When Czechoslavakia became the Czech Republic and Slovakia, there’s no denying that this “Balkanisation” created two much weaker footballing nations. Notwithstanding the fact that all former Soviet satellites lost their state props, and therefore became financially restricted, when it came to sport, the creation of two smaller states had a profound impact on football.
Before the break-up, Czechoslavakian clubs like Sparta Prague, Slavia Prague, Slovan Bratislava and Spartak Trnava all enjoyed success on an international level. But in recent years, with the Champions League juggernauts steamrollering Europe, these clubs are strictly Europa at best. The days when Western Europe feared a trip east are long gone. Slovakia, with a population of five million, is a footballing backwater, and clubs like Slovan and Trnava have become that much weaker for it.
Slovan have recently won the Slovak Super Liga, their eighth since independence and second successive title. They were denied the double by Kosice, who beat them in a low-key cup final. Although Slovan are the most well-known club in Slovakia, their crowds have been small, ranging from 1,200 for games towards the end of the campaign to around 5,000 for the big game with Trnava. To put that into context, the average gate in the Slovak Liga is just over 2,000.
But this is all a bit of a come down for a club like Slovan, who once mixed it with some of Europe’s best clubs. They even won the European Cup Winners Cup in 1969, beating none other than Barcelona in the final in Basel after disposing of the likes of Torino, Porto and Dunfermline. They used to attract 30,000 to their Tohelne Pole stadium in those days. You sense today there’s a distinct lack of excitement, although Slovan’s fans do get a little out of hand at times, which may explain the erratic crowd figures, including two games played behind closed doors.
But there may be an exciting development, depending on who you talk to. There have been meetings about combining the Czech and Slovak leagues, or more to the point, there have been renewed discussions about bringing them together. In the old days, matches between Slovan and Tranava and the Prague sides were full of rivalry and passion. It’s fair to say that they have been missed, at least by the Slovaks. Now, apart from the odd Europa League qualifying game, they’ve no chance of meeting up again.
There’s more than one way to look at this. It may just end up like the merger of East and West Germany – the West’s Bundesliga clubs were far too strong for the East’s Oberliga, hence you rarely, if ever, see an East German legacy club in the top flight. In a short time, it could mean a top division full of Czech clubs, which would completely wipe-out any advantage of a joint league’s creation. Another issue is the very different interpretation of ground standards.
But the Slovak clubs and their fans are more simpatico with the idea than the Czechs, possibly because of the marketing opportunities that may emerge from a combined league. The Czechs, meanwhile, are not impressed – only six of their clubs came out in favour of it when asked, and less than a third of Czech fans supported it in a survey by a sports website.
Negotiations could go on for some time, indeed may end up being aborted. In the meantime, neither country will be represented in World Cup 2014 in Brazil. But that’s another story….