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September 29, 2014

Behind the curtain

Jonathan Wilson’s Behind the Curtain is as much about the history, culture and economics of Eastern Europe as it is about football.

Behind the curtain

Jonathan Wilson’s Behind the Curtain is ostensibly a book about football in Eastern Europe. However, it can be looked at from a lens where football is merely incidental to the book, and it is simply a book on how Eastern Europe has shaped up in the first decade and a half after the fall of the Soviets (the book was published in 2006).

Each chapter is dedicated to a country or a region (the post-Yugoslav states are clubbed into one chapter, for example, as are the Caucasian countries), and using football as a ruse, Wilson explores how the economy of these countries has changed. Wilson also takes the opportunity to explain, using football rivalries or players as example, the historical and cultural backgrounds of these countries.

A chapter on Romania, which among other things, describes the development of Steaua Bucharest in the 1980s under the leadership of Valentin Ceausescu, son of Nicolae. Describing the events that led to Nicolae Ceausescu’s execution, Wilson writes, “but on reaching Târgovite, Ceauescu and his wife were arrested. They were tried on 24 December, and executed by firing squad the following day. Five months later, Dinamo did the double”.

This extract is emblematic of the book on the whole – the reference to the performance of Dinamo being almost casual alongside the mention of the execution of the Ceausescus. However, in the build up to this extract Wilson takes care to explain why these two events are actually interconnected – Steaua, which was patronised by the Ceausescus, was the dominant force in Romanian football in the 1980s and it was poignant that the victory of their rivals Dinamo coincided with the fall of the Ceausescus.

Perhaps the best chapter on the book is the long chapter on Yugoslavia – Wilson examines Serbia and Montenegro (they were one country at the time of publication), Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and describes the post-breakup history of these countries using football as a metaphor. He describes in detail the role of the ultras of clubs such as Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb in their countries’ respective nationalist movements, and doesn’t fail to mention their role in some of the war crimes around the time of break up. In between he also has time for the intriguing story of Arkan, the leader of the Red Star ultras, and his rise to his position and subsequent downfall.

While the book looks at culture and history from the point of view of football, it does not refer to football in every second paragraph – like a book of this nature might be prone to. There are times when the description of the Yugoslav War or the Russian oligarchs is so deep that one starts wondering whether this is a football book at all. In the chapter on Yugoslavia, for example, Wilson questions himself on why rivalry exists between Slovenia and Croatia – while they have a common religion (Catholicism), script (Roman) and history (both were part of the Austro Hungarian empire). Wilson then answers the question himself, describing the issues of Slovenia’s maritime rights (the country has a tiny coastline wedged between Italy and Croatia), Banca Slovanska (which froze deposits of Croats after secession) and a shared nuclear power station.

The common thread running through several chapters is the development (or lack of it) of capitalism in the post-Soviet era in these countries. As Wilson describes it, clubs regularly go bankrupt, reorganise and rejoin the league. Match fixing is rampant, as is doping. Clubs are mostly under the control of oligarchs who control the economies of these countries. Players leave their home clubs early in search of greener pastures in Western Europe (sometimes literally, for the football infrastructure in some of the clubs is so derelict). Most countries’ leagues have become duopolys. The picture is not pretty anywhere.

The problem with the economies of most of these countries is that communism fell at the time when these states were short on money (which arguably was one of the causes of the fall), and in the post-communist era these states had no choice but massive (and disorderly) privatization. This has led to a profusion of oligarchs (who managed to get these assets in what was effectively a fire sale) who still remain powerful in these countries as can be seen in the rather messy recent events in countries such as Russia, Ukraine and Georgia.

Speaking of Ukraine, Wilson mentions this interesting titbit of Viktor Yanukovych’s first coming to power in 2004-05. While Ukraine is now strongly divided on East-West lines (the East wanting closer relations to Russia, and the West with Europe), it is instructive to see how Yanukovych managed to win the elections in 2004. Wilson talks about a faction of oligarchs in Kyiv (who were involved in football, as it is natural in these countries), who would have normally put up their own candidate for Presidency (and who were instinctively opposed to anyone backed by the Donetsk group), but decided to back Yanukovych solely because they wanted to defeat the reformist Viktor Yushchenko. It is interesting to see how extraordinary the circumstances were (oligarchs of Kyiv and Donetsk, normally rivals, coming together in a momentary embrace) that has possibly led to today’s mess in that country.

An interest in football would be helpful in navigating the book (for there is a fair bit of football), it has considerable merit as a book in history, culture and economics of Eastern Europe. While stories in some countries are rather similar, Wilson takes care to craft each chapter in a way that tells the story from a unique angle – the chapter on Hungary, for example, is more about the development of Hungarian football in communist times rather than after. The Russian story, on the other hand, is told around the story of Eduard Streltsov, a promising footballer who was sent to the Gulag for possibly disrespecting a member of Brezhnev’s cabinet.

This diversity, combined with Wilson’s excellent narrative style, results in a rather fast paced book, which can possibly be described as one of the best light histories of post-communist Eastern Europe.


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