Book Review: Jonathan Wilson’s Behind the Curtain

Jonathan Wilson’s history-cum-travelogue of Eastern Europe’s remarkable love affair with sport

Wembley 1953 England vs. Hungary

Wembley 1953: Hungary’s inside-right, S. Kocsis going for Engalnd’s goal | Photo: APA/ United Archives

Football Ever on Stage

On 8 June, Euro 2012, the quadrennial European Football Championships will kick off in Poland, captivating audiences around the world for three weeks until the final is staged in Ukraine’s capital Kiev. It is thus the perfect time to pick up Behind the Iron Curtain – Travels in Eastern European Football by British journalist and football expert Jonathan Wilson.

This hefty, 300-page history-cum-travelogue is an entertaining and highly informative narrative of Eastern Europe’s football past retold as Wilson travels through the region taking in the times, the teams and the terrain. Yet the book is not an endless stream of fact, file and formality, but rather a captivating account of the cultural and political circumstances in which “the beautiful game” was played during the communist years, of the lives of players and communities that gave it life. Therefore not only football fanatics will enjoy Behind the Curtain but also the occasional spectator who only follows the big tournaments.


The stuff of legend

But of course it helps if hearing names like Ferenc Puskas, Valeriy Lobanovskyi or “Il Genio” Dejan Savicevic triggers joyful memories of some of the game’s greatest personalities. Older readers will stop reading on more than one occasion and replay moments of on-pitch brilliance in their minds while younger football fans will be equally educated and fascinated by a football world that seems diametrically opposed to today’s age of Champions League money, sponsorship millions and pampered superstars. Nowadays, someone like Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo tries to eschew the nosy lenses of tabloid paparazzi – in Sarajevo 1993 players had to dodge the deadly sniper bullets of the Serbian army when they went to training.

The book is spiked with breath-taking tales, such as of Hungary’s ‘Golden Team’ who taught the English (and the world) a lesson in football in the 1950s by constantly swapping positions, thus drawing their markers all over the pitch, and passing the ball intricately around until their opponents’ heads started to spin. Or there is the great Dynamo Kiev side of the 1970s whose dictatorial coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi forced the team into a hard-running, hard-pressing system where players became mere clogs in a greater machine. And connoisseurs of silky skills will drool over the memory of the brilliant generation of Yugoslavian players throughout the 1990s, whose dribbles proved they had as much samba in their feet like the much-coveted Brazilians in the mould of Pelé and Zico, with hawk-eyed vision and laser-like passing abilities, which were the driving factors behind the successes of big Western European teams, such as Milan, Barcelona or Juventus Turin during that time.

Wilson, who writes for The Guardian, is probably best known for his brilliant book Inverting the Pyramid on the development of football tactics from the game’s beginnings until today (a must-read for all football fans!), perceptively describes what football meant for the people who suffered under Communist rule – and how the rulers exploited this love for political and personal gain.

Behind the Iron Curtain does not claim to be a full historic account of the game in all the countries covered, but rather comes across as an easily accessible read that focuses on major successes and tragedies that helped to shape the landscape of the world’s most popular sport. You will learn about the biggest national heroes to kick a ball and the most captivating exploits of teams great and small – but also of corruption past and present and political meddling that, for example, saw the man who was arguably Russia’s greatest player ever, Eduard Streltsov, being robbed of what should have been his best footballing years when he was sent to the gulag.

As Jonathan Wilson travels throughout the Balkans and several former Soviet republics, Poland, Romania and Hungary, he meets up with ex-players, coaches, officials and with journalists, hard-core ultras and ‘average Joe’-fans. Their accounts and explanations are sometimes partisan yet highly insightful and make the book come alive far better then the sole browsing of archives and secondary literature would have ever done.

Often the author appears to be just a proxy, as he sits in bars, cars and apartments, listening to real people tell real stories, which allows the reader to feel as if he was sitting across from the story-teller over a pint of beer and a bowl of peanuts, listening to tales he would never find in the mass media.


Xenophilia à l’anglaise

In between the tales of football, Wilson weaves in his own experiences of being a stranger in a strange land, all in a dry yet witty way that only an Englishman can, ironic, yet never being condescending or patronising. Seasoned travellers will be reminded with a smile of their own, similar experiences – you will be well able to picture the author lying down on his back in the dust of a Romanian road, folding his arms like a deceased crusader to explain to a handful of curious taxi drivers that he would like to be taken to the local cemetery.

Though first published in 2006, Behind the Iron Curtain is still the best book out there to read up on Eastern European football – not only with Euro 2012 on the horizon. Just keep in mind that the recent successes of Russian and Ukrainian teams in Europe, culminating in the 2008 and 2009 Europa League triumphs of Zenit St. Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk respectively, are not included.

However, this in no way diminishes the fascination of this book. In fact, the most interesting period covered actually took place when the Curtain was still up, as the political situation back then prevented (football) news of reaching Western shores. One sad example would be the Luzhniki disaster of 1982, where 66 Spartak Moscow fans died in a stampede during an UEFA Cup match against Dutch side HFC Haarlem. Soviet media kept zips on the incident while few Western newspapers speculated, based on eye-witness reports, what allegedly happened. Only seven years later, when the Soviet Union broke up, was the full extent of the tragedy revealed.

Regrettably, Wilson has only visited some of the Eastern European countries – most prominently, from a football point of view, the Czech Republic and Belarus are missing – but this seems only like a perfect excuse for an updated edition in the years to come. Also, the book could have done with slightly better editing, particularly for those who are not overly familiar with Eastern European names. Occasionally unknown names, at least to Westerners, appear in passing, only to be reintroduced several pages later in detail. This may be irritating if you try to commit this otherwise very well-written book to memory, but broadly speaking, if you go for the forest rather than the trees, it will not impair your experience.

Before the Euro 2012 kicks off, pick up the book; it will be your guide to enjoying the Eastern European sides in the tournament (Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Croatia and the Czech Republic). As you watch the European Championships with a pirogi and beer in your hands, dip into this engaging book to satisfy your hunger for background and local lore, and discover that you have been infected once again with love of the beautiful game.

Behind the Curtain
by Jonathan Wilson
Orion Publishing (2006)
pp. 352

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