Book Review: Behind the Curtain – Travels in Eastern European Football

It was Christmas Eve and all through the house, nothing was stirring – because everyone had eaten too much barszcz, carp and cake during Wigilia dinner. When the time came to look under the Christmas tree for presents, little Decoy’s eyes lit up, as he saw what Santa Claus had brought. Mikołaj knew that Decoy liked reading books and also liked football, so it was a pleasant surprise to see books about football wrapped up neatly.

One of the books received was ‘Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football’ by Jonathan Wilson. Wilson is a football journalist who writes for Sports Illustrated and the UK-based newspapers The Independent and The Guardian. He specialises in writing about football tactics and also football based in ‘Eastern’ Europe – i.e. those countries lying behind the Iron Curtain before 1989/90. His articles analysing tactical nuances on the Guardian website prove particularly popular with readers there.

His love affair with Eastern Europe began as a child with summer holidays to Slovenia, and he especially enjoys assessing the former Yugoslav countries in the Balkan regions, and how football has experienced peaks and troughs over the years. However, in this particular book he also considers other countries and regions and he aims to look not only at football, but how it plays a part in the social fabric of life, as most countries look to rebuild and develop after the fall of Communism. Thus, there are chapters called ‘Playing the System’ (covering Ukraine), ‘More Bricks than Kicks’ (Hungary), ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’ (the former Yugoslavia), ‘Chaos Theory’ (Bulgaria) and ‘Fallen Idols’ (Russia).

The chapter in which Polish football is covered is titled ‘The Ugly Daughter’. In it, Wilson tries to analyse the role in which football has played in Poland’s short- and medium-term past. His opening anecdote sums up the perception of football in Poland. He describes being in a car journey driving to Warsaw and the car he is travelling in hits a huge pot-hole and he is lucky that no serious damage is done. When meeting Jerzy Engel – the former national team coach – a few days later, he is informed that the main thing that Polish people believe is bad in Poland are the roads, but the national football team comes a close second.

Following on from this introduction, Wilson then delves into the glorious golden days of Polish football and looks at the success of the Polish national side in the 1970’s and 80’s, with characters such as Jan ‘The Clown’ Tomaszewski, Grzegorz Lato, Kazimierz Górski and Jacek Gmoch all featuring. The question then arises, how Poland could be so successful in the period from 1972 (achieving a gold medal at the Olympics football tournament in Munich) to 1982, which included third place finishes in the 1974 and 1982 World Cup finals. However, the simple answer appears to be that the period was a one-off, by having a group of exceptional players and a coaching setup that allowed them to blossom. When those players retired, Polish football reverted to the ‘norm’ of low expectations and low achievement.

Towards the end of the chapter on Polish football, Wilson then moves to cover club football in Poland. One point that should be noted here is that the book was published in 2006 (and thus probably compiled and written in 2005). This means that his perspective then was different to what it might be now. He talks about how Poland generally doesn’t take football seriously, and doesn’t have much of the governmental budget assigned to it, and that availability of pitches and other resources is lower than most other European countries. Thus, this is where his phrase of football being the ‘ugly daughter’ originates. He quotes Marcin Stefański, the league director of PZPN in 2005 as saying “In Poland, football is like a very ugly daughter. The parents say “Ok, we have it, so we have to have it”, but they don’t really want it”.

Behind the Curtain does provide an interesting insight into football and culture in Poland (and other countries in the region). However, what I found most interesting was how it showed how much could change in the 5 or 6 years that the book was written – and yet it also showed how little changes in the larger scheme of things. To highlight the first point of there being many changes, Wilson refers to the ‘Big 4’ in Polish football (at the time) as being Wisła Kraków, Legia Warszawa, Groclin Dyskobolia Grodzisk and Amica Wronki. In 2008, Dyskobolia merged with Polonia Warszawa and in 2006, Amica merged with Lech Poznań in both cases seemingly to boost fan numbers and thus finance. So now they do not even play in the top 2 or 3 levels of Polish football. However, in the bigger picture of Polish football, it seems little changes. The national team flatters to deceive, the clubs produce a spark of shining brilliance once in a while (such as Lech Poznań in Europe this year), but the league is at a low level. The hope is for Euro 2012 to push improvements, but with 18 months to go, it is difficult to see where they are happening, apart from remonty in 3 or 4 stadia.

Overall, in my opinion, Jonathan Wilson wrote an interesting book. The topics described could possibility be expanded so that each country could have a book of its own assessing football in the various locations, but as an introductory book, it covers football in ‘Eastern’ Europe very well. And by highlighting various aspects of Polish football, Wilson has summed up the best and worst of it, even if it may have been unknown to him at the time.

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11 thoughts on “Book Review: Behind the Curtain – Travels in Eastern European Football

  1. guest says:

    “However, the simple answer appears to be that the period was a one-off, by having a group of exceptional players and a coaching setup that allowed them to blossom. When those players retired, Polish football reverted to the ‘norm’ of low expectations and low achievement.”

    That’s WRONG.

    Poland has still exceptional talented players, (Miroslaw Klose, Lukas Podolski, and so on.) BUT after the 80’s football became more and more professional / commercialized and Poland did not have the money and know how to use the talents properly. And this is the main reason, why Poland lost ground.

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  3. kasia says:

    Book Review: Behind the Curtain – Travels in Eastern European Football

    Poland, Slovenia, Yugoslav countries in the Balkan regions, they are not in Eastern Europe. Come back to school on geographic lesson

  4. Decoy says:

    Please complain to Mr. Jonathan Wilson on this point – I’ve tried to cover this point by saying “He specialises in writing about football tactics and also football based in ‘Eastern’ Europe – i.e. those countries lying behind the Iron Curtain before 1989/90”

  5. Tony says:

    ‘Come back to school on geographic lesson’

    Kasia, looks like it might be time for you to GO back to school for some English practice as well.

    If you read the article carefully, Decoy never claimed to be doing anything other than quoting Wilson’s definition of what constitutes ‘Eastern’ Europe.

    Cool article and cool analysis, Decoy.

  6. Przemo says:

    I remember reading an interesting story in a fanzine called “To my kibice” a few years ago. I don’t recall it in detail but basically it was about two Germans (and from the territory of the former West Germany they were) who on their weekends would get into a train and set for Poland to experience footballing attractions first-hand. The best part of it was that they weren’t attending the two top flight events but lower leagues and minor competition only – in fact the lower the league, the more fun they had. So they would target and visit places/attend games only very few people knew about. They had many interesting encounters in the process, for example they would come to a place and find out there was no stadium (or “stadium”) any more but a supermarket in site, that a match didn’t take place because a player was having a wedding, the rest was attending and they were the only ones who cared about it, or that they would get mistaken for the guest fans and about to get the arch-rivals “welcome” etc. Apparently they were writing a fanzine on those trips to Poland and it was called “Der Gegengrenzer”. It can’t get crazier than that, can it?:-)

    Generally football still maintains a special and important position in Poland despite the fact it’s got long ways to go before it is considered “satisfactory, decent, normal” in terms of managing, infrastructure, supporting and the very performance. Either way, it’s international handball competition to enjoy right now!

  7. Decoy says:

    Thanks Przemo. Sounds interesting. I’ll try and see if I can find it. I know of a similar blog where some guys from England do something similar, but all over Europe and not always to the low level you mention: http://europeanfootballweekends.blogspot.com/
    They have had one or two trips to Poland also, with a visit to Szczecin to see Pogon playing being the one I can remember.

    I agree that football does still hold a special position in Poland, but for a small number of people yet. The support for the Ekstraklasa sides seems phenomenal sometimes, but the numbers of people attending are still quite low, in comparison to other countries at least.

  8. Steve says:

    From my experience, Poland has a surplus of football pitches. The three I know are hardly ever used. It is difficult to understand why the local authorities maintain them. If only local authorities in England cared so much, we wouldn’t have been playing on sloping ground in the park.

  9. anna says:

    In my opinion , it is only a matter of money . English clubs have got money from rich investors coming from abroad ( main premiership clubs ) . Also the best players are not english born . So what`s the big deal about english football?.If you compare english national team achievements to ours , you are just toddlers .

  10. […] them as I do,” writes Jonathon Wilson, football coorespondent, in his book Behind the Curtain, “it is impossible to discuss the Red Star side without reference to atrocity. Nowhere was […]

  11. […] “It was Christmas Eve and all through the house, nothing was stirring – because everyone had eaten too much barszcz, carp and cake during Wigilia dinner. When the time came to look under the Christmas tree for presents, little Decoy’s eyes lit up, as he saw what Santa Claus had brought. Mikołaj knew that Decoy liked reading books and also liked football, so it was a pleasant surprise to see books about football wrapped up neatly. One of the books received was ‘Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football’ by Jonathan Wilson. Wilson is a football journalist who writes for Sports Illustrated and the UK-based newspapers The Independent and The Guardian. He specialises in writing about football tactics and also football based in ‘Eastern’ Europe – i.e. those countries lying behind the Iron Curtain before 1989/90. His articles analysing tactical nuances on the Guardian website prove particularly popular with readers there.” Polandian […]

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