THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Bratislavia's oldest club don't seem to be missing their brief period of domestic success and European glory. James Baxter explains

Anyone who has registered MSK Žilina‘s progress to the group stages of this season's Champions League may also recall that the last team from Slovakia to get this far was Artmedia Bratislava, in 2005-06. But, while Žilina fans have been in bitter dispute with their club over ticket prices for home games in the competition, FC Petržalka 1898, as Artmedia are now known, are experiencing life outside Slovakia's top division and, so far, seem to be enjoying it.

Founded in 1898 by local Hungarians as Pozsonyi Torna Egyesület (Hungarian for Bratislava Physical Education Club), Petržalka won their first honour, the championship of Upper Hungary, in 1913. Later thought of in modern, independent Slovakia as a small club, their 2004-05 title success surprised many. Given that they were backed by Ivan Kmotrík, one of Slovakia's wealthiest men, and the team was managed by Vladimír Weiss, later to enjoy success as coach of the Slovak national side, it was actually almost inevitable. Still, there remained something quirky about Petržalka. The fact that games at their Starý Most home, set in parkland next to the river Danube, kicked off at 10.30 on Sunday mornings is one example of this. Another is that Kmotrík occasionally allowed the fans in for free.

The Champions League campaign, though, was proof that the team were not to be patronised. They famously defeated Celtic in qualifying and neither Porto nor Rangers could beat them at the group stage. Only home and away losses to Inter prevented them from going on to the last 16. By now, the club were known as Artmedia Bratislava, Artmedia being a subsidiary of Kmotrík's Grafobal publishing company.

The Bratislava part was a sorer point among the fans as the district of Petržalka, although officially part of Bratislava, stands across the Danube from the rest of the city and has its own quite separate history. Starý Most, meanwhile, was deemed unsuitable for European matches so Artmedia played at the Slovak national stadium, Tehelné Pole. The fact that they effectively didn't play at home throughout the Champions League campaign makes their performances all the more creditable.

Once the group stages were over, Weiss left Artmedia to manage Saturn Moscow. But he was back within 18 months, in time for the 2007-08 season, when he presided over another Slovak league title success. Some key players from 2005 were still around, notably playmaker Jan Kozák and striker Juraj Halenár, scorer of a hat-trick against Celtic. There was new talent too in formidable defenders Radek Dosoudil and Kornel Saláta, and Togo-born midfielder Karim Guédé.

With the name Petržalka now restored, the club might again have fancied their chances in the Champions League. However, a qualifying defeat to Juventus soon became the least of their problems. Kmotrík left, to buy Slovan Bratislava, and Petržalka were forced to vacate Starý Most. Weiss quit too, to take the Slovakia job, while Dosoudil, Saláta, Kozák and Halenár all followed Kmotrík to Slovan. To nobody's surprise, Slovan were 2008-09 champions, though they had to face plenty of taunts along the way, mostly to the effect that they were Petržalka in all but name. The real Petržalka, meanwhile, endured two desperate seasons playing in exile, the second of them at the deeply unpopular Pasienky ground, adjacent to Tehelné Pole. One match there, against Ružomberok, set the record for the lowest crowd (180) ever to attend top-flight Slovak football.

Relegation at the end of 2009-10 was actually no bad thing for Petržalka, especially as a new board, fronted by Jozef Vengloš Junior, was formed and commitments made to return the club to the Petržalka district, hopefully by 2013. For now, there is an agreement for the team to play their second-tier games at an old ground in the Prievoz district of Bratislava. Much work was done over the summer to get this venue fit for use, mainly by volunteers. To the club's great delight, they are once more allowed to play matches on Sunday mornings; for reasons unknown, they were unable to do so at Pasienky. The team, composed largely of youngsters, have adapted surprisingly quickly to their surroundings and look a good outside bet for promotion.

It's hard to believe that a previous incarnation of this club recently competed at grounds such as Ibrox and the San Siro but, having watched the current side emphatically defeat Rimavská Sobota in front of 1,100 on a warm autumn Sunday, it's also difficult not to feel the new spirit of optimism at Petržalka. You sense that if anyone at the club was asked for an opinion about Žilina's Champions League adventure, the reply might well be that Žilina are welcome to it. 

From WSC 285 November 2010

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