Book Review: Behind the Curtain

Maksimir Stadium Zagreb

GNK Dinamo’s Stadion Maksimir, Zagreb

Almost a decade before Jonathan Wilson wrote the brilliant Angels with Dirty Faces, he chronicled his travels in the former Eastern Bloc in Behind the Curtain. It’s a journey involving corruption, state interference and alleged doping. I’ve read it. It’s fascinating.

Eastern Europe is finally getting on the radar of Western European travellers. While I’ve been to most of the former Eastern Bloc countries in the last few years on work, I’ve only caught one football match there: a drab Croatian second division match between Dinamo Zagreb’s B team and Šibenik. There were a couple of hundred of us there huddled under the concrete of Maksamir Stadium’s main stand staring at what is, in effect, a training pitch. There were no songs and there certainly was no pyro.

I have, however, seen Hungarian ultras up front in France at Euro 2016 – a deeply unpleasant experience – so have seen something of the challenges facing football behind the former Iron Curtain for myself.

Growing up in the 1980s before the Champions League and the break-up of the Soviet Union shifted footballing power in the hands of a few clubs, it was a joy to discover new and exotic-sounding clubs: Ferencváros, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Metalist Kharkiv, Dukla Praha, and all those Dinamos, CSKAs and Lokomotivs. Now I have been to Eastern Europe I know that the reality of football there is not so much exotic as grey and made of concrete.

Jonathan Wilson has chronicled the state of football in Eastern Europe in Behind the Curtain. The book is not new – it was first published in 2006 – but still contains a very handy country-by-country account of how the game grew, and the successes and (often) controversies that followed it.

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We learn why the Mighty Magyars’ 6-3 Wembley win in 1953 is still so strong in the Hungarian national consciousness, and how the team of Puskás, Kocsis et al failed to deliver the expected World Cup glory the following year.

Mighty Magyars Budapest

The Mighty Magyars are immortalised in this Budapest street mural.

Wilson checks in on the former Eastern Bloc’s first European Champions – Romania’s Steaua Bucharest (1986) – and the great Red Star Belgrade team that also won ugly on penalties in 1991.

What a team that Yugoslavia team that was that could have won Euro 1992. Instead, the country disintegrated, they were banned, and Denmark won it in the place. Wilson covers that sorry tale and travels around the post-war Balkans to see what has changed.

For anyone with an interest in football history – especially those who remember the Cold War period – this book is for you.

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