Monday, September 17, 2012

The real sign were the very clubs ruling Czechoslovak football for almost ten years: Slovan (Bratislava) and Spartak (Trnava). Spartak (Trnava) was already fading away for at least two years. Their attack was the worst in the league - the only club scoring less than a goal per game, to a miserable total of 26. They still finished with only 3 points less than Slovan, but only 3 points was the difference between Spartak and Frydek-Mistek. They avoided relegation, ending at 14th place, however, with worse goal difference than unfortunate Frydek-Mistek. The end of Spartak (Trnava) was official: in the special issue of sportmagazine 'Start' (Bratislava), presenting the league in the summer of 1976 Spartak was called 'team with great past':

About present and future – nothing. And symbolic were the white kit they used... entirely white. True, Spartak are nicknamed 'white angels', but during their best years they played with red-black striped shirts. The white kit looked like surrender.

The story of Spartak's fall is eternal and therefore familiar one: a small provincial club makes a strong team and suddenly rises to the top. As years go by, players age and one after another retire. The club is unable to replace them with neither young local talent or players from other clubs: local pool is too small to consistently produce quality youngsters and for outside players, the club has nothing to attract them. The club keeps their now old stars as long as possible, but they are no longer any help and the decline is rapid. By now only Masrna, Geryk, Dobias, Kuna, Kabat, and Adamec remained from the original great squad. Only Karol Dobias was called to the national team (he was European champion in 1976), but even he was already 29 years old at the beginning of the season. The rest was nearing retirement and pale shadows of the players they were not long ago. Jozef Geryk was rather symbolic member of the team, for he practically did not play . The only good player Spartak produced, the goalkeeper Dusan Keketi, was no longer with the club – another clear sign of the end... players leaving, not coming. Dobias was going to jump ship as well in the next few years.

Since Spartak was one of the two key clubs representing the Slovak domination, their fall was a sign of major shift in Czechoslovak football. It was aggravated by the weak season of Slovan (Bratislava) – they finished 8th, in midtable, and just a place bellow the champions of 1975-76, Banik (Ostrava). It was a bit puzzling, for Slovan had 7 players in the Czechoslovak European champion squad and 5 of them were regulars. With so many continental champions, it did not look like the team was going to vegetate in mid-table, but to be prime contender for the title, as usual. On top of it Michal Vican came back from Poland to coach them – and he was not only successful coach, but the very maker of the strong Slovan's team. He knew the boys well, he was not a newcomer unfamilar and strange to the players. Yet, Slovan were poor show and far away from the top of the table.
From left, standing: Vican – coach, Jan Capkovic, Jozef Capkovic, Pekarik, Matula, Ondrus, Vencel, Haraslin, Nemec, Kristof, Hrdlicka – assistant coach.

Kneeling: Nezhiba (?), Elefant, Gogh, Masny, Pivarnik, Novotny, Mrva

Unlike Spartak, Slovan's problem was not the age of individual players, but rather the team's age. A great squad has about 5 years span, generally reaching its best on the third or forth year and showing signs of exhaustion on the fifth. After that decline follows, unless the team is radically rebuilt. Slovan was using the same players almost since 1969, when they won the Cup Winners Cup. Yes, Vican coached them back then. Vencel and the Capkovic brothers as well. Ondrus, Gogh, Masny, Novotny, Pivarnik, Elefant came in the dawn of the 1970s – it was the same team year after year and by 1976-77 it was a bit over the hill, its span at its last legs. Unfortunately, most players were still quite young – rather in their prime as players, between 25 and 28 years old, which was deadly: who would be crazy enough to replace players in their best years and fresh European champions on top of it? But it was tired team and the 8th place was sign not of hangover after winning European title, but sign of serious illness: this team was not to rule Czechoslovakian football any more.