The team now ‘known’ as FC Petržalka Akadémia has had a whopping 17 names in their 118-year history, which isn’t so bad when you describe it as being a new name every six years, but is otherwise a big clue as to the stability and consistency of the club from the Slovakian capital. Well, that has only been the case since 1946, as up until the climax of World War Number Two Petržalka was separate from Bratislava. The two weren’t connected until the building of a bridge in 1891, and at the climax of WW2 Petržalka was essentially one big prison for Hungarian Jews. Today it is the largest borough of Bratislava and the most densely populated residential district in Central Europe with some 120,000 residents.
FC Petržalka started life in the regional Hungarian league as Pozsonyi Toma Egyesület (Bratislava was a one-time capital of the Habsburg Kingdom of Hungary), keeping that name all the way up until World War Two and the establishment of the decidedly-Nazi First Slovak Republic. Petržalka became the border between Nazi Germany and the Slovak Republic, with the Nazis enforced the German name for the city (and pretty much everything else), so the club became Engerau Pressburg. Post-war they reverted to ŠK Petržalka, and whilst all of these name changes are very interesting I’m not going into detail about each and every single one of them.
Because the truth of the matter is that Petržalka was a nothing club in the Czechoslovakian football system. They were perennially in the Slovak national league, gaining promotion to the top league on a couple of occasions but coming straight back down the next season. Think of them as a Czechoslovakian Swindon Town maybe. Czechoslovakia wasn’t long for this world, and in 1995/96 the then-called Artmedia Bratislava won promotion to the Slovak Superliga.
They performed admirably, surviving and thriving in the league despite not challenging for the title. They picked a number of famous results along the way, including a glorious 6:3 win over city-rivals Slovan Bratislava in the 01/02 season. Artmedia would finish runners-up the following year, as they braced themselves for the heady seasons that were to come. 2003 saw Ivan Kmotnik invest in the club, and having one of the richest men in the country as a financial backer is rarely a bad thing in the short term. Money was pumped into the squad and national footballing legend Vladimir Weiss was installed as coach. Kmotnik expected big things, but even he couldn’t have foreseen what was around the corner.
The 2004/05 league season was disappointing, but Artmedia managed to win the Slovak Cup regardless, securing their first major honour in the process. The next season Artmedia won the league for the first time in their history, finishing seven points clear of Žilina and securing qualification for the Champions League qualifiers in the process. The following season they achieved far more than anyone expected, becoming the first team to qualify for the group stages of Europe’s premier club competition after starting in the first qualifying round. The second of these rounds saw them come up against Gordon Strachan’s Celtic, and to the shock of 100% of the humans Artmedia served up a 5:0 drubbing of the Scots in Bratislava. Until Messi, Neymar and the rest ran wild in the autumn of 2016 this was Celtic’s heaviest European defeat.
Artmedia continued their fairytale in the group stage, coming from two goals down to defeat Porto away from home just two seasons after the Portuguese team had taken home the trophy. Ultimately Artmedia were unable to make it out of the group, but three draws and that famous win in Porto meant that they had put the name of Artmedia Bratislava firmly on the map of European football. The name wouldn’t last long of course, and in 2007 the club was renamed Artmedia Petržalka.
The Slovak league and cup double came in 2008, but this proved to be the end of the chapter titled ‘Success’ for the club. Kmotnik left for Slovan, taking most of the club’s best players and sponsors with him, and despite a respectable 6th place position in 2008/09 season it was all downhill from there, albeit all downhill with an uphill slant because going downhill is easier than uphill and where Artmedia went from here was down but difficult. Yes. Relegation came in 2009/2010, and the by then-named FC Petržalka 1898 enjoyed it so much that they did it again two seasons later and then once in 2014, finding themselves in the bottom tier of Slovakian football. Less than a decade removed from stuffing Celtic at home and a phoenix-like victory in Porto the club known (for now) as Petržalka Akadémia was found plying its trade on Sunday mornings in front of small numbers of fans drinking beverages dispensed from a graffiti-ridden caravan. There are falls from grace, and then there is the story of Petržalka. If Leicester are in League Two by 2025, here is their inspiration. The club has since returned to the second tier of Slovakian football, but the road is long.
17 name changes, multiple stadiums, different leagues, promotions, championships, relegations and lord knows what else, the only thing that has stayed the same is the black and white stripes. Their historical stadium was flattened to make room for a Hilton Hotel, and the club now plies its trade at a ‘stadium’ that holds 1,500 people and has fewer facilities than Welshpool Town. Many expats go to see Petržalka games and come away speaking of the romance of football, the grassroots beauty, the glory of players joining fans for a beer in the Petržalka Pub afterwards. There is a lot to be said for grassroots football, but if I’m leaving in a beautiful apartment with city views one minute and slumming it in a 12 person house share the next, the word ‘romantic’ isn’t likely to come into it. Petržalka has fallen on hard times that they simply will not recover from, and generations will grow up hearing whispers of a famous 5:0 victory and the humiliation of Gordon Strachan.
In addition to penning rivetting histories of third division eastern European football squads no one has ever heard of, John Bills also writes books about Eastern and Central Europe, tomes covering history, travel, booze and the rest. These magical pieces of literary competency can be purchased at this link, so get yourself over there and do the right thing. Pay attention to the discounts.