Game flourishes with fall of Iron Curtain
THE excellent performances of Romania and Bulgaria in the World Cup have highlighted the understated prowess of teams from the old Eastern Bloc countries in Europe.
When the totalitarian communist regimes fell like skittles across Europe, political freedom was also followed by freedom of movement - and that has directly resulted in the current performances of Romania and Bulgaria.
Just take a headcount of the respective squads and it transpires that 80 per cent of the players are earning their living far from the borders of their native lands.
They may travel on Bulgarian and Romanian passports but their wages are paid in pesetas, francs, marks and lira. And therein lies the most important single reason for the upsurge in the World Cup fortunes of both countries.
Under the closed conditions which had prevailed since the end of World War II, the best players of any Soviet-controlled nation were not permitted to play abroad.
And when travelling on club or country business there was inevitably a heavy security presence to prevent defections - although several occurred.
Since the demise of communism, the old Eastern Bloc countries have become happy hunting grounds for soccer agents and representatives of western clubs - both major and minor.
Not all of the present Romanian and Bulgarian players are on the books of top European clubs. Some are with French and Spanish Second Division teams but they are all playing in vastly more competitive leagues than existed in their home countries under communism.
In Romania under Nicholas Ceaucescu the only team that mattered was Steuea Bucharest in whom the dictator had a direct and unhealthy interest.
Another club, Dynamo Bucharest, was run by the secret police. All the best players were with Steuea or Dynamo but that only stifled worthwhile competition throughout the First Division.
In Bulgaria, the army-backed side CSKA Sofia ''attracted'' the country's premier players with the same obvious result as in Romania. Year in and year out, CSKA would win the league or the cup . . . but invariably came unstuck when competing in the European Cup or Cup Winners' Cup.
It is basically unhealthy for any sport to have one team dominating and this was the case with several of the old Eastern Bloc nations.
There were some sorry tales from Romania under Ceaucescu.
Ceaucescu involved himself with the national team and seemed to have a genuine liking for the game . . . but was not, by a reliable account, above fixing a match or two.
He came from a town called Scornicesti where the local team needed a whopping win to ensure promotion. They ran up an 18-0 scoreline under the managerial guidance of Ceaucescu's brother-in-law.
The exodus of the best Romanian and Bulgarian players since the fall of communism has unquestionably laid the foundations for the success of the two teams in the present World Cup.
Well on their way to being stars of this World Cup are Gheorghe Hagi of Romania and Hristo Stoichkov of Bulgaria. It is a personal triumph for Hagi who spent last season guiding Brescia back into Serie A, but that is scarcely a feat to set the world ablaze.
His striking partner in the national team is the excellent Florin Raducioiu who spent much of last season battling with moderate success for a place in the AC Milan team. He played only seven league games because of the intense battle for the three places available for six foreign players signed by the Italian club.
Raducioiu was about to move before the World Cup started but AC Milan, seeing the excellent form of their man, have stepped in with a revaluation and he now stays put.
Stoichkov has none of these club worries as he is well nigh idolised at Spanish club Barcelona.
And the incredible scenes of rejoicing in Bucharest and Sofia surely underlines just how truly important a successful national soccer team can be to the life of a nation . . . particularly those countries whose citizens battle daily to stay above the breadline.
There is a pride and sense of fulfilment in both countries that could never have been there under communism because the game itself could not flourish in the same manner under those conditions.
There have been some superlative Eastern Bloc players over the years but in the case of Bulgaria and Romania - two of the most repressive regimes previously - it is only now that they are showing their true potential and that is largely because of the much wider experience they have been able to gain.
It is often said that politics and sport do not mix but on this occasion it has been the cataclysmic change in eastern Europe that has been so beneficial to soccer there.