Crumbling Stadiums And The Number 61 Bus

Slovakian football.  On the up?  Perhaps, but while a national side improves, hosting venues do not.  Here's James Baxter.

If you fly into Bratislava and take a number 61 bus from the airport towards the city-centre and railway station, you will pass some of Slovakia’s principle sporting venues. There is the excellent National Tennis Centre, where the likes of Lukáš Lacko and Dominika Cibulková play Davis Cup and Federation Cup matches, and a gleaming new ice-hockey arena, which will stage the final of the 2011 World Championship later this spring. In the same area, within a goal-kick of each other, there are two football grounds. Each is watched over by an impressive quartet of floodlights but each is, to put it mildly, in less than ideal condition.

The larger of the two grounds is Tehelné pole, the disused former Slovak national stadium and home of Slovan Bratislava. Opened in 1941, during Slovakia’s shameful war-time period as a Nazi puppet state, Tehelné pole’s first game was a symbolic friendly between Slovan and Hertha Berlin. Another match there which will forever have negative associations was Slovakia’s Euro 2004 qualifier against England in October 2002, when the visitors’ black players, Emile Heskey and Ashley Cole in particular, were subjected to a barrage of racial abuse.

But the ground has witnessed wonderful occasions too, such as during Slovan’s run to the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1968/1969 and Czechoslovakia’s to the finals of the 1976 European Championships. More recently, in 2005/2006, Artmedia Bratislava played Champions League group stage games there after their own ground, across the river Danube in Petržalka, had been deemed unsuitable by UEFA.

Mostly open and built largely from ugly, grey concrete, Tehelné pole had begun to look aged and inadequate long before the chains and padlocks finally went on late in 2009. Its last international match, a friendly against the USA played just one month after Slovakia’s historic qualification for last year’s World Cup, should have been a celebratory occasion. But the ground had had so many stays of execution already that Slovak fans, tired of its deteriorating facilities and of hearing that its redevelopment was imminent, largely stayed away. Only 7,000, less than a quarter of the ground’s capacity, were present to see Marek Hamšík’s penalty give the home team a 1-0 win.

At the time, Slovakia’s prime-minister Robert Fico was promising that, once the economic crisis was over, state money would be invested in the redevelopment of Tehelné pole. But he appeared to change his mind the following year, suggesting that, in the midst of a downturn, a government has more important priorities than the rebuilding of a sports venue. Fico is now out of office and the current government have been almost completely silent on the stadium issue. Meanwhile, Slovak football’s governing body Slovenský Futbalový Zväz (SFZ) and its development partners are considering the possibility of abandoning Tehelné pole altogether and building a brand new stadium in Petržalka. Even if that plan is preferred, the association say, it is unlikely go ahead unless the state pledges financial support.

All the while, Tehelné pole still stands, overgrown and abandoned, and Slovan Bratislava are left in limbo. They are currently playing their home matches across the road from Tehelné pole at Pasienky, the second ground visible on the number 61 bus route. Pasienky is little more than a third of the size of Tehelné pole and is even more open. It is not a bad place to sit with a beer on a sunny day but it is incapable of generating atmosphere and its facilities are poor. Slovan have brought pale blue seats across from their old home to at least dress their temporary base up in club colours but this is not enough to stop fans gazing wistfully at Tehelné pole’s floodlights and singing songs in its honour. Pasienky is, it goes without saying, an unlikely international venue but Slovakia have played four matches there over the last year, including a Euro 2012 qualifier against Macedonia.

Fortunately for the SFZ, two other clubs in Slovakia have grounds which meet international standards. One, in the north of the country, is Štádion pod Dubňom, home of current domestic champions MŠK Žilina. This venue has been developed impressively over the last five years, under the watchful eye of MŠK owner Jozef Antošík. It has modern facilities, including electronic turnstiles, and four covered stands close to the pitch. The Žilina public enjoy watching the Slovak national side and there was a vibrant atmosphere at the ground for Slovakia’s last Euro 2012 qualifier against Ireland. The pod Dubňom’s one real drawback is its capacity, which is on the low side at just 11,000.

Slovakia are trying another option for next Tuesday’s home friendly against Denmark ; Štádion Antona Malatinského in Trnava. The locals here are, by common consent, the most passionate football fans in the country, the ground can hold 7,000 more people than Žilina‘s and, with its steeply sloping stands creating a ‘walled-in’ effect, can be a hostile place for visiting teams. It would be the perfect venue but for the fact that the people of Trnava, while they love their club, are rather lukewarm towards the national team. The last time Slovakia played there, they lost 5-2 to Wales in a Euro 2008 qualifier and the disappointing crowd of just over 5,000 turned on the home players. Perhaps mindful of this, current national team coach Vladimir Weiss has named a Trnava player, Marek Kaščák, in his back-up squad for the Denmark game. If there are injury withdrawals and Kaščák makes it to the bench or, even better, onto the field, he at least will be certain of a good reception next Tuesday.

Pasienky, Štádion pod Dubňom and Štádion Antona Malatinského are doing their bit to help Slovak football and the SFZ muddle through this rather uncertain period. Jozef Antošík, in fact, takes the view that building five or six similar-sized grounds of international standard throughout Slovakia, rather than a new national stadium in the capital, is the way forward. It sounds perfectly reasonable, but then you go to Bratislava and take that number 61 bus. You see the crumbling Tehelné pole and the inadequate Pasienky standing in sad contrast to their neighbours and you wonder how it is that tennis and hockey can have facilities to be proud of right in the heart of the capital while football, regardless of Slovakia’s recent on-field success, cannot.

James is a freelance journalist based in Slovakia.  Thanks to Dan Richardson for his input here too.