on 7 October 2009
A terrific read full of great anecdotes and fascinating insights into the history of football in eastern Europe before & after the fall of communism in the region. If I have one critcism it's that the stories of some of the countries can be a little repetitive - the decline of Poland, Hungary & Romania as footballing powers all occured for essentially the same reason - lack of money. No Abramovich-type sugar daddies came along to replace the patronage & protection the big clubs in these countries used to receive from powerful figures in the Soviet political/military regimes, so their domestic leagues became a shambles rife with corruption, and any talented youngsters were sold abroad to the highest bidder ASAP. Having said that, there's plenty here to praise; the power-shift from Dynamo Kyiv to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukraine, and the ongoing intrigues between the oligarchs of modern Russia are all tales well told, but for me the best section of the book concerns the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. The story of how Serbia-Montenegro, Slovenia, Bosnia-Hercegovina & Croatia have tried (and very often failed) to come to terms with themselves and each other as independent entities provides by far the most fascinating and moving chapters of the book.
Jonathan Wilson's previous book (the superb 'Inverting the Pyramid') had a much broader range, but 'Behind the Curtain' reads like a much more personal work and is all the more engaging for it. An excellent read - thouroughly recommended.
on 29 April 2010
Jonathon Wilson has written an interesting overview of the current state of football in Eastern Europe. He worked for a football website and developed a lot of contacts in former Iron Curtain countries. He has used these contacts to help him arrange interviews in the various countries.
Wilson is a self-confessed football nerd (like myself) whose particular interest in Eastern European teams began on family holidays in Slovenia. Back in those days Eastern European clubs were invariably described in the build up to European competition ties as "crack" outfits, whatever that meant.
The book has a chapter for each country, or former country in the case of Yugoslavia. A visit by Wilson to the country is described as well as any matches he attended and interviews he did. A brief history of football both during and post Communism in each country is given. He talks to, or quotes some familiar football personalities such as Hagi and Bilic and many of them have very interesting things to say about football and their countries. Naturally football and history are intertwined, as the way the seismic changes in these societies affected clubs and the national team is described.
One can detect at times a hankering for the certainty of the old days although corruption and match fixing are a feature of both eras. There are plenty of anecdotes about dodgy refereeing decisions and not so benevolent dictators influencing results.
I would have some gripes with the author. For example why were former East Germany and former Czechoslovakia omitted while the Caucasus republics are included?
Overall though this is an interesting and well written book that will appeal to both the casual football supporter and someone with a bit more knowledge of European football.
on 31 December 2006
As a regular traveller and visitor to Eastern Europe, and having taken in quite a few games in the process, I found this book most interesting and would heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the region as a whole.
Minor criticisms would include the strange omission of Czech Republic/Slovakia and the Baltic states, and there is the distinct impression that this book should be viewed more as an introduction to the issues at stake rather than act as a definitive guide.
Nevertheless, Jonathan Wilson (who cannot be much more than 30, judging from some subtle dating in the text) clearly has excellent knowledge and experience of the area (with the possible exception of the Caucausus region, which seems to have been more of a flying visit) and hence this book should be required reading for any football and travel enthusiast who dares to look further than the dreaded Premiership for their sporting thrills.
on 4 January 2013
Rather than yet another football travel book, it is a story of corruption, crime and mismanagement that reflect the way how football has been run in Central and Eastern Europe.
At first a dream task of travelling and writing about the beautiful game, it quickly emerges that football is just a background to systematic problems still faced in a reality hidden until recently behind Europe's Iron Curtain. And its legacy, it seems, continues.
Some fixed league titles, apparatchik officials, local gangsters - it is often a crime story based in football surroundings where magic moments of the game's beauty erupted only few times over the past hundred years, like with the Aranycsapat for Hungarians or Wembley '73 for Poles.
In a reality with no place for romantics, the picture of fans still deeply-rooted, obsessed with their past and unable to look forward and move on emerges from "Behind the Curtain". It is a story of past glory and slow rotting in a world where a globalised game crosses and absorbs mostly forgotten and at best dusted football communities in despair for some positivity.
It also, however paradoxically it could be, supports the argument that clubs, despite all, are immortal. Intriguingly, a bookmark I was using when reading this book, was a ticket from a recent AFC Wimbledon-Aldershot match, two of recent phoenixes in the English football. And there are many similar stories across Central-Eastern Europe, too. Changing names, towns, histories but always providing a central point for local communities. Despite getting smaller and smaller, more marginalised, many of these clubs ("brands", as they are often called in modern business) are still somehow important.
Wilson, to a great pleasure of the reader, does not suffer from the arrogance typical for other UK broadsheet writers; football's little Englanders. Naturally curious, he even visits cemeteries in Romania and fields-turn-football pitches in Azerbaijan (long before Tony Adams graced them). In doing so, he does not treat the reader in a patronising manner, yet is able to swiftly and naturally tell the stories as heard from the locals, but digested and accessible to a Western audience.
From local thugs in Romania to former warlords in the Balkans to international business networks, it is also a story of mafia and how the criminal element has become an integral part of football in this region.
No doubt, however, that his epilogue would have been different if written today, not when was first published in 2006. Not only CSKA but also Zenith reached for a European trophy, just like Russia advanced to the semis of the Euro 2008 and Poland hosted the following continental championships with Ukraine. Not to mention a flamboyant Shakhtar Donetsk side that has gone for a year without a defeat until they conceded a late Victor Moses goal at Stamford Bridge, with yours truly in the attendance. The emergence of a new generation of Balkan talents, led by Real Madrid's Luka Modrić, has also drawn many fans' attention.
Interestingly, too, the football in the region was overshadowed by the accusation of racism in 2012. Wilson, however, despite being a careful observer of everyday reality, does not seem to mention the issue in his book. The football world formerly behind the Iron Curtain certainly has many sins to confess but it seems this one might have been blown out of proportion by, yes you guessed it, football's little Englanders.
A tactical wonk, Wilson does not forget to elaborate about how football in Central and Eastern Europe adjusted to the changing ways of how the beautiful game has been played throughout the decades. There are few cases, however, with Hungarian's Aranycsapat and Lobanovsky's Dynamo Kiev most prominent, when local football brains were shaping, not just responding, to the global trends and innovations. Perhaps out of courtesy, the author does not indicate that for the past twenty-odd years no football strategist has emerged from the region with fresh ideas.
The book ends stating that "[...] football globalised almost to homogeneity. That may, in time, lead to decline in corruption, but an indefinable something will have been lost." Whether it is a change for good or bad, only time will tell. Or David Conn.
on 18 April 2006
I really enjoyed this book which is well written and takes the perceptive reader on a journey through eastern Europe with football acting as the Hitchhikers guide. Don't be lulled into thinking that this is simply a book about football in Eastern Europe - it is a book about people, politics, corruption and tragedy, with a great deal of humour, and empathy for the citizens of the nations that have emerged from Communist control.
I am not an avid football fan but have spent time in these areas and this book captures brilliantly the struggles of the new nations to find their own identity and deal with their past, whilst telling me all I could ever need to know about the old system and the way that football represented the microcosms of the communist lifestyle.
If you want to know about the great sides of the Communist era this book gives you what you need to know. If you fancy owning an eastern European football club (and I get the impression that it is quite easy to do this), this book is for you. If you want an interesting and thoughtful insight into an unexpecteed subject, this book is for you. Thoroughly recommended.
on 17 April 2006
Writing any book about Eastern Europe must be a hazardous process. The chief problem involves a decision on whether to concentrate on life before the collapse of communism or what has ensued since. Most authors take the former course and so Wilson should be congratulated for attempting to tackling the chaotic, often anarchic, events of recent years.
Wilson does well to capture the fast pace of change in Eastern Europe and the rise of previously unheralded clubs such as Litex Lovech and Groclin. The pace of events also proves to be his downfall though. It is quite possible that he should have waited until he was a bit older before writing the book (a mention of a 1992 school trip to Russia marks him out as startlingly young) and it is not clear if he travelled to the eastern Bloc before the end of the old systems, and recent astonishing events such as CSKA's UEFA Cup win and the huge sums dished out by the likes of Dynamo Moscow are relegated to the epilogue. He also states that "..for Steaua Bucharest, a second European Cup success is as far away as a second league title is for Ipswich". As I write, Steaua have secured themselves a place in the semi final of the 2005-06 UEFA Cup - merely weeks after this book was published. It is incumbent on the publishers to request amendments to the book in time for the paperback's appearance in the autumn of 2006.
Another frustration is the selective nature of the coverage. To be more authoritative, the book could have been a good deal longer, with a statistics section at the back listing league title winners in the various countries. It might also have benefitted from broad brush analysis and less reliance on the personalized accounts of whichever personality Wilson managed to track down at any particular time (interesting as some of these undoubtedly are.)
East Germany - and Dynamo Berlin's run of league titles in the 1980s - is a major omission. It would have been fascinating to have Wilson's opinions on how the likes of Hansa Rostock and Dynamo Dresden have struggled in a united league. And what of Latvia? Their achievement in reaching the finals of Euro 2004 isn't mentioned at all.
Overall, however, the pace with which I read this book is a testament to how interesting it is and Wilson is certainly a football writer to look out for in the future.
on 14 April 2011
There's a growing selection of books looking at the history of football in various countries, such as "Football Against the Enemy" and "Brilliant Orange". This worthy addition to the genre takes a fairly rapid-fire look at a number of former Soviet Bloc countries, delving into the sometimes fascinating, sometimes dodgy and sometimes both histories of the game, plus comments on current leagues and rivalries. You'll have heard of very few of the players (and a few more of the teams) but the author writes well and it's very easyy to read. Seasoned football followers (particularly those with an interest in European tournaments or who play a lot of Football Manager (!)) might not feel they know much more when they finish than when they started, but if you're a fan of the national football histories, then give this one a go.