Archive for June, 2009

Euro Blog 5. Czech out Ostrava and the Frydek mistake

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Ostrava is not considered, even by those that live there to be on of the most attractive places in the Czech Republic, indeed when I asked about postcards, the reply was along the lines of ‘why?’. It is more of a functioning town than anything else, although with its livelihood in the past dependent on coal mines and a series of heavy industrial plants strung alongside the Ostrava river – and while there never was a Czech Margaret Thatcher forcibly closing down industry, it has declined in the Czech republic, much the same as anywhere else in Europe. Still, it is a sizeable town, and has football teams in both the top two divisions of the Czech League. The advantage to me was simple, as the second division team were at home on Friday, with the top division team, Banik Ostrava playing on Saturday. When I originally planned my fixtures, I even found a fourth level team, within the city scheduled to play on Saturday morning. Getting to Ostrava is easy enough, so long as you start in Vienna. Fortunately, after an afternoon game in Klagenfurt, it is still possible to get to Vienna and stop there for a short night.

The rather odd choice of kick off time for the game at Vitkovice was 4.30 p.m. Even without using floodlights, it would have been possible to kick off two hours later, and anyway, lighting was available. One has to wonder if this was a factor in the relatively low crowd of 520. The pitch is within a running track, which is the surrounded most of the way be at least half a dozen steps of terracing. The main stand fills up the entire length of one side, and has a garish selection of colours and patterns for the seats. The name, Mestsky stadion merely means town stadium. It is quite close to Vitkovice station, and also served by trams from the centre of Ostrava. The admission charge was 40 Czech crowns, and I got a little shock in having to pay 20 more for a programme. Up to this point on the tour, I had received free programmes at games in Germany and Austria, none at all in Croatia and Slovenia. If paying half the admission price was a surprise (it would have worked out level, if I had bought a standing ticket for 20), it is not so bad when put into context – £1.30 to get in, and half that for the programme. Still change from £2

The club was formed as SK Slavoj Vitkovice in 1919, and like many clubs in this area of the world, have known many changes in identity, for example they dropped Slavoj in 1922, then added an extra ‘S’to become SSK Vitkovice a year later. In 1952, they took on the name Banik for 5 years, and then underwent 22 years as TJ VZKG Ostrava, without any obvious mention of Vitkovice. In 1979, they settled on the simple TJ Vitkovice, and this heralded (if not immediately), the most successful period of the club’s history. They won the Czechoslovakian League in 1986, and then reached the UEFA Cup quarter-finals two years later. In 1994, they almost disappeared into a merger with Karvina, some 30 km awat, spending one season as FC Karvina-Vitkovice. A year later the clubs split apart (both currently in the second division), and Vitkovice took on the fashionable initials and became FC Vitkovice.

The match, against Fotbal Trinec, started in bright sunshine and the home side took the lead right at the end of the first period. The second period was somewhat different. For a start, it was raining heavily, there was a rumble of thunder in the distance, and with the coming of the storm, there was also wind. This was blowing quite notably down the pitch at kick off, and continued to pick up strength. On the far side from me, a number of advertising boards were free standing and were buffeted and moved by the wind. The away team dugout was blown over (empty at the time). Five minutes in, we were treated to the sight of the ball boys running away, being pursued by an advertising hoarding. Missing the ball boys, the hoarding rushed up the terracing where it smashed itself to pieces against a fence. Those (few anyway) of the crowd that had chosen to stand, had by now headed for the cover of the stand, and it was no surprise that the referee called a halt to proceedings just five minutes into the second half. Fortunately for me, storms pass, and the game restarted after ten minutes, and passed off without further incident, except an equalising goal midway through the period.

Before I had arrived in the Czech Republic, an internet search had found a fourth level team called PORUBA with a Saturday morning kick off in the Ostrava area, but I am still a believer in picking up the national sports papers to check fixtures. In this case, they saved me, but showing the fixture as Friday, (17.00) kick off. The journalist (there was only one) at Vitkovice spent some time on his computer checking this for me, but the change was correct. With the main game at Banik at 3 in the afternoon (normally, 5 is more common), I had limited options to find an additional game, but there was a 10.15 kick off at Frydek-Mistek, which was just 30 minutes by train down the Ostrava river valley. This was one level higher than the first choice, but had the disadvantage that the visitors were the ‘B’ team of Zlin, a first division outfit. I know some groundhoppers refuse to have anything to do with any game involving a reserve team, but I have always accepted them, and just preferred to avoid them when I have the choice. I have even ticked the occasional ground for an all reserve match, but my rules would only accept this one a ground where the reserves and first team do not share.

Back in the hotel, I checked the internet again. My original source still had the local game wrong, but other sites, including the Czech FA’s official one had the Friday night time. Search engines could not find a site for Frydek-Mistek’s football club, but the name of the stadium, Stovky resulted in a point on a map just across the road from the railway station, and next to a few other sports facilities. The train arrived at 09.19; but more importantly, I wanted to leave again at 12.27 to be comfortable on returning to Ostrava. This was ideal. Just before the train pulled up in Frydek-Mistek, I could see the stadium in question; old main stand and overgrown terracing. It was only when I actually walked up, that I found out something was wrong. No one was there, except a few athletes training. The athletes could tell me nothing except that this was not the football ground. After a fruitless look around the other facilities yielded no information, I wandered back to the main road, not even certain whether I wanted to turn left or right. After a couple of minutes, I spotted a taxi, and luckily he spotted me hailing from across the road. He understood I wanted the stadium, but did not appear to know about the football club! His first inclination was to take me back to the stadium I had just walked away from, but when I indicated this was not the right one, he told me there was another (in rapidly improving English, it appeared to me). He then took me through the town and into a residential area on the far side. Here I spotted people sporting blue and white scarves, and hence knew that we had it right. Overall, I spent about ten minutes in the taxi, and my bill was only around £3 – so it did not take much decision making on my part to ask the driver to return to pick me up at 12 noon.

It cost me 20 crowns to enter, and another 5 for the programme. As the programme stall doubled up with a place to bet on the match result, there was a queue for this. Still I managed to get my programme, and have someone searching out a team sheet for me before the game kicked off. Not bad for someone who was completely lost fifteen minutes earlier. The stadium was ideal. No running track, and about six steps of terracing along one side and behind the goal where I entered, plus a main stand that almost completes the other main length. Capacity these days is 5,500. Not a guess, but printed on a photograph of a cup game two years ago when Banik Ostrava lost 2-0 here. Some 30 years ago, near enough 13,000 had somehow squeezed in – as another photo in the corridors inside the stand revealed, from the match against Sparta in their only top division season 1975-6. These photos confirmed that despite my “Mistek” on reading from the internet, this was their stadium, always has been, and as far as the 690 souls at the ground are concerned, always will be.

As for the game, it appeared that Zlin ‘B’, like myself, were slightly disorientated at the start. Had they also had been transported to the wrong ground first? Unlikely, but then a fair coach journey to a 10.15 kick off cannot be good for any team. A ‘B’ team in a league like this has to operate under some constraints, as there cannot be infinite dual registrations or transfers between this team and the ‘A’ side. The result is that it cannot easily include senior players dropped from the first XI, or recovering from injury, but is mainly a development team of youngsters. This was shown by looking down the player’s lists. The oldest visiting player, at 23, was nine months younger than the youngest of the home squad. It took only four minutes for Frydek-Mistek to take the lead, and they added to this once more before half time, and again three minutes into the second half.

If I thought they could run riot from this position, I was wrong. Two minutes later, Zlin were awarded a penalty, put away by forward Martin Bacik. This immediately restored some confidence to the visitors, and changed the face of the game. Bacik scored a second just before the hour mark, and while Zlin were now in command, there were many counter attacking chances for the home side in an open and entertaining game. It was ten minutes to go when Bacik completed his hat-trick in levelling the scores, and chances went missing at both ends in the last period before the referee called an end with the scores still level.

The taxi driver was good, arriving at the ground just before the match finished and then waiting for me. He tried to persuade me to let him drive me into Ostrava, but I turned it down, as “I already had a train ticket” I do not use the excuse that the charge would be more than money I have in my pocket, as no doubt I would be offered a trip, via the cashpoiint. As it was, there were fans with Banik Ostrava fans getting on the train with me. I therefore followed them when they exited the train and wandered into Ostrava centre. When they all entered a cavernous pub, it was only polite to follow. But after a pint, I was suffering from my nerves again – about 90 minutes to kick off; I did not know quite how to get to the ground from here, (the road outside the pub being open to trams only, and I did know that no tram went to the ground, only trolleybuses). Also the supporters in the pub already had tickets, and I did not! So I walk out into the brightness outside. It may be 1.30 on a Saturday aftenoon, but Ostrava city centre is near deserted; it is not hard to understand why – the shops all close at midday, and there is just nothing to see or do, except, of course drink and go to the football.

It may have been by chance, but I found the trolley to the ground quickly, it cost 160 crowns, (about £5) for a good seat, and another 20 for the programme. To get there, one needs to cross the river from the city centre, and start climbing the hill. Bazaly stadium is built into the hill with the banks of open seating on the far side from where I entered using this natural slope. There is no track, but still the ends of the stadium are curves, not square and the number of rows reduces as one goes down the hill and around. On the low side, there is a stand the full length of the side, The blue seats opposite me, had the letters FCB picked out, which I felt was dreams above their station, as there was no ‘O’ added. The club was formed in 1922, as SK Slezska Ostrava – Slezska being a Czech reference to the region of Silesia, also seen as Slaski on some Polish club names. Indeed, the club has a ‘twin’ club in GKS Katowice, in Polish Silesia, and some supporters wear scarves showing both names. The name Banik was added in 1952, and has been with them ever since. For one season, 1994-5, the club was named as Banik Ostrava Tango. If they had to lose the blue and white colours for this, then they were well and truly “Tangoed”.

The clubs heydays were in the late seventies, early eighties, when they won the old Czechoslovakian
league title three times, going onto the European Cup quarter finals in 1981, (they have also reached the semi-finals of Cup-Winners Cup). There has been a recent revival in fortunes, with the Czech title won in 2004, and a cup win a year later. The recent run has not brought any international success, with the Champions League qualifier resulting in a heavy defeat against Bayer Leverkusen, and then further indignity when dropping to the UEFA Cup, losing to Middlesbrough. This season, Spartak Moscow saw them out of the UEFA cup at the first hurdle.

As it happened, the visitors, Sigma Olomouc had by far the better of the first half, and I was surprised that it finished scoreless. Banik opened the scoring just before the hour mark, and with Sigma not able to convert their chances, it looked like staying like this until very late in the game. Sigma then had a little luck, when a powerfully shot free kick from Tarcisco Pereira (not a name that sounds Czech), was deflected into the net by home defender Tomas Marek.

And so my three match sojourn into the Czech republic ends in three draws. I am glad to meet two other English hoppers coming through from the game at Karvina when there train passes Ostrava, this gives company for a two hour wait to change trains at Brno before we all head up to Berlin the next day.

Euro Blog 4. Midweek Mediocracy

Monday, June 8th, 2009

After leaving Zagreb, my midweek selection of matches did not do so well in terms of football quality. Possibly it is because I was looking more at relegation issues than promotion. My first stop was Austria’s second city, Graz. Graz is a very pleasant city, and in the warmth of spring sunshine, I had a good afternoon wandering around and then sitting outside a restaurant for a meal and some beer. However, I allowed myself to be fooled by the heat, and not to think that weather can change. Quickly. I travelled out to Gratkorn, a ten minute ride on the local train. The station serves two villages, Gratkorn and Gratwein, separated by a river – and I had a half hour walk to the stadium. It is not really a present place, with a large chemical concern filling most of the land mass of the place. The football ground is the main road, next door to said chemical works. Although there was a little uncovered spectator accommodation on the far side, the main facility is a modern stand that runs about two thirds of the length of one side. The lowest level of seats is raised will above pitch level, so views are good. The stand can probably hold about twice the 650 attendance for my game. As seems to be common in this region, there is a wide pathway at the top, with food and drink distribution points, and plenty of room to stand around. The admission price for a second division Austrian game was 10 Euro, while the programme was free.

When I arrived, it was still warm, and they were still watering the artificial pitch. I don’t know much about artificial pitches but judging on the evidence of Salzburg on Saturday and the Gratkorn, they need lots of water. And then the heavens opened, and in this part of the world, the heavens really do open. Clearly there was no need to keep the pitch watering system on, while the view to the mountains was lost in the dark, except the occasional flash of lightning and crash of thunder. The storm started around 30 minutes before kick off, and lasted well into the first half, by which time pools of water had begun to form on the playing surface. Few referees in England would have carried on, but while Austrian footballers fall to the ground at the touch of a feather, they appear to have no fear of drowning, and I was the only one worried that the match might not be completed.

Gratkorn are in their second season in the Austrian second division, and look as if they will be safe for another season. The visitors, Grödig, a small village just outside Salzburg, were promoted last year and are now third from bottom – a relegation position but with a chance of escaping before the game started. For a team in this sort of position, one might expect some sort of effort to win against one of the teams that could be drawn into the relegation zone. Not Grödig – they had shown optimism, combined with ability and a bit of luck when I saw them at the start of the season. Then they played two up front, and beat Admira, who look like finishing second in the table. Now with eight of the eleven starters still in place, they lacked in adventure and ability, played only one forward, even after going a goal down. It was only poor finishing, (and frequently, a failure to attempt a pass) that stopped Gratkorn by winning more than a single goal, scored from the penalty spot just before half time. Both the current bottom two in the league have been told that there is no point in escaping relegation as strict licensing regulations in Austria, (mainly financial , the majority of the Football League’s 72 clubs would fail), means they are to be relegated anyway . Grödig’s hopes of staying up seem to depend on being more financially stable than club’s bidding for promotion, and nothing to do with actual football. For the record, the rain eased off in the second half, and appeared to be almost stopped at the end of the game – but this was just to fool me. By the time I arrived at the station I was a sodden mess, soaked to the skin.

For Wednesday, my destination was Ptuj in Slovenia. It was chosen not because of the importance of the match, but the relative ease in getting in and out of the town. As it was, I probably still could have done better, as staying in Maribor was an option. Ptuj is a very pretty town, built above the river Drava, with a pleasant old centre, and a castle on the hill. It is the sort of place where tourists travelling by road should stop, enjoy the views, take a view photos, (maybe visit the castle) and have a coffee at one of the many cafes dotted around. Or perhaps an ice-cream, I do not recall any town having such a high proportion of ice-cafes, per head of population. Arriving by train is less pleasant. You exit a near deserted railway station without a map and without a signpost even to point to the centre. There is a bus station across the road which is a little better – still no map, but at least someone is there to direct you into town. It is only a short walk, and it does not take long to get to the tourist office (pick up a map) and your hotel. The hotel has an ice-cafe out front but no restaurant, as you discover later when looking for something to eat. And that is the point of Ptuj – it has been designed to be visited, with plenty of ways to while away the afternoon, but it has a limited number of over-priced hotels, and even less over-priced restaurants.

The football ground is at the bottom of the hill, just across the railway line from the town – it is easy to walk to, and if I had not elected to stay, I could easily been at the station within 15 minutes of the game’s end. The Slovenian League has ten team in its top division, with each team playing the others four times, a total of 36 games. The bottom side is relegated, with the next in a play off. The daily sports paper conveniently gives league tables for each quarter. At the three-quarters mark, Ptuj were rock bottom – six points behind Primorje (the visitors of the day). They had picked up only one point in the nine matches of the third quarter. The last quarter was a different matter – Ptuj had suddenly made a clean sweep and one seven in a row! The match I was watching was therefore a chance for the home side to make certain of their place in the top flight, and all but condemn Promorje to the drop. This was enough to attract 1200 into the stadium (either called Mestni (=town) or Drava (after the local river) stadion). This is a good crowd in Slovenia. When I went to Gorica a few years back, and they needed to win to claim the title, less than 1000 watched. The stadium is two sided, with a covered stand on one side, and banks of yellow plastic seats opposite. Most of the crowd were in the covered seats. No programmes issued, but no problem in picking up a copy of the team sheet. The game was a disappointment, especially for the home fans, as the only goal was scored just before half time by the visitors’ Mirko Zaja. It is a result that gives them some hope of survival, and clearly threatens to derail Ptuj’s recovery.

For the third of the series of mid-week games it was Thursday in Klagenfurt. I do not know much about Klagenfurt, and I did not spend much time there. I can say, that on a bank holiday Thursday, there is not a lot happening. My arrival was delayed by the efficiency of Austrian railways. I had checked my train with a travel office, and been told that despite engineering works, I would make a connection. I asked again as we transferred from train to bus – no problem, I am told. Still, at the next station, I find not only have I missed my fast train (getting to Klagenfurt two hours before kick off), but also the slow one (this was four minutes after the fast train, and on the departure board when we arrived at the station, but left before it was possible to get to it. With half an hour before the next slow train, I tried to make a complaint. The Austrian railway officials were having none of it. There is another train within 30 minutes. Why should they care. Anyway, you are not allowed to make a complaint. As I wander away, I am stopped by an elderly lady who had overheard the conversation. Actually, its all a lie,she says. You can complain to Austrian railways, but they don’t like you to know. She gave me a card with the contact details! I am surprised the British railway companies have not cottoned on to this idea – reduce the number of complaints by refusing to tell people how to complain. Anyway I arrive in Klagenfurt less than an hour before kick off, and this is not even a town where everything is centralised. I need one bus to the centre, another to the stadium.

The stadium name,like so many these days is open to interpretation. I know many people, especially among those ground hoppers who went to the old stadium and will no go again, (same site) as the Worthersee stadion. During the European championships, it may well have been referred as the Klagenfurt EM-Stadion, the club has now branded I as the Hypo-Group Arena (that’s one that just trips off the ground), but I noticed that on internal signage, and also outside the offices, it has also become Sportpark Klagenfurt. Inside, it looks vaguely familiar. It is a two tier stadium, the lower tied being of concrete construction, while the upper section, which appears to have been built as an independent, unconnected unit, is all steel. The upper tier does not continue on the west side of the stadium, where VIP facilities are built up, accessed from the lower section. It is clearly a near direct copy of the stadium in Salzburg. There are three major differences though – the pitch is at the same level as the land outside, while Salzburg’s pitch is lower. Klagenfurt is still grass, and the roof rises gently towards the middle of the East side, allowing more seats above the half way line. From the outside, the roofing, which curves down to form a cladding for the upper tier is very different to that of Salzburg. At Salzburg, the roof is level and almost disconnected from the stands below.

While the stadium was built for the European championships, a slightly surprising choice considering that the larger city of Graz already had a near new stadium of its own, (which was known as the Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadion until the city fathers argued with their former favourite son, now governor of California over the use of the death penalty in the American state); the football club itself was a political statement to fill the stadium. Before re-building, the Wortherseestadion was home to FC Kärnten – a club that has been struggling for some time both on and off the field. The old club were moved (supposedly temporarily) while the rebuilding work took place. They never returned, and at the end of last season, they were relegated out of the second division into the amateur regional leagues. Of course, you can not just magic up a top division team out of nowhere, not even in Austria. The solution was found over 200 km away in the small suburb of Pasching. The football club there had risen from true amateurism at the fifth level of the Austrian pyramid, to actually playing in Europe. This was achieved mainly thanks to the financial contribution from an investment company – and the club had become FC Superfund. Still it cannot be a surprise to find out the club was unsustainable in this form, except by continuing funding from above – and so they moved, lock, stock and league position to Klagenfurt. For the fans of Pasching, their reserves became the new first team, and they were back in the amateur levels. I doubt if many new fans stayed. Under the title, Austria Kärnten survive in the top flight, although they are short of looking like European candidates. The victims in this game of musical football grounds are the tax payers in Pasching, as they have paid for a stadium to be built up for what is once again a local amateur club.

Admission cost between 12 and 24 Euro, the upper tier was not used, the match programme was an unusual affair, unfolding from a small size into a single large sheet. A standard A4 sheet of paper would have been achieved by unfolding 3 ‘pages’, but the programme actually had 5. The game was not memorable, and in a week between seeing it, and writing notes, I have indeed forgotten most of it. It did however have a twist at the end. SV Ried were behind at half time, and deservedly levelled the scores with 15 minutes to go. Then in injury time, they took advantage of a brief hesitation by the home defence and squeezed in a winner. The result keeps Ried’s slight chances of European football open – Sturm Graz will go to Ried on the final day, needing to avoid a three goal defeat to qualify

Post-report note – on the final day of the season, Ried did indeed score three goals to beat Sturm Graz, but as this was a comeback in the last 20 minutes from 2-0 down, it was not enough to give Ried a European place. On the same day, the Champion, Salzburg, were humbled by a 4-1 hone defeat to Altach, already relegated in last place.

Post-report note 2 – On 8th June, a tribunal gave a licence to Regionalliga West leaders Dornbirn. Dornbirn needs a point from their last game to ensure the title, which will lead to Grödig being relegated.