Slovakia has often been referred to as the least interesting Slavic nation in Europe. Now, this is something I just made up, but when Michael Palin only feels the need to dedicate four pages to it in his 288-page ‘New Europe’ book then you can see why it might get this descriptor. Whether something is interesting or not is entirely subjective, but Slovakian domestic football isn’t exactly well-known outside of the borders of the country. Heck, I’m not even sure how well known it is within those borders.
Here’s a little background info, without writing thousands of words on the history of Slovakia itself; the first version of the Slovak Championship took place between 1925 and 1933, returning in 1939 with the establishment of the Nazi puppet First Slovak State. Post-World War Two saw Slovakia become the Gogogoch of Czechoslovakia, competing in the unified league until the Velvet Divorce in 1993. From that point on it has been solo sailing for domestic football in Slovakia.
23 years have seen seven different champions, with Slovan Bratislava the most successful of all. Slovan were also one of only three Slovakian teams to win the Czechoslovakian league, doing so an impressive eight times. That’s pretty hot and all, but one of the other two won it five times in six years and then never again. Sure, Slovan also won it three times in a row, but I need an introduction to Spartak Trnava and that’ll have to do. They have yet to win the Slovak league, so maybe I should have gone with that.
Spartak Trnava are the most popular football team in Slovakia. A sweeping statement yes, but 13 seasons out of 23 they have had the highest attendance in the league, absolutely trouncing the league average every time. In the 2015/16 season their average was twice that of the next highest, and their 1996/97 average of 14,670 is way out in front as the league’s all time high. All this despite never winning the title, getting relegated once and generally finishing in the middle of nowhere. The Newcastle United of Slovakia? Maybe, just maybe.
The club were founded in May 1923 after a merger between Šk Čechie and the ridiculously-named but obviously abbreviated CšŠk. The duo combined forces to become TSS Trnava and achieved a grand total of absolutely nothing until the return of Czechoslovakia in 1945. TSS became TJ Kovosmalt after becoming affiliated with the metal industry (non-riffs division) before becoming Spartak in 1952, and 12 years later the team from Trnava finally found themselves at the top table of Czechoslovakian football. Four seasons later they would be running the show.
The golden era of Spartak Trnava began in the 1966/67 season, with the legendary Jozef Adamec at the fore. Adamec was the league’s top goalscorer that year, as he had been the previous year and would be on two other occasions. Adamec is often incorrectly referred to as the first chap to score a hat-trick against Brazil, doing so in a 3-2 win for Czechoslovakia in 1968, and would go on to have one of those managerial careers that seems him stay at a club for a season or two before slunking off into the darkness.
But back to Spartak. Five Czechoslovak titles came in six seasons, the team coming 2nd in 1969/70 behind Slovan. The club, known as the ‘White Angels’ for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on (they wear red and black), experienced decent levels of success in continental competition too, reaching the semi finals of the European Cup (what kids know as the Champions League) in 1968/69. That year they came perilously close to knocking out the mighty Ajax in the semis, falling just short in a 3-2 aggregate loss. They also managed to win the Mitropa Cup during this time, a regional competition that included teams from Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Italy, Romania and Austria.
It all sort of fell apart after their final title however. Players left, coaches left, success left, but the fans stayed. Like a fish slowly circling the bowl they made their way down the league, managing to avoid relegation until they could hold back no longer in 1989/90. Promotion was achieved at the first attempt, and Spartak avoided relegation in the penultimate Czechoslovak league by the skin of their teeth (goal difference to be exact). The last ever Czechoslovak league ended with Spartak Trnava in 16th position (aka bottom of the league), but the split meant that the club started the 1993/94 Slovak league as a big club in a small pond, as opposed to a dying fish in a big pond that some of the other fish told the young fish used to be a hell of a fish.
Spartak Trnava are yet to win the Slovak national league, three 2nd place finishes the best they have achieved to date. This may well represent a scathing indictment of the club in the 20+ years since independence, but football in the former communist countries of Europe is measured differently. Would the thousands who cram into the Stadión Antona Malatinskeho love a league title? Of course, but it is arguably more important that Spartak Trnava vs. Slovan Bratislava is still considered the biggest match on the calendar.
This isn’t unique to Slovakia. Ludogorets (more on them next week) are far and away the best team in Bulgaria these days, but the biggest game is still Levski vs. CSKA. The same goes for the Czech Republic, where Slavia vs. Sparta still trumps either side against Viktoria Plzen. Success comes and goes, but prestige and respect lasts forever. Well, supposedly it does. Trophies carry less importance, with more being placed on how a club (and its fans) are perceived.
The Trnava fans have a big reputation, as one can assume from their sheer numbers. They are boisterous (as expected), but whilst more often than not the support is enthusiastic and positive there have been a number of occasions when less than pleasant occurrences have, erm, occurred. In a 1967/68 Cup Winners Cup match against Torpedo Moscow the Spartak fans stormed the pitch and attacked the Russian team, for no reason other than the fact the Torpedo players were a proxy for the hated Soviet Union leadership.
May 1995 saw ideological roles reversed but aggression not, as Spartak fans threw a number of Hungarians off a train after a game against DAC Dunajská Streda, a club from a town of the same name (minus the DAC) that has a Hungarian majority, shouting ‘Hungarians get back over the Danube’. They were shouting that in Slovakian obviously, not English. Newspapers began to speak of the worst, stating that ‘even the greatest fires start from a small spark’. A survey at the time showed that almost half of the population thought Yugoslav-esque ethnic violence was on the way.
Hungarians comprise the largest ethnic minority in Slovakia, which usually comes as a surprise to those expecting the Czechs to take that prize. Tension is of the knife and butter variety between the two, and the fact that both countries now come with fiercely-nationalist (cough fascist cough) governments hasn’t helped the matter at all.
But in truth this matters little to the thousands that march towards the home of Spartak Trnava on a weekly basis. At the time of writing the club find themselves in 5th place in the table some 11 points behind current leaders Žilina. What matters however is that they are ahead of Slovan Bratislava, if only on goal difference. A first league title since 1973 would be nice, but the most passionate fans in the country will keep turning up regardless.