On a Sunday afternoon in June of 1962 at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, Chile the decline of Eastern European football in the World Cup began. Specifically, it occurred in the second half of the final between Brazil and Czechoslovakia. With the score tied at 1-1, Brazilian striker Amarildo sent a cross to midfielder Zito. Years later Zito would recall the moment, “When I got to the box, Amarildo cut past a defender and sent a cross in. It wasn’t any old cross either. He put it right on my head. I tried to jump as high as I could, thinking it was going to be a bit high, but no, he put it right on a plate for me and I couldn’t miss.” The goal was scored in the 69th minute. From that moment right up to the present day, Eastern Europe’s national football teams have been playing from behind in the World Cup. They have progressively lost ground to the major footballing powerhouses such as Italy, Spain, Germany, Brazil and Argentina. In the context of recent World Cup football this may not seem like a big deal, but Eastern Europe used to produce elite national football squads. Four of the first ten World Cup Championship game finalists hailed from the region. Yet now its national teams struggle to win games in the group rounds. The decline has been long and steep.
Recent Results – A Plague Of Poor Performance
Ever since the Iron Curtain crumbled in 1989 Eastern Europe’s national sides have been getting worse and worse in World Cup competition. Their play is representative of the poor state of football throughout the region, but the post-Cold War era started out rather successful. In the early 1990’s Eastern Europe produced several excellent national teams. Many still recall the Cinderella squads from Bulgaria in 1994 and Croatia in 1998. Both made the semifinals in World Cups. Unfortunately, those teams are now little more than a distant memory. The 21st century has been marked by numerous poor performances to the point that when Eastern European teams qualify for the finals they are lucky to draw a game or two. In the 2014 World Cup Finals, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Russia combined to lose four matches, win two and draw two. The wins came over football lightweights, Iran and Cameroon. Such results make mediocrity sound like a reasonable goal.
How bad has it been? Consider that in the last four World Cup Finals only one Eastern European team has made it as far as the quarterfinals – Ukraine in 2006. Of the fifteen teams from the region that have qualified for the Finals since 2002, only two have made it as far as the knockout round, the last time was Slovakia in 2010. Eastern European teams continue to fail on football’s biggest stage. The reasons for this failure are many. With the exception of Russia, none of the countries from the region have the financial resources to train, coach and build a great national football team. Judging by Russia’s recent World Cup results they may have plenty of money, but thus far have little to show for it. This is the opposite of the situation during communist times. Back then, national football squads were the pride of their respective nations. They were heavily subsidized by authoritarian governments that viewed sport as an extension of ideology. Players were given first class training and coaching. They were treated as privileged members of the elite, receiving perks that were usually only reserved for Communist party members. This system resulted in top level teams that were primed to perform their best at the Olympic Games and World Cup Finals.
Kicked Out – The Era Of Low Expectations
The centralized communist sporting system no longer exists in any of the old Warsaw Pact nations or their offspring. The national football associations are beset by financial woes and endemic corruption. In Bulgaria, Ukraine, Poland and Russia there have been several instances where people involved in football have been murdered. Players are now free agents who spend most of their time playing in Central or Western Europe. If they do play for a club in their homeland, it is because they are not talented enough to go abroad or they may be getting kickbacks from vested interests. Even if a player from the region is top notch, a national team needs at least five or ten elite players just to compete with the world’s best national sides. There is little chance of mid-sized or small countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Slovenia producing such an abundance of talent.
The larger nations from the region such as Russia, Ukraine and Poland have a somewhat better chance, but are plagued by corruption. With neither the system nor population base, these nations stand little chance of making it to the final rounds. That being said, it is quite ironic that Eastern Europe was once a major force in World Cup play. Those days may be over, but their afterglow still emanates bright rays of hope to football fans throughout the region. The days of runner-up finishes in World Cup championships matches are likely a thing of the past. No one really expects an Eastern Europe’s national teams to be competitive with the world footballing elite anymore. Just qualifying and winning a game or two in the World Cup would now be considered a glorious success. Looking back, the success enjoyed by teams from the region in the first half century of World Cup play can now be considered an aberration.
Glorious Failure – The Czechoslovakian Moment
It is miraculous that a small nation such as Czechoslovakia could field a team that could come so close to winning the World Cup. The decline and fall of Eastern European soccer is not as improbable as Czechoslovakia being tied with Brazil through the 69th minute of the 1962 championship match in Santiago. The Czechoslovaks were less than half an hour from a victory that would be remembered forever. Instead they succumbed to the brilliance of Brazil. There is no shame in such a loss. The mere fact that they made it that far was a tremendous accomplishment.