Blood and Circuses ‘a fascinating yet nightmarish journey into the wild east’

PHILIP BARKER reviews Blood and Circuses, the story of what happened to football in the former Soviet Bloc after the cold war ended

Robert O’Connor has written a gripping chronicle of a fascinating yet nightmarish journey into the wild east.

“The ebb and flow of my life as a sportswriter never managed to quieten my curiosity to discover a different kind of football,” he explained.

This is a remarkable book and not for the faint hearted, with chapters such as The Dead Zone, Breathing Corpses, and After Hades as O’Connor makes a dangerous journey to what he calls “Europe’s rebel republics.”

The staging posts of Pristina, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno Karabakh, the Donbass Transnistria, may be familiar from the news, invariably with a soundtrack of artillery shelling, refugee camps and often far worse.

There is a real sense of trepidation as the author describes crossing each border. He describes encounters with fearsome guards which “look to have been brought to life from the pages of a picture book on Soviet era enforcers.”

On one occasion, a souvenir t shirt, potentially provocative across the border, remains thankfully undiscovered after an inspection of his rucksack and the reader joins him in a sigh of relief.

There is the story of Genc Hoxha, a Kosovan footballer who escaped with his life by blurting out the name of the legendary  former footballer Oleg Blokhin when challenged by Serbian soldier who spoke only Russian.  Hoxha’s village burned in a terrible massacre but he survived because the soldier told him “I don’t want to kill a footballer.”

The book is superbly researched, with a great deal of historical background which helps the reader make sense of a landscape every bit as multi- faceted as the politics of the regions involved.

Hoxha survived because the soldier told him ‘I don’t want to kill a footballer’

Among many chilling episodes there is the account of how an Azerbaijani soldier, taking part in a NATO language course, murdered a fellow participant from Armenia in an ethnically motivated killing.

As a result of what they described as O’Connor’s “illegal visit” to disputed areas between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the Azerbaijani  state news agency subsequently accused him of “politicising football and sports in general” and warned that “the author will be added to Azerbaijani foreign ministry’s list of undesirable persons.”

When the 2019 Europa League final was held in Baku, O’Connor was unable to attend. It was also a match which Arsenal’s Henrik Mkhitaryan felt constrained to miss citing fears that his safety could not be guaranteed in Azerbaijan.

The book has glimpses of normality and hope. Children playing football in a park in Ukraine and a poignant recounting of the last days of Ian Porterfield, scorer of the Sunderland winner in the 1973 FA Cup final. He became an equally inspirational figure in Armenia as coach of the national team before his death from cancer in 2007.

“He had touched a nation,” writes O’Connor.

This is not an easy read, but it must surely be an award winning contender.

Blood and Circuses by  Robert O’Connor, Biteback Publishing,  London £20