Since their formation in the late 19th century, FC Petržalka 1898 have changed their club name no fewer than 15 times, perhaps more akin to a struggling franchise club in the MLS rather than a football club steeped in a proud 115 year history of Czech and Slovak football.
The club’s birthplace was the Petržalka district of the Slovakian capital Bratislava, and as their current name suggests were founded in 1898, when they were initially known as Pozsonyi Torna Egyesület. The multiple name changes that have occurred since have in some respects reflected the difficult past of not only the district, but the region as a whole.
Up until the end of the 19th Century, Petržalka was a small town on the banks of the River Danube, very much separate from Bratislava. It wasn’t until 1946 after the 2nd World War that the Petržalka district was officially recognised as part of the capital city. By the time of the Soviet Invasion in 1968 the district had expanded massively and was largely made up of high-rise concrete tower blocks or ‘panelaks’ which housed the city’s workers. Echoes of a communist era still ring loud and clear today, and the district remains the most densely populated residential area in central Europe.
The football club had spent the majority of its existence outside of the Czechoslovakian top flight, and beyond Bratislava itself would be deemed by many as fairly insignificant in comparison to their cross city rivals Slovan Bratislava and Inter Bratislava. At the time of the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, and the inception of the Slovakian Football League in 1993 the club were based in the top flight and had already changed name eleven times up until this point. However it wasn’t until their 12th name change in 2004 that the club finally came to the fore, and it was a name that suddenly started to pop up in football conversation across Europe.
As you’re reading this article you could be forgiven for wondering who are FC Petržalka 1898, and what the fuss is all about. Well aside from being the oldest football club in Bratislava, a brief 3 year spell during 2004-2007 catapulted the club well and truly into the footballing spotlight. It was during this period that the club were known as ‘Artmedia Bratislava’. Does that name start to ring a bell?
Following investment by advertising agency Euro RSCG Artmedia in 2003 (a subsidiary of club owner Ivan Kmotrik’s Grafobal Publishing company), the club won the Slovakian Cup in the very next season – the clubs first major honour in their then 107 year history. This was quickly followed up with their first ever Corgon Liga title in 2005. In the following 2005/06 season they embarked on their debut Champions League campaign and burst on to the scene in some style, raising more than just a few unsuspecting eyebrows along the way.
Artmedia Bratislava became the first ever team to make it through to the Champions League group stage proper after starting their journey off in the 1st pre-qualifying round. With the arduous task of negotiating three pre-qualifying stages, Artmedia Bratislava announced their arrival on the European stage with a 5-0 drubbing of Celtic at home in the 2nd qualifying round. Perhaps Celtic were somewhat guilty of taking the “Accrington Stanley, who are they?” approach to pre match preparations, and were well and truly caught off guard on that classic night at the Tehelne Pole Stadium on Wednesday 27th July 2005. A four nil reverse in the 2nd leg wasn’t enough to save Celtic’s blushes and Artmedia progressed onto the third and final pre-qualifying stage. Two ‘nil-nil’ draws and a 4-3 penalty shoot out win against Partizan Belgrade over two legs was enough to see them cap another big scalp and take that giant leap into the Promised Land that is the Champions League group stage.
The man behind their brief rise to the top was coach Vladimir Weiss. Weiss played for the Czechoslovakian national side at the 1990 World Cup and guided their progress during that famous first season in Europe and on to further domestic glories that were to come.
Artmedia continued their amazing foray into Champions League football by more than making their mark in the group stage, where they were very much considered to be the whipping boys. An opening round home defeat to Inter Milan was followed up by a remarkable 3-2 away win at Porto, the then Champions of Europe. Three further draws, two with Scottish champions Rangers and one at home to Porto saw Artmedia finish 3rd in the group, only just missing out on qualification to the knock out stages by one point.
Despite the high profile distraction of Champions League football, their domestic form remained consistent and Artmedia finished runners up in the league in both the 2005/06 and 2006/07 seasons. The club then changed its name for the 13th time ahead of the 2007/08 season to FC Artmedia Petržalka, and this marked the start of their most successful domestic season ever as they went on to win the double.
Ironically it was after the most successful season in the club’s history that the decline started. Club owner and investor Ivan Kmotrik controversially left to take over city rivals Slovan Bratislava. Successful coach Vladimír Weiss also left the club to go to FC Saturn Ramenskoe in Russia and several key players departed too. The club were relegated from the Corgon Liga to the second division in 2010, and it was at this point that the club was renamed to FC Petržalka 1898. The clubs fall from grace didn’t stop there though, and an untimely player exodus further enhanced their woes and they were relegated to the 3rd division at the end of the 2011/12 season.
It’s in the Slovakian 3rd Division (or the TAGON III Liga West) that FC Petržalka 1898 currently ply their trade. Their former home – the 10,000 capacity Petržalka Stadion – has recently been demolished, and home games are now played in the heart of the Petržalka district on the edge of an estate, at the rather modest and unimaginatively named Stadion FC Petržalka 1898.
With a listed capacity of just 1,500, it really is nothing more than a makeshift ground with a temporary seated stand erected along one half of the pitch. The other three sides of the playing area are enclosed by a single railing, with just a small graveled area separating the railing to a surround of trees and bushes that provide the backdrop to the rest of the ground. A derelict school building lines one side of the pitch, and this doubles up as the player changing rooms. A less glamorous setting in professional football would be hard to find.
On Sunday 20th October 2013, about 400 Petržalka fans had turned up for their home clash against bottom of the table side Piešťany. Surveying the surroundings as the players warmed up, it was hard to imagine that only seven years previous this club was playing Champions League football, and only five years ago they had won the Slovakian domestic double. A fall from grace on this scale must be hard to fathom for the clubs loyal followers. The combination of player changing room’s located in a derelict school next door; teams entering the playing area via an old concrete playground; the bumpy pitch; and fan refreshments served from a 1970’s caravan all provide a stark reminder of the former glory days that once were.
A 5-0 drubbing of Piešťany at least sent the faithful home smiling and those that remained for a post match drink at the FC Petržalka Pub on the estate outside, rubbed shoulders with the players that now proudly wear the black and white of FC Petržalka 1898 and aspire to return the club to a better place.
How the once mighty have fallen.
By Jeff Prevost
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona