Interblock and Gossau

From Vienna, I take a morning train, and for the next six hours it winds its way south through Austria and into Slovenia, fetching up at the capital Ljubljana six hours later. Convenient train scheduling means that the rest of the party, who had spent the previous evening watching Bad Aussee arrived just thirteen minutes ahead of me. There then follows the routine for a town where we are not staying. Before leaving the station, most of the luggage must go into storage, and a quick check is made on the departing trains for later.

On a sunny afternoon, the city is a pleasant place to spend a few hours, although getting six people to a single plan of action would be impossible. Some would like to sit idly in places, to have a drink and watch the world pass them by. Others are determined to be the world passing by, and to see as much of the town as can be possible in the short time available. One member of the party is staying overnight, and disappears quickly in the direction of a cheapish hotel. Some others (which would have included myself, if I had not left the envelope back at home) had old Slovenian money, which could only be changed at a single bank in town. Even though the tourist office said this would be closed, we still stopped to check.

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As it is, we have only three hours in the city before the start of our game, so after about 90 minutes walking around the city, we are strolling out towards the stadium. The stadium is between two converging railway lines that meet, just at the city end of the ground – the maps say we have to walk well past the stadium and then come back again, but in fact, there are several paths across the tracks, and only motor traffic has to go the long way.

The stadium, marked simply as Sportni Park on the map is also known as ZSD or ZSD-ZAD stadium. It is a straight forward athletics track with most of the facilities built into the main stand. This is raised well above pitch level, so views are generally good. There are a few rows of uncovered seats on the far side, but with plenty of room for everyone (and then some) in the stand, these are sparsely populated. Around the stadium there are a number of small clubhouses, for different purposes. For example, a tennis club has facilities are the land narrows for the railway, and a small clubhouse. We find one belonging to FC Ljubljana, where we get into conversation with Alois Krapez, the president of the club that actually owns the stadium. Once they would have played at a higher level, but as with many clubs, they have had financial problems, and changed their name from the Slovenian form, where NK means football club, to the English.
NK Interblock, the home team for the game rents the stadium from FCL, Interblock were formed after the main team in the capital, Olimpja went bankrupt in 2005 (and the clubs other team, the one now known as FC Ljubljana were relegated for financial reason). The owner of the Interblock company, Jose Pecenik, known as the “king of roulette” choose to keep football running in the capital. He bought out Factor (which is also a sponsor’s name) which was then a second division club and has seen them through to a stage where they are challenging for a place in European competition. According to our hosts from FCL, only 4% of the budget for Slovenian league football comes from TV contracts and sponsorship, while at most clubs only 2% would come from gate receipts. The portion from gate receipts is even less at Interblock, as tickets are in fact free. This means the vast majority of a club’s expenditure is directly funded by the owner. With an annual budget of €2 million, Interblock is reputed to have the highest budget in the league. For comparison, this is similar to the turnover of a club such as Cheltenham Town, whose budget is reputed to be the lowest in League-1. Meeting and talking to officials of small clubs is always a highlight of any tour, as it gives a valuable insight into the operation of football. The conversation was helped on its way be a local Slovenian dark beer, which was referred to as Slovenian Guinness. This was clearly a stout, and had a strong and pleasant taste but was less heavy than the Irish original. We said out goodbyes and entered the stand to watch the game.

Around the ground, the wire fencing is covered by a series of ‘shirts’ showing the current Interblock squad, plus the name of the team and there well known red and black ‘pentagram’ badge. There are about four wire panels without a cover, and it appeared that each one had a single spectator behind it, gaining a free view. This seemed strange to us – who needs to gain a free view, when tickets are in fact, free? The badge, with its similarity to an occult symbol has led to the club’s rivals referring to them as “The devil’s club”.

If this should have been a highlight of the trip, with both sides looking for a place in Europe, then it was disappointing. Despite, or maybe because of the visitors taking the lead early in the game, it never reached the heights. With so little coming from their earlier endeavours, it came as a surprise to us when Interblock equalised with just ten minutes to go. This did lead to an interesting finish, as the home team could suddenly see a chance of victory. However, it was clear that Koper had been playing within themselves in defending a lead, and in injury time, it was the Interblock defence that was found wanting, and Koper went away with a 2-1 victory

With the exception of Hutch, who was staying, we had just over 90 minutes after the match, before our train left. For once the group is unanimous – food was the order of the day. Sometimes finding the correct time to eat can be a problem on these trips – for example in France, where most matches kick off around 8 p.m., the period 8-10 in the evening are the central business hours for restaurants, and in smaller towns, there is a limit to what you can get earlier or later. A kick off at five o’clock, may not be the best for the crowds to reach after working, but does mean all the restaurants are open at the game’s end.

Then onto the train – five of us in a six couchette compartment for a near twelve hour journey. The conductor took one look at us, and decided to move the other occupant, an elderly woman, to the empty compartment next door. Preparations (only one person can make up the bed at a time in the narrow compartment) take a while, and the area starts to smell of sweaty men’s socks. It takes a while after the train gets away for the air conditioning to bring some comfort to proceedings, but eventually some sleep is to be had. Generally, I do best, as I am the only one who is not to be woken by my snoring – but I still never sleep well in transit, and I have a tendency to wake each time the train stops for a while.

We end up in Zurich, where we find some small breakfast, (for some large price, we are in Switzerland now) and then break the group into two. The Wolves fans are heading south to Locarno, whereas the rest of us take the short journey east to St. Gallen. This is a relatively small town, but with a very attractive old centre. The baroque cathedral dates back to the 18th century, and is impressive both inside and out – although it did appear that one of its best features was the lawn outside, as the city was otherwise devoid of green space in its centre. Around the cathedral, many half timbered houses date back to the same period, when the town was wealthy from the textile trade.

St. Gallen’s Football Club won the Swiss League in 2000, but this was very much a one-off, with the bigger city clubs having returned to the fore since. A new stadium well out away from the town is to be opened this summer, but the club risks playing in front of tiny crowds in the second division (known in Switzerland as the Challenge League, the top division being the Super League). It was a neighbouring Challenge league team we had come to see – Gossau is eight minutes down the line from St. Gallen. We took a twenty minute walk around the town and confirmed that as far as seeing the sights are concerned, this is twenty minutes too long.

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The football ground is also easy to find. Exit the station at the southern side, and cross the road, (it’s not a big road). The majority of one side has been built up with about half a dozen wooden steps – about three quarters of the stepped area is covered by the simplest of wood and corrugated steel covers (with support pillars in the front), while the seating area takes up about half the zone. There are also a few steps of terracing without cover on the opposite side, and another similar area, this time fenced in behind the goal furthest from the railway – this being the away enclosure. The visitors, Lausanne-Sport brought about 30 fans with them, while the total crowd was given in the following days papers as 800. (There is some doubt among my compatriots about the counting which meat this healthy looking crowd was apparently only 100 more than the sparse one at Interblock. Interblock may have their reasons for reporting a relatively high crowd, and as tickets are free, they do not need to tie crowd figures to gate receipts. Gossau benefit from the fact that small crowds look better in compact stadia, and I think their 800 may be correct.

As for the game, it never got into second gear. Despite league positions that mean both teams are fairly certain to stay in the Challenge League next season, (either side would guarantee their place with a win), they both played a defensive game showing more fear of losing than hope to win. It was not until after the break that we really saw some effort from the two teams to win the game. Lausanne took the lead with a long shot that took everyone by surprise, while the home team’s equaliser, seven minutes later was from the penalty spot – and that too took us by surprise.

So after three matches in different countries, the tour has yet to take off in footballing terms. It seems that defensive formations and tactics are ruling the roost. The next match will see me alone again in Austria – but will the football pick up?

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