Author of the universally acclaimed Inverting the Pryamid, Jonathan Wilson’s lesser known debut book details the history, culture and idiosyncrasies of thirteen nations’ footballing landscapes.Treks through the forgotten streets of Sarajevo, cups of coffee in Belgrade and late nights in Sofia, at times Wilson’s account of Eastern Europe can take on a sort of action adventure personality. For the writer though, this was part of the appeal.
“Something in me warms to eastern Europe, and I rather suspect it’s related to my affection for the classic thrillers of post-war espionage,” Wilson writes in the introduction. The statement is indicative of the book’s attitude towards eastern Europe, one both loving and curious, melancholy and honest.
Through extensive travels in the area behind the old Iron Curtain, Wilson compiles a comprehensive history of football in Europe’s backwaters, accounts focusing on the effects of the fall of Communism on both the domestic and international game.
Football in this part of the world is not so much politically charged as politically electrocuted – often abused, manipulated and exploited by the frightening powers that be. However, as made clear on numerous occasions, the relationship works both ways.
In a fascinating chapter, Wilson describes vividly the role of Red Star Belgrade fans in the expulsion of Slobodan Milosevic from parliament, as well as their tendency to turn political instability into an excuse for a riot.
The level of detail dedicated to goings on in competitions that to most are unknown quantities is quite unprecedented – Wilson’s analysis is of a type difficult to find elsewhere.
While it is his work uncovering information in some of Europe’s shadiest regions that makes the book unique, vibrant descriptions of more well known phenomena are also plentiful. The Aranycsapat, Hungary’s famous 1954 World Cup squad is featured heavily, as is the furor around Soviet Russia’s greatest footballer.
The overarching image that Wilson paints is of a society haunted by a pervading paranoia, a distrust of power that could only have been generated in countries once controlled by brutal and corrupt forces. The story of eastern European football is a sad one – a narrative poisoned by violence, dishonesty and exploitation. Struggling to find sufficient funding, success on the domestic front is difficult; unable to hold on to players, clubs fester – a once great product left in tatters.
To weave together such a diverse and many layered collection of issues was a task best left to only the most masterful of writers. Perceptive, intelligent and thoughtful Wilson’s attempt is indisputably successful – a well written tale of tragedy, hope and horror, but mainly of football’s tenuous existence in a backdrop of political upheaval.