Category Archives: Slovakia

Slovakia on World Cup trail

It is nearly 11 months since Slovakia played their last meaningful game, a 1-0 defeat at home to Russia which ensured they would take no part in Euro 2012. They return to competitive action this week, with Friday’s trip to Vilnius to face Lithuania in World Cup qualifying. Four days after that, they meet Lichtenstein in Bratislava.

Some things have changed in the Slovakia set-up since that Russia match, but much remains familiar too. The biggest change is the replacement of Vladimír Weiss as coach (he left ‘by mutual consent’ in January) by the two-man team of Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp. The appointment of this duo followed the single-minded, but ham-fisted and ultimately unsuccessful, three-month pursuit of Viktoria Plzeň coach Pavel Vrba. Hipp, formerly Weiss’s assistant, had strengthened his case for remaining in the set-up by guiding the side to a 2-1 friendly win in Turkey in February, while Griga, much-respected for his work with various Slovak and Czech clubs, was always a fine candidate.

The new coaches can hardly be accused of allowing their players to get too comfortable. Slovakia have played three more friendlies since their appointment, all of them against sides who appeared in the Euro 2012 finals (Poland, Holland and Denmark). They also appear to be in the process of discarding some of Weiss’s perennial selections, such as centre-back Ján Ďurica and forwards Filip Hološko and Erik Jendrišek.

There have not, however, been any great tactical changes. Weiss nearly always preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation for competitive games, though he did sometimes experiment with twin-strikers or 4-3-3 in friendlies. On the evidence of what we’ve seen so far, Griga and Hipp look certain to favour 4-2-3-1 for the foreseeable future. Some of the personnel will also be familiar from the Weiss era. Ján Mucha is still the first-choice goalkeeper, especially now that he’s seen recent first-team action with Everton. Martin Škrtel is also a constant in central-defence, where he forms a solid partnership with Tomáš Hubočan. Further forward, Miroslav Stoch, Marek Hamšík and Vladimír Weiss Junior are a talented attacking trio who played a lot of games together under the former regime.

But Slovakia may have an unfamiliar look about them in the deeper midfield positions and up-front. Trabzonspor’s Marek Sapara returned to the side for the Denmark game after a long absence and made a highly favourable impression with his passing game. He was joined for the second-half by one of two Slovak league players in the squad, Žilina’s Viktor Pečovský. A predominantly defensive player, Pečovský appeared to strike up an immediate understanding with Sapara as their team turned round a 1-0 deficit to win 3-1. These two must now have a good chance of starting the Lithuania game together, but that would probably mean leaving out Genoa’s Juraj Kucka, a highly-rated player but one who hasn’t always looked at home in international football.

There are only two out-and-out strikers in the squad, Martin Jakubko of Amkar Perm and Plzeň’s Marek Bakoš. Neither would have been likely to appear had Weiss still been in charge. The former coach stood by as Jakubko retired in something of a huff after the 2010 World Cup (Hipp is credited with talking him into a return) and was always oddly dismissive of Bakoš’s claims. Yet both have some of the essential qualities of the lone striker, being good in the air and comfortable with their backs to goal. Jakubko has the more intimidating physical presence, and scored with his first touch after coming on against the Danes, factors which may well be in his favour when Griga and Hipp choose Friday’s starting XI. After all, the coaches know very well that the main reason Slovakia disappointed in Euro 2012 qualifying was their failure to score goals. Seven in ten games is a damning statistic, especially considering that the group contained Andorra.

With Greece as its top seed, Group G is one of those in the coming campaign which doesn’t contain a single outstanding team. But perhaps because of that, everyone else, with the exception of Lichtenstein, will feel they have a chance of qualifying. If Slovakia can gain six points from the first two fixtures, home games against Latvia and Greece in October will then give them a chance of establishing a very good platform.


Dukla Praha: A story between war, politics and the Ballon d’Or

In order to tell the story of Dukla Prague, it is not necessary to start too far away. We aren’t, as with the foundation of many football teams, in a bar or on a bench – like Juventus – but in the middle of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. Slovenské Narodne povstanie – or more simply SNP – was the Slovak National Uprising which began on August 29th 1944 in Banská Bystrica. It was here that the Slovaks rebelled suddenly and decisively against the Germans. The city soon became the centre of the anti-Nazi resistance movement; a political and military uprising.

At the same time the Red Army, which was pooled from 16,000 Czechoslovak soldiers, were approaching simultaneously from the north and east. Radio Moscow, through the legendary voice of the announcer Yuri Levitan – who began his broadcasts with: “Attention! Moscow is speaking” – informed the people of a Soviet army advancement. The Czechoslovak government, which at the time was in London, headed by President Beneš was aware of preparations for the insurrection and fully approved of them. The prerequisite for the success was to ensure that the Red Army could unite with the insurgents, to do so it was necessary for the Russian army to ake possession of the Dukla Pass, a strategic spot on the border between Poland and Slovakia.

The attack was met with a tough Nazi resistance and the Dukla-Prešov operation proved to be one of the bloodiest on the Eastern Front – in the two-month battle, 21,000 Soviet’s were killed along with nearly 2,000 Czech. It took more than fifty days to drive out the men of the Third Reich from Slovakia.

Emerging from this epic chapter in the history of European liberation is the name of a Czech football team that was formerly sponsored by the army – even today their name exists as a glorious reminder of the past; that name is Dukla Prague.

Dukla Prague were initially known as ATK – Armádní Tělocvičný Klub -, the abbreviation of Czech Army Gymnastics Club. To speed up, or rather, encourage, an ascent to the pinnacle of Czech football a special rule was introduced where every player who had performed military service would be automatically entered into the ranks of Dukla, even if he was under contract with another club. The entrance to the club in the top division was anything but orthodox and the club had the green light to pick the best players in the nation. As described by Radovan Jelínek, author of several books including The First World Atlas of Football:

“Normally, each team would have to qualify to play in first division. It was not the case of Dukla Prague. In the late ’40s, the best Czechs clubs were ‘instructed’ to give the club at least one of their players. Today [this] would be something unacceptable. This was the beginning of the history of Dukla. Once it had all the best players from other clubs, for example, seven players coming from Slavia or five from Bohemians, [the team] dominated Czechoslovakian football. ”

If we speak about Dukla, the thought runs fast to Josef Masopust, the world-beater who led the yellow and red for thirteen long years, from 1953 to 1966. A son of a miner from Most, the young Josef had, in 1949, signed a professional contract with Vodotechna Teplice when he was just eighteen. He resembled Jozsef Bozsik; key player of Honvéd and the great Hungarian side. Masopust was a midfielder with a great deal of pace to his play. Arguably his best quality was his ability to use both feet beautifully to orchestrate perfect passes for his teammates and produce assists for the forwards. In his honour the term “Masopust-slalom” was coined to indicate a series of rapid dribbles in short spaces that baffled and bewildered opponents. With technique, strength and an exceptional vision for the game, Josef was a real indefatigable presence in the centre of the field.

The midfielder won the Ballon d‘Or in 1962, the same year he reached, and scored in, the final of the World Cup in Chile for Czechoslovakia. ‘Pepik‘, as fans affectionately called him, won the prestigious trophy defeating Eusébio and Karl-Heinz Schnellinger into second and third place respectively. “Masopust was a midfielder with such a technique to give the impression of been born in Brazil, not in Europe. A player such as Platini, Beckenbauer, comparable today to Xavi. Especially a man of great intelligence off the court”. Signed Edson Arantes do Nascimento, of course, is more famously known as Pelé. Masopust and the great Brazilian met in the final of 1962.

But back to the team. The first major success was in 1952 when the club won the Czechoslovakian Cup. In early 1953 the team was renamed UDA – Ústřední Dům Armády, Home Army-, and immediately won the first of many national titles – at the end the total will be eleven national championships – with only one defeat in their thirteen games. In 1956 they assumed their current name, in honour of the Slovak village which saw the first outbreak of revolt against Nazi brutality.

The change to Dukla came two years of perceived failure: in 58/59 Inter Bratislava were crowned champions while Dukla finished second and the following year Hradec Kralove won their first and only league title after an exciting struggle, which saw the black and whites win by two points from Inter Bratislava and Dukla Prague. Two years without a league win was too many for the team’s hierarchy. Thankfully, as a response, Dukla swept away their rivals led by the forward quintet of Brumovský-Vacenovský-Borovička-Kučera-Jelínek, guided of course by Masopust.

In the 60/61 season the difference between goals scored and conceded was a phenomenal: +43. In this year they also dominated the Czechoslovakian Cup. The next season proved to be even greater – 88 goals for, and 30 conceded in just 25 matches. Dukla was the absolute master of Czechoslovakia. Following on from the two dominating seasons the league became more balanced, but the eleven managed by Jaroslav Vejvoda still looked from above down on their opposition.

The title victory of 1960 coincides with the inauguration of the stadium Na Julisce on July 10. For the occasion there was a friendly organized against Wiener Sport-Club, an Austrian team based in Wien. For the record, Dukla won 2-1. At the Olympic Games in Tokyo in ’64, Dukla provided three players to the national team: Brumovský, Geleta and Knesl. The three returned home with the silver medal around their necks.

When in 1965 the goalkeeper Pavel Kouba moved to Sparta Prague, his place was taken by Ivo Viktor who became the foundation of Dukla’s defence. In 15 seasons he played 316 games and was nominated five times, a record still unbeaten to this day, for Czechoslovakian player of the year as well as Goalkeeper of the Year in 1969 and 1976. His achievements in goal gave him a ranking of 24th in the goalkeeper of the century list compiled by the International Institute of Football History and Statistics. He also represented the National team, making his debut in 1966 against Brazil in a football pantheon, the Maracana stadium. The only person in Dukla’s Hall of Fame who achieved more was the untouchable Masopust.
Taking up the thread of the national wins, the other victories came in 65/66 – with their second Czechoslovak Cup -, in 76/77, 78/79 and finally in the 1981-82 season, ending with another doblete and fifth Československý pohár. During this period Dukla’s dominance in the Czech half of Czechoslovakia was unquestionable. At this time the final was competed by one Czech side and one Slovak, Dukla reached ten finals, becoming the most frequent finalist in the nation’s history. Also on the playing field, Masopust’s career was ending and the transformation began into a player/coach and then finally into management fulltime. In 1969 he led Crossing Molenbeek to promotion into the Belgian first division, but even if his name was Masopust and he was the most known athlete in the country, his relationship with the regime was particularly tense. He was only allowed to play abroad at the end of his career and at 37, he formally became a professional. Understandably, the regime was anxious not to create a dangerous precedent with Masopust and potentially lose other players in the future who could have been tempted to move abroad, lured by more substantial salaries.

At the European level, Dukla debuted in 57/58, directly qualifying for the knockout stages of the European Cup. The continental experience was a short one and the team was eliminated by the Busby Babes of Manchester United. Unfortunately, the edition of that year’s tournament is remembered for the crash of Munich where eight players of Manchester United players died. The second attempt at the top European competition came in 1966-67 edition where Dukla reached the semi-finals, beating teams such as Anderlecht and Ajax, only to be defeated by the eventual winners, Celtic lead by the legendary coach Jock Stein.

Perhaps their greatest trip in Europe came about in the UEFA Cup tournament of 78/79. Dukla began by eliminating Lanerossi Vicenza – who were missing Paolo Rossi -, before going on to defeat Everton in the second round. The apotheosis came in the third round against Stuttgart. Losing the first-leg 4-1, the return game at Dukla’s Na Julisce will be forever marked as one of the best international games for the club: The match ends 4-0 and progression to the quarter-finals was unlikely assured. (I wonder if the newspapers of the time praised the achievements of those eleven heroes, perhaps alluding to the Dukla Pass battle against the Germans!). But the road to Europe that year ended in front of another Germanic outfit, Hertha Berlin.

In the 1985-86 season the club reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, yielding only to those who went on to win the title; the Ukrainians of Dynamo Kiev who were under the guidance Oleh Blokhin, the “Ukraine Arrow”, Oleksandr Zavarov and managed by Soviet guru Valery Lobanovs’kyj.

Returning back within national borders, the last three titles are linked to the figure of Zdeněk Nehoda. Nehoda, a forward who scored 124 goals in 290 games with Dukla, also won Euro 1976 with Czechoslovakia, as well as Czech player of the year for two successive years in the late 1970’s. The final piece of silverware in Dukla’s trophy cabinet came in the midst of the Velvet Revolution led by the politician-playwright Vaclav Havel. Within the next three years the Communist regime had ended and Czechoslovakia dissolved into two separate states.

Then the sunset. Sudden, but not unexpected. The image of Dukla as the club of the Communist Army did not allow the club to raise the necessary funds and the side eventually became a shadow of their former selves and slipped down to the third tier of Czech football. Only two years on from their demotion to the CFL – Cesky fotbol liga – an entrepreneur, Bohumil Ďuričko, decided to intervene and restore the ancient, famous club to greatness: after purchasing Příbram FC – based eighty miles southwest of Prague -, he merged the two teams and so FC Dukla Příbram was born.

Separately, an amateur team called Dukla Dejvice continued to play at Na Julisce in the regional Prague championships, taking the old colours of Dukla. In 2001, Dukla Dejvice joined forces with the youth teams of Dukla Prague who then broke away from Příbram in 2006 and joined the second division, acquiring the relevant license from Jakubčovice. Returning to professional football in the Czech Republic for the first time in almost a decade, Dukla Prague were reborn

After five years in the second division the side claimed promotion to the Czech top flight as champions. Their return to the Gambrinus Liga took place last season where they finished a surprising, and deserved, sixth place.

The roots of Dukla Prague as an army club have made them very unpopular in the minds of the average fan. Despite their numerous accolades their average attendance was continuously very low. For example: during the triumphant 1965/1966 season, the stands saw an average of 9,000 people per game while Sparta and Slavia had about 12-13,000 visitors. Even during the season of 81/82 only 1,500 spectators thronged the vast terraces of the Prague 6 stadium confirming little sympathy and affiliation for a team representing the sporting heart of the regime. Even today they are still considered the fourth team in the capital after Slavia, Sparta and Bohemians 1905. Some even place Viktoria Žižkov above Dukla when it comes to ranking popularity in the modern day. Dukla is a club that is by and large, generally ignored by the inhabitants of the Czech capital.

The fame of Dukla however has expanded past the boundaries of the rectangular football field. The name of Dukla appears on the cover of a book, Dukla mezi mrakodrapy – Dukla between skyscrapers – by author Ota Pavel who recounted the summer games of 1961 to 1964 in New York, part of the International Soccer League. The competition gathered some of the best European teams at the time – Red Star, Rapid Wien, AS Monaco, Espanyol et al – and during Dukla’s glory years it is no surprise they were invited. From literature and to music the song “All I want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague away kit” by the English band Half Man Half Biscuit climbed the charts and remains a cult classic. The Times has also named the jersey of Dukla amongst the top fifty most beautiful shirts in the history of football.

But let’s not forget that Dukla can boast about having seen the only two Czech Ballon d’Or winners, and arguably the two greatest Czech players ever, turn out in their famous colours.
Besides Masopust, back in 1991 a boy with blonde hair graced midfield. Pavel Nedvěd was sold after just one year later to Sparta and was to be destined to become the ‘Czech Fury’ under the shadow of the Mole Antonelliana.

In the historical overview of Czechoslovakian football, Dukla looks like a shooting star that burnt for a short time, yet dazzled the football scene in the country. And yet, like every falling star, Dukla has also left behind an illuminating legacy that is visible to all. A trail that brings back memories of good and bad: the glory of the triumphs tainted with the history of the Communist regime. As such, there is a stain on a beautiful shirt, one that is very difficult to wash.

But the overriding image of the club, in a playing sense, is the statue in honour of Josef Masopust recently unveiled for his eightieth birthday in the park near Na Julisce. Sculpted with an elegant pose, the ball slightly in front of the left foot and left-leg arched ready to produce a glorious pass to split the opposition defence in two, head held high and proud.

Corgoň Liga Spring Preview

Slovakia’s Corgoň Liga failed to emerge from its winter hibernation last week, as the first round of ‘spring‘ fixtures was postponed due to the continued adverse weather. In truth, conditions have not greatly improved since then but we should finally see some football this weekend, if only because three of the sides due to play at home have undersoil heating at their grounds while a fourth has an artificial pitch. Continue reading

Slovakia v Russia Preview

Author’s Note : This article was originally intended for publication on Slovak football blog Britski Belasi. However, due to technical issues involving Britski Belasi’s host site (which should be resolved shortly), I have decided to post it here instead. Apologies for the fact that it’s not really an SFU article.

With just two matches ahead of them in Euro 2012 qualifying, Slovakia do not have many calculations left to make, even in this most complicated of groups. Continue reading