Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football by Jonathan Wilson

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This book is amazing.  I ordered it after a conversation with my young nephews about the interaction between the rise of Shakhtar Donetsk to surpass Dynamo Kyiv and the geopolitical divisions within Ukraine.  Sound like a flippant thing to say?  It isn’t: it really isn’t.  The book mentions it, and it was written *before* the conflict in the Donbass broke out in 2006.   It also makes the interesting point that Karpaty Lviv are part of it too.  I’d never really thought of that, probably because Karpaty aren’t that well-known here, but it’s a good point.  Football says so much.  Look at how Barca ended up practically at the centre of the row after the Catalan independence referendum.

The first time I realised that Yugoslavia was going to disintegrate into civil war was well before it did.  It was in 1990, and I was watching a programme called Trans World Sport, which, in those days, was one of the very few opportunities you got to see even a few minutes of tennis on TV outside tournaments played in the UK.  Red Star Belgrade, Crvena Zvedza, were playing Dinamo Zagreb, and horrendous violence broke out between the Serbian and Croatian fans.  It sounds daft, but the venom was so intense that I knew then that there was going to be a war.  According to this book, Red Star fans actually claim to have started the war.  They also claim that they were responsible for the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, later on.  It doesn’t surprise me.  I don’t mean that as anything against Red Star/Crvena Zvedza, just that it doesn’t surprise me that football can be so close to politics.

The book does stop short of attributing the 1989 revolution in Romania to football, but it does say that it worked the other way round – that Dinamo Bucharest’s winning the double that year, ahead of the Ceasescu-backed Steaua Bucharest, probably wouldn’t have happened if the revolution happened first.

Incidentally, as a kid, I used to ask why Leningrad didn’t have a decent football team.  I always had Russia on the brain, and it seemed odd that such a major city didn’t have a top class football team.  I never got a satisfactory answer, so, when I went to Russia in 1996, by which time Leningrad had changed its name back to St Petersburg, I asked a tour guide.  “It does have a football team,” he explained, “but they are very bad.  Like the blue team in Manchester.”  Those were the days.  Zenit got their act together a few years later, and have been Russian champions for the past three seasons.  The book barely mentions Zenit, but it does say a lot about the various Moscow teams and how they were affected by Soviet politics, and the firm belief in Georgia and Armenia that Stalin, despite the fact that both he and his head of the secret police were Georgian, would only allow teams from either Moscow or Kyiv to win the Soviet league title.

Sorry, that’s irrelevant.  To get back to the book, the author says at the start that he was the only kid in his class who was cheering for Red Star/Crvena Zvedza in the 1991 European Cup Final, rather than for Chris Waddle’s Marseille.  Me too, Jonathan, me too!  I was another kid with a thing about Eastern Europe.  Red Star won, and played United in the Super Cup.  The leg in Belgrade was cancelled, and only the leg at Old Trafford was played.  War had broken out by then.

As I’ve said, it sounds flippant, which it really isn’t, to talk about football rivalries and wars in the same breath, because we don’t really have that in England.  I’m not playing down what our own clubs have been through.  I grew up hearing about the Munich Air Disaster.  My dad, as a 12-year-old schoolboy, attended United’s first match at Old Trafford after the plane crashed, along with my late grandfather.  A distant relative on my mum’s side died at Hillsborough.  But, although obviously we have club rivalries which relate to regional rivalries which go way beyond politics – United and Liverpool, Newcastle and Sunderland, etc – we don’t have the political issues here.  Well, we do now, with all these goings-on over Chelsea and Roman Abramovich, but that’s not about domestic politics.

None of our clubs have had their president shot dead by a Falangist, like Barcelona, been purged by the Nazis because they’ve got a number of Jewish staff members and board members (Bayern Munich), been purged by Nazi sympathisers for the same reason and then been put under the control of a man who deported 40,000 people to Auschwitz (MTK Budapest), dissolved by Stalin for contributing the majority of players to a Soviet side which lost to Yugoslavia (CSKA Moscow) or had their chairman deported to a gulag because the head of the Stalinist secret police didn’t like him (Spartak Moscow).

We don’t have clubs named after freedom fighters (Levski Sofia, Red Star Belgrade, Partizan Belgrade), and we don’t have clubs which became bound up with Juan Peron (Boca Juniors).   And we don’t really have the complicated regional political issues which are mixed up with football in Spain and to some extent Italy … and, of course, Ukraine.  Romania too, I suppose – there are some issues in Cluj over Transylvania’s complicated Hungarian-Romanian ethnopolitics.  Nor do we have clubs affiliated to the Army or secret police organisations.

OK, that’s a lot of talk about issues which don’t exist in England, rather than issues which *do*, or did, exist in Eastern Europe!  And, of course, I’m saying “England” rather than “the UK”, because obviously Glasgow and Derry and various other places have different issues.

Anyway.  To get back to the book!   There’s a chapter each of several different countries behind the old Iron Curtain, and each one’s fascinating.  What Ukraine’s performance in the 2006 World Cup, Slovenia’s in Euro 2000 and Croatia’s in Euro 1996 did for each country’s sense of identity and self-belief.  And Hungary in the 1950s … when I went to Budapest in 2000, people were still talking about *that* match at Wembley in 1953, as if it’d been the greatest moment in Hungarian history.  The author claims that the Magical Magyars’ defeat by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final was what led to the 1956 Uprising.  That’s possibly pushing it a bit, but he makes a very convincing argument.

There are also very interesting chapters on corruption and other goings-on in football in Russia, Georgia and Romania (although nothing about Ukrainian football and some of what allegedly went on, or was attempted, with the Kanchelskis transfers), and Poland and Bulgaria also get their own chapters.  I could go on and on, but I don’t suppose anyone’s going to read this anyway. Still, I’m enjoying writing it.

I suppose he couldn’t cover everywhere, but I’m curious about the omission of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  I remain convinced that the Velvet Divorce was linked to the omission of the Slovak verse of the Czechoslovakian national anthem at the 1990 World Cup!  Maybe Czech and Slovak football just isn’t questionable enough.  East Germany doesn’t get a mention, either.  Nor does Belarus, nor Albania, nor Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, but they aren’t major footballing nations in the way that the Czech Republic and Slovakia are.  And the book’s now 16 years old, so it would have been written too early to mention the rise and fall of Anzhi Makhachkala.

Anyway, this book is very strongly recommended.  It isn’t for everyone, and not everyone likes to read about Eastern Europe or football, never mind both, but I loved it!

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football by Jonathan Wilson

  1. Christopher Michael Deeley

    I think an interesting aspect of soccer (or ‘football’ as some people call it) is that it’s an English gift to most of the rest of the world. My old school (Forest) was the only school to be a founding member of the English Football Association (FA). I don’t think we ever won the FA Cup, but I think Eton College may have. I was born in Liverpool and it’s still nice to see the entrenched rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester. Australia (where I live now) is more into Rugby League than soccer, which I think is a pity. Afterall, soccer is the game they play in Heaven!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Christopher Michael Deeley

    Further to my earlier comment: it was actually the Old Etonians who won the FA Cup (rather than Eton College). They won the Cup in 1879 and 1882 and were runners-up in 1875, 1876 and 1881. It has been claimed that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. I’m not sure who may have made that claim.

    Liked by 2 people

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