Eastern promise?

Here's hoping that an Eastern European team can defy UEFA's unfair structuring by winning the Champions League or UEFA Cup

You may know a Stranraer fan in Devon. You might even be the secretary of the Croydon branch of the Arbroath supporters’ club. All over England there are small groups of mostly middle-aged men who once in a while pile into a minivan and drive several hundred miles to watch a Scottish Third Division match.

Often, though, it seems the local fans don’t care for much for their occasional visitors because they feel patronized, objects of a misguided quest for ‘authenticity’. We’ve been thinking about them recently because there’s a chance we may be headed down the same road.

The draw for the preliminary stages of the three European club competitions will be made shortly and we were looking over a list of the teams who have qualified (soon to be longer than a list of those who haven’t). The image of those part-time Scots cropped up when we were trying to work out which clubs from the major Western European leagues stood a fair chance of being eliminated in the opening rounds.

We’ve decided, you see, that we want teams from Eastern Europe to win everything. Even if it was just for one season. But preferably soon, like now. It doesn’t matter particularly where they’re from – we wouldn’t want to choose between Vojvodina Novi Sad and Dinamo Minsk for the UEFA Cup; if Lokomotiv Moscow can’t get their hands on the Cup Winners’ Cup, we’re perfectly content for Legia Warsaw to win it instead.

Now that we are about to enter the first season of the Champions and Runners Up League, UEFA scarcely bother to pretend that the European competitions have not been restructured purely and simply to maximize the chances of teams from the wealthiest leagues winning everything. And what strange teams they’re becoming, too, polyglot collections of superstars who are beginning to resemble tennis players more than footballers as they traipse around the world playing tournaments here and there, always on the move from Madrid to Paris and Barcelona to Milan with occasional stopovers in Newcastle or North London.

The Champions League may be little more than a portentous name for an exclusive club for multi-million dollar businesses with football teams attached, but because football is still a sport, there’s still an element of chance hanging on in there. Just like at USA ’94 when for one hallucinatory moment it seemed possible that Romania might play Bulgaria in the final, while FIFA officials sobbed in the VIP seats and the sportswear companies held emergency board meetings. Football’s being sewn up, but there’s still a chance, just a chance, that plans can unravel.

Now, before you scream condescension, this, hopefully is where we part company with the men in the Ford Transit looking for East Stirlingshire’s ground. If the pure footballing experience exists you’d have to look long and hard before finding it in the former Soviet Bloc and ex-Yugoslavia. Many clubs are associated with gangsters, asset strippers and dodgy politicians (in that respect so unlike our own Premier League). Dinamo Kiev officials were caught out trying to bribe the officials in a European Cup tie a few years ago; MTK Budapest, new champions of Hungary on gates of a few thousand, seem to have enough cash to bid for German international striker Oliver Bierhoff.

It’s not unfair, either, to assume that money made from a successful run in Europe will disappear into the pockets of federation officials,able to make a fast buck out of a competition that does little to help secure the future of football in their countries.

The wealth gap between rich and poor in the Football League is nothing in comparison to the contrast between the football fat cats of Western Europe and their impoverished counterparts further east, a gulf that will widen still further as the West tightens its stranglehold on the major international football competitions. So what a victory it would be if the champions of Europe came from one of the countries who can expect little help from the West in their efforts to rebuild shattered economies, beyond some relatively low transfer fees for those players not already snatched away at youth level.

When international football has become so cynical, the last we can do is respond in kind. There’s an infinitesimal possibility of it happening, but we can dream of Bob Wilson and John Barnes struggling even more than usual for a coherent word to say about the Champions League finalists when it’s CSKA Sofia and Partizan Belgrade come next May.

Market that you swines.

From WSC 126 August 1997. What was happening this month