Dec 19 2010

The Winter Break – looked at from a Slovak perspective

Published by at 7:39 pm under Domestic and tagged:

Following the large number of postponements in all the English leagues yesterday, I’m now awaiting the inevitable calls for football in the country to take a winter break. As someone who was raised on the English game and loves its traditions, I have my objections ready.

Firstly, you never know just when the English winter is going to be at its worst. Sometimes, this year for example, it’s bad in December. In other years, January is more severe. Quite often, England doesn’t have a winter at all, at least not as people from seriously cold countries like Slovakia would understand the word winter. Secondly, some of the best footballing occasions in England take place during the year’s coldest period. Boxing Day football, for example, is extremely popular, especially at non-league level, where many clubs draw much bigger crowds than normal. Then, there’s the FA Cup 3rd round in early January, traditionally one of the most eagerly anticipated weekends in the calendar. Finally, you just know that if there was a winter break in England, clubs like Manchester United or Chelsea would book the first available flight to a hot country where there’s money to be made by playing meaningless friendlies, taking part in celebrity style photo shoots in the latest kit (you can almost guarantee that a new one would be introduced in time for the season’s spring phase) or other such activities designed to ‘develop the brand in a new market’.

Still, the English game would be wise not to dismiss the notion of a break altogether. One reason for saying this is that English winters could well get worse. A convincing climate change theory is that the Gulf Stream might weaken. If that happens, England will regularly experience continental winters, thus rendering football and other such sports more difficult to stage than they are now. But that is surely a problem for the longer term. For now, I believe the biggest problem with the English game is not so much winter football ; it’s that there are just too many matches across the whole season. If there were no more than 24 teams in any one league and a cup competition were scrapped, the calendar could cope with two or three postponements at this time of year and, if the weather did hold up, the much-loved Boxing Day fixture could continue.

Here in Slovakia, of course, there is little debate. Snow and freezing temperatures can be pretty much guaranteed in this country. There are winters where early December or late February football is just about possible at the higher levels but even those are exceptional. As a result, keen followers of the Slovak game are reduced to spending the cold months wondering which spa centre their club plans to take its players to for winter ‘conditioning’, or following transfer rumours, such as (to take the latest MŠK Žilina gossip) Zdeno Štrba‘s possible return to the ranks after 18 months playing in Greece. Compared with actual football, it’s not much to get excited about so you really do need another hobby!

A long winter break actually leads to a different kind of football culture. For a start, the notion of ‘autumn champions’, the unofficial title held by the club which goes into the break at the top of the league, is quite prominent in Slovakia. Another curiosity lies in the fact that the winter break is almost twice as long as the close-season one. As a consequence, there do seem to be more transfers during winter than during summer. Last season, for example, Senica changed not only their coach (which is not unusual at any time) but also most of their squad during the winter.

Curiosities aside, Slovak football, just like its English counterpart, would do well to consider changes to the way the season runs. One problem here is that pitches are often not ready for football by the time the spring phase of the season is due to start. This season, the first round of spring fixtures is scheduled for February 26th but it is highly possible that snow will still be covering the playing surfaces then, or that we will be in the midst of a thaw, which could lead to waterlogging. As a result of such factors, there have been years where these early spring games have had to be postponed for at least a week.

In addition, Slovak football does not take full advantage of one period when conditions are totally amenable to the game, ie late May-mid July, the time of the traditional close-season. This has led me to the idea that a spring-autumn model might work better in this country than the autumn-spring one. If the change was made, and it would be a momentous one for sure, the season could start in the middle of March and end in late November, as the current autumn phase does. Groundsmen would find this difficult as, under the present arrangements, many reseed their clubs’ pitches as soon as the last games have been played in May. And actually making the change, as well as arrangements regarding European competitions, would present logistical barriers. On the plus side, there would be seven and a half months of uninterrupted football at times when favourable conditions can (just about) be guaranteed. The fans would probably be happy. I can personally attest that watching a Corgoň Liga or (better still) Champions League qualifying game on a July evening is an utterly pleasurable, civilised experience which almost compensates for the lack of Boxing Day action. If such enjoyment could be had in June as well, so much the better.

Still, whatever we might wish for, I don’t foresee major changes, in either England or Slovakia, at least not in the immediate future. Boxing Day football will go on in England, which I’m happy about, but the leagues won’t be reduced in size, meaning that fixture backlogs, especially for lower-league sides, will continue to cause difficulties. The question of a winter break will be raised, perhaps discussed in a certain amount of detail, and then shelved until the next bout of severe weather comes along. In Slovakia, a spring-autumn season won’t be given even cursory consideration. Part of my justification for introducing the model would have been that Russia currently uses it and it seems to work reasonably well there. But this week it emerged that Russia would actually like to join most of the rest of Europe in following the autumn-spring model. That probably makes the already remote chance that the people running Slovak football might realise they are missing a trick even slimmer.

James Baxter

10 responses so far




10 Responses to “The Winter Break – looked at from a Slovak perspective”

  1.   britskibelasion 19 Dec 2010 at 7:50 pm

    Great piece James, love the balanced and unique perspective -this is what makes me love the Britski Belasi blog so much!

    At least after such a long winter break, football fans have no choice but to look forward to the 2nd half of the season, even if their team is lingering in mid-table! I think Slovan & Trnava fans are already plotting their antics for February 26th!

    One interesting ‘caveat’ (can I use that word) is that in 1963 in England, the FA Cup 3rd round took 66 days to complete! Now there’s some food for thought!

  2.   James Baxteron 19 Dec 2010 at 10:39 pm

    Yes, my Dad often talks about that winter. I recall a Scottish Cup tie in 78/79, the year I really got into football, that was postponed 29 times!

    I reckon the only Corgon Liga who’ll wish they didn’t have to take the break are Bystrica, who were on a 4-game winning streak. The rest, for different reasons, are probably delighted their on-field labours are behind them for the next couple of months.

    Any idea what the Slovan and Trnava fans are planning? One thing’s for sure, the cold won’t put them off!

  3.   strameon 19 Dec 2010 at 10:46 pm

    great piece, have to say. there were experiments in the 50s with reversing the autumn/spring system to the spring/autumn. it was based upon the soviet style (as anything else in that time), and from what has been said about it i can only tell it was hugely unpopular. i can’t think of anyone who would be delighted with that, should it be introduced today. maybe indifferent, yes. which is just about enough really. :)

    technically, playing throughout the summer wouldn’t be so bad for the czech/slovakian football, as the weather is really good for most of the time. i doubt that more people would find their way to the stadiums though, and not just because of many of them going on their holidays. however, it wouldn’t be such a big difference to the number of attendances towards the end of the autumn/start of the spring. it’s just weird, though. there’s no such thing like the boxing day game in the uk, but even then i think the majority of the fans would consider it odd. so i think it’s sort of a tradition for them, even though they just don’t think of it that way. :)

  4.   James Baxteron 19 Dec 2010 at 11:12 pm

    Strame,

    Thanks a lot, several interesting points there. I suspect you might be right that crowds wouldn’t be that much better in summer. I just think those fans who go anyway might prefer to do so in June than in late February, when it’s often bloody miserable. And, as you say, playing conditions would be far better in summer, especially if games were played in the evenings to lessen the effects of the heat.

    Do you know people who experienced those spring-autumn experiments in the 50s? I’d enjoy hearing/reading more about that.

    Boxing Day footie in the UK is wonderful. I can’t believe there’s an exiled British fan who would disagree with me. It’s best of all in the non-leagues, where they do their best to schedule local derbies. I’ve got fantastic memories of three generations of our family going to places like Stafford or Kidderminster to follow Telford Utd, meeting friends at the ground, having good banter with the home fans etc.

  5.   Michal Petrakon 20 Dec 2010 at 10:44 am

    James,
    these experiments took place between 1949-1956. Weather was not the reason – at that time everything in the society was influenced by the Soviets. The old, traditional sports organisation Sokol was forbidden and their ranks were merged, renamed or recreated as workers’ sports organisatons. Even the traditional clubs were renamed according to Soviet fashion – Slavia became Dynamo, Sparta had to include the word “Sokolovo” in their name. New army clubs were introduced into the competition regardless of their sporting level, just as an army decision.
    These things, mainly the spring-autumn season, started to fade out when Stalin died and the communist regime was less “orthodox”. The league returned to autumn-spring season because of the need to similarize the fixtures with european cups. The same thing is the reason why, in my opinion, reversed season will never return to Cze or Svk.
    Nice article, by the way:)

  6.   James Baxteron 20 Dec 2010 at 10:55 am

    Michal,

    Thanks for that. These things get more interesting with a historical perspective. I do agree with you that the CR and SR aren’t going to go back to the spring-autumn season, the more so now that even Russia want to get rid of it. I still think it’s at least worth thinking about, though…

  7.   britskibelasion 20 Dec 2010 at 11:59 am

    I’m just dreaming of those summer months already, not long now until July when Slovan will make their appearance in next season’s Europa League 1st qualifying round ..

    One thing I did notice this season was that the Slovak league is starting several weeks earlier than most other European leagues. Personally I think that’s already quite nice, there’s plenty of scope for watching football on those long warm summer evenings, even if your team is not in Europe.

    My friend and I had lined up a double header yesterday – Club Bruges v Cercle Bruges & Germinal Beerschot v Ghent. I don’t think we’d ever have made it to Bruges if we’d have tried, and the Beerschot game was called off after 8 mins 45 seconds. Here’s hoping tickets will be valid for a re-match on a warm evening in April!

  8.   Darren Beachon 20 Dec 2010 at 2:14 pm

    Old habits are hard to break, not just from a football perspective but from those of a country at large.

    Take Japan for example. In terms of climate, it’s reasonably close to that of western Europe by and large – cold winters and hot summers – yet after almost 20 years of the J-League there has yet to be serious discussion about changing to a European-style calendar, even though it would undoubtedly help clubs keep their best players for a season rather than lose them in the summer to Europe, not to mention avoiding the oft-grim rainy season in June.

    This is largely because baseball, the country’s nominal number one sport, has always run on a March-November calendar, and as such the Japanese sporting year as a whole runs in this way. Not to mention the fact that the school year runs from April to March.

    Changing the J-League to a European model would put football up against a cultural resistance to attending regular-season sport in the winter. Could it be that the CR and SR suits have got that on their minds as well?

  9.   Darren Beachon 20 Dec 2010 at 2:19 pm

    “Changing the J-League to a European model would put football up against a cultural resistance to attending regular-season sport in the winter. Could it be that the CR and SR suits have got that on their minds as well?”

    just to clarify – obviously I am not implying that CR and SR should play through the winter, but that there may be a resistance to playing through what has always been the close-season.

  10.   James Baxteron 20 Dec 2010 at 3:13 pm

    More interesting points! Darren, on balance I guess you’re right about resistance to changing old habits, though the Sk authorities don’t mind changing some things, eg I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve tinkered with the structure of the league (how many teams, how many times they play each other, dividing the top half from the bottom half for the 2nd half of the season etc etc). A change to a spring-autumn season is definitely a step too far, though. If it was suggested, I’m convinced that the ‘suits’ would dismiss the idea forthwith. In that sense, the article is really based on pure fantasy.

    Interesting what you say about Japan too, though again you might think it would work the other way, ie football would see some potential in playing when there’s no baseball. Back to England again, one reason I’m happy football isn’t played throughout the summer there is that it would take attention away from the cricket.

    Dan,

    ‘One thing I did notice this season was that the Slovak league is starting several weeks earlier than most other European leagues. Personally I think that’s already quite nice…’ Completely agree, it’s that very thought that makes me wonder why there isn’t even more summer football here in Sk. Though perhaps you can have too much of a good thing…

    If all this seems to conflict, I suppose that’s partly because the countries we’re discussing are so beautifully diverse. What works in one might well not work so well in another.

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