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4.0 out of 5 stars Football, crime and corruption, 4 Jan. 2013
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This review is from: Behind the Curtain: Football in Eastern Europe: Travels in Eastern European Football (Paperback)
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.
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