23 August ~ On Wednesday Slovak champions MSK Zilina may reach the Champions League group stage for the first time – they hold a 2-0 away lead from the first leg of their tie with Sparta Prague. Meanwhile, over the last few days their stadium has become the subject of a raging dispute between the Slovak football association (SFZ) and its counterpart in the Republic of Ireland (FAI). The latter claim to have received, in writing, notification from SFZ that the country's Euro 2012 qualifier on October 12 would take place in Bratislava. SFZ, meanwhile, have announced their intention to stage it in Zilina, the country's fourth-largest city.
Ireland fans may have memories of their last visit to Slovakia – in September 2007 for a Euro 2008 qualifier. That match was played in Bratislava, at Tehelne Pole, and was watched by over 13,000 fans, at least half of them Irish. However, Tehelne Pole is now awaiting the arrival of the bulldozers, meaning that big games in the city now have to take place at nearby Pasienky, a primitive bowl-like structure which holds only 12,000 or so, very few of whom are under cover. The Zilina stadium is even smaller but offers far superior facilities and, with the help of four covered stands, a much better atmosphere.
The problem with Zilina, as the FAI have pointed out, is travel. The association had already announced to Irish fans that the game would be in Bratislava. On the basis of this, some had started to make travel arrangements. Zilina is also not the most accessible of places. Only two flights a day leave from its tiny airport, both to Prague, and it is at least three hours by train from any big city. In contrast, Bratislava, with its expanding airport, is becoming something of a transport hub.
Yet the SFZ, for all the trouble their inability to communicate properly seems to have caused, might just have got this decision right. The ground in Zilina has coped well with the big matches it has staged in the last year or so while Slovan Bratislava’s Europa League ties at Pasienky have been beset with problems. The first, against Red Star Belgrade, was held up for 50 minutes by floodlight failure, the second, against Stuttgart, was interrupted by crowd trouble, raising questions about segregation and stewarding. Zilina is, in short, a safer, better venue. The Ireland fans should enjoy themselves there, assuming, of course, that the SFZ do not change their minds again in the meantime.