When Slovakia’s Corgoň Liga re-emerges from its long winter break on the first weekend of March, the fixture most observers will be watching for is the one between Spartak Trnava and FC Nitra, the bottom two clubs. The reason is less the fact that both sides are in urgent need of points than that their last meeting, on September 14th last year, resulted in one of the most controversial games ever played in the country.
Nitra went into that match in the top half of the table and in encouraging form. Two weeks earlier, I’d seen them draw 1-1 away to champions Žilina. Seydouba Soumah, their 21-year-old Guinean forward, justified his growing reputation with an outstanding performance and the whole team looked bright and full of running. Trnava, by contrast, were in a mess. Traditionally Slovakia’s best-supported club, they had finished second in 2011/2012 and were tipped by some as potential champions as the new campaign started. Instead, a series of defeats by ever more embarrassing margins had left them at the bottom of the table. Going into the Nitra game, it was becoming difficult to see where their first win was coming from.
On the night, Mário Bicák put Trnava ahead after 16 minutes. Despite having Marián Kolmokov harshly sent-off, Nitra equalised just before half-time through Brazilian winger Cléber. Soumah, already wound up by taunts from the visiting Trnava fans, celebrated the goal with a masturbatory gesture in front of the away section and was shown the yellow card. On the hour, Nitra went down to nine men as Marek Szabó was dismissed for a second bookable offence. Trnava quickly took advantage, adding two goals in five minutes, courtesy of Erik Sabo and Radoslav Ciprys. After that, it was all about Soumah. First, he trampled on Patrik Čarnota’s chest as the Trnava man lay on the ground. Then, having been shown the red card, he lashed out at Miroslav Karhan, another visiting player. Finally, he reacted to referee Marek Mastiš’s attempt to usher him from the field with a violent shove, sending the official staggering backwards.
Nitra coach Ladislav Jurkemík refused to discuss the incidents in the press-conference afterwards beyond saying that ‘(the game) had nothing to do with football’. At a meeting of the Slovak football association’s disciplinary commission later in the week, the inevitable series of punishments were handed out. As a club, Nitra were fined €10,000, deducted three league points and kicked out of the Slovak Cup. Soumah was fined €3,400 and banned from football for six months. Mastiš too was given a six-month suspension, the commission decreeing that he should have abandoned the game after Soumah’s assault on him. But the commission also took some responsibilty themselves, admitting that Nitra v Trnava had been ‘a problematic fixture’ in the past and may have needed a more experienced official than the 26-year-old Mastiš.
That was far from the end of the matter. Nitra issued a statement alleging that Soumah had been racially abused by Trnava players throughout the game. The authorities responded to this by saying they couldn’t proceed, since no such abuse had been mentioned by Mastiš in his official report of the game. Trnava, unsurprisingly, denied the allegations, though both Karhan and Peter Čvirik (another senior player) readily acknowledged that Soumah had been identified as Nitra’s main attacking threat and thus been singled out for ‘special attention’.
The impact of the whole affair on Nitra has been hugely damaging. Jiří Magyar and Norbert Bödör, their majority shareholders, withdrew their investment, leaving the club in a desperate financial situation (their local authority has since provided emergency funding to secure their immediate future). On the field, the team embarked on a run of eight games without a win, and Jurkemík, whose demeanour suggested he‘d lost all appetite for the game, was sacked. Things have not been much better at Trnava. They did follow up the win at Nitra with a 1-0 home success against Banská Bystrica, but have otherwise continued to struggle. Their coach, Pavel Hoftych, was moved to a director of football role in November.
Hopes that the coming game will pass off calmly are enhanced by the fact that two of the main protaganists from September, Čvirik and Soumah himself, have moved on. Čvirik was sacked by Trnava for being drunk at the club ball in January. Soumah, meanwhile, became Slovan Bratislava’s first signing of the winter transfer window when he joined the league leaders for €150,000. In any case, his ban remains in effect until mid-March.
We will probably never know exactly why Soumah acted as he did in the September game, yet uncomfortable questions remain. While the Slovak FA felt unable to follow up Nitra’s allegations of racist abuse, its president, Ján Kovačik, issued a statement around the same time expressing concern at what had gone on. As well as making clear his displeasure at violence and vulgar gestures, Kovačik referred to ‘the need to eliminate racism and intolerance from our game’. Since then, the experience of Japanese player Yuki Nakumura has underlined that racism is indeed still an issue in Slovak football. Nakumura left second division side Rimavská Sobota in January because of abuse which, he claimed on his own blog, ‘didn’t seem to matter to anyone else, including my team-mates’. As for Soumah, he may have moved clubs since September, but he is still in no mood to apologise to anyone at Trnava. ‘I would like to say sorry to Mr Mastiš,’ he said in a recent interview with Slovak daily Šport, ‘but not to the Trnava players. They didn’t behave properly towards me, so they’re not getting an apology.’
James is a regular contributor to the excellent Britski Belaski.