Football Book Review: Behind the Curtain by Jonathan Wilson

Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football, by Jonathan Wilson (@jonawils)

In this book, Wilson tackles the perennial question of why Eastern European football isn’t very competitive with Western European, both at the club and national levels. Some things have changed since its publication in 2006, but, in general, the nations discussed—Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, the Balkans, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia—are still in the situation he describes.

At 300 pages, it is not an in-depth history of football in any of these countries, not by any means, but it gives the reader an overview of football during the communist era and in the first fifteen years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the title suggests, it’s a travelogue. He discusses matches he’s seen and people he’s interviewed as a football journalist and puts them into the greater historical context.

During the Soviet era, football clubs behind the Iron Curtain were nationalized, and corruption was de rigueur. The Party bosses’ clubs got special treatment, referees made dodgy calls to benefit those clubs, and match fixing was commonplace. After the downfall of communism, the clubs were without sponsors, without funds, and corruption continued. Rather than Party bosses’ clubs getting special treatment, Mafia bosses’ clubs did. Money disappeared.

Of particular interest to fans of German football may be the chapter on Hungary. A good quarter of the chapter is dedicated to the 1954 World Cup, and we get to see the other side of the Miracle of Bern. Hungarian football has never recovered from that loss.

The chapter on the Balkans, grouped under “Former Yugoslavia” and broken into Serbia-Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, was alternately eyebrow-raising and heartbreaking, as it was set against the backdrop of the war of the early 1990s. In Sarajevo, the old training grounds outside the Kosevo are cemeteries.

The final chapter is on Russia. Wilson devotes a good half of it to Eduard Streltsov, the legendary player from the 1950s who was sent to the gulag, charged with the crime of rape. There may have been a conspiracy against him. Wilson interviewed a football archivist (for six hours) who had some evidence that there was, but there are few conclusive facts. The second half is about CSKA and Spartak Moscow and the rise of the oligarchs, which he sees as hope for Russian football’s future, because they provide the money needed to grow (and buy) talent. Since Russian clubs are making it further in the Europa and Champions Leagues than the rest of the former communist countries, he may be right.

The answer to the perennial question is fairly well-known: When the state sponsorship scheme ended with communism’s collapse, the football teams that had been propped up by it fell, too. The examples Wilson chose for this book are illustrative.

The only major formerly communist country that isn’t represented in this book is East Germany, which, as a fan of German football, is disappointing. It’s possible that it would have been too complicating to include the GDR in this book, because of reunification, but the situation in the “new states” is parallel to the one described in the text. The former top sides of the GDR are languishing in the second and third (and regional!) leagues–Hansa Rostock, Carl-Zeiss Jena, Dynamo Dresden, BFC Dynamo, 1. FC Union Berlin, etc. Niklas Wildhagen took a look at what happened to East German football on his blog two years ago.

At times, it was hard to follow. Wilson uses stadium names without referring to which club plays there, which may not matter for people who follow Eastern European football closely, but for more casual viewers, who recognize these club names from Europa League group stages, it can be quite confusing. Because Wilson is English, as is his primary audience, his main referent for comparison is the English Premier League. Again, for people who follow the EPL, that may not be an issue, but for casual football viewers, some of the comparisons don’t mean very much.

As an overview-cum-travelogue of Eastern European football, Behind the Curtain is a satisfying, if occasionally very slow, read. I would recommend it to people with an existing interest in the topic or fans who want to broaden their knowledge.

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Conni is a writer, football fan, and beer nerd. Her latest short story "Something There Is" is available in the anthology Substitution Cipher. You can follow her on twitter at @strafraum (football) or @exaggerated (writing and general life).

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