Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Slovan Bratislava

Slovan Bratislava 1-1 Crvena Zvezda: 1-1 (06:08:10)

Europa League 3rd Qualifying Round. Pasienky, Bratislava

Dan Richardson follows football in Slovakia and moreover the fortunes of Slovan Bratislava. Making his debut for EFW, he takes us through one of the biggest nights in their recent history when the Slovakians overcame Crvena Zvezda from Serbia in the Europa League. It was quite a night:

The months of July and August have been traditionally considered football-free, presenting an opportunity for football fans to concentrate on other areas of their lives. However we all know times are changing and for the supporters of many football clubs around Europe some of the biggest games of the season are played during this period. Some really intriguing fixtures get pulled out of the UEFA pots when the draws are made for Champions League and Europa League qualifying. The pairings which are generated through this lottery process offer grounds for excitement way beyond what the domestic game can offer in many countries, especially in Eastern Europe.

Slovan v Crvena Zvezda is a typical example of this. Two giants of their respective domestic leagues, Slovan and Zvezda fans crave for even a small taste of the glory days of previous decades, and while realistic supporters will usually consider a European away trip as a once-a-season affair, both clubs would enter this tie really fancying their chances of victory. The winner here is in the playoff round and is then just one match away from qualification for the Europa League with the huge incentive of a guaranteed 3 home and away matches at a time when the media and public attention is perhaps more focused than during the pre-season period. Big attendances and increased match-day revenue, television coverage, UEFA money, and players getting in the media spotlight are benefits which clubs like these crave more than anything and really need if they are to have any chance of building towards the future.

The good times arrive to the Pasienky.

Art, or is it?

Fans of FEEF - Fantastic Eastern European Floodlights punch the air with delight now.

Slovan produced a wonderful performance one week earlier in the Belgrade Marakana in front of more than 40,000 fans, roughly 400 of whom were their own. Although police interference led to the travelling fans only being allowed into the ground 15 minutes after kick-off, those who made the trip talk of an amazing atmosphere inside the stadium, and such a tight police control that there was no trouble on the whole trip. These type of matches are relatively commonplace in Belgrade, not so in Bratislava. While Belasa Slachta (the Slovan fans) were insistent on producing their best in terms of choreography, singing, flags and all round atmosphere at the home leg, media attention in the days leading up to the game was focussed on security issues both inside the stadium and the city itself. Slovak newspapers were quick to draw comparisons with the Delije trip to Prague last season. Allegedly a group of Serbian fans looted a service station of more than 4000 Euros of merchandise and consequent heavy-handed policing led to riots in the city centre which got totally out of hand. With over 2,000 Serbian fans expected in Slovakia, the police were prepared for the worst.

Furthermore the stadium in Bratislava is totally unsatisfactory for this type of match, designated highest risk category by UEFA. Tehelne Pole the former home of Slovan and the National team is now closed, although no progress has yet been made with the planned demolishment needed before work can start on building a new stadium. In the meantime, Slovan have had to adopt the former home of Inter Bratislava (who no longer exist), a small oval-shaped stadium with no roof, an athletics track around the pitch and capacity for 13,000 people.

The club worked exceptionally hard to make the preparations required ahead of a full UEFA inspection on the Tuesday before the game. Broken concrete steps were repaired, tress were cut down, anything resembling a potential missile had to be removed and arguments about the fences were becoming petulant. Temporary fences had to be erected around the whole stadium, the height of the current fences deemed insufficient. However officials from Crvena Zvezda claimed that the 2,20m was still not high enough and the fences separating the two sectors should be raised to 2,65m. The comment from the Slovan head of security was that the fans will be “caged in like animals at the zoo”. Welcome to football in Eastern Europe! The Serbian media was even claiming that the match wouldn’t go ahead and Zvezda would be awarded the victory by default.

Anyway, despite all the arguments and through much hard work, the stadium passed the inspection and the match was given the go-ahead. During the day in Bratislava the Serbian fans took up residence in the main square and while a few fireworks and smoke bombs were set off, the atmosphere remained relatively calm. Personally, I had arranged to meet up with some of the Slovan fans in a pub nearby the ground a few hours before kick off. There was supposed to be an alcohol ban in the vicinity of the ground, but that was overcome easily enough, several establishments apparently turning a blind eye in the name of increased business. While I had intended to tag along with the traditional fans march to the stadium, getting acquainted with Slovak football fans, Slovak beer and Hruskovica meant I inadvertently missed that part. Still I decided it was better to stay with these guys, and that was a good decision. Traditionally in Eastern Europe, on big match days, ultras fans march to the stadium through the city in a display of bravado and camaraderie. It’s also easier to set off pyrotechnics and while the police will escort the march, they pretty much let the fans get on with it. Delije marched from the centre of Bratislava some 6km to Pasienky Stadium and their Slovan counterparts roughly 2km. It appears as though the police managed to avoid any contact between the two groups and incidents outside the stadium before the match were kept to a minimum.

The club had claimed that the gates would be closed 30mins before kick-off so I was quite nervous arriving at 19:55 for a 20:30 kick off. There were still long queues outside, but through my friend’s connections we made a fairly quick and stress-free entrance to the stadium. The three levels of security checks were advanced for Slovak standards and it would have been a challenge, although not impossible to smuggle any prohibited items into the ground. The Delije of course managed to set off at least 10 flares during the match, but they wouldn’t be Delije if they didn’t! Basically each sector of the stadium was open, taking your designating seats is unheard of here. There was already a good gathering of Belasa Slachta and with the Zvezda fans also already inside the ground, the atmosphere was building nicely. We took up a place close to the Zvezda supporters; standing in the middle of the two groups gives a real comparison of the relative noise levels being generated, and while Slovan were great, the fans of Zvezda take things to another level. Their incessant drum co-ordinated singing is really impressive, very catchy and is one of the things I love most about watching football in these countries. There is no doubt about it, these fans don’t do things by half, and every single fan in the visitor’s enclosure was as passionate and co-ordinated as the next.

Banter is exchanged as the lights go out.

A little offence.

The Slovan fans also gave as good as they got, and one great banner which was unveiled behind the goal mentioned the Slovak players from the Czechoslovak team who beat West Germany in the 1976 European Championship Final held in the Zvezda stadium in Belgrade, Yugoslovia.
Slovan got off to the best possible start, gaining a 1-0 lead through a Zvezda own-goal in the 2nd minute. While the fans were still celebrating, another incident for the long list of gaffes associated with Slovak football was brewing. For floodlight connoisseurs (*cough* - Ed.), the Pasienky lights are really something to be revered, however they are obviously not supposed to fail. Not on the biggest match of the season in a match surrounded by controversy over the venue. But fail they did, and with just 4 minutes on the clock, out went the lights, off trudged the players and officials and the security organisers, who must have been pleased with how things were going until then, suddenly got very nervous! Obviously fans hyped up on an occasion like this with nothing happening on the field will quickly turn their attention towards each other. This revealed immediately the farce of the new fences, it doesn’t take much force to break these down, or bend them dangerously to below the level of the original, permanent fences. Of course that is what happened and several fans were trying to breach the fence to access the adjacent sector. The riot police were quickly called in and formed a human barrier between the two groups, which restored something resembling order. Then the Slovan fans actually managed to instigate a bonding session between the two sectors the like of which I have rarely seen. Slovakia doesn’t formally recognise Kosovo as an independent state and the Zvezda fans, to a man, received the Slovan chants of “Kosovo is Serbia” by giving a full and lengthy standing ovation in the direction of the home fans. This continued for a few minutes and was all very friendly, however darkness was descending and nothing was happening with the floodlights, another potential safety headache for the organisers. Eventually somebody found a coin for the meter and the lights came back on (they obviously decided we could do without the scoreboard for the remaining 86 minutes of the match). That first half then continued for what seemed like an eternity until eventually the referee blew his whistle for half time and Slovan looked good for victory.

Security keep a tight eye on, ahem, the game.

Crvena Zvezda fans in full voice.

They had 2,400 fans at the match.

Zvezda came back into the match in the 2nd half and Slovan nerves started to show. The Brazilian Kadu scored a lovely goal in the 73rd minute and Slovan were left with withstand a nervy last 20 minutes, where another Zvezda goal would take the tie into extra time. I was hoping against that, with a taxi booked to take me back to Vienna for an early flight the next morning, and luckily Slovan held on to go through 3-2 on aggregate. The Zvezda coach quit straight after the game, and this is really considered a massive failure for the Serbian team, especially as their great rivals Partizan continue to show signs of improvement. However, for Slovan Bratislava, this is an outstanding result, from a team with some promising youngsters who will dream of potential opportunities resulting from more European exposure. This result caps a good week all round for Slovak football, MSK Zilina progressing in the Champions League the night before against the Bulgarian side Litex Lovech. Good results in these matches significantly increase the UEFA coefficient for clubs and this is exactly what Slovakia needs to sustain the domestic game, especially if a new Czechoslovak alliance comes to fruition. This new joint league which is currently under discussion for a potential kick-off in the 2012/13 season, would potentially take 6 clubs from Slovakia and 12 from the Czech Republic. While European success arguably widens the gap between clubs domestically, in the case of Slovan and Zilina, it is exactly what they need to give themselves a chance of competing against the relative powerhouses from the Czech league.

The thin blue line.

On the way back to Schwechat Airport I received one final poignant memory from this wonderful Eastern European football night. As the motorway splits with one side heading on into Hungary and the other branching off over the Austrian border, I saw a convoy of several Serbian coaches and minibuses being escorted over the border by several police cars and riot vans. It is unfortunate that this level of protection is required, but it’s the edge in terms of atmosphere, which makes these matches such a spectacle. Overall, the Slovak police, Slovan Bratislava football club and the fans themselves can be proud of how this whole event was handled. A new allegiance formed over politics shows how it is possible that not every ‘high-risk’ match has to end in violence.

Follow Dan Richardson aka Britskibelasi and EFW on Twitter

His website on football in Slovakia and beyond is HERE.

- Feel free to comment below -

1 comment:

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