There is a theory that, other than Uruguay at the inaugural tournament in 1930, every World Cup winner has been in some way influenced by the wave of great Hungarian coaches scattered across the globe in the aftermath of World War I.
It’s not entirely tenuous, even if some are skeptical. Nobody, by contrast, truly doubts that gegenpressing, perhaps the dominant mode of the modern game, has its origins in the Soviet Union — and was kindled from a friendly in 1983 between the German side Viktoria Backnang and Dynamo Kyiv, who were managed by the great Ukrainian coach Valery Lobanovsky. Pressing itself, whose introduction in the ’60s can be said to mark the birth of modern football, was developed by Viktor Maslov, a Russian coach who enjoyed great success at Torpedo Moscow and Dynamo Kyiv.
These are no isolated instances of influence. For the best part of the 20th century, football looked east for inspiration. In two very different periods, before and after World War II, Eastern Europe was a beacon of modernity and progressive thought in football. Yet at the World Cup in Qatar this year only three of the 32 qualifiers are from the former Communist bloc, while it is 23 years since a club team from the region last reached the semifinal of the Champions League. The region, its highest-profile coaches nowhere near the game’s summit, is now just another producer of talent for the wealthy leagues of Western Europe.
From crucible to wasteland, Eastern Europe has a story to tell about the power of politics and economics to define sporting destiny.
Even as the brightest thinkers were leaving Hungary in the ’20s and ’30s, the flow of Hungarian talent was maintained by the rivalry between two Budapest giants: MTK, the club of the assimilated Jewish middle class, and Ferencvaros, whose support was largely working class and ethnically German. Yet politics intruded.
MTK was shut down by Miklos Horthy’s far-right regime in 1942 and Ferencvaros was deliberately run down by the Communist government that took power in 1947. Although nationalization brought short-term success — most famously lifting Hungary to the final of the 1954 World Cup — the two great wellsprings of Budapest’s football culture, damaged by the mass defections that followed Soviet repression of the 1956 uprising, soon ran dry. The Hungarian game has never recovered.