Two’s company

After 17 years of separation, James Baxter assesses future plans for a possible footballing reunification in central Europe

Nostalgia for Czechoslovakia, the federation that broke up in 1993’s “Velvet Divorce”, is fashionable in the modern-day Czech and Slovak Republics. Politically, the divorce, though amicable, is absolute. Sport might be another matter, however. There has been frequent talk over the years about merging the countries’ ice hockey leagues. Now there is a similar idea for football. Representatives of the Czech and Slovak football associations recently met to discuss a possible return to a joint top division.

The main reason for such an idea is to raise the level of football in both countries. Five years or more ago, the Czechs would have laughed at the notion that regular competition with Slovak clubs might improve their football. The Czech league seemed strong, giving starts to a lot of players from the excellent national sides of the time. Its strength was also reflected in European competition – Sparta Prague were regulars in the Champions League group stages and neighbours Slavia had good runs in the UEFA Cup. Those standards have slipped recently.

Meanwhile, though the Slovak league continues to lack strength in depth, its best teams do appear to be improving. MSK Zilina comfortably beat Czech side Slovan Liberec in last season’s UEFA Cup before a draw with Slavia and a win over Aston Villa. At national level too, Slovak footballing morale is high just now, with the team’s qualification for the World Cup. These factors may well have helped to convince Czechs that a joint league might be a good idea after all.

A subsidiary argument is that good Czech and Slovak players would be likelier to continue their careers at home than under the present systems. Obviously, future versions of Tomas Rosicky or Marek Hamsik would still move to Europe’s biggest leagues but the hope is that the Romanian, Austrian or Polish leagues would be less of a draw than they currently are. Supporters of the joint league are unable to say if European places might be lost but do not seem too worried. The new league would be an improvement on what it replaced, their argument goes, so those teams who did get into Europe would do better once they got there.

How far Czech and Slovak fans have been consulted on the idea is not clear. However, discussions on internet forums have been largely positive. Also, a February friendly in Zilina between MSK and Sparta Prague, played in freezing conditions, drew a crowd of 4,300, more than have turned up for all but one of Zilina’s subsequent Slovak league home games. The match was surrounded by nostalgia for the old federal league, both in the stands and in the sports pages of the newspapers.

 A joint league would mean longer distances for away fans to travel but then most Czech and Slovak clubs do not have much away support anyway. Those that do – Sparta, Banik Ostrava, Slovan Bratislava, Spartak Trnava – are as synonymous with trouble as with genuine support. Yet more cross-border matches would probably not mean an automatic increase in hooliganism. Nationalist animosity between Czechs and Slovaks is not a major issue.

At present, the most serious trouble in the region happens at matches between Slovan Bratislava, whose fans do have a Slovak nationalist tendency, and Dunajska Streda, with their large following among the local Hungarian minority. The new league would probably be at least a temporary solution to this issue since Dunajska Streda, struggling in the current Slovak league, would be unlikely to make the cut.

As for format, the proposal most under discussion is for an 18-team top division comprising, at the beginning, the best 12 Czech and six Slovak clubs (proportions which just about reflect the countries’ populations). The lower leagues would continue to be separate. Each season, one Czech and one Slovak team would be promoted to the top division with the bottom two dropping out of it, regardless of where they are from. Some “shuffling” at the lower levels would be required if, say, two Czech sides were relegated but that isn’t seen as a problem.

Even UEFA, once hostile to the idea of such joint leagues, are not now regarded as a huge barrier, with Michel Platini named as likely to be supportive. Discussions are still at a very early stage but the return of Czechoslovak football at club level – by 2012-13 if all goes smoothly in the meantime – seems a real possibility.

From WSC 280 June 2010