By Tomasz Przywarczak,
Steaua Bucuresti is regarded as one of the most decorated teams in the history of European soccer, winning countless medals in the 1980s. The Romanian team achieved top glory in 1986 when they beat Barcelona in the European Cup (formerly called the Champions League). They continued their success by making it to at least the semi-final round twice in the next three years. In 1989, the team lost its first game in three years–an undefeated streak spanning 104 matches. That same year, the Berlin Wall collapsed, which marked the beginning of the fall of communism in Europe.
Today, Steaua Bucuresti is an afterthought when it comes to the elite in Europe, as are nearly all Eastern European teams. I believe the reasons behind the fall of Eastern European soccer (ahem, football) are directly correlated with both the fall of communism, and the rise of capitalism.
During the Cold War, communist countries in Europe wanted to demonstrate their superiority through sport. For much of the latter half of the 20th century, communist governments focused greatly on building soccer teams, and these Eastern teams and leagues were funded completely by the state.
According to Rightbackwarsaw, they also had different policies than Western Europe. For one, they made it illegal for a player to move to a foreign club until they were 31 and past their prime according to.
This forced all the great players to stay within their countries and build successful teams domestically. Thus, amazing Eastern teams were formed, such as Steaua Bucuresti, Legia Warszawa, and FC Magdeburg (just to name a few).
The representation on a national level was also fantastic for Eastern Europe. Hungary comprised a streak of being unbeaten in 31 consecutive matches in the 1950s. Led by the famous Ferenc Puskas, The Magical Magyars, as they were called, finished runners-up in two FIFA World Cups.
Poland also achieved incredible success in the 1970’s and 80’s. Bursting onto the scene by out-qualifying England at Wembley Stadium in 1973 for the World Cup, the White and Reds went on to finish third in the both the 1974 and 1982 FIFA World Cup.
Unfortunately, today, soccer glory (outside of South America) is located exclusively in Western Europe. After the fall of communism, eastern players were free to cross the western borders in hopes of obtaining better wages. To put things into perspective, Górnik Zabrze of Poland faced Manchester City of England in the 1970 European Winner’s Cup Final. As reported by Rightbankwarsaw, each player on the Polish side was promised $120 if they won the match: the English players were promised £3000.
After the fall of communism and because of higher wages, I believe German national team legends such as Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski opted to play for Germany rather than their native Poland for precisely this reason. Germany is an interesting example, as it was the only country divided into an eastern and western halves. During the division, Eastern German teams competed magnificently in Europe. F.C. Magdeburg was one of the most successful clubs, winning three championships and seven cup titles.
Their top moment came in 1974 when they beat A.C. Milan in the European Winner’s Cup Final. Since unification, however, F.C. Magdeburg has fallen out of the top division in Germany and has run into deep financial trouble, as have most Eastern German teams. With western clubs now paying top dollar for eastern players, and with the state no longer funding them, eastern clubs success vanished in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
Currently, there are only two teams (of eighteen) located in the former Eastern Germany who play in the top flight of the Bundesliga. Since 2010, Toni Kroos has been the only eastern player on the German National team compared to 2002, when there were seven. On a more broad scale, currently, there are only six Eastern European teams playing the Champions League field of 32, with none advancing to the round of sixteen.
However, soccer in Eastern Europe is on the rise again. The Czech Republic has been the best representative of Eastern Europe since the fall of the iron curtain, qualifying for every European tournament since. Last year, Hungary reached the round of sixteen in the 2016 Euros, its best finish at a major tournament in forty years. Poland, qualified for the Euro Cup in 2008, which was it’s first-ever appearance. Also, they were viewed as a “dark horse” in the more recent 2016 Euro tournament, losing on penalties to eventual champions Portugal. They featured promising talent spearheaded by Robert Lewandowski, their striker, who is arguably the best in the world at his position.
I hope soon we will once again see the rise of Eastern European soccer. Perhaps one day, we will watch teams such as Steaua Bucuresti once again lift a European Winners Cup Final trophy.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, December 13th print edition.
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