What's going on in Mitteleuropa these days? Ian Plenderleith discovers that the angst of the low crowds in the heart of the continent is alleviated only by poetic team names, a healthy beer culture, fine Canadian-made hats and Hungarian goose liver cooked in a patriotic red paprika

One quiet morning recently I found myself sitting at the computer reading out loud the results from the 26th round of play in the 2003-04 season of the Slovak second division. Dusla Sala 1 Tatran Presov 2. It sounded so good that I did it again. There was a certain kind of poetry to it and a special feeling that comes with knowing you are likely the only person in the world right now sitting at his computer and reading out loud the results from Slovakia’s division two.

It had started earlier that morning, around 3am, when I woke up with a start, wondering: “Who is the best Slovak footballer right now? Is it Miroslav Konig or Lubomir Meszaros? How would they fare against the Slovak soccer titans of the past such as Jozef Bomba and Titus Bubernik?”

Jozef Bomba – how the headline writers of yore must have yearned for the easy trans-continental movement of players we have today. Bomba played for the Czechoslovakia national team at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, according to the informative English-language site Slovak Football, where I found some pointers to the questions that had interrupted my sleep.

Personal, home-maintained and easily navigable sites like this are an increasingly rare treasure. A Slovak national exiled in the US, Inter Bratislava fan Michael Vana uses the web to connect his love for the game and his homeland. “A flag with the emblem of ASK Inter Bratislava hangs on the wall in the middle of ‘Slovak corner’ in my apartment,” he writes wistfully. I’m glad I’m not the only mid-life European living in the US with a wall devoted to pictures of 1970s footballers from my home nation.

Sticking around in central Europe, the photo galleries at newly relegated Czech club Viktoria Zizkov’s official site convey a pretty grim image of the state of the game in the continent’s central locations, even if you can’t understand the text (an English language version of the site is promised). Muddy or snow-covered pitches surrounded by empty or demolished stands and terracing reflect dire conditions on every level, where even European ties against Rangers and Real Betis are played before vacant seats. There’s a great shot, however, of the 22 Zizkov away fans, almost outnumbered by Scottish policemen and stewards, celebrating an aggregate UEFA Cup victory in a small corner of Ibrox Stadium in late 2002.

The Czech Football Association’s official site is a better place to catch up on the latest stats, with limited parts of the site in English. I was intrigued to see that a crowd of just 31 turned up to watch a second division match between Sparta Prague and Brno’s B teams, and that in the lower divisions an unfortunate side called Varnsdorf shipped 79 goals in losing all 14 games, scoring only six in return.

But this is the internet, where visuals are at least as important as words, and most re­warding for a feel of the Czech domestic game comes again from a root around the site’s photography section. Click on the link to a Sparta B home game and see not just the by-now-obligatory empty seats, but a young female referee and a Sparta player’s close-up nosebleed. Or the section for a first division game showing the rival fans of Plzen as a Biermacht (“Beer Power” – Plzen being the home town of the original Pilsner) opposing the “Vodkacorps” of Liberec.

There’s a semi-useful, up-to-date English language site for Hungarian football stats at Wsoccer.com, although many of the links take you back to the home page and the site appears to be largely still under construction. Never mind, a long-since abandoned unofficial page for the Magyar Borsodi League links straight to a Hungarian recipe for goose liver cooked in paprika – just the thing to keep your pecker up on a parky afternoon at Haladas Szombathely.

There’s a section at Wsoccer.com, too, for Austrian football, a topic in which you may have to fake an interest at some point soon given that the country will be co-hosting Euro 2008. Sadly almost nothing works except for the odd picture of a slouching old bloke wearing an Alpine hat in Bregenz, standing in the rain watching a game from across an athletics track. If you’re tempted to look the part, though, you can prepare for the tournament by buying such an “authentic, Canadian-made, fur-felt, Tyrolean with bristle brush” online for just $190 at hatsinthebelfry.

One of the few worthwhile talking points in Austrian football of late has been the messing with club names to include their sponsors, and no club has been more totalnetworksolutioned than FC Superfund. Don’t look for the town of Superfund on a map, because they play in Pasching. And according to their website they’ve found the perfect solution to cure the melancholy of Mitteleuropa and its sparsely filled stadiums – free beer for all fans after the final match of the season.

From WSC 209 July 2004. What was happening this month

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