Small town heroes

Champions League competition can be mixed blessing and James Baxter sympathises with a team thrashed by Marseille

When MŠK Žilina’s first ever Champions League group stage campaign finally drew to an end last December, debate in Slovakia as to its merits and otherwise was already long underway. The general consensus was that the failure to pick up points was disappointing and the 7-0 home defeat by Marseille humiliating but also that the team had played good football in spells and learned several lessons.

The most obvious lesson, though, is also the one that looks hardest to implement. It is that the Champions League is an unforgiving environment for a small-town club based in one of Europe’s poorer, more obscure regions. With a population of just 100,000 and three hours’ drive from the nearest major city, Žilina is never going to be an easy destination to sell to potential transfer targets.

The club also struggles to keep its best players. None of the squad was of interest to clubs in Europe’s stronger leagues during the last transfer window but defender Mário Pečalka, captain and playmaker Robert Jež and striker Tomáš Oravec all made moves which will benefit them financially: Pečalka to Hapoel Tel Aviv, Jež to Polish outfit Górnik Zabrze and Oravec to Shaanxi Zhongjian Chanba in China.

It is true that Žilina made an estimated €8 million (£7m) from Champions League participation, a sum which, domestically, puts them at an advantage. But owner Jozef Antošík has never seen the lavishing of money on the club’s first team as his main priority. A locally based industrialist who made his fortune from the manufacture of “hygienic paper products” (toilet paper, serviettes etc), Antošík became chairman of Žilina in 1995 and majority shareholder in 2004. Unusually in Slovakia, the club have not changed their name to reflect their ownership; the MŠK prefix, standing for Mestský Športový Klub (City Sports Club), actually suggests local authority sponsorship.

Over recent years, Antošík has overseen the gradual development of Žilina’s ground, the 11,000-capacity Štadión pod Dubňom, to the point where it is now often chosen to host Slovakia’s international matches. He also continues to invest in a well-regarded academy from which, it is hoped, long-term replacements for the likes of Pečalka, Jež and Oravec may eventually emerge.

Antošík’s local connections and the fact that he never misses a Žilina game – he is also a regular attender of reserve and youth matches – have not proved quite enough to earn him the unanimous fan approval, however. The club’s decision to dramatically increase ticket prices for the Chelsea home game, the first in Champions League Group F, led to bitter protests and even a boycott by the main ultras group.

Concessions were made for the Marseille and Spartak Moscow matches but the latter fixture, a dead rubber, was marred by crowd trouble, caused in part by visiting fans who’d bought black-market tickets for the home sections. These incidents appear to have convinced Antošík that high admission charges for big games are the only true safeguard against black-market trading.

In a sense, Antošík’s position is understandable. Even in a Slovak context, Žilina is not really a footballing hotbed. Attendances for the club’s home Corgoň Liga games stubbornly refuse to rise much above 3,500, figures regularly bettered by perennial under-achievers Spartak Trnava. The bigger turnouts for Champions League games can be explained largely by the desire of locals to see big-name clubs in action. Many of those Slovaks who paid up to €200 to attend the Chelsea game were clad in blue rather than yellow and green, and appeared completely unfamiliar with the home players.

Antošík’s own demonstrable bond to his local club should at least ensure that Žilina will not endure the fates which met Slovakia’s previous group stage representatives. Košice, who finished bottom of a group also containing Manchester United in 1997-98, suffered bankruptcy six years later, while Artmedia Bratislava’s creditable efforts in 2005-06 were not enough to prevent their owner and most of their best players decamping to Slovan Bratislava in 2008.

Yet Žilina’s position, enriched by the Champions League yet restricted by location and bound by their own philosophy of steady development rather than pursuit of instant success, is a paradoxically difficult one. Certainly, they are unlikely to greatly improve on this season’s European effort any time soon. And that is not the immediate priority anyway.

Partly because of difficulties adjusting to changes to the squad over the winter break, Žilina saw their six-point lead at the top of the Corgoň Liga wiped out by FK Senica after just three spring fixtures. For now, getting the better of teams such as Zlaté Moravce and Nitra on a consistent basis is more important than the question of how to compete more effectively with the likes of Chelsea and Marseille.

From WSC 291 May 2011