatus — however benign it might seem — it’s happened before and it’s always intentional.