Eastern European Nations Shine at Euro 2024

On 14 July, the European champions will be crowned in Berlin. No one really expects a former communist country to win in the city whose division once symbolised the cold war but perhaps, finally, 35 years after the Wall came down, the eastern part of the continent is beginning from a football perspective to regather its strength.

Not including Germany (two players in their provisional squad were born in the east), 11 of the 24 teams at the Euros will be from the former Soviet bloc, as opposed to eight in 2020 and 2016. Even including the two hosts, Poland and Ukraine, five of the 16 were from the east in 2012; there were five in 2008, 2004 and 1996 and four in 2000.

Individual countries have impressed at tournaments – the Czech Republic in 1996 and perhaps even more so in 2004, Russia in 2008, Croatia repeatedly – but this is the first time since the heyday of the Mitropa Cup that anywhere near half of the participants at any major finals have been from the Soviet bloc.

That may in part be to do with the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams – there are not many western European countries that did not make it. The Nations League essentially offers a short cut for a rising in-form side with a low coefficient, rather than having to slowly improve, advancing from seeding pot to seeding pot before getting a manageable draw.

That has favoured smaller countries (but not absolute minnows) who have a footballing heritage, often as part of a larger entity, but without the population to be successful consistently. For North Macedonia last time, read Georgia this.

Whatever the impact of changes in the competition format, an increase of more than a third on four years ago is not insignificant. But even to speak of the post-communist sides as one bloc these days feels anachronistic. If the situation in Poland or Romania ever had much in common with the situation in Slovenia or Ukraine, which is debatable, they do not now.

After 1989, the state-run academies that had once produced players lost their funding. The Romania and the Bulgaria of 1994, the Croatia of 1996 and 1998, even the Dynamo Kyiv team that reached the Champions League semi-final in 1999, were a hangover of those state institutions, based around the last players to receive that state training. After that came the dearth. But now sides from the east are, slowly, unsurely, beginning to emerge again.

Hungary’s rise has perhaps been the most dramatic, if only because they were coming from the lowest base. The extended golden age when they reached World Cup finals in 1938 and 1954 had long since collapsed, undermined by the attacks on the two great well-springs of the culture that had produced it: the far-right government shut down MTK Budapest in 1940 because it was perceived as a Jewish club and the communists, after nationalising football in 1949, deliberately downgraded Ferencvaros because they were seen as the team of the ethnically German working classes.

Largely through tax breaks, the autocratic prime minister, Víktor Orban, has encouraged investment in football while establishing an academy in his home village of Felcsut. Since his return to power, in 2010, more than 40 stadiums have been constructed or renovated, including the 65,000-capacity Puskas Arena that will host the Champions League final in 2026, while 1,590 new pitches have been laid and 2,800 others refurbished.

The picture in Serbia is similar, if not so dramatic. The big two Belgrade clubs, Red Star and Partizan, have received state backing in recent years. Red Star have further benefited from a lucrative sponsorship deal with Gazprom and both have focused on their academies.

Georgia will be the lowest-ranked side in Germany and even if they finished their qualifying group behind Spain, Scotland and Norway, their progress via the Nations League should not be regarded as the equivalent of winning a raffle.

As part of a general focus on youth development, Georgia has hosted Uefa under-19 and under-21 tournaments in the past seven years. The number of male players playing the game has increased by a factor of 2.5 in that time (and the number of female players by a factor of 10) as investment, some of it from Uefa grants, has improved facilities. That the Georgian league ranks 46th of 55 in Europe, which suggests there is some way to go.

If the rise of Hungary and, to a lesser extent, Serbia and Georgia, feels sustainable, based on solid foundations, Albania’s does not. They won one of 11 games in 2022 but have been inspired by their coach, the former Arsenal full-back Sylvinho, who promoted a string of previously unheralded players and produced an eight-game unbeaten run to finish top of their qualifying group.

Sometimes teams simply come together and that perhaps indicates the wider point. The greatest testament to how far the post-communist bloc has moved on is, while they may all have been facing a similar problem 30 years ago, how their cases feel remarkably varied.

The old model of state control has gone and while forms of state investment have returned in some areas, new ways of funding development have been found. Not all will endure.

But as the shadow of Soviet control retreats further into the past, the most striking aspect of the 11 post-communist qualifiers is how little they have in common.