Football in parts of Eastern Europe was a hotbed of intrigue and outright corruption during the communist era. It was also home to technological innovations that were decades ahead of its time. Unfortunately, there are few decent books in English that tell the many stories that have come from the area. However, we will point you the best.
In Vaterland, an alternative detective novel from 1992 set in a world where Nazi Germany won World War II, author Robert Harris tells us that the only part of German newspapers that ordinary people actually read was the sports pages:
If it says in the results column that Hamburg defeated Cologne 4-0 in football, then that is probably correct. Nothing else is in the paper.
In the post-WWII real world, in Eastern Europe, many would have been forgiven for having doubts about football results, not least in Eastern Germany, where Dynamo Berlin, the best team in the country, won 10 straight league titles in the 1970s and 1980s.
The team was the personal toy of Stasi chief Erich Mielke, who is said to have often used his considerable influence to put the referees under pressure to ensure that the outcome of the games was in Dynamo’s favor.
The German Football Association has determined that “Dynamo as a favorite club of [Mielke], received many benefits and, when in doubt, mild pressure was applied in his favor. “
Overall, however, the East German regime did not put football too high on the list of sporting priorities. As with any team sport, there are too many things that can go wrong, too many things that cannot be predicted, too many referees – especially at international games – that cannot be bought.
Instead, funding was allocated to individual sports, athletics, and swimming, and a decade-long program of forced administration and distribution of performance-enhancing drugs, first testosterone and later anabolic steroids, to its elite athletes. Some were caught, but many – non-competitive testing was rare in those days – were not.
Nevertheless, the outstanding achievements of many East German athletes – especially women – have long been suspected of having been achieved with the help of performance-enhancing drugs.
Marita Koch’s 400 meter world record of 47.6 seconds, which was set in October 1985, is still standing. Since then, no woman has come within half a second.
Footballers have of course been banned or banned from playing for decades for using illegal substances, but these were almost always recreational drugs. Football is not readily suitable for manipulation through doping.
The Zelentsov experiment
In the Soviet Union – not even averse to doping athletes – it was technology that football turned to to dominate the game. In Ukraine, Anatoly Zelentsov, professor at the Kiev Institute of Physical Culture, developed computer games to test the mental agility of Dynamo Kyiv players.
Working with the team’s coach Valery Lobanovsky, he developed exercises that allow players to remember set games and know where each individual player would be on the field at any given time and in any situation. They inundated statistics and analyzed every aspect of an individual’s skills and performance decades before such practices became an integral part of football in clubs around the world.
They invented modern sports science in every way in order to rationalize what was previously thought of as random and ad hoc sports. To a certain extent they succeeded.
Dynamo Kyiv won the European Cup Winners’ Cup twice in 1975 and 1986, as well as the European Super Cup in 1975 (against Bayern Munich) in a game that probably features the best goal you have ever seen, scored by Oleg Blokhin and later Dynamo and the Ukrainian Train the national team yourself.
Blokhin was also named European Footballer of the Year in 1975.
In 1988 the USSR – trained by Lobanovsky and almost exclusively made up of players from Dynamo Kyiv – reached the final of the European Championship. You were beaten 2-0 by the Netherlands (in a game that probably contains the best goal you have ever seen).
It is often forgotten that the normally reliable Igor Belanov missed a penalty in this final. No computer program can explain that.
A statue of Valery Lobanovsky at the entrance to Dynamos Stadium in Kiev.
In Romania, football was marked by scandals and corruption during the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Ceauşescu actually had little interest in football, but a huge stadium was built in his home village of Scorniceşti, and the local team, FC Olt, was quickly promoted to the top division through the divisions in the late 1970s.
In 1979, the team won the last game of the season 18-0 to ensure promotion to the first division due to the goal difference.
There was also controversy over the Golden Boot victory of Dinamo Bucharest striker Rodam Camataru in 1987 (the Golden Shoe – now the Golden Shoe – is an award for the leading scorer of all European football leagues). Camataru scored 18 goals in the last six games of the season and was honored by Toni Polster of Rapid Vienna.
Camataru himself has since said that he was unaware of a conspiracy that enabled him to mine the solid gold boot that would have likely more than doubled Romania’s precious metal reserves at the time.
“I just know that I scored those goals and that no one was ready to put the ball in my net,” Camataru once said. Nevertheless, the title was withdrawn from him in 1990, which later went to Polster. Camataru – undoubtedly an excellent player, it must be said – got to keep his golden shoe.
Shenanigans aside, Romania, like Ukraine (and unlike East Germany), produced at least one really brilliant team during the communist era, Steaua Bucharest, who won the European Cup in 1986 and beat Barcelona on penalties.
Three years later they were also beaten as finalists, although there is suspicion here too: In Champions of Europe, a history of the European Cup (now unfortunately out of print), the most learned football writer Brian Glanville points to “endless rumors” which he called “passivity” of Steaua’s players that night.
Many stories, few stories told
It is clear that what we now call emerging Europe, in its earlier guise, Eastern Europe, was full of sporting intrigue, with football playing the main role (and I haven’t even mentioned the 1983 Polish Cup final).
It is therefore a great shame that so little literature (at least in English) is available on football in the region at this time.
But there are some.
The first point of reference remains Simon Kuper’s excellent book Football Against the Enemy from 1994, which contains, among other things, a fabulous chapter on the Zelentsov experiment at Dynamo Kyiv.
Jonathon Wilson’s Behind the Curtain: Traveling in Eastern European Football (2006) is another decent effort, but its readability is somewhat marred by the author’s love of tactical trivia. Even so, it should be part of the library of anyone with even a vague interest in football in the Eastern European Communist Age. It is excellent to tell how the war and the breakup of Yugoslavia led to the disintegration of a team that was on the verge of becoming a football superpower.
Wilson is also the author of The Names Heard Long Ago: How the Golden Age of Hungarian Football Shaped the Modern Game.
For East Germany I would like to point you in the direction of Alan MacDougall’s game, football, state and society of the peoples in East Germany. Dynamo Berlin devotes a whole chapter to what MacDougall calls “the crooked champions”. It also includes a fascinating look at fan culture in the GDR, including the hooliganism that the regime claimed didn’t exist. MacDougall shows that it certainly was.
By far the most notable book on football in Eastern Europe is Andy Dougan’s Dynamo: Defending the Honor of Kiev (sic). It’s not a story of Dynamo, but an in-depth look at a series of games played by a Kiev-based club, then known as the start during World War II, against teams representing the Army and Air Force of Nazi Germany.
The less memorable 1981 film Escape to Victory, starring Pele and Michael Caine, is (very) loosely based on the story of Start. Escape to Victory has a happy ending, of course. There was no such thing for the players from Start, although Dougan distinguishes fact from fiction to reveal the oft-quoted legend that the entire Start team was shot for not agreeing to their last game against the Air Force losing is wrong.
Photo: The East German national team competed in 1977 before a game against Argentina. Wikimedia Commons / Author unknown / Public Domain.
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