Soccer after Communism

KDean75206 at KDean75206 at
Mon Nov 8 16:22:25 MST 1999

Soccer-Eastern Europe's revolution yet to liberate soccer
By Simon Evans

MILAN, Nov 8 (Reuters) - When the Berlin Wall was breached 10 years ago there
were plenty more important issues to be dealt with for the citizens of
Eastern Europe than football.

But after the revolutions had swept through the region, many in the game
hoped that the arrival of a market economy and democracy would bring new
ideas and fresh capital into clubs and help close the gap with the wealthy

A decade on they are still hoping. While other areas of life have been
totally transformed, with the capitals throughout the region busy with
business activity, football has been left behind.

Attendances in the dilapidating stadiums have plummeted. In 1989 the average
first division crowd in Romania was 17,000, now it is less than a quarter of
that, a sorry story found across the region.

The sports pages now report on political rows, corruption scandals and
hooliganism rather than local heroes scoring famous victories and the
once-proud clubs of the region are struggling to cope with the impact of marke
t forces.

Of the 32 teams in the first phase of this seasons Champions League only four
came from the eastern half of the continent and only two -- Dinamo Kiev and
Sparta Prague -- made it to the second phase.

Fans of famous footballing nations such as Hungary and Yugoslavia will spend
the rest of this European season looking out for their home grown talent
playing for German and Italian clubs. It is hard to take.

``I sit in front of the television and cheer on Hertha Berlin because they
have two Hungarian players,'' says Karoly a fan of Hungarian club Ujpest,
``But it is nothing like watching my own team when they were in the European

This season Ujpest were knocked out of the UEFA Cup in the preliminary round.
Red Star Belgrade, winners of the European Cup in 1991, also failed to make
it to the first round proper.

It wasn't always so. As the winds of change were blowing in the late
eighties, Steaua Bucharest were among the elite of European football.

They became the first East European club to win the European Cup in 1986
during a four-year spell when they lost one other final and twice made the
semi-final stage.

But over the past 10 years, Steaua's star faded. In their three appearances
in the Champions League they have never progressed beyond the group stage.

``Each new team I built was broken up after key players went abroad,'' former
Steaua coach Dumitru Dumitriu told Reuters.

``The players kept moving out so quickly that I never had time to keep the
same team formula together for more than several months.''


The players followed the money. The 1986 team were each awarded a bonus of
only $200. Western clubs could pay a hundred times that amount in a signing
on fee.

Back In 1986 around 20 Romanians played in the west as Romania, like other
communist countries forbid players to leave until they were past their prime.

Today more than 400 Romanian footballers earn their wages abroad as players
from across the East now enjoy the freedom to gain the best possible rewards
for the skills.

The exodus of players meant clubs, no longer guaranteed state funding, at
least had access to hard currency from transfer fees. In the past decade
Steaua's sales have brought in around $35 million. And those teams who made
it into the Champions League group stage could pick up previously
unimaginable sums of money from lucrative television and sponsorship deals.

But few clubs have reinvested the capital in developing their facilities or
improving youth programmes. Club owners often lack a business background and
many have remained in posts given to them during the communist era when the
big clubs were run by government ministries or huge state-owned companies.

``Those in charge of the businesses that have been set up to run clubs are
inexperienced, they don't have a worked out strategy for their club's
economic development,'' says Hungarian national team coach Bertalan Bicskei.


Bicskei believes some owners put their own interests before those of the

``What is going on at (Hungarian) clubs is exploitation. Every club sells
their best players to earn money, but the club's leaderships, with a few
honourable exceptions, do not carry out business in the club's interests,''
says Bicskei.

In some cases criminals have been found to be running clubs.

Former Dinamo Bucharest president Vasile Ianul was sentenced to a 12 years in
jail for defrauding his club of $2.4 million and club owners in Bulgaria and
Hungary have also found themselves in jail for fraud.

More dramatically in Russia and Yugoslavia there have been several club
officials murdered in what bore the hallmarks of gangland killings, further
adding to the belief of many that organised crime has gained a strong
foothold in the game in some countries.

Yet for all the problems that beset clubs, the former Eastern Bloc still
continues to produce top quality footballers with all the regularity of a
five-year plan.

Ukranian Andriy Shevchenko of AC Milan is currently the leading goalscorer in
Italy and there are no shortage of scouts in Belgrade, Bucharest and Prague
searching for the next star from the East.

And the region continues to produce national teams capable of competing at
the highest level. Croatia finished third at the 1998 World Cup finals, the
Czech Republic finished runners-up in Euro'96  and two years before, in the
United States, Bulgaria reached the semi-finals of the World Cup while
Romania played the  tournament's most exhilarating football before they were
eliminated on penalties in the quarter finals.

The talent is there, but as yet it is not for home viewing.

05:39 11-08-99

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