When Tschen La Ling, the former Ajax and Netherlands winger, entered the structures took over as the new owner of AS Trenčín in 2007, he said that the club would dominate in Slovakian football and play regularly in the Champions League. After the first season under his leadership they were relegated into Slovakian second division and La Ling’s words were left to ring hollow.
But in June 2015 they won the double and played in the Champions League for the first time in their history. Trenčín were eliminated in the Second Qualifying round, but proved a strong opponent for Steaua Bucharest, the Romanian champions, who have a far bigger budget and extensive experience of European cup competitions.
Even though their dreams of reaching the group stages were broken only after two matches, Trenčín will be given a second chance in the coming years. With the team nine points ahead of second-placed Slovan Bratislava after the first half of the season, they are on course to win the Fortuna Liga’s title again; a European return might be on the cards as soon as next season.
AS Trenčín are Slovakia’s answer to FC Porto. The club benefits from its clever transfer policy, buying new players cheaply and then selling them on to richer European teams after their performances – guided by Trenčín’s training and development – add to their value.
According to their 41-year-old general manager Róbert Rybníček, brother of Trenčín’s mayor, they have earned about €4,500,000 from transfer deals in the last six years. The departure of key players is very important source of money because, despite being the Slovak champions, Trenčín receive only €40,000-50,000 for television rights and marketing from the Slovak Football Association (SFZ).
With their annual budget falling short of €2 million, Trenčín cannot afford to pay a huge amount of money for experienced players. They have to search for cheap, promising footballers all around the world, and they do so without an enormous network with scouts covering all continents.
Despite being limited, Trenčín are able to bring in talented players from the Netherlands, Africa and South America. They mainly use information from players’ agencies, affiliated clubs and La Ling’s football academies in Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Brazil and Argentina.
Trenčín benefit from cooperation with several prominent foreign clubs, for example Botafogo and Nijmegen, but Ajax are the most important partner in exchanging players and developing youth teams and coaches.
They also want to build closer connections with clubs in South Africa and China – clubs that would act as Ajax farm teams – creating a network of four teams. As well as benefiting the clubs in sporting terms, Trenčín are keen for the network to reap commercial rewards through Chinese investment.
For inexperienced players, the club offers a perfect opportunity to break into European football. Trenčín have managed to develop a lot of quality players, including KAA Gent’s 20-year-old Nigerian winger Moses Simon, now popping up on the radar of Premier League clubs in England.
Rybníček explained to me that, “This is the significance of this club. This is a way to gain money. Players must know that they have the opportunity to move forward and Trenčín does not have to be the final destination for them.”
Relationships between players and management are usually healthy, but some players, including South Americans Jorge Salinas and Ivan Díaz, have worked to force the club’s hand.
“We have lost good assets this way. But these players would play in top European clubs nowadays and I ask: ‘Where are they now?’ The question is where we are and where they are today. So I think they have made a mistake and I do not know if they will ever have a chance to amend it,” Rybníček said.
The promotion from the second division was achieved under the leadership of Adrián Guľa, a former midfielder, who then surprisingly arranged a contract with rivals MŠK Žilina, where he attempted to emulate Trenčín’s philosophy. He was replaced by Martin Ševela, whose age and coaching style are comparable to Guľa’s; Trenčín’s playing style has not changed.
“I am confident that we have built a system, that is able to replace anybody – from coaching staff, squad, to maybe even management,” continued Rybníček.
The team is not dependent only on foreign players, though they form the majority of the line-up. Trenčín try to bolster their squad with players from their junior ranks and academy, whose most famous graduates are Liverpool’s central defender Martin Škrtel and the Sydney FC striker Filip Hološko.
One of their biggest prospects, midfielder Stanislav Lobotka – once a loanee at Ajax – was been sold to Danish club FC Nordsjaelland last summer, along with Brazilian centre-back Ramón, but there are other valuable players at the club. Attacking midfielder Matúš Bero has attracted the interest of big European clubs, including Celtic, despite having recently signed a new three-year contract. Nigerian internationals Kingsley Madu and Ibrahim Rabiu could also be in the notebooks of scouts at bigger clubs.
Trenčín send their best home-grown young players to third-tier partner club Slovan Nemšová to gain experience before giving them opportunities in the Fortuna Liga. They have invested in the building of training pitches and facilities for youth, too. All teams involved in Trenčín’s system apply the same formation and play the same way. Trenčín pride themselves on their technical, high-tempo, fluid passing game which bears a resemblance to the famous Dutch style. The quality of their players helps to achieve it, and the club recognises that the mixture of imports has been crucial.
“This mixture is necessary for us. I recently said to players and all people in the club, that this is the philosophy which will not be changed in the future. These players give us something different, which Slovakians cannot offer due to their mentality and typology. It is very hard to find the right blend, but we have done it well so far. In the past years several players from Africa also arrived, bringing some financial value, but they also create the image and space for growth,” Rybníček claims.
Further development at Trenčín has been stunted by the poor condition of their stadium, which is forbidden from hosting European competition games. Trenčín play against foreign opponents at Štadión pod Dubňom in Žilina, 80 kilometres away from home.
Their first attempt to start building a new stadium, financed by the club with the help of Slovakia’s football association, failed due to rejection from city’s MPs. But, late last year, they got on board with a very similar proposal. The stadium will cost around €11million, will have 10,500 seats. Thanks to its artificial pitch, the new stadium will be used for social activities beyond the game, not only for football matches.
It is imperative that Trenčín continue along this path in transfer business. The revenue from other areas has always been very limited and it could yet become even smaller. Although the new stadium should attract more investors, the club has very little flexibility in terms of opportunities to make money.
Clubs tend to spend more each month than they bring in through participation in the Slovakian league. Last summer, television companies were offering only about €600,000 for broadcasting rights; by contrast, the Czech league costs broadcasters about €5 million per year and the Polish league approximately €40 million per year over the same period. A Champions League place would expand Trenčín’s horizons hugely.
The Fortuna Liga does not and will not generate sufficient amount of money for clubs to compete with richer European clubs and to hold onto their best players. Many clubs, even those from bigger cities, are in deep financial trouble and are being replaced even by small village sides in the upper echelons of the Slovakian league system.
Although the government has tried to provide financial aid to improve sports facilities in the past, a lot of clubs are struggling every month to pay the wages of their employees. Trenčín’s strategy, built on selling players to survive, is sensible and brings success. Other Slovakian clubs would do well to follow suit.
Trenčín photograph by n8kowald via Flickr.