What footballing life is like in Eastern Europe

“Behind the Curtain: Football in Eastern Europe” by Jonathan Wilson

This is a romantic book about life as a football reporter in Eastern Europe, a place where the beautiful game is played a little bit differently, where the line between sports and politics is a little less clear, but with passion for the game unmistakably resonates the universal love like in any other parts of the world.

The book tells the tales of local heroes and legends, the larger than life characters, the rise and fall of the local teams, and the memorable moments in their respective national team’s history. It tells the anecdotes such as why so many supporters eat sunflower seeds in Georgia, or which club’s vice president have pictures of Britney Spears in his leather-bound notebook. And of course it tells about all the iconic football matches – the Dynamo Kyiv, the Spartak Moscow, the Red Star Belgrade, the Steaua Bucharest, the CSKA Sofia, the Hajduk Split -, including the ones that the author, Jonathan Wilson, attended himself, from the big name derbies to an invigorated match in the 3rd division pitch in the Bulgarian FA Cup.

The book also tells about the many stories outside the football field that define the environment of the region. Such as the hatred among the former Yugoslavian countries that are reflected in the matches, the deep mistrust of everyday people in Romania, the hooliganism problem in Hungary, the chilling atmosphere during the dictatorship of Stalin, and the many incredible personal stories such as what happened when French player Youri Djorkaeff went to his ancestral home Armenia, or the story of the last plane leaving Bosnia before the war broke in 1992 that was carrying a future football superstar Hasan Salihamidžić.

Meanwhile, as in other many walks of life in Eastern Europe, corruption and bribery are rampant, while match fixing is not uncommon. And while the countries from Baltic to Balkan to Caucasus have transitioned from a communist subject into independent countries, plenty of the embedded old structures are still pretty much in place in their societies, with Soviet/Yugoslav control replaced by local dictators or oligarchs or gangs of mafia that have vested interests in the football matches.

Thus, reporting about football in this part of the world becomes an intricate job, as it often deals more with the likes of prostitutes, kidnappings and even assassinations than just another injury update or a transfer rumor. This, in short, is what makes this book mighty interesting.