The Rise & Fall of FC Petržalka 1898

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FC Petržalka 1898 5 v 0 Piešťany (20.10.2013)

20th October 2013. 10.30am kick off. This was definitely the earliest game of professional football I have ever seen, and the eye wateringly early kick off time wasn’t allocated to accommodate the demands of Slovakian satellite TV, or to prevent rival fans drinking too much before the game. This is just the way things are done in the Slovakian 3rd Division! 

The early kick off time was one thing, but when you’re trying to get there from a rural town in the Czech Republic having watched a game in Uherske Hradiste the night before it’s not quite so straightforward! 

After a 7am start, and a 2 ½ hour train journey that required three changes en route, all with less than 4 minutes interchange time, the odds of me actually making it back to Bratislava in time for kick off were heavily stacked against me. 

But there was a reason why I was making such an effort to get to a Slovakian 3rd Division game on a Sunday morning, and that was to see for myself the incredible story that lies behind Bratislava’s oldest football club. 

You can read about the remarkable rise and fall of FC Petržalka 1898 in a bit more detail by clicking here. If you have a spare 5 minutes it’s definitley worth a read!

But to whet your appetite and to provide you with a little context for the rest of this article, only 5 years ago this club won the Slovakian domestic double (in 2007/08), and two years before that were playing Champions League football. It was during the 2005/06 season that the club were called ‘Artmedia Bratislava’ and were a name that had started to crop up in many a football conversation across Europe as they briefly took their place alongside Europe’s finest. 

Artmedia Bratislava – Ring any bells? 

Artmedia had a remarkable run during their debut Champions League campaign in 2005/06. They became the first ever team to make it through to the Champions League group stage proper after starting their journey off in the 1st pre-qualifying round. Eye catching results against Celtic (which included a 5-0 first leg thrashing) and Partizan Belgrade saw them take their place in the group stage alongside Inter Milan, Porto and Rangers. 

A more than respectable group stage saw them finish 3rd missing out on qualification to the knockout stage by just one point. An away win at the then champions of Europe Porto was the highlight, but this was backed up with three respectable draws, two against Scottish champions Rangers and another at home to Porto. 

Further domestic success followed in the 2007/08 season when the club was renamed ‘FC Artmedia Petržalka’, as they went on to win the domestic double. Ironically it was after the most successful season in the clubs history that the decline started. Club owner and investor Ivan Kmotrik controversially left to take over city rivals Slovan Bratislava. Successful coach Vladimír Weiss also left the club to go to FC Saturn Ramenskoe in Russia and several key players departed too. The club were relegated from the Corgon Liga to the 2nd division in 2010, and it was at this point that the club was renamed to FC Petržalka 1898. The clubs fall from grace didn’t stop there though, and an untimely player exodus further enhanced their woes and they were relegated to the 3rd division at the end of the 2011/12 season.

So some five years on, the main reason I had come all this way to watch a Slovakian 3rd division game was to witness the current day plight of FC Petržalka 1898, and to gauge for myself their dramatic fall from grace – the likes of which must be unrivalled anywhere else on the continent right now. 

If you’re in a hurry like I was then the most convenient way to get to the ground is to take a cab from the city centre which will set you back about 15 euros. However if you have slightly more time you can reach the ground by taking a combination of buses – numbers 68 and 88 starting from the ‘Trnavske Myto’ stop in the city centre is probably the easiest route. The number 88 bus drops you off a few minutes walk from the ground and the journey will set you back 0,90 euros for a 60 minute single journey ticket. 

The ground is situated on the edge of a housing estate and there is only one small gated entrance into it, and this is marked by large FC Petržalka graffiti on the adjacent wall, you can’t miss it. 

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‘X’ marks the sport…..the grafitti marks the entrance to the ground….

Arriving at the ground 45 minutes before kick off, I was surprised to see only a few people knocking about, and none of those happened to be official club staff or stewards. With an unmanned entrance gate, I was able to walk in unchallenged, so no need for a ticket then? If you arrive anything from 30 minutes before kick off you will be greeted by two stewards who will issue tickets that I was later informed cost around 2 euros.

 A car parked at the entry gate with its boot open doubles up as the club shop. This shop though had limited merchandise, and was run by a single fan selling unofficial club scarves at 10 euros a pop.

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The club refreshment bar and a bloke with a rattle!…

On the left hand side as you walk into the ground there is a 1970’s caravan which has been converted into the clubs refreshments outlet (see photo above). With beer on tap at 90p a pint and serving before 10am, it was an early start but the locals embrace it! Running along one side of the pitch is what appears to be a derelict school building, and this doubled up as the player changing rooms (see below).

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With a listed capacity of just 1,500, the Stadion FC Petržalka 1898 is really nothing more than a makeshift ground with a temporary seated stand erected along one half of the pitch. The other three sides of the playing area are enclosed by a single railing, with just a small gravelled area separating the railing to a surround of trees and bushes that provide the backdrop to the rest of the ground.  A less glamorous setting in professional football would be hard to find.

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To be honest, the setting was perhaps equivalent to watching a game in the 7th or 8th tier of English football. That might be doing some 7th or 8th tier clubs an injustice, but what this place lacked in facilities and infrastructure, it more than makes up for by providing a ‘football experience’ that touches the heart.

About 400 Petržalka fans turned up for their home clash against bottom of the table side Piešťany, a team that had more than a few problems of their own. Eleven games into the new season and they had a playing record more akin to that of San Marino in a world cup qualifying group: Played 11, lost 11, scored 2, and conceded 55! Leaking on average 5 goals a game this was as much of a home banker as there is likely to be.

The away side actually resembled a Sunday league outfit as much as the kick off time had suggested. They only had a squad of 12 staff; 11 players warming up and one additional person who seemed to double up as goalkeeper coach, physio, manager and substitute! A bag of 4 balls all of different makes and colours added to the unprofessional impression, and the aforementioned goalkeeper coach then went onto to deliver one of the worst pre match goalkeeper warm ups I have ever seen. When it came to delivering some practice crosses for the keeper to claim, the first five deliveries either went behind the goal or didn’t actually reach the keeper at all. The focus of this warm up was obviously for the keeper to retrieve the misdirected balls rather than catch them.

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‘Chucklebrother’ stunt double and Petržalka trainer Emil Straniaek oversee’s the player warm up…

As kick off arrived, the players entered the playing area by walking out from the derelict school building (which was brightened up by a backdrop of FC Petržalka graffiti) and across what looked like an old concrete playground area (see below). This area was cordoned off by a single line of ribbon that was attached to a bollard at one end and the back of the temporary stand at the other.

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The game was as one-sided an affair as you’re ever likely to see. FC Petržalka 1898 opened the scoring after just 5 minutes with a comedy goal. The keeper, racing from his area to intercept a through ball looked to have made a great decision, until his attempted clearance rebounded off the striker and trickled back into the empty net behind. If Piešťany had Steve Bruce in charge you would have definitely seen him shaking his head in the pre match interview musing “we’re just not getting that little bit of luck you need”. The lead was then doubled on 20 minutes, and although Petržalka dominated the rest of the half they didn’t manage to increase their lead before the break.

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Piešťany dug out (right)….

Half time, and as I sat on a log behind the goal enjoying a 90p pint in the late October sunshine it was hard to believe that only 5 years previous this club had won the domestic double, and 2 years before that were playing Champions League football. A fall from grace on this scale must be hard to fathom for the clubs loyal followers. The combination of player changing room’s located in a derelict school next door; teams entering the playing area via an old concrete playground; the bumpy pitch; and fan refreshments served from a 1970’s caravan all provide a stark reminder of the former glory days that once were. 

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The club has clearly returned to its roots, and although the current ground would barely achieve UEFA’s Category 1 grading there is a real air of football romance linked to this club. On one hand the current situation sadly enhances the fall from grace to a football tourist like me; but on the other hand the clubs fans seemingly embrace it – happy that their club is at least still alive.

The second half followed suit from the first, and three further goals compounded the miserable start to the season for Piešťany. At least they were consistent on the goals conceded front!

As the final whistle went – and with what seems to be common place in this part of the world – the players openly celebrate with the fans. This simple gesture from the players illustrated the connection between the club and its supporters in difficult times – something which seems missing in the English game most of the time. Starting off with player’s high fiving fans around the circumference of the pitch, they then moved onto the main stand to milk the applause of the 20 or so ultras that were still present. An unusual player Mexican wave / chanting routine followed (see below), before the players walked back through the concrete playground and into the derelict school next door. Slightly bizarre, but it all added to the feeling that club and players are so much closer connected to the supporters compared to the “untouchable pro’s” we have become accustomed to back home.

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Petržalka’s Prince Ofori (on loan from FC Zilina) with yours truly!…..

Right outside the ground on the edge of the estate block is the aptly named ‘FC Petržalka Pub’. This is a cool little bar decked out with club memorabilia of yesteryear; the team photo from their Champions League 2005/06 season takes pride of place. Fans that had remained for a post match drink or two were later joined by the players and coaching staff that now proudly wear the black and white of FC Petržalka 1898 and aspire to return the club to a better place.

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One such player was Petržalka’s Prince Ofori who was on loan from Corgon Liga side FC Zilina. He happily spent 20 minutes chatting to me about the plight of the club and his own personal aspirations to return to the top of the game in Slovakia. Originally from Ghana, Ofori had graduated through the Liberty Professionals ‘Chance for Children Academy’, the same academy that Micahel Essien had passed through some years previous. His move to FC Zilina came about after a club scout spotted him playing in Benin – which goes to show the extent of the European club scouting network these days – even for those clubs with limited resources. Ofori had looked one of the stand out performers from the game itself, and was using this loan spell as a chance to put himself back in the shop window after a horrific spell of injuries which had seen him play for Zilina’s first team only 12 times in 6 years.

Although Zilina recently cancelled his contract, they still own his registration, so any prospective buyer would have to negotiate the transfer through the club. Ironically Ofori, like Petržalka has fallen on tough times but hopefully both will have brighter futures to follow.

Petržalka are currently 5 points off the top and will still believe they have a chance of gaining promotion back into the 2nd Division; Ofori will hopefully help the club achieve that, but in doing so end a frustrating 6 years in Slovakia by securing a move back to a top flight side.

Football can be a cruel game sometimes.

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