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.