A short trip round Central Europe in 2004 didn’t allow me to take in any games. The possibles were ruled out – one sold out, one moved, and one wrong date, but did allow me to take in the grounds of two Bratislava rivals, as well as visit a very underrated city.
Both grounds were a couple of miles outside the city centre, but were also only about 300 metres apart. I went to Slovan, the nearest of the two first, slightly mindful of the risk of being shut inside the stadium should a caretaker close the gate I went in through. I know that it’s quite normal on continental Europe for grounds to be unlocked and people allowed to wander in, but it was early evening, and I didn’t reckon they stay unlocked all night too.
Slovan’s was the sort of ground you can easily imagine being a very hostile place to visit for big games, although the light blue seats would no doubt look painfully empty on many other weeks. And there would be many of those the following season as Slovan, once the biggest club in the country, had been relegated to the 2nd division. Crowds would be just 1/10th of the level they were at the end of the old Czechoslovak League, with less than 1,500 rattling around the stadium.
Three sides of the stadium had deep but shallow open seats, slightly curving at both ends, with the curve curiously off-centre, as if the pitch had shifted 15 yards to one side, towards the relatively modern cantilevered stand on the opposite side of the pitch. This is much bigger than the old stand on the other side, which wouldn’t look out of place in the Blue Square Premier, being just 50 yards long with about 10 rows of seats. It does sit atop another bank of open seating though, and despite the cheap all-seater conversion, the ground still holds 30,000.
Across a road and through a sports park, full of football pitches and tennis courts, lies the Pasienky Stadium, home of Inter. Inter have fallen on even harder times than Slovan, and are now in Slovakia’s 5th tier after folding.
The Pasienky would be an unremarkable stadium were it not for its floodlights. Mounted on concrete masts thick enough to support a major highway flyover, giant upturned triangles of black-painted steel support a mass of square bulbs. Those same masts are painted in a garish yellow and black tiger stripe pattern, like a tacky 1970s car-seat cover.
The rest of the ground is fairly ordinary, with a single tier of around 15 rows of either seats or terracing curving round a running track. The seats on one side are covered with a flat roof, while the other is open, with “Inter” picked out in black on yellow seats. On a winter’s day it could be quite bleak, but being there in the summer, with footballers training on the pitch and some runners doing a few laps of the track on this long summer evening, it’s easy to see it in a more favourable light.
Bratislava city itself is always going to struggle to lure tourists away from the more popular spots of Prague, Budapest, Krakov, and Vienna, not far down the road, but that’s a shame because the centre of the city is positively charming. True, the less pleasant parts of the city are never that far away. One view from the very square castle looks across to a mass of communist bloc apartments, like a giant cubist army laying siege to the city, lying in wait across the river. The bridge across from that side also houses a circular restaurant at the top of the support tower, looking like a rampaging alien craft from “War of the worlds”. The centre though is all cobbles and medieval charm, just like those more popular destinations, but without the large crowds. And unlike at the football stadiums, that is a good thing.