Football writing as travelogue: Jonathan Wilson’s Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Foorball

As I have previously observed , a lot of my writing was once about sport. Much of this was in the form of book reviews, and the odd film review. In 1998 I wrote a review of the All Ireland football and hurling championships for the UCD Observer, and I think I did write a match report of some kind while in UCD at some stage. But most of my sports writing is about other people’s sports writing. Which is appropriate since, even when I was more into it, I read about sport far more than I actually watched it (and I think on balance probably have directly participated a little bit more than I have watched it)

Anyhow, onto this piece from a decade ago. As far as I recall the last sports book I have read is Wilson’s biography of Brian Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You . As is clear from the above, even at the time I had reservations about the Simon Kuper school of pop sociology via sport; it is interesting that the man himself has moved on to statistics. In retrospect  I wonder am I too harsh on Wilson who is certainly a more impressive writer than Kuper (though possibly not as PR savvy) The inevitable Borges quote features,  and I certainly share Wilson’s romanticism about Eastern Europe.


Behind the Curtain – Travels in Eastern European Football
by Jonathan Wilson
Pp. 326. London: Orion, 2006
Hardback, £16.99

The publication of Simon Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy in 1994 marked something of a turning point in football writing. If Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch created a whole series of far less ably executed personal memoirs with the game as an anchor, Kuper’s main innovation was to use football as a prism through which to view society and politics. Football Against The Enemy was often pedestrian, its conclusions obvious, its insights less than riveting, but when it came to writing about football that aspired to intelligence the wonder was not that it was done well but that it was done at all.

Kuper’s Ajax, the Dutch, the War, which used football to explore the less than heroic Dutch record in World War Two (as in many nations, the actions of a relatively small resistance were vastly overstated after the war to atone for collective indifference if not guilt, and as Holland was – Poland, aside – the occupied nation in which a Jew was least safe, there was a lot of collective indifference around at the very least) and was far more successful. Kuper, freed from pontificating on Celtic and Rangers and Dynamo Kiev, produced a social history of some merit about something he actually knew about.

Jonathan Wilson, formerly of the Financial Times and prior to that of, has written a book the cover of which comes blurbed by Simon Kuper himself. He covers football in Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism, although inevitably the past looms large.

Some English readers may still wince to read of the HungarianArantscapat, the “Golden Squad” which defeated England 6-3 in Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 in Budapest a few months later. This shattered England’s myth of invincibility at home (or rather at Wembley, for I must point out that the Republic of Ireland beat them 2-0 in Goodison Park in 1949). Even more than the 1966 World Cup winning team in England, the Arantscapat and their defeat by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup overshadow much of not only football but national life in Hungary. Similarly, the Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski who kept England out of the 1974 World Cup and was dismissed as a clown by Brian Clough for his troubles, is still a public figure in Poland.

Eastern European teams were seen as having a distinctive style. Wilson himself confesses to having a weakness for the technically proficient and the cynical brand of football exemplified by the Red Star Belgrade that won the 1991 European Cup on a penalty shoot out. Indeed, he describes himself as:

Certainly the only person in my class who wanted Red Star to win the 1991 European Cup final against Marseilles.. there will never be a greater blend of cynicism and sublime skill than that Red Star side.

Wilson is fortunately not a nostalgist for communism, although there were possible warning signs in the Introduction, he is sensible enough to realise that the end of communism was a liberation, even if tarnished by subsequent events in some countries. He is refreshingly honest about his real reasons for an interest in Eastern Europe:

There is, to my mind at least, just something plain romantic about taking a rattling old night-train from Ljubljana through Zagreb to Belgrade, about sipping thick Russian coffee in a St Petersburg café watching ice floes drift down the Neva, about buying raspberries wrapped in newspaper from an Armenian peasant on a mountain pass in the Caucasus. There is a magic even in the names: Odessa, Tbilsi, Szombathely.

How many supposedly profound interests in the history and culture of particular places have roots in such adolescent enthusiasms? The book works best as a kind of politically informed, football based travelogue through the Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Armenia, Russia and the former Yugoslavia. If there is any overriding political philosophy, it comes in the final lines of the book:

Local football will never wholly die, for certain clubs have an emotional hold, and the market, anyway, requires a nursery for new talent, but this, I suspect, is the future, football globalised almost to homogeneity. This may, in time, lead to decline in corruption, but an indefinable something will have been lost.

The irony, of course, is that while Wilson decries the cultural homogenisation that is making Eastern European football indistinguishable from that in the West, he is forced to recognise the historical fact that the whole reason that football is spread around the world is due to the globalisation of an age past.

Borges wrote of his dim memories of the Buenos Aires street games of his childhood in the early 1900s, games destroyed by the all-conquering English game. For an English game – the claims of the Chinese notwithstanding – is what soccer is. Invariably, soccer conquered the world due to the efforts of British Engineers or Anglophile students. The Year Zero of soccer in Brazil, the five-time World Champions, was 1894, and the Prometheus who brought the game was a Scottish Engineer named Charlie Miller.

Wilson amusingly discovers that Anglophilia still rules the football world. FIFA make a great fuss about “Fair Play” – on his travels, Wilson finds that:

The English term [“fair play”] is used across Europe, and the English, curiously, are seen as its prime exponents.

The swelling of pride in English hearts may be somewhat restrained by the consideration that English is the international language of hooliganism. For instance the hooligans affiliated with Dynamo Zagreb called themselves the Bad Boys Blue – which on banners and the like, as Wilson tartly observes, was:

Always written in English, of course, for all the best hooligans are English.

Croatians now hate the Slovenes with (at least according to an opinion poll cited by Wilson) more passion than they hate Serbs. Within Slovenia, a bitter rivalry between the clubs from Ljubljana and Styria in the East has arisen. This did not exist until independence. The Slovenian footballer Brane Oblak observed:

You have to have rivalry. And if there isn’t any other way, you have to create it artificially.

Football’s role in the former Eastern Europe varies from country to country. In the former Yugoslavia, it is still a potent expression of nationalist identity and fervour. Slovenia’s qualification for the 2002 World Cup, for instance, was seen as a defining, Birth-Of-A-Nation moment. In Russia, meanwhile, the oligarch’s cash has meant that football is coming close to the big time of the West – with CSKA Moscow’s victory in the 2005 UEFA Cup proving the point. Poland and Hungary, meanwhile, are:

Nations no longer desperate enough to require validation through football, and not yet comfortable enough to invest it with the faintly ludicrous importance it has in England today.


Georgia and Armenia ponder the point of football when there are no Muscovites to upset.

It is often held that dictators try to use sport for propaganda purposes. This is undoubtedly true, but dictators have also found sport somewhat less malleable than expected. In his book on German football Tor! Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger writes how the Nazis found sport difficult to manage and – in the tradition of German nationalists – would have preferred if everyone had engaged in endless, non-competitive Turnen or gymnastic exercises. The Red Star Belgrade hooligan group, the delije, was the source for the bank robber, gangster and ethnic cleanser Arkan (Željko Ražnatović) to recruit the Tigers:

Weeks after the victory in Bari [in the European Cup final of 1991] – when there was “choreography Europe will never forget” as one fan told me – the Tigers, chanting the songs they had sung from the North Stand, marched to the front. They were there in Vukovar in 1991, when hundreds of Croat patients were herded from a hospital, packed into trucks, and shot in a field, and they were there too the following year in Bijeljina, killing Muslims or chasing them from their homes at the onset of the conflict in Bosnia.

On 26th July 2000, however, the delije turned on Slobodan Milosevic during a Champions League qualifying league match against Torpedo Kutaisi of Georgia, chanting “Do Serbia a favour, Slobodan, and kill yourself” (a particularly biting insult given both Milosevic’s parents committed suicide). In the unlovely and grandiloquent way of hooligan “firms” everywhere the delije mythologise their involvement in the fall of Milosevic, downplaying the work of Mayor Velja Iljic and the youth group Otpor. However the transformation of football matches in Serbia into anti-Milosevic rallies helped create the atmosphere that made his fall inevitable. At the very least, they provided a certain muscle.

There is a sameness to some of the accounts of this or that match fixing scandal in a former Communist country suddenly catapulted into market capitalism, and the complaints of various football figures about the no doubt real problems of corruption and nepotism – reflecting the problems of wider society – begin to merge into each other. However, Wilson is an entertaining, open-minded writer, and while one suspects he kicks to the left it is lightly worn. The book works best as a kind of compendium of amusing, and at times revealing anecdotes. In Bulgaria, we read:

As the Ottomans carried out reprisals following a failed revolt in 1876, a clerk saved Pazardzhik with a sleight of punctuation, altering orders to “burn the town, not spare it” to read “burn the town not, spare it”.

We also have the rich farce of the marriage of Arkan:

Their wedding [that of Arkan and the Serb “turbo-folk” singer Ceca] was an orgy of kitsch on the theme of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, Arkan dressing as a warrior and Ceca as one of the women who had tended the injured. He rode up to her parent’s house on a white charger and, as was customary in the fourteenth century, was asked by her father to prove his worthiness by shooting an apple off the top of the door with a crossbow. His first effort missed, as did his second, and his third, so, before it got too embarrassing, he nodded to his henchmen, who blew it to pulp with Kalashnikovs.

English readers may find it most poignant of all to read that the “Russian linesman” who gave Geoff Hurst’s second goal against West Germany in 1966 (the Germans still call a goal awarded that did not cross the line a “Wembley goal”) was in fact Azeri. Tofik Bakhramovnow has the national stadium in Baku named after him. There is something somewhat touching about naming a stadium after a match official (although, as Wilson points out, it also bespeaks a dearth of great players.) Bakhramov allegedly gave the game away on his deathbed:

Asked by a reporter, desperate to have his final thoughts on the controversy, how could he be so sure the ball had crossed the line, Bakhramov apparently answered with a single word:”Stalingrad”.

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