The collapse of communism and the plethora of velvet revolutions across Europe undoubtedly diluted the strength of the old Eastern Bloc and its acolytes. We feared the technique, strength and organisation of the state-run footballing machines, but once the Red Army retreated and the busts tumbled from their plinths, Warsaw Pact football was all but bankrupt.
While genuine honours were largely elusive – the USSR had a particular taste for the European Nations Cup – Iron Curtain football teams were feared, especially on their own workers cooperative – maintained turf.
That’s changed a great deal. In a free-market football economy – some might say the equivalent of the footballing Wild West – Eastern Europe has suffered in more ways than one. The days of Blokhin, Dzajic, Masopust, Albert, Deyna, Bene, Sparwasser and Asparuhov are long gone.
Back in the hey-day of the Berlin Wall, communist countries were very inconsistent and despite threatening to win silverware, they fell short of the top. Rarely did a country manage to maintain form across two major competitions – invariably, they would shine in one and fail to qualify in another. Poland were a good example. In 1974, 1978 and 1982, they performed well in the World Cup, but they were nowhere to be seen in the intervening European Championships.
This was partly explained by the over-emphasis on the Olympics by the communist regimes. Between 1952 and 1980, some eight Olympiads, the football gold was won by an Eastern Bloc/communist nation: Hungary (1952, 1964 and 1968); USSR (1956); Yugoslavia (1960); Poland (1972), East Germany (1976) and Czechoslavakia (1980).
In August 1961, construction started on the Berlin Wall. The Iron Curtain, which Winston Churchill had warned the world about, was in place. We were in a John Le Carre paradigm of espionage, Michael Caine, twanging guitar soundtracks, red stars and sickles everywhere. For the next 28 years or so, whatever happened behind that hastily constructed wall was “top secret”. The assumption was that “menace” lurked beyond no-mans-land. From a football perspective, any team from the east was “crack”, “well-drilled”, “efficient” and “technical”. And dull.
But how did the “big eight” of communist football fare against each other during the Berlin Wall years?: Bulgaria, Czechoslavakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, USSR and Yugoslavia.
Unsurprisingly, the USSR had the best record, losing just 10 of 68 games against their comrades. Only one of those – against the Czechs in Odessa – was at home. The USSR were never beaten in Moscow. Of the 10 defeats, three were against Hungary, two against Czechoslavakia, two versus East Germany and one apiece against Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia.
In the years immediately after the Wall went up, the militaristic Eastern Bloc nations provided some very competent national teams. In 1962, Czechoslavakia reached the World Cup final, while Yugoslavia (technically not Eastern Bloc) were semi-finalists and Hungary and the Soviets reached the last eight. Josef Masopust was European Footballer of the Year and the USSR keeper, Lev Yashin, was regarded as one of the very best in the world. The USSR went on to reach the European Championship final and the Magyars were semi-finalists.
Hungary, ironically, can trace its decline to events behind the Iron Curtain. After the Hungarian uprising, football was never the same, despite a solid reputation for some years and significant Olympic success. Sceptics suggest that Hungary’s relatively poor record against the Soviet Union, and occasional capitulation, was down to a reluctance to beat their political allies even though Hungary always had a little bit of distance from Moscow. The USSR were always considered to be more function than form, while Hungary’s reputation, built by Puskas and his team-mates were more cultured. As Brian Glanville said in his narrative on the 1966 World Cup quarter-final, it was the “Russian steamroller against the artists.” In 1986, the USSR certainly steamrollered Hungary as they won 6-0 in the Mexico World Cup, and since then, a once proud football nation has been in sad decline.
Yugoslavia was, for many years, considered to be the richest pool of talent, and given pre-[Balkan] war they could call on Croats, Serbs, Bosnians and others, they were really a smaller version of the Soviet Union, who undoubtedly benefitted from a strong Ukrainian contingent. Red Star Belgrade opened the eyes of Liverpool and other continental clubs with their Balkan-style Total Football in the 1970s, but it went largely unrewarded. Yugoslavia, between 1974 and 1984, qualified for virtually all major competitions, and their players became one of the country’s most successful exports. There was scarcely a major club in Europe that didn’t have a Yugoslav in its line-up and coaches like Miljan Miljanic became highly coveted.
Poland rivalled Germany and the Netherlands as the outstanding team in the 1974 World Cup with a side fashioned out of their Olympic line-up. The Poles struggled against the USSR but their record over three World Cups was impressive. Also moderately successful in 1974 were East Germany, who pulled off a shock win against the West in a clash of ideologies.
Romania and Bulgaria, so often difficult opponents on their own soil, but flimsy away, had two of the worst records of the eight during the 1961-1989 period. They would both have their moments, and it’s worth recalling that Romania’s Steaua Bucharest were the first Eastern European team to win the European Cup. Czechoslavakia’s record was also poor, but they could point to a marvellous 1976 European Championship victory. Who can ever forget Panenka?
Given the size of the country and the wealth of talent available to it, the superiority of the USSR over the “allies” is understandable. But how much of their success was due to intimidation? Our natural mistrust of all things Russian in those days (has it really changed?) wants us to believe that perhaps some teams held back. We shall never know. Cue those guitars.
Eight by Eight – the playing records of the leading Communist nations against each other