A league title to celebrate in your club’s 100th season. A year that saw your team return to its spiritual home. A farewell appearance from a much-loved club legend. It should have been a huge day for Slovan Bratislava. Yet, despite the excitement, it all fell a bit flat.
Sure, the 11,000 or so who came to Tehelne Pole enjoyed the evening. A final day fixture against a ploddingly mid-table Sered team ensured a comfortable victory. Retiring forward Robert Vittek came off the bench for a 15-minute farewell amid a blaze of red flares and the trophy presentation went ahead with all the flashing lights and confetti cannons demanded by the occasion. But it felt like a simulacrum of a real celebration.
A T-shirt summed it up. With an image of a medieval monarch, the caption read: “100 Years as Kings of Bratislava”. But a 50th anniversary edition might have made a plausible claim to European power. In 1969, Slovan became the first team from a Communist country to win a UEFA tournament, beating Barcelona 3-2 to lift the Cup Winners’ Cup. Seven years later, as part of Czechoslovkia, there was a strong Bratislavan accent to the European Champions; Panenka’s famous penalty won the cup, but seven of the squad came from Slovan.
That long-gone era was the age of ‘crack’ Eastern Europeans. Little-known teams, hidden behind the Iron Curtain. Rumours of devious KGB-inspired training regimes, comic-book commies devising 11 robots to play mechanically perfect football unless thwarted by Roy of the Rovers. But the issue was not so much the fall of the Berlin Wall as the rapid globalisation of the game. From a time where foreign players of any stripe were exotic rarities, we rushed headlong into a new world of cross-border football. The cash-rich leagues of the west hoovered up the best players, here on the shores of the Danube the rest were left to sink or swim.
The impact on local talent was stark: Marek Hamsik, probably the best Slovak footballer of the modern era, played a mere handful of games for Slovan before getting a transfer to Brescia and building a career in Italy. Hamsik’s idol, Pavel Nedved, made a similar journey – but a decade earlier he served his time in the Czech league before arriving in Serie A. Local clubs no longer get the benefit of even their fledgling talents, never mind their established stars. Today the lucrative Champions League group stage is the limit of any Euro ambitions here – for the money, not for the prospect of silverware – and that’s a story repeated up and down the Danube from Rapid Vienna to Steaua Bucharest via Kispest Honved. The flow of talent has been diverted away from Mitteleuropa and washes ashore wherever the TV revenues are biggest. In the words of a cruel chant, in this part of the world ‘you’re not famous anymore’.
And so, despite the lure of a new stadium, despite the thrill of marching to a league title in emphatic style, the fans are not flocking back to Slovan. The club is still struggling with the loss of faith during the long interregnum at Pasienky , a classic example of a Communist-era bowl which was never popular. Although it was within walking distance of the old (and new) Tehelne Pole, it suffered from a long association with cross-town rivals Inter Bratislava. Crowds dropped below 1,000, a 10-year wait to come home saw a generation grow up without that regular Slovan habit. In its place, inevitably, came the lure of the TV, of Messi, Munich, Manchester or Madrid. The opening game drew a big crowd, subsequently the new ground has been half full at best. A sparse audience means dwindling revenues: tellingly, Hamsik has followed the money to China at the end of his career, rather than making a nostalgic home-coming to a hero’s welcome in Bratislava.
Is there an answer? Slovakia is doing some things right. Those old concrete bowls are being replaced, step-by-step, with modern arenas. Typically football-dedicated, with no more athletics tracks, they are springing up in towns like Trnava, Zilina or Trencin. But the present Slovak league is not a proposition to tempt fans to fill these new venues. It feels like only the implosion of the current footballing gravy train, or a sudden surge in grassroots enthusiasm, can reverse a dispiriting trend.
Tehelne Pole, Bratislava, Slovakia
May 24, 2019, Slovak Super Liga.
Slovan Bratislava 3 (Drazic, Sporar, Ratau) Sered 1 (Menich)