Archive for December, 2011

Dec 27 2011

Message From Fat Eck: Eurovision Long Contest, Part 1

Published by under European,Guest

Okay, Britski Belasi. Okay then. You’ve just got yourself a deal. You guys want to know why I love your website? You seriously want to understand why a fat middle-aged bloke in Glasgow found himself gutted when Slovan exited this year’s Europa League (Yeah, they may have been eliminated as soon as the draw was made but least Slovan actually qualified for the thing, unlike a couple of ”relatively recent European Finalists” within a few train stops of my house)? You want to know? Erm – no you don’t. 

You only think you do. You think you want to know why I was only slightly less devestated to see Slovakia fail to make the Euro 2012 finals than Scotland (but a whole lot more surprised). But really – trust me – you don’t. No. You don’t really want to know why I was the one Rangers fan who hung arond after the final whistle to enjoy one last look around Tehelne Pole while the rest of my comrades sloped off miserably to catch the first bus to the airport after a 2-2 draw with Artmedia’s “whipping boys” in the 2005/06 Champions League. If you’d had ANY idea how long the explanation would take, you’d never - ever – have asked.

 

But you did. You asked. You asked the one question which had anyone who’s ever previously met me sitting up straight in bed at 3am shrieking “Oh god no! Someone else has asked Fat Eck about why he’s so interested in continental football!!” And may god have mercy on your souls, coz see this – see this scroll of cyber text, longer than Filip Sebo’s non-scoring run at Ibrox - this is only Part 1 of the answer.

 

For me – for me, you see, it’s always been about Europe. And when I say “always”, I’m only out by roughly seven years:

 

I asked my mum to buy me the Borussia Moenchengladbach strip for my 8th birthday. I’d seen them losing to Liverpool in the European Cup final just a few months earlier. You can imagine how she got on with that request in the sports shops of North Ayrshire in 1977. In the days before television saturation of the global game I only saw foreign sides when they played an English or Scottish team in Europe. And the relative insularity of TV coverage across the continent meant the strips weren’t generic in style like now. By the time Panathinaikos played Legia Warsaw in the Champions League in the 90′s, the only difference between both sides’ home and away strips, right down to the font of the numbers on their backs, was their club badges. So although Liverpool were a far greater side in the 70s and 80s, Moenchengladbach’s strip was just so different from the run-of-the-mill Umbro or Admiral jobs, seen every weekend on Sportscene or The Big Match, that I just had to have it. Mum asked around. Think I ended up with Meccano.

 

It’s truly always been about Rangers. But when I first fell in love with European football it was just the sheer romance of such difference from the Saturday afternoon norm (and back then, Saturday afternoon wasn’t just the norm – it was all there was). European football wasn’t like switching from black and white to colour but more like from VHS to DVD. It was the floodlights, the UEFA flag flying over Leitch’s Main Stand, the fact that Rangers would sometimes wear different shorts or socks or even their away strip – at home! In the seventies it was unusual to see John Greig or Derek Johnstone wearing an actual captain’s armband. When you’re a kid, in 70′s and early 80′s Scotland, this stuff is unbelievably exciting and glam. As were the visiting sides. If it wasn’t bronzed Italian stallions in finely cut skinny strips posing like the egomaniacal individuals they were - long before the day when such guys were captain of Rangers – then it was your automaton, robotic Eastern European sides, playing in a cheap, bland, self-coloured outfit with a startlingly romantic crest and playing with the discipline and communal efficiency you’d expect from guys who were probably gonnae be executed if they went back over the Iron curtain without an away goal.

 

As I grew up and the international barriers came down, as football in each individual country became a street of the global village, and Rangers began wearing all sorts of strips and fielding thoroughly polyglot sides even in the flippin Glasgow Cup, my attitude to European football hardened and my obsession deepened. If we can win on the continent we’ll almost always have enough quality, by default,  to do it simultaneously in Scotland. So for me Rangers should always target Europe, we should always build towards that.

 

The disproportionate size of Old Firm resources compared to all other Caledonian rivals ensure Rangers qualify for Europe every season and a club of our size should never be content with just winning such a small domestic league. The achievements of Scottish clubs in Europe down the decades is pretty phenomenal for a nation of our size, if all our clubs were demographically representative of their geographic location. But for clubs with the infrastructure and fan base of Rangers and Celtic to have just one European trophy each and only seven finals between them, in half a century of continual access to continental competitions, is pretty shameful.

 

With the Scottish domestic scene so poorly regarded – rightly or wrongly - by the rest of the world, what Rangers do in UEFA competition shows my club in the starkest relief. That’s where we can be truly, objectively judged as a football entity. At Ibrox, not winning the SPL is failure, no matter how close we come. In Europe we don’t have to win a trophy or even reach the semis to demonstrate competence or even greatness. We just have to compete with the best. Compete. It’s on the international club scene that the relative greatness of any Rangers side is gauged in a true light, one which reflects on Scotland as a whole. Continental football is, if you like, the only arena available to Rangers which is consistently big enough for our ambitions and for our sense of our selves.

 

But the contextualising comes later in life. Declaring it the big boy’s playground is only the self-justification of an adult who still goes weak at the knees when the Zetas, Zenits and Crvena Zvezda Beograds of this planet come to town. No offence to Hamilton Accies but familiarity does breed a certain amount of contempt. With European football, especially home matches in UEFA competition, it’s the subtle changes to a familiar setting which excite. The proximity of the exotic is intoxicating. It’s like concert-going – some acts are less well known but, like seeing Gillian Welch at the Barrowlands, rock your boat particularly hard because you know and love their work so well. Barcelona at Ibrox is like having U2 in your living room.

 

To pick one Ibrox European night out of them all is difficult. I remember my dad getting me out my bed, when I was 8 years old, to watch the BBC Scotland Sportscene highlights of us beating Juventus in 1978/79. Even though Ibrox was 30% rubble for that game, the floodlights, Juve’s strip, Rangers in ALL-blue, the foreign ref - this was all as visceral as the result. I remember being so chuffed that, in the next round, we became the first team to beat PSV in Eindhoven and I’ll never forget the utter emptiness of the Thursday night home leg against Cologne – the weather delaying the European Cup quarter-final just heightened the tension. I watched it live on the telly at my Gran’s and vividly recall sitting on her living room carpet, devestated. Dieter Muller introduced me to the dark emptiness of conceding the away goal. By age 9 I knew exactly what the European Cup was and how it related to the other European trophies. And not just because my cousin was a Celtic fan.

 

I was 15 before I had a first-hand experience of Ibrox Euro nights. Internazionale of Milan in 1984. A pivotal moment in my life. The teenage me also had tickets for U2 at the Barrowlands that night – friends had arranged a bus to the gig and as I was the guy who’d introduced Under A Blood Red Sky to the entire school, there was an expectation that I’d be first name on the list. Rangers were 3-0 down from the first leg and I had, at that point, every U2 single and album ever released. I had another 3 years of U2 fandom ahead of me but their Joshua Tree tour and album was the last I paid them any attention. I’ve been to a total of ten concerts in my entire life to date. Something inside me in 1984 already knew this was how it would go and why. Bono and The Edge made history in Glasgow that night – Rangers didn’t. But I wouldn’t have swapped places with my musical mates for the world. My aunt and uncle took me to see Inter in Govan and it was a magical occasion. Maybe it was the fact Karl-Heinz Rummennigge, Liam Brady, Giuseppe Bergomi and Alessandro Altobelli – who’d scored in the 1982 World Cup final and scored against us that night - were all on the pitch or perhaps the fact Rangers wore white and Inter were in their famous nerazzuri home strip … it was more likely the fact Rangers won 3-1 on the night and gave us all a great buzz – but I was hooked forever.

 

Inter killed the tie in the first half after we’d got off to a great start and you got the impression they could score any time they wanted to. When we went 3-1 up, Rummenigge strolled up the pitch from centre, with Craig Paterson and co all unable to stop him, waltzed to the edge of the box and crashed one off the under-side of the bar. It was a message to say “by all means have your night in front of your fans - but don’t get too uppity” but the message I got was that this was the level I wanted to see Rangers live at. The ground was far from full and we were never seriously going through and, in all honesty, the Aberdeen or Dundee United sides of that time could well have put Inter out - but the atmosphere was electric and the glamour of the whole night consumed me. Frank McDougal and Davie Dodds were just annoying localish bampots playing for north eastern upstarts. Bergomi and Rummenigge were gods, playing for a club used to fielding nothing else.

 

If that diluted first taste of Europe had left me so exhilirated I could only imagine what it must be like to be seriously challenging for a place in a European final. I was born too late to remember anything about Rangers winning the 1971/72 European Cup Winners Cup but while being top of the pile in Scotland is an essential minimum for a happy life, the rest of my Rangers-supporting existence has been largely up or down dependant on how close we’ve come to recreating that continental success.

 

My instinctive generic memory of Rangers at Ibrox is the thrill of the teams coming down the tunnel and, unfortunately, conceding away goals. That gut-wrenching moment where, in a 40,000+ crowd you actually hear the ball swish the rigging because everyone’s holding their breath. It always seemed like the same goal we lost too. No matter the opponent – Italian, Czech, Russian or Greek – in my black recollections it was always some wee tricky midfield ponce stroking a daisy-cutter from one corner of our box into the opposite bottom corner of the net. There was the feeling that the “real” European sides always kept a clean sheet at home. We rarely managed this and I thought it symptomatic of our inability to reach a respectable level in Europe on a regular basis.

 

In that case the home games of our run to the 2008 UEFA Cup final Manchester should provide my favourite Ibrox Euro night memories. To see my team finally shut up shop completely, and not through intimidation or brutality but just sheer defensive class - the very aspect of the game my club is most renowned for – was the proudest moment of my Gers-supporting career.  But it was a four-match “moment”. It was a four month “moment” and, apart from the Werder Bremen destruction - the night I saw for the first time in my Ibrox-attending life that Rangers were proper, serious, gut-instinct candidates to make a European final - the games were so tension-filled that no real celebrating took place.

 

Panathinaikos, Werder, Sporting Lisbon and Fiorentina at Ibrox were all first legs. So as classily competent as the team was, there was no finality or decisiveness about those games and, to be honest, the further Rangers got in the 2007/2008 UEFA Cup the more junketeers and tourists seemed to appear in the stands as the tickets got more expensive. I’d spent my entire adult life dreaming of a Rangers team which could keep a clean sheet at home and would play European nights WITHOUT floodlights – not because it was a July pre-qualifier but because it was an April/May semi-final – and here it was; here we were not losing a goal in ANY of our UEFA Cup home games and keeping a clean sheet against Zeta, Red Star Belgrade and Barce-flippin-lona in our earlier Champions League campaign, here we were in our first European semi-final for 36 years and the team were being BOOED OFF THE PITCH at half-time! That spoils the Ibrox memories of a momentous run.

 

Objectively, the best European run of my life did not end in a final appearance. In the first season of the Champions League Rangers elminiated Leeds United in the qualifiers. This cross-border clash ensured we became the first British team to set foot in the most lucrative club competition of them all and we didn’t lose a game all season. The noise at Ibrox against Leeds was the loudest I’ve ever experienced and that run was the closest our club has ever come to getting the one remaining monkey off our backs – Celtic have won the European Cup and we haven’t. Two groups of four, the winners went through to the final. In the only season of the Champions League where group runners-up got nothing, Rangers finished second in the group. In the first match we came from 2 down to draw with eventual trophy-winners Marseille and we didn’t lose home or away to the French giants, Brugges or CSKA Moscow. One more goal in France, in our penultimate match, and we’d have been in our first ever European Cup final, the first ever Champions League final - and we’d have played Milan exactly the same way Marseille played them in Munich but … hey …

 

My favourite Ibrox European goal was Scott Nisbett’s against Brugge in that 92/93 season. It was a cross-cum-tackle which took a freakish bounce on a night we were down to ten men and trying to hold on for a draw in the pissing Glasgow rain. We won and that super non-strike summed up the pluckiness and grit of that side – their refusal to let what others saw as “silky smooth style” intimidate them from their very real talents – and duly put us closer than we’ve ever been to the biggest club game in the world. Every time I see it replayed on telly – the surprise in the face of the Brugge keeper, the commentator’s voice and the swelling Ibrox roar - it brings a lump to the throat as the combined senses of vindication, ecstasy and relief come flooding back. We wore, that season, one of the few away strips we’ve ever had which instantly looks like a Rangers strip and battled on to override our naivety with true determination and esprit de corps.

 

There was a real feeling of “what the hell” about 1992/93 (it created an expectation the nine-in-a-row team could never live up to again) and, of course, everyone feels that one more goal in Marseille would have set us up for an inevitably poetic equalling of Celtic’s 1967 triumph: We were in the middle of winning a  domestic treble, also during a run of nine-in-a-row league titles – all as per Jock Stein’s Lisbon Lions - and we should play Milan while they’d played Inter. But a set of personal circumstances meant I didn’t get to the Brugge or CSKA Moscow games that season: I just watched them on telly. It’s as a result of how I felt missing those games that I’ve never missed another home Champions League game, be it group stage, knock-out or qualifyer. First thing I tick on the season ticket renewal form every summer is “all home European games”.

 

The night we drew 1-1 with Inter to become the first Scottish Club to progress to the knock-out stages of the Champions League is up there. It was a moment of personal catharsis because it was Inter, the club I’d seen on my first ever European night at Ibrox, 21 years previously.  They were already through and their fans were magnificently sporting at the end. It was a beautiful night but for me there was a slight sense of anti-climax. This was a moment I’d lived for – a stage of obvious competence I’d wanted so badly for so long for Rangers. The pain and longing was exacerbated by the attendant increased publicity around European club football after 1991, all games live on the television and Ibrox close to sold out for every clash.  By the time it happened I felt like I was never going to see Rangers get out of a European group stage. Before that 2005/2006 campaign we’d reached the group stages of the Champions League SIX times without progressing and, just to put the boot in, the previous season saw us in the UEFA Cup’s newly conceived Group Stage: We won the first two games by an aggregate of 8-0, there were 5 teams in the group, three teams went through and we only had two more games to play yet we STILL failed to flippin’ qualify!

 

So by the time the final whistle had gone for the Inter match the following season and the whole stadium waited to hear if the Artmedia-Porto game in Bratislava had gone our way, I was ready to faint with the tension (just as well they didn’t show the game live on the Ibrox big screens because Porto had a shot from ten yards into an empty net which would have put us out but the ball stuck in the Tehelne Pole mud, a yard from the goal-line. That would have killed me stone dead). I’d always imagined it would be like this when we finally did make it through – I always imagined it’d go right down to the last kick of the group. But I’d also imagined Ibrox would go utterly bonkers – absolutely crazy – that the team would do two or three laps of honour and that no-one would want to go home.The final whistle went in Slovakia. We were through. Thirteen years of hurt evaporated. Ibrox did erupt and I did go bonkers. The players … gave us a wave and everyone went home. That was it. Over. I was utterly underwhelmed. The grief we’d been through with the Champions League – the desperate search for the right manager, the profligate splattering of cash at every European journeyman pro we could find, the slaughterings by the Scottish media and rival fans, our Chief Executive Campbell Ogilvie helping to invent the flamin’ tournament itself - all this seemed to indicate that we were DESPERATE to get out of a Champions League group. All this seemed to indicate that we’d be ECSTATIC to finally do so. And yet there was barely as much as a song or a lap of honour when we finally managed it. Just a cheer, a wave and Ibrox emptied only slightly slower than it did when we threw away a 2-goal lead against Falkirk three days earlier. Maybe everyone else knew what I was about to find out – that qualifying for the knock-out stages wasn’t half as bloody exciting as playing in them:

 

Perhaps it’s because I spend too much time obsessing about Rangers in Europe, too much time fantasising about order and efficiency, maintaining clean sheets at home and mapping out a realistic strategy for making the final of a European comeptition. Perhaps I think about it so much every season that my favourite European night at Ibrox was one which just blew the socks off me, and evaporated all my expectations. Getting through a Champions League Group stage took us 13 years of trying and 13 years of heart-ache. We would either go out by the skin of our teeth, all guns blazing like we did to CSKA Moscow in 1993 or at Bayern in 1999/2000. Or we’d be utterly humiliated and never at the races as when Panathinaikos were thumping us 3-1, with goals from the half-way line and Juventus were inflicting our record Ibrox European defeat as back-up goalie Billy Thomson rolled about flapping at ever more distant Italian legs in the Broomloan Road goalmouth. Either way, it was a story of unending pain and misery. So when we eventually did get through, I wanted an insurance policy against elimination. I wanted us to get the biggest and best of opponents so that we’d be in a no-lose situation. We’d earned that right.

 

The 1992/93 campaign was actually our most successful ECL ride ever – we finished second in one of two quarter-final groups and were, in Marseille, just a goal away from the European Cup final, but the early format meant we still didn’t get out of the group. The 2005/2006 progression was as symbolic as it was financially vital. But it was a major moment in Scottish football history. So I didn’t want Villarreal in the last 16. I wanted a team who were objectively regarded as bigger and better than Rangers on all fronts. I wanted a team with a long European history. I wanted no pressure or real expectation on Rangers and I wanted an away trip to a smashing big super stadium. I wanted Milan, Barca, Benfica, Bayern, Liverpool, Arsenal, Ajax or Juventus. In fact there were only two sides in the last 16 draw that season who had never previously made a European final. One was Lyon, a team already synonymous with the Champions League itself. The other was Villarreal who’d done nothing other than knock Celtic out the UEFA Cup two seasons previously.

 

When the last 16 draw was made I was sat at my anodyne desk in that big open-plan office in which we’ve all entered data at one time or another, waiting for news from the one manager in our office allowed access to the internet. She had the UEFA.com website up and a female Rangers-supporting friend would run from that PC round to my corner of the office as soon as we were picked out the Nyon bowls:

 

HER: “Alex, it’s Valencia!!”

 

ME: “Oh, interesting  … wait … What? Valencia urnae in it!!” (she runs back round the corner then, after 30 seconds, re-appears)

 

HER: “No – it’s Liverpool!”

 

ME: “Damn! Well …Okay – but that means possible trouble when we go down to Merseyside. Mmmm. Okay though.”

 

HER: “No. Wait a minute – Liverpool drew Benfica … hang on …”

 

ME: “What the fu…” By this time I was climbing the walls and my Celtic-supporting colleagues were on the floor. She re-appears, knackered:

 

HER: “It’s Villarreal – I knew it was a team with Vs and Ls in their name – it’s Villarreal!”

 

ME: “Ach, shite!”

 

I knew Villarreal were a hell of a side but I was scared their small ground and their lack of any trophy-winning history, especially in Europe, would allow people to think Rangers were favourites. I knew we were playing a top Liga team, a world class side - it was as simple and dangerous as that – but I worried that the fact it wasn’t Real Madrid or Barcelona would put The Teddy Bears (The Gers) under unrealistic pressure. Also, I wanted just a little more glamour. I wanted a more famous club. The fact that Villarreal had beaten Everton in the qualifying rounds and eliminated Manchester United from a group stage in which the Spaniards conceded just one goal, actually seemd a bit lost on me, for all my worrying about properly contextualising our opponent.

 

What happened though was that the lack of history behind the club known as the yellow submarine, allowed every Rangers fan to focus clearly on the quality of the actual playing staff we were up against and to drink in the occassion itself. At Ibrox that night a damp, blustery dark February night, I finally got that feeling I’d been so dissapointed to find the Inter game lacked. The moment of finally qualifying for the knock-out stages was an anti-climax – the moment of actually playing in those knock-out stages was like an electric current running through your body, for over 2 hours. I’ve rarey been so drawn into the moment, hardly ever so enveloped in a game and an event. Everyone else watched La Liga on Sky every Sunday night. Most Bluenoses knew more about Villarreal than I did and all my worry about under-estimating them proved to be self-involved, over-anxious piffle. Ibrox rocked from beginning to end. Not always in a good way – Alex McLeish was under real pressure as manager that season and there was frustration at the failure to introduce Belgian trickster Thomas Buffel to the action earlier  – but this crazy, helter-skelter season had been building up to this tie, this moment in time.

 

I was already booked up for the away leg at El Madrigal and I just wanted us to go over there with a fighting chance. It turned out both games would be epic. Both score draws which could have gone either way. That they didn’t and that Villarreal managed one more away goal than us is because they were the better side, no argument, but Rangers lived with them – Rangers scared the living daylights out of them and I’ve rarely been prouder of us. But that was a matter of reflection – the Ibrox first leg allowed no such luxury.

 

This was a monster tie for both clubs. Considering Villarreal had Riquelme, Juan Pablo Sorin, Marcos Senna and Diego Forlan in their team – guys who were or would become captains of Argentina, European Championship-winning naturalised Brazilians, top scorers at World Cup finals – and Rangers had wee Stevie Smith and Chris Burke playing, we were the team living up to the occasion more spectacularly. And the occassion was living up to and beyond everything I’d ever dreamed of. The Champions League knock-out stages exceeded my expectations of them. This was one occasion I just couldn’t think myself out of, worry my way through or calculate Rangers around. We were past the point in the competition of “coming up short”, all that was left was glory. This was just great fun. End of.

 

Our big Croat striker Dado Prso, scorer of four goals in a single Champions League match for Monaco against deportivo La Coruna, decided to handle the ball in his own box in the first seven minutes. Villarreal scored their penalty. A player I adored – a player so reliable for Rangers – had a brainstorm and cost us. It was that kind of game. Chris Burke – a player I never really warmed to and whose attitude I trusted as little as his fortitude -  dribbled, kicked and punched his way through the middle of a South American international-laden midfield and defence to tee up Peter Lovenkrands for an absolute barn-stormer of an equaliser. It was THAT kind of game. Burke was amazing. He tore their Argentine captain, Arruabarrena to pieces and he had to be replaced by Juan Pablo Sorin … the actual captain of Argentina.

 

Diego Forlan looked a mile offside as our stoppers, Kyrgiakos and Rodriguez stood and watched him waltz the ball into our goal. The referee gave it and in the stands we all just looked at each other, dumbfounded. It was only when we got home and watched the highlights on STV and the new offside laws about passive and active play were explained to us that we realised the ref and his linesmen were also world class. Kind of. Villarreal had the ball in our net twice more – at least one of them should have been allowed. Rangers had a clear penalty denied for a Villarreal hand-ball in the last seconds but not before we’d equalised, for a second time, through a Pena own goal in the 82nd minute. Alex McLeish turned the game into a battle we could compete in, rather than an on-the-deck exhibition of passing and dribbling which Villarreal would cruise through. The clash of styles was as aesthetically pleasing as it was intellectually engrossing. And a Rangers team which had heard fan protests outside the main doors of Ibrox in December went out there and got steamed in with the never-say-die attitude which coarsed through the stands.

 

In all my worrying about this game from the moment the draw had been made I’d actually done myself a favour. I’d convinced myself we were playing a club we’d get no credit for beating but who had so much more money and resources than us because of the league they played in. I’d become so neagtive about the match that when I walked into the Govan Rear stand that night and took my seat, the whole occasion just ambushed me. There was no goal-difference, points or co-efficients to fret over. There was little point in considering quarter-final opponents or beyond. Rangers were, finally, just slap-bang in the middle of the business end of the Champions League and we had to sink or swim. This was so captivatingly momentous that you couldn’t think beyond this 90 minutes and the pace of the game, the desire of both clubs (both were playing their first ever match in the Champions League knock-out stages) forced all extraneous thoughts and worries from your head. It was visceral. Just as I thought there were no secrets in UEFA competition anymore I discovered I wasn’t as smart as all that:

 

Villarreal, El Submarino Amarillo, werent Spanish after all. They came from a new country – the hinterland of all the big leagues where money you have now means more than histroy you didn’t have yesterday. These clubs are the glamorous names of tomorrow and the dazzling all-yellow fatigues of Villareal’s polyglot Latin mercenaries rung as true as the all-white of Real Madrid, the black and white stripes of Juventus or the big red bib of Ajax. It was the perfect counterpoint to the traditional Rangers home strip our own polyglot mercenaries wore that night. The Red and Black socks with the white shorts went out and got ripped into an emerging European force of stars. That buzz I had as a kid when Gordon Smith and Alex MacDonald turned over Juventus – that buzz was back. The 2-2 draw with Villarreal on 22nd February 2006 is my favourite European night at Ibrox so far.

 

But that’s only half the story – half of a story which, I promise you, does include Slovakian football at some point.

Alex Anderson

 

 


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Dec 22 2011

Slovakia Footballing Review of the Year 2011

Published by under Uncategorized

There’ll probably be plenty of publications and blogs doing a review of the year in whatever their field of interest is, so I thought I’d have a go at one for Slovak football. The format – the best, the worst, and hopes for 2012 – is influenced by When Saturday Comes.

Best

Let’s be honest, 2011 was hardly a vintage year. In fact, I’d say that only those associated with Slovan Bratislava would even dignify it with the word ‘good’. Slovan won the 2010/2011 Corgoň Liga title with ease, thanks to a spring surge of 14 wins from 15 matches and are handily placed, just one point behind Žilina, as the current season enters the winter break. They also performed reasonably well in Europa League Group F, their first ever experience of a European group stage, but were unable to improve on their greatest result of the year – the remarkable aggregate victory over AS Roma in the final round of qualifying back in August.

Elsewhere, Trenčín, who secured the 2010/2011 I Liga title and had a decent enough autumn back in the Corgoň Liga, will be happy with their year. So will Zlaté Moravce, a small-town club with an excellent coach and ever-improving team. And Miroslav Karhan’s signing for Trnava  has not only been key to his side figuring prominently in the title race, it has also provided fans with a player who justifies the admission money all by himself.

But the best moment of the year for me was Karim Guédé’s selection for the Slovak national team. The significance of this is mainly symbolic for now but Guédé definitely justifies his inclusion for his commitment and ability ; hopefully Slovakia will benefit from his on-field presence over the coming years. In any case, the symbolism is no small thing in itself, considering that this is the country associated with one of the most notorious incidences of football-related racism of the current millennium.

Worst

Guédé apart, the national team have provided little to feel positive about. Amongst other defeats, they have been embarrassed in the fog by Luxemburg and thrashed at home by unheralded Armenia. Two of the three games they did manage to win were against Andorra and both were depressingly poor affairs. Talk of disunity in the camp never quite went away, nor did rumours that coach Vladimír Weiss has his favourites. Towards the end of the year, there was even speculation about Weiss’s own future, though, for reasons we’ll come to, the SFZ can hardly afford to sack him. Slovakia is, as Weiss likes to remind us, a small country and probably should not expect qualification for every major tournament, yet there is a definite sense that a lot of the good work he and his players did in getting to the last 16 of the 2010 World Cup has been allowed to go to waste.

The poor financial state of the game also raises concern. Ján Kovačík, president of the national association (SFZ), admitted this week that cash-flow is such a problem that only ‘essential’ costs – including the salaries of lower-paid employees – can currently be met. Weiss himself has not been paid for four months. The national stadium project is, needless to say, as far from realisation now as it has ever been. Kovačík even suggested that, if (and ‘if’ is the key word here too) Slovan owner Ivan Kmotrík gets round to building a ground for his club, the SFZ may abandon its own stadium plans. Economic strife at the SFZ also has echoes at two of Slovakia’s better-known clubs ; DAC Dunajská Streda and Petržalka have both been unable to pay their players over the last few months.

But my worst moment of 2011 came in early April, courtesy of Žilina fan Ľubomír Krajčík. His assault on assistant referee Roman Slyško, which led to the premature abandonment of the Žilina-Slovan fixture, was the sort of act of violence that has no place at any sporting venue. The aftermath – including attempts by Žilina players to persuade Slyško and his fellow officials to continue the game, the ham-fisted attempt at an ‘explanation‘ by owner Jozef Antošík and the bizarre apology made by referee Pavol Chmura for two marginal decisions which went against Žilina during the game – was equally dispiriting. And the fact that Krajčík is still allowed to attend matches shows the lack of seriousness with which the authorities view such incidents.

Hopes

It would be deluded to hope for progress on a national stadium so I won’t linger on that question. Hopefully, it’s not too much to ask that the national team start entertaining us and enjoying their football again, whether or not it’s under Weiss.

As for the Corgoň Liga, I would like to see a closely-fought championship race with the best team prevailing fairly, and a lot less talk of conspiracies than was heard last season. One thing that might help raise the standard of domestic football would be at least some of the Slovan players who figured in the Europa League agreeing to stay with the club. Younger team-mates might learn from their experience and opponents would have to raise their games against them. And if a Slovak club could progress to a group stage when next autumn comes round, it would improve a record that’s already beginning to look quite respectable. After Artmedia (2005) and the Žilina teams of 2008 and 2010, Slovan this year became the fourth Slovak side in seven years to still be playing European football in December. Perhaps even more important than any of the above is that Petržalka and DAC secure their immediate futures.

Finally, whatever is ahead of us football-wise in 2012, I hope it will be a happy year for all readers.

James Baxter

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Dec 16 2011

Slovan Bratislava 2-3 Red Bull Salzburg

Published by under European

“Three Unnecessary Goals”

was the headline carried by Dennik Sport next to an interview with Slovan coach Vladimir Weiss yesterday in response to his team’s disappointing end to their European adventure here in Bratislava on Wednesday night.

When the Europa League Group F fixtures were arranged back at the end of the summer, several thoughts crossed my mind when I realised that this was one of the two group stage matches I’d be able to attend. Primarily, that it would most likely be a dead rubber of a match, played out in front of next to no-one on a freezing cold, dark winter’s night at Pasienky.  In reality, it wasn’t that bad.  Salzburg had everything to play for in terms of qualification, Slovan had pride to play for and the hope they could add to their solitary group stage point with one last opportunity to top up the coffers ahead of the winter transfer window.  In terms of the conditions, well it was a far cry from the summer evening qualifiers against Tobol Kostonay & APOEL Nicosia but it could have been a whole lot worse.  A dry night, with the temperature above freezing was all we could ask for ahead of the latest ever competitive fixture to be played outdoors in modern-day Slovakia (14.12 was a few days later than Zilina v Spartak Moscow last season).

European Football in Bratislava

James Baxter penned the preview to this match, identifying some of the personnel likely to be missed by Slovan tonight.  Namely Marko Milinkovic and Momodou Bagayoko, certainly the Ivorian would have made a big difference tonight.  In terms of the result James predicted a single goal away victory and in that respect wasn’t too far off the mark.  I don’t think anyone could have expected the match to unfold quite the way it did though!

James had travelled down from Zilina for only his second taste taste of European football this season, and arrived in time for a few ‘warmers’ on the Bratislava Christmas Market prior to kick-off.  No sign of any football fans there, but we’d heard that a good crowd could be expected from Salzburg, 960 tickets having been requested by the Austrians. Fortunately some insider knowledge drew us to the best punch on offer, and we were suitably warmed well ahead of the 19.00 kick-off time.

Vouchers were exchanged at the gate with the minimum of hassle, and as we made our way around to our seats, we speculated as to whether we’d take an alcohol-free beer or a tea prior to kick-off.  It being a competitive European match at low-grade Pasineky, with travelling supporters no-less, I certainly didn’t expect to be served any alcohol.  Tea was decided upon, but much to our delight ‘vereny vino’ was on offer, and real beer too.  Hot wine in hand, we knew we were one of the first 1,000 spectators in the ground – we had the free stickers to prove it. The crowd was looking pitiful as the players made their way in from the warm up, there were still barely a thousand people in the ground.

Europa League in Bratislava

You really didn’t want to be a late-comer at this match.  Surely a large majority of the crowd missed either one or both of Slovan’s goals as they made their way in from the warmth of the pubs.  Slovan took the fastest ever 2-goal lead in the Europa League proper with both goals coming from Miloš Lačný inside 6 minutes.  For the first, good pressure from Slovan down the left together with some indecisive defensive play saw Lačný rob the right-back of the ball, a challenge which was disputed by the Austrians, and calmy finish past keeper Alexander Walke. The second wasn’t all too disimilar, although this was created by a fantastic through ball from Marian Had, and Walke would surely have been disappointed by his feeble attempt at saving Lačný’s shot.  Maybe he’d been watching videos of Lačný since he arrived at Slovan and wasn’t expecting quite as much power, or accuracy on the shot…

So, Slovan were 2-0 up after 6 minutes.  And that was as good as it got.  Vladimir Weiss’ best moments as a coach with Slovan or Slovakia have come by grinding down better opposition with a solid defensive performance and then hitting them late on with a vital winner.  The situation here was exactly the opposite of how Slovan usually go into games.  With Lačný, Sebo & Halenar in the starting XI, the intentions clearly weren’t all defensive tonight, but if 2 goals for Slovan had been offered before the match, you’d take them no question, regardless of the goal-times, so now it was time for the solid defensive bit.

Salzburg’s first goal came from the penalty spot on 19 minutes.  A free-kick on the edge of the box was lofted towards the goal by Jakob Jantscher and it caught Karim Guede’s hand.  To be fair, the wall was probably encroaching, and Guede’s hand was up and the ball struck it.  In real-time it was hard to spot, but the shot was probably on target, so there can’t be many arguments about the decision.  Some get given, others don’t, but it was 2-1.   Salzburg’s equaliser was where Bagayoko would have come in handy.  His replacement Kristián Kolčák was caught playing the ‘B-level’ football he is more familiar with, and played a ridiculously sloppy pass out to Red Bull’s dangerous Brazilian Leonardo.  Leonardo picked up the pass, ran at ease past Klabrusky and the rest of Slovan’s defense who were retreating badly, and slotted impressively past Hrosso, 2-2 before we knew it.  You will never get away with this kind of football in Europe, this was embarrassing defending.  Weiss was obviously fuming but there was little he could do from the side-lines.  Kolčák is not a bad player in terms of technique but he lacks experience and physique.  He was badly exposed here and when a player like Leonardo starts running at a Slovak defence, there will only be one outcome.

“MIT TRADITION UND HERZ GEGEN KOMMERZ” was the message from the Slovan fans’ to the visitors away to our left.  The visiting Austrians probably did number around 900 and some of them kept singing throughout.  Not the kind of noise 900 visiting Germans or Rapid Wien fans would generate but it is clear the commercial club who played most of their matches in front of a half-empty stadium have fans who are willing to travel.

Slovan fans try to make amends with Andy Hudson

I don’t think there could have been anything more welcome than another hot wine at half time, but we knew it was only a matter of when Salzburg would take the lead and how many they would score in the second half.   The goal was always going to come, but did it really need to come in such a fashion, just 6 minutes after half time? Filip Sebo lost the ball in midfield, and the resulting attack led to Jantscher’s cross being turned into his own net by Marion Had.  If he’d have left it, there would have been no danger, if he’d have booted it out of the ground, it would also have been fine, but Had tried to do something delicate, and the result basically completed the compilation of shocking defensive moments by Slovan in Europe this season.

Slovan did create a few more chances, one 3 against 2 opportunity was very reminiscent of the way they failed to score against 9 men of PSG.  But the matched petered out with the result exactly as required by Salzburg.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when Lukas Hartig came on towards the end.  We now had 4 strikers on the field, I think that’s the first time I’d ever seen that from Slovan. Playing a 4-2-4 formation we totally lost our structure and never looked like scoring.

"We Love Red Bull"

Salzburg celebrated with their fans as Guede limped away from the bench, the players now have 3 weeks rest before the January preparations begin, but Slovan looked shattered.  They gave their all again, but came up short, especially defensively, but also tactically.  We’ve seen it before, there are glimpses of quality, but wild inconsistency like this is what has led to Slovan finishing bottom of the group with just the 1 point.

Their achievements have netted them €1.07 Million, nothing by European standards, but still something in Slovakia.  The question is how they shape up come Spring.  Contracts need to be renegotiated, some players need to be released and others signed to be in a stronger position going into Europe next season.  For now, a stadium worthy of European football and performances to match the achievements of Legia Warsaw, Wisla Krakow and Viktoria Plzen remain a distant dream here in Bratislava …


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Dec 12 2011

Slovan v Salzburg Preview

Published by under European

When Slovan Bratislava completed their remarkable aggregate victory over AS Roma in the last round of Europa League qualifying back in August, they were no doubt dreaming of further glamour and glories to come. They probably did not give much thought to the prospect of battling away with a bunch of fellow central Europeans on a long, dark December night at Pasienky. Such is reality, however, as Slovan conclude their Group F campaign this Wednesday at home to Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg.

The tie may lack glamour but at least it isn’t devoid of interest. Salzburg, surprisingly, have an excellent chance of progressing to the knock-out stages and will do so if they win or, alternatively, equal Paris St Germain’s result against Athletic Bilbao. Slovan cannot qualify but will be keen to complete a largely creditable group stage showing on a positive note, as well as to atone for the 3-0 defeat they suffered in the reverse fixture in late September.

There is little doubt that Salzburg was the scene of Slovan’s poorest Europa League showing thus far. Having competed on even terms in the first-half, they capitulated in the second, providing a stark contrast to the resilient performances, both home and away, against Bilbao and PSG. The last game, in Bilbao’s atmospheric San Mamés stadium, definitely suggested that Slovan are learning how to play European football. They fell behind to Bilbao’s first really threatening attack of the game but responded with a performance which combined sensible defending with enough dangerous attacks to keep the Basques on the alert. The last 15 minutes of the first-half were dominated by the Slovak team. Juraj Halenár hit the bar with a superb strike from a free-kick and Filip Šebo, exploiting the space behind the home defence as they pressed a little too high up the pitch, scored a well-taken equaliser. The start of the second-half was fairly even but Bilbao’s superior skill came more and more to the fore as it went on and they just about deserved their winning goal, scored 15 minutes from the end.

It is arguable whether the bigger disappointment for Slovan in Bilbao lay in the result or in the fact that Mamadou Bagayoko and Marko Milinković picked up their third bookings of the stage and will have to miss the Salzburg match. Bagayoko has been arguably the team’s best player in Europe this season and his pace and energy up and down the right flank will be difficult to replace. Presumably, one of Ivo Taborský, Lukáš Pauschek or Kristián Kolčák, all of whom have played at left-back at various points in the tournament, will be asked to make the switch to the right, while Marián Had and Martin Dobrotka continue their (mostly) solid central defensive partnership.

Milinković is one of those players who never seems to be in a hurry but is more capable than most of opening up a defence with a touch of finesse. Erik Grendel comes closest to replicating his qualities and will probably join Halenár and Igor Žofčák in an attacking midfield trio behind lone-striker Šebo. As for the area between them and the back four, Karim Guédé failed in what appeared to be his mission to pick up a third yellow card of his own in Bilbao, and thus should take his place alongside Jiří Kladrubský.

Though it’s likely to be a cold night with little glamour or romance in the air, I have a feeling we could be in for a decent game on Wednesday. Slovan should have that end of term feeling about them which often causes teams to play with greater freedom, and their efforts in Bilbao ought to have finally convinced them that they are capable of troubling the defences of some of Europe’s better teams. Halenár, with his readiness to join Šebo in attack whenever possible, as well as his longer experience of European football, seems to be key to their best football going forward and may be thinking it’s high time he registered a goal in this competition. If Slovan do bow out of Group F with a strong performance on Wednesday, they will leave us wondering what they might do if, as they surely will, they find themselves in Europe again next season and some of the current squad stick around.

For all that, though, Salzburg are the ones with the bigger motivation. With their corporate identity and three-quarters empty ground, they might be an unloved club but at least they can’t be accused, unlike some, of disdaining the Europa League. Having got slightly the better of their two clashes with PSG, drawn in Bilbao and beaten Slovan at home, they will now be keen to finish the job and progress to the last 32. Also, their Slovak winger Dušan Švento will have an added incentive to do well, given his long-running feud with Slovan coach Vladimír Weiss. It will be a lot closer than in Austria but I think Salzburg will have just about enough to ensure their continued participation in the competition.

Prediction : Slovan 1 Salzburg 2

James Baxter

James also recently posted a Corgon Liga mid-season review over on SFUnion.

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