Archive for June, 2012

Jun 29 2012

European Draw Reaction

Published by under European

 

If you didn’t already know the European competitions were bloated, overblown affairs, the fact that the draws for this season’s have just been made – just a month or so after the last campaign’s finals – should put you in the picture. And yet, while I’m increasingly resistant to the hype and big-business aspects of these tournaments, I love the draws for the early rounds. When your team’s name is going into the hat alongside those of, say,Albania’s Skenderbeu Korce, or Kups Kuopio of Finland, you know you’re embarking on an exotic adventure. It’s not going to end in glorious victory eleven months on, but there might be some fun along the way.

 

Aspects of these draws have come to resemble a reunion. I’ve been paying attention to them for 13 years now, ever since the one that paired Sigma Olomouc with Sheriff Tiraspol in the 1999/2000 UEFA Cup. Sheriff always finish in Moldova’s top two so are no strangers to the early European rounds. They’re in the Champions League this season and will travel to Armenia on the 17th or 18th July for the first leg of their tie with FC Ulisses. FC Zestafoni (of Georgia) and FK Ventspils (of Latvia) are two other perennials of the draws, like former schoolmates who never miss the annual get-together. And every year, there are clubs who may have entered the competitions before, but whose names seem new, like CS Grevenmacher (from Luxembourg) or JJK Jyväskylä (Finland again). A groundhop that took in some of these outfits would be a wonderful thing indeed.

 

Slovakia’s representatives in this season’s competitions face, on balance, difficult qualifying round games, champions Žilina perhaps most of all. Their opponents in the Champions League second qualifying round are Israeli side Hapoel Ironi Kirjat Shmona. Hapoel (as I shall be calling them from now on) were founded in 2000 and won the first domestic title in their short history last season. The basis of their success is surely the wealth of owner Izzy Sheratzky, whose firm makes GPS systems and tracking devices for finding stolen cars. The squad has three Israeli internationals within it, as well as players from Argentina, Macedonia and Serbia. Captain Adrian Rochet insists that the real star last season was coach Ran Ben Shimon, but he has since moved on, to be replaced by Gili Landau. Žilina striker Tomáš Majtán admits that Hapoel were the opponents he and his team least wanted. It’s possible, then, that the Israelis, despite being unseeded in the draw, will start this tie as favourites.

 

Senica and Slovan Bratislava both face Hungarian opposition in the Europa League. Senica, who enter at the first qualifying round stage, are up against MTK Budapest. Both clubs were losing finalists in their respective domestic cup competitions last season, but MTK combined their knockout exploits with promotion from the second tier, to which they’d been relegated a year earlier. Established in 1888, and counting prominent members of the capital’s Jewish community among their founders, MTK have a rich history, which also includes 23 Hungarian championships. Their ground, the Hidegkuti Nándor Stadium, owes some of its fame to the film Escape to Victory, parts of which were shot there. On a personal note, I can also say that it’s one of the most ramshackle, weed-strewn venues I’ve ever visited and that the one game I’ve seen there – a 0-0 draw against Szombathely Haladás, played on an excrutiatingly cold day – is possibly the direst I’ve ever witnessed. Yet I’d go back like a shot! The first leg of the upcoming tie, which will be played in Slovakia, will be Zdeněk Psotka’s first competitive match in charge of Senica. As he says, the fact that (rather curiously) his side met MTK less than two weeks ago in a friendly at least gives him an idea of what to expect.

 

Slovan enter the Europa League one round later and find themselves up against Videoton Fehérvár, champions of Hungary in 2011 and runners-up last season. Like Žilina, you suspect that Slovan would have wished for a gentler beginning to their European campaign. Midfielder Marko Milinković is clearly anticipating two tough matches, suggesting that Videoton will be a stronger side than Győr, Slovan’s opponents in a January friendly. The Hungarian side is coached by Paolo Sousa, formerly of Swansea and Leicester, amongst others, and features several foreign players, including veteran defender Marco Caneira, winner of 25 Portugese international caps.

 

Slovan should play their first leg at home, but may switch their games, as Trnava are due to host their first leg against Ireland’s Sligo Rovers the same night. With respect to Sligo, who qualify by virtue of finishing second in the Irish league in the 2011 season, Spartak will probably be the happiest of the Slovak sides with the draw. Coach Pavel Hoftych is looking forward to the likely contrast between Sligo and the eastern European sides Trnava met in their run to last season’s Europa League play-off. As defender Luboš Hanzel points out, Hoftych will certainly ensure that Sligo are properly scouted. Given the chance, the Irish team enjoy scoring goals, as Galway United (beaten 8-0 and 7-1 in the 2011 campaign) will ruefully confirm. They may also enjoy a slight advantage in match fitness, as they are now approaching the halfway point of their league season, whereas the Slovak version will still be in its very early stages come mid-July. Even so, it would be a surprise if Trnava’s greater experience of European competition didn’t prevail over the coming two meetings.

 

 

Champions League 2nd Qualifying Round (17/18 and 24/25 July)

 

MŠK Žilina vs Hapoel Ironi Kirjat Shmona

 

Europa League 1st Qualifyng Round (5 and 12 July)

 

FK Senica vs MTK Budapest

 

Europa League 2nd Qualifyng Round (19 and 26 July)

 

Slovan Bratislava vs Videoton Fehérvár *

Spartak Trnava vs Sligo Rovers

 

*Venue of first leg to be confirmed.

 

 James Baxter

 

 

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Jun 18 2012

Zilina v Sigma Olomouc

Published by under Czech Republic

 

It was only a friendly, the sort of game I usually forget about within 24 hours of watching it, but Saturday’s Žilina v Sigma Olomouc fixture did have a certain personal significance for me. I lived in North Moravia for five years (1998-2003) and was a regular visitor to Sigma’s Andrův stadión. Now I live in Slovakia and have a season-ticket at Žilina. The two clubs have met many times in similar circumstances over the years – as well as being fairly close geographically, they have a good relationship and share similar outlooks – but this was the first encounter I’ve ever witnessed.

 

One thing Sigma cannot match is Žilina’s domestic success. But this, of course, can largely be put down to the greater depth of quality and more competitive nature of Czechfootball. Sigma are still a well-established club, with a fair claim to being the most stable in Moravia, and have a decent core support. They don’t have a fan-base to match, say, Baník Ostrava’s but the fans they do have don’t tend to desert them in droves when times are bad, as Baník’s have been known to do.

 

Yet inconsistency has been a characteristic of their on-field performance over the years. In 1997/1998, the season before I went to live in Moravia, they came third in the Gambrinus Liga. The five years I spent watching them saw them finish 4th, 12th, 3rd, 10th, and 11th. Even in the good years, they never quite looked like winning the title. Other teams were always a bit too good for them. Sparta Prague (inevitably) won four of the five championships during my time in the country. Other Prague clubs - Slavia, Bohemians and Viktoria Žižkov – also had good times around the turn of the millennium, as did provincial outfits like Slovan Liberec (champions in 2001/2002) and Teplice.

 

But Olomouc certainly provided a good production line of international players. I was lucky enough to see Tomáš Ujfaluši, Marek Heinz, David Rozehnal and Radoslav Kováč play Czech league football at, or near, the start of their careers. My favourite player was probably Stanislav Vlček, a wholehearted striker who went onto play for, amongst others, Slavia and Anderlecht. While with Sigma, he perfected the art of making runs down the inside-right channel and hitting shots across the goalkeeper. I soon lost count of the number of Gambrinus Liga goals he scored from this move. Sadly, he never made it work for him at international level, failing to score in his 14 appearances for his country.

 

Then there are those who have represented both Sigma and Žilina. Pavel Hapal, who returned to Olomouc in the spring of 1999 after spells with Bayer Leverkusen and CD Tenerife, was certainly one of the best players I ever saw in the Czech league. He clearly had the sort of football intelligence that transfers well to coaching and so it proved as he led Žilina to the 2009/2010 Corgoň Liga and then to the group stages of the following seasons Champions League. He brought David Kobylík, a former Sigma team-mate, toŽilina in his first season there. I remembered the 1999-2002 era Kobylík as a quick, tricky, tireless winger. At Žilina, he was clearly overweight (the result of a liking for pork and dumplings, I later heard) but classy with it. He was less reliant on one foot than most wingers, and his combinations with the full-backs, especially with Stanislav Angelovič down Žilina’s right, led to a lot of goals.

 

There were some fun European nights in Olomouc too. When I arrived, in 1998, Sigma had just dumped Kilmarnock out of the UEFA Cup and were awaiting a big tie with Marseille. The first leg, at the Andrův stadión, was a genuine classic, Heinz scoring twice to earn his team a 2-2 draw against a team featuring, among others, Robert Pires and Fabrizio Ravenelli. Olomouc lost the second leg 4-0, but even that was a better performance than Žilina would manage against the French side 12 years later. In 2001/2002, Sigma were drawn to face Celta Vigo. Having lost the first leg, 4-0 in Galicia, they quickly went 0-2 down in the return. Then, a remarkable 15-minute spellproduced four goals, including two for veteran midfielder Josef Mucha, and inspiredhopes that one of football’s greatest ever comebacks might be on the cards. It wasn’t of course ; Vigo made it 4-3 on the night, and breathed again.

 

These memories all came back as I was watching the current Olomouc team go through their paces on Saturday. It helped that Heinz, still (almost) as blond and youthful-looking as he was that night against Marseille, was in action. He now has a truly impressive list of previous employers, which includes clubs in Germany, France and Turkey. He was also the goalscoring hero of Ostrava’s 2003/2004 title-winning team and has 30 Czech Republic appearances (and 5 goals) to his credit. True to form, he had the final say against Žilina, rattling home a 90th minute shot to give his team a 2-2 draw. I’m not convinced they deserved it, as Žilina, for whom the very impressive Róbert Pich scored twice, had more of the play and chances. But who cares? I suspect the teams themselves won’t – both are still at a very early stage of their pre-season preparations. For me, it was relaxed, enjoyable fare in the mid-day sunshine, a bit like bringing old and new friends together and finding they get on well. Good luck to both clubs in the new season.

James Baxter

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Jun 11 2012

Slovak Close-Season Update Number 1!

Published by under Domestic

I’m under no illusions that anyone’s actually going to read this. We’re in June, Euro 2012 is in full-swing and the last Corgoň Liga season has barely finished. In fact, we are still in 2011/2012 in the III Liga and below.

But the close-season, at less than two thirds the length of the winter break, is short in Slovakia. Most top-flight clubs are back in training this week and some are already beginning the process of strengthening their squads ahead of July’s opening fixtures.

Most prominent among them, hardly surprisingly, is Slovan Bratislava. Disappointed with last season’s third-placed finish, Vladimír Weiss, who probably has his friendship with owner Ivan Kmotrík to thank for still being in a job, has been promising that seven or eight new players would be arriving over the summer.

Two are already signed up. The first is Filip Hlohovský, an attacking left-sided midfielder, who has arrived from Trenčín. With his accurate crossing, he provided several of his former club’s goals last season and should be a good addition, especially if Weiss also fields a striker with aerial prowess. Then there is Czech defensive midfielder Michal Švec, a product of Slavia Prague’s academy, signed from Dutch side Heerenveen. He made close to 100 Dutch top-flight appearances between 2008 and this year, and has represented the Czech Republic at Under 19, Under 21 and senior level.

Slovan are also thought to be close to capturing two centre-backs. One is Banská Bystrica youngster Norbert Gyömbér, the other is Argentine Nicolas Gorosito, who spent last season with Senica. On the other hand, Martin Dobrotka, who has spent his entire career to date with Slovan, could be on his way out. He has had talks with Slavia Prague about a move to the Czech capital and has promised to make a decision about his future this week. The fact that over 300 Slovan fans have signed a petition asking him to stay might just play a part in his thinking. There is little doubt that his injury, which kept him out of the side’s entire spring programme, was a factor in Slovan’s failure to retain their title last season.

Things are relatively quiet at Trnava and Žilina, though the latter’s former captain, Róbert Jež, seems to feel his time is up at Polonia Warsaw. Polonia’s owner has expressed his disappointment at the club’s failure to qualify for European competition and wants to see some of the older players depart. Jež, now aged 30, would appear to be in that category. He has played down talk of a return to Žilina, however, and may attract the interest of one of his former coaches, Pavel Hapal, at Zaglebie Lubin.

Onto administrative matters, and it has been confirmed that II Liga champions Spartak Myjava will definitely take their place in the Corgoň Liga next season. Their plans for ground redevelopment fulfil the grading criteria, and should make for a pleasant away trip. Interestingly, however, Myjava will not be employing a fully professional squad. The fact that several first-team players will be keeping their day jobs is perhaps a sign of the times in Slovak club football, even at the top level. Meanwhile, it was actually MFK Košice who became the final club to be granted their Corgoň Liga licence, following a process described by SFZ representatives as ‘not painless’. Košice have been in disputes with their local authority over the hiring of the ground, Štadión Lokomotivý v Čermeli, are poorly supported and have various financial difficulties. Still, with the licence granted, and Ján Kozák in charge of the team, they will now hope to improve on last season’s 11th placed finish.

Finally, some good news for Inter Bratislava, who have earned promotion to the Regional Championships (fourth tier). For a club which once won the Czechoslovak league and has two Corgoň Liga titles to its name, this might not seem a huge success. But it is a tribute to the way certain people have worked to keep the club alive as an independent entity following its effective ‘takeover’ by Senica four years ago. Not the least of these is Jozef Barmoš, who spent almost his entire playing career with the club and is now in his second spell as coach. Good luck to him and his team next season.

James Baxter

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Jun 08 2012

Fat Eck’s Euro 2012 Preview

Published by under Guest

When the boys from Britski Belasi ask you how you think Euro 2012 is going to go you know it’s time to step up. I’ve seen their site. I’ve read their articles. I know how much they know about the game. When my postman, milkman, parole officer or next door neighbour ask me “who you backing for the Euros, Eck?” I just chuck a polite “Anybody but England, mate.” their way, perhaps a “Gotta be the Germans again, eh?” or even a “Portugal might be worth a tenner each way…”. Whatever. A one-liner covers it. That’s all they’re looking for. That’s all mere mortals require of me. But when you’re asked the same question by internet soccer gurus who can throw 10,000 words at you on the complete history of every left-back who pulled a groin muscle playing a Slovakian cup match at Tehelne Pole on a wet Tuesday night, in the month of March, with red hair, and size 9 feet, you know there’s nothing “casual” about this particular enquiry.

So let’s have it. Let’s have a Euro 2012 “chat”, lads. I’ll bite. I accept the challenge. Let’s see if I can give you an opinion worth printing.  Okay. Right. Deep breath … and here we go:
Spain will win it.Okay? How’d I do? That match up to your levels of expertise and in-depth analysis of the world game? Pretty incisive stuff on my part there. Pretty sharp, I reckon. That’s about as in-depth as it’s possible to go on this topic, right?  I mean there’s nothing else to say. Especially if you’r Continue Reading »

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Jun 02 2012

Happier times for Slovan .. 20 years ago

Published by under Domestic

This season, MŠK Žilina won their sixth Slovak league title. In the process, they drew level with Slovan Bratislava as the most successful club of Slovakia’s independent era. What they cannot match, however, is Slovan’s record of eight federal Czechoslovak titles. The first of these was won as Sokol NV Bratislava in 1949. The last was sealed on 3rd June 1992, twenty years ago almost to the day.

There were periods after World War II when Slovak clubs dominated the Czechoslovak league. Sokol NV’s 1949 triumph, for example, was followed by two more in quicksuccession. Later, the eight titles between 1968 and 1975 were shared between Spartak Trnava (five) and Slovan (three). But Slovan’s 1975 success – they finished just two points ahead of city rivals Inter – was the last a Slovak side would enjoy for 17 years. Baník Ostrava were just entering their own golden age, winning the championship in 1976, and again in 1980 and 1981. Dukla Prague (1977, 1979 and 1982) also lifted three titles during this period. Even Zbrojovka Brno got in on the act, in 1978, as did Bohemians (1983). Then Sparta Prague won the league in seven of the next eight seasons, the only exception being 1985/1986, when Vítkovice (another Ostrava club) were surprise champions.

 

By 1991, though, Sparta knew they were facing a renewed challenge from the Slovak capital. This had all but disappeared during the mid-80s. Slovan finished bottom of the league in 1985 and didn’t return for another three years. Inter followed them into second-tier football in 1986. Indeed, in 1985/1986, no Slovak club finished in the top eight of the 16-team league. But, on their return to the top flight, Slovan improved steadily, finishing ninth in 1989 and seventh a year later. In 1990/1991, following some off-field reforms and the appointment of Dušan Galis as head coach, they came agonisingly close to winning the league. A surprise late-season home defeat by strugglers Hradec Králové ultimately cost them, as they finished just a single point behind Sparta.

 

Among the early highlights of 1991/1992 was a September UEFA Cup tie against Real Madrid, which Slovan lost just 3-2 on aggregate. In the league, despite not losing after the season’s second game, they hadn’t completely shaken off Sparta’s challenge by the time the final match, at home to Vítkovice, came round. A disappointing 0-0 draw at Cheb in the penultimate fixture, coupled with Sparta’s handsome 4-1 win at Prešov, had left Slovan with plenty of last-day nerves going into the Vítkovice game. In fact, they needn’t have worried, as the 90 minutes quickly turned into a party. In front of 34,687 at Tehelné pole, a ninth minute free-kick from Peter Dubovský opened the scoring. The same player would later score his team’s third goal, and his own 27th of the season, to add to Jaroslav Timko’s header. By the 80th minute, champagne bottles were being opened on the substitutes’ bench. Within seconds of the final whistle, the pitch was a sea of blue and white as the Belasi fans invaded.

 

As with any historical success, there’s a sense of poignancy in the recounting of these events. The Czechoslovak league continued for just one more season, and Sparta won its final edition, finishing five points clear of city rivals Slavia. Slovan were a further point behind, in third place. Despite some serious talk over the last couple of years of reviving the federalcompetition, it now seems certain that it will remain only a part of history. Slovan fans, meanwhile, will be far less bothered by their team’s (admittedly disappointing) third-placed finish in this season’s Corgoň Liga than by the continued sorry state of Tehelné pole. If you can look at pictures of the ground (there’s a lovely one in Saturday’s Športwith full stands and joy on the faces of the fans without feeling sentimental, you’re either a hardened cynic ornot a football fan. Then, of course, there is the tragic story of Dubovský, arguably Slovak football’s greatest ever talent, beautifully related by Ralph Davies for Britski Belasi last year.

Dubovský was one of several members of that Slovan squad to represent Czechoslovakia at international level. Vladimír Kinder, Ľudovít Lancz, Miloš Glonek and Ondrej Krištofík were among the others. Some players continued their involvement with the game after retirement. Indeed, some continued, or later renewed, their association with Slovan. Ladislav Pecko was coach as the club won the 2008/2009 Corgoň Liga title, while Boris Kitka is the current assistant to Vladimír Weiss. Galis, of course, coached Slovakia from 2003-2006 and then went into politics, spending four years as a member of parliament for SMER.

 

As for captain Tomáš Stúpala, his story is a nice illustration of both club loyalty and the transient nature of football. He played for Slovan until 1998, making a total of 257 first-team appearances. He also had a short spell as coach of the club‘s reserve team, in 2008, but left when Ivan Kmotrík became the owner. He now works in the suburbs of Bratislava, for a firm which produces gaming machines. He insists, however, that he and the rest of the 1992 teamcould still find their way around a football pitch. ‘We’d probably struggle at the top level,’ he admits, ‘but if we played in the fourth league we wouldn’t disgrace ourselves.’ While we will probably never learn the truth of that intriguing prediction, we do know that what Stúpala and his colleagues achieved twenty years ago will never be in doubt.

James Baxter

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