When the Soviet Union, its republics and its satellite states all succumbed to capitalism in the early 1990s, few were sorry to see the back of dictatorship, chronic corruption, environmental degradation, and the mass suppression of dissent via ruthless state security. While the west cheered from afar, though, there was precious little to fill the vacuum besides more autocratic politicians and kleptocratic individuals, catalyzed by vulture capitalism. Meanwhile, violent nationalists re-lit the flames of dormant ethnic conflicts to trigger death, dispossession and displacement all the way from the Balkan states to central Asia.
None of this, needless to say, was of much benefit to the region’s soccer. Storied teams were deprived of state support and had to rely on investment from the dubious new breed of often oil-enriched benefactor. Or, they went bust. The best players were cherry-picked by wealthy western clubs. Breakaway countries and regions formed breakaway leagues, none of which boasted the depth and caliber of the Soviet and Yugoslav top flights. The days of disciplined, technically strong clubs like Steaua Bucharest (1986) and Red Star Belgrade (1991) lifting the European Cup with a base of homegrown talent were soon over. These days, domestic leagues in front of paltry crowds are dominated by those clubs lucky enough to attract corporate investment and to have grabbed a wobbly stool at the bottom end of the Champions League trough.
That’s a two-paragraph summary that fails to do what Robert O’Connor’s probing, adventurous, conscientiously researched and thoroughly absorbing book manages from start to finish – to travel in person to the zones where soccer’s been broken, to revive its fragmented history, and to try and talk to the people who were there, or who are currently struggling to make it work. He focuses on five areas where conflict has left permanent scars both on the soccer landscape and the often grey, ruptured and ice-clad cities clawing at the fading recall of glories past. A significant few of his interviewees are not wholly without nostalgia for the Soviet era of relative stability.
O’Connor examines the following territories: Kosovo, a country now recognized by UEFA but not by the United Nations, and its bloody split from the former Yugoslavia; the Armenian-controlled enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, bang in the middle of the country they fought for it – Azerbaijan; Georgia and the Russian-backed region of Abkhazia which broke away from Georgia following another violent conflict; Moldova and its disputed Transnistria region (also backed by Russia); and finally, the Donetsk region of Ukraine, now annexed from Kiev and yet another ‘autonomous’ zone reliant on material and political backing from Moscow.
Champions League regular and this season's Europa League semifinalist Shakhtar Donetsk now play in exile, while its $500 million Donbass Arena Stadium, host to five games at the 2012 European Championships, sits unused since 2014. It’s one of several examples in the book showing how a club's identity is locked into the region, the industry (in this case, mining), and the people who built it and sustained it. Shakthar is now owned and bankrolled by the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. The club, exiled first in faraway Lviv and now in the city of Kharkiv, remains in perpetual limbo, while its fans in Donetsk are "in pain", according to the club's former press secretary. Without any kind of political solution in sight to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, it's hard to foresee when the team will return or how long it can survive when permanently on the road.
In Moldova, writes O’Connor, for most people “the dawn of capitalism meant dragging surplus useless junk from their unheated homes out into the streets to lay on improvised market stalls, with a hope that someone would be interested in buying it. Independence brought an almost instant rise in the rates of alcoholism, unemployment, poverty and suicide.” The decaying ramparts of a previously rotten system were justly removed, only to be replaced with guns, gangsters and flag-toting extremists. In the west, the political equivalent of the Premier League looked away and left the loudest and most violent to sort things out their own way. UEFA and its Champions League giants have never cared, and never will, that no one in Moldova watches the country's domestic league.
While examining the sorry state of soccer in Georgia, O’Connor notes that “history craves the stubbornness of certainty. The Enguri River - running along the Georgia-Abkhazia border] cuts between two versions of the same story. Neither is, nor could hope to be, as righteous as its foe.” You could apply that to soccer fans on opposite sides of a rivalry – an Arsenal and a Tottenham fan, say, whining about which side is treated worse by referees. Except that the rivalry is a sham, and the injustice is imagined and without real consequence. In Georgia, Moldova, Kosovo, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Ukraine, the righteousness against perceived foes has lead to bloodshed, misery and war, and there is every chance it will do so again in the future. Soccer is just one of the collateral casualties.
In his conclusion, the writer says that soccer “has served as a central narrative thread that ties the book together, although it may sometimes have featured in the periphery.” In fact that’s one of the book's several strengths, focusing on the geo-political context without which any study of sport is superficial and irrelevant. It’s the reason why, as O’Connor says, “football clubs in this part of the world will continue to survive on a wing and a prayer.” Much like everything else. It’s also a warning to the rest of us that weak and corrupt government, an absence of civic society and democratic institutions, combined with an unchallenged platform for blind nationalism and negative interference from, say, somewhere like the Kremlin, can be ultimately damaging and even deadly for large sections of the populace. When you wake up one day and find that your team has gone or its league has collapsed, it won’t be the only valuable thing in life that’s gone missing."Blood and Circuses: A Football Journey Through Europe’s Rebel Republics" by Robert O’Connor (Biteback Publishing)