Over the last 40 years, football clubs from Eastern Europe managed to win two European Champions Cup and three UEFA Cup / Europa League trophies. In a time when football was still something for the romantics, Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade could lift the most-wanted European Cup with local talent picked up only within the confines of their countries. Nothing much has happened since then.
Five trophies over such a long period is obviously a poor record for the East, but the major concern is that with the way things are evolving in European football, the trophy drought is set to continue. Corrupt club owners, financial problems, a lack of long-term planning have all lead to an immense gap between East and West.
How have the clubs from the Eastern part of the Old Continent ended up here? The truth is that to understand this seismic shift, you have to acknowledge two different periods: the Communist phase and the phase we are now passing through, that began with the fall of the Soviet Union and of the Berlin Wall.
The “golden” years
This is the era we have all heard stories of from our fathers or grandfathers. The pattern that people could see in all Communist countries was one of a politically manufactured team, associated with various state entities. With a few exceptions or variations, CSKA was the army’s team Dynamo was police’s team and Lokomotiv was the railways’ team. With the governments viewing football as a priority, players were given top class conditions to flourish. The results were about to follow soon. Partizan Belgrade became the first Eastern European club to reach the European Cup final in 1966. Oleh Blokhin’s and Valerii Lobanovskiy’s Dynamo Kyiv showed one of the best football of the 70s and 80s. Strangely, the peak of these “golden” years came as the communism was falling apart in the late 1980s, as Eastern European teams finally won the most-wanted European Champions Cup; Steaua Bucharest broke the ice in 1986 after an unforgettable night in Seville, then Red Star Belgrade repeated the success in 1991, in Bari. Few would have thought at that time that these squads were the last great sides to emerge from what seemed a dark-grey Eastern bloc to stun the rest of Europe.
Their achievements would now be simply impossible to recreate.
The wind of change
At the beginning of the 1990s, the winds of change were starting to blow. Some wise-guys from England and UEFA decided that the First Division should become the Premier League and the European Cup should become the Champions League. The masterplan was a revolution that was developed during the 1990s, a transitional period between the romantic era of football and the modern era. Football became an industry and to keep up the pace, the eastern clubs needed to resources that couldn’t be afforded. The gap in the modern game between Eastern and Western became impossible to bridge following these changes.
As a consequence, ever since then, Eastern Europe’s national sides have been getting worse and worse at international level. Their displays at World Cups was no further than the the poor state of the beautiful game throughout the region. In the early 90’s, Eastern Europe still produced a few excellent national teams, however we realized too late that these were only the results of the old mechanism. Who can forget Bulgaria and Romania, the dark-horses from World Cup 94 or Croatia at Coupe du Monde 98. Hagi, Popescu, Boban, Prosinecki, were all products of the old system. With the football environment in a poor state, a new Hagi a new Stoichkov never appeared to restore pride, despite blind hopes from fans.
The new era of modern football has been defined by poor performances of the Eastern European teams qualified at a final tournament. With the next World Cup taking place in Russia, the Eastern Europe countries seem powerless among the Western nations and the South-American ones. The competition hosts, once a fearless team, seem to pass through their worst period in history. Romania’s and Bulgaria’s last qualification at the World Cup was 20 years ago. The list can go on and on.
The reasons for this failure are many, from corruption, to financial irregularities, to a lack of long-term strategy. With the exception of the Russian Federation, the rest of nations from the Eastern bloc are lacking the financial resources to build an environment that can lead to a great national team. This is the opposite of the state before the 1990s. In the Communist era, the national teams used to be the pride of their countries. Players were given all the necessary conditions to succeed and with the country borders being closed, they were unable to leave their homeland and experience the monetary benefits of playing abroad. Although some of the players were unhappy, this system produced top-level teams which have their place in the history of the beautiful game.
Why the Eastern bloc will never make it again
Nowadays, if we take a look at the most powerful clubs from the Eastern bloc, we can see the same business model, the same approach in the transfer market, year after year. The same moves, the same attempts, the same expectations. In an attempt to dominate the domestic league, but also to go for silverware in Europe, Galatasaray Istanbul splashed the cash in 2013 to sign Wesley Sneijder, one of the most-wanted players at that time. He was joined by Lukas Podolski two years later. The result? One domestic league won in four years and nothing remarkable in the continental competition. In 2012, Zenit Saint Petersburg surprised everyone when they signed Hulk and Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel, for a total of around €95 million. The result? One domestic trophy in the last 5 years and only the Round of 16 reached once, in the UCL in 2015. The richest clubs from the Eastern block are following the example of the most powerful clubs from the West side, but they simply can’t compare with the financial power of the clubs from the other side of the continent. And when it comes to continental success, the numbers don’t lie: with the exception of Porto in 2004 , the Champions League was won only by top 10 richest club in Europe.
In “Moneyball”, Oakland Atheltics’ GM Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, had one of the finest speeches I could see in a sports movie. In a meeting with his club’s scouts, Beane, with a low budget at his disposal, acknowledges that adopting the path of richer clubs is not the right way to go forward:
“If we try to play like the Yankees in here, we will lose to the Yankees out there.”
But what makes me so pessimistic is not that Galatasaray, Fenerbahce or Zenit did not succeed, but that there are very few projects who try to do things differently. Nowadays, on this side of the continent, we can rarely see an avant garde plan towards progressive youth development. Shakhtar Donetsk under Rinat Ahmetov & Mircea Lucescu were an example of how to create a modern super-club which didn’t have only a huge investment but also a long-term plan regarding the squad that was built. Fantastic facilities, a visionary smart manager, and especially, time to grow together. A different approach than Zenit’s failed attempts get on board with the boom-and-bust economics of Western European football. Countries such Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary and Armenia, despite their proud heritages, will probably never again have domestic leagues fit to challenge the best. It is hard to admit that they belong to a an era that the modern football left behind.
While some of us still hope the glory days will be back, while some of the stadiums are still full-crowded, it’s what happens on the pitch that matters the most, and that’s where it hurts. Will the Eastern clubs reach European glory again?
From the total of seven teams who reached the group stages of last season’s Champions League, none of them qualified to the next round. Ludogorets and Legia were thrashed 6-0 by Arsenal, respectively Dortmund. Steaua Bucharest last win in the major European tournament dates from ten years ago. Serbian clubs never played in the new format of the Champions League while Dinamo Zagreb could never pass the group stage of the same competition.
Today’s football is full of surprises, with Leicester City and Greece the most remarkable achievers of the 21st century, however with the gap between East and West almost impossible to bridge, a s from a Eastern European club is unlikely to appear.
Sadly, all we can really say about football from the Eastern block is that the politics and the investment placed in sport was what allowed those countries to punch above their weight for almost a few decades. Once this whole support system collapsed, football clubs collapsed too and reached into the pockets of rich unpopular figures whose interests didn’t include the well-being of the national game. Most of them were looking donate money in the short-term and failing to looking consider Eastern European football really needed to grow and prosper again. They simply wanted to make profit; but none of the new club owners wanted to own both a successful and healthy football club, one that could grow both financially and pick up trophies. The damage was already being done. Steaua Bucharest, the most important club in Romania, closed its academy years ago because the owner could not see the its importance. Smaller clubs from the Easter European leagues also prefer to sign out-of-contract foreign players instead of promoting young, local lads. And when a local player breaks through, an unrefusable offer comes from a bigger “fish”.
It is sad to know that year after year, your best players will be lured by the West and will eventually leave. But who can blame the players? Who would not leave behind Chechnya for the boardwalk of San Sebastian? Applying an analogy, it’s no surprise that the richest men on Earth decided to buy clubs such as Paris Saint Germain, AS Monaco, Chelsea or Man City and decide to invest there instead in smaller cities from the East.
A new focus: why Eastern clubs should focus on their own culture
So what’s left for us, the football lovers? With the passion for football still present in every corner of Eastern Europe, there is still so much to play for. Clubs can, and should focus on building a culture and creating an identity. Together, these dimensions allow clubs to have something to build on. While some clubs have some vague nations of their identity, unfortunately, only few of them think of it as a way of driving performance, yet there are examples in Eastern European football that can prove that identity has potential to infuse objectives with meaning and to deliver great results. Look no further than Gheorghe Hagi’s new club and Romania’s league winners, Viitorul Constanta.
The glory days seem to be over for the Eastern bloc and these days, no one really has any expectations about the nations from the East side of the Old Continent. Sadly, fans are now becoming happy just by seeing their national team reaching a major tournament or their club reaching the group stage of an European competition. It’s hard to look back and relive the success enjoyed by teams from the region but to create a new identity, to nurture your own culture, to leave something for the future, might be as or more important than the European trophy case.