At the best of times, the current affairs of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) receive scant coverage in British newspapers. This past week, they have had to compete with the overwhelming giant of British media issues: football. But thanks to one match, an enthralling microcosm of national passions, CEE issues were not entirely lost from view.
Britain has become a society obsessed with the beautiful game. Since Rupert Murdoch's Sky channels began pouring money into the sport early in the 1990s, media coverage of football has risen in tandem with players' astronomical salaries and the sport's ever-growing profile. In 1996, this already fashionable profile was boosted even more when England hosted the European Championship finals, and the national side performed well.
To the accompaniment of the ubiquitous hit song "Three Lions" on the terraces and in the charts, England beat Scotland on the way to reaching the semi-finals and before the inevitable defeat on penalties to Germany, who went on to beat the Czech Republic in the final. During the last seven days, the memory of Euro '96 has helped ensure saturated coverage of the Euro 2000 finals, in which Britain is (at least at the time of writing) still involved.
Indeed, football has so dominated the media this week that the announcement of the BBC's loss of television rights to screen highlights of the Premiership, the nation's top league, was the leading item in all television and radio reports of 14 June and the front-page story in the newspapers the following morning.
Should've played football in high school
Now, as anyone could discover by typing the name of a CEE country as a keyword into any British newspaper's website archive, the section in which one is most likely to find a story relating to CEE is the Sports section. Thus, Euro 2000 has meant considerable coverage of a sort for several countries in the region.
The match that really surprised the British media was the one between Slovenia and Yugoslavia in Charleroi, Belgium, on the evening of 13 June. This was a thrilling encounter. Having acclaimed the level of entertainment provided by all the early matches in the competition, Ian Chadband noted in the Evening Standard ("Balkan boys serve up a treat," 14 June) that "a game which was supposed to be a makeweight affair for only Balkan eyes simply under-lined everything which had gone before by actually eclipsing it for preposterous drama.
This really took some believing. Little Slovenia, 150-1 outsiders for the title, big on skiing but absolute beginners on international football's precarious slopes, were outplaying the ageing stars of Yugoslavia, the nation from whom they broke away for independence less than a decade ago."
The Slovenians raced into an improbable but impressive 3-0 lead against their former countrymen before throwing their advantage away (á la England), as Yugoslavia's stars, who play in six different European leagues, clawed back three goals in six minutes to finish all square.
But the result, and the way the match was played, were about much more than football alone. The Times writer Simon Barnes (15 June), who specialises in the alternative take on sporting events, lambasted the BBC's television commentary team for missing the real meaning of the game:
"No one in their right mind would think that the crucial issue was Yugoslavia's vulnerability to crosses from the left. The Euro 2000 fixture was a match of spellbinding perfection: and you did not need to be Henry Kissinger to work out that there was more to the event than sport."
Of course the significance of sporting encounters often goes far beyond mere sport. As Barnes remarked, "Sport has a degree of importance for a nation that is inversely proportionate to age: a young country proclaims its very identity to the world through occasions such as this." Croatia, who failed to qualify for Euro 2000, has nevertheless been a fine example of this phenomenon in the past decade.
Its collection of talents lit up Euro '96, and in the World Cup of two years ago they reached the semi-finals, sending their devoted supporters into rapture and filling the new nation-state with pride. Now, it was the turn of Slovenia. Its best player, Zlatko Zahović, told the Daily Mail's readers (not known for their interest in CEE geography): "People don't even know where Slovenia is. At least now they might."
With 12,000 Slovenians in attendance, double the number of Yugoslav fans present, the importance of the match to the former was clear. Indeed, a reporter on BBC's Radio 5 Live interviewed the Slovenian ambassador in London over the telephone before the match.
His Excellency was speaking on his mobile phone outside a sports bar on Haymarket in central London, where he was about to watch the match. Admirable commitment to the job. Unfortunately, during his efforts to enlighten listeners he made the mistake of assuming that they knew Slovenia is on track to join the EU. One should not assume the average British person knows this.
However, BBC TV did not get the point of this tie, claims Barnes: "It was all about hopes and fears and the birth of nationalism: and the BBC completely missed it. It presented the game as if it was a routine plucky-little-nations encounter." Barnes blamed the commentators' BBC employers for creating the wrong environment through "committing the ultimate crime of sucking up to football so hard that they now take football at its own valuation."
Keeping it in the family
There was disagreement between papers as to how hostile the atmosphere surrounding the match was. Steve Tongue in The Independent felt that, "Although a certain politically inspired rivalry was always inevitable, players from each side fraternised on the pitch before the game and there was none of the unpleasantness that surrounded the qualifying group matches between Yugoslavia and Croatia." ("Slovenia denied by Milosevic," 14 June)
There are many personal links between the two teams: Slovenia's young coach, Srečko Katanec, and two of his players used to play for Yugoslavia before Slovenian independence in 1991, and Katanec's mentor was none other than the Yugoslav coach, Vujadin Boškov.
Furthermore, reported George Caulkin in The Times ("Yugoslavia still dogged by politics," 13 June): "two of the opposing players are shortly to be brothers-in-law. Dejan Stanković, of Yugoslavia, is to marry Anna, sister of Milenko Acimović, of Slovenia. Both are midfield players, so Acimović will be able to inquire whether the intentions of Stankovic are honourable."
Yet both sets of fans had shown no respect for the opposing team's musical tubthumping. Giles Smith in The Independent ("Slovenia left to lament sour ending," 15 June 2000): "The evening began in grand style with a splendidly committed mutual barracking of national anthems, which made Wembley on international nights seem like a study centre for inter-racial tolerance. The first quarter of the match was very Balkan, in the sense that it featured a lot of niggly stuff that people from outside the region would have struggled to understand."
If such national passions must be expressed, it is surely far better that it happens through sporting rivalry, and they are not translated into armed conflict or the "English disease" of mindless hooliganism. This correspondent at least looks forward to the next Balkan games at Euro 2000.
The excellent Czech side, which won all ten of its qualifying group games, was probably the CEE region's best hope for victory in the championship and received warm reviews in the British press for its impressive performances against the tournament's two favourite teams, France and the Netherlands.
As for the other CEE teams taking part, the accomplished and stylish but ageing Romanians have been drawn in to England's group and will probably be analysed in depth by the UK press over the next few days.
Oliver Craske, 16 June 2000