Podbrezová v Tatran Prešov
ZELPO Aréna / Slovak Super Liga / 10th December 2016
I thought I was going to be spending my Saturday afternoon in Budapest, but no, here I was in a small village fete in some central Slovakia backwater watching a folk band play Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters instead. Let me elaborate.
All week I had myself set to head to Budapest to watch Újpest v Debrecen. It was only on Friday afternoon, when I began undertaking the mundane tasks of planning trains and stuff like that, I noticed that Újpest are currently not playing at their home stadium; in fact, for a short time, they are not even playing in Budapest, but instead in the central town of Kecskemét. Now this didn’t appeal to me at all, so I began to search for a plan B. Plan B was to be found in the heart of Slovakia.
My main aim this season is to visit all twelve of the clubs in the Slovak top flight. As we entered the final weekend before the league takes a winter break until February, I found myself on 7/12 grounds (although one of those grounds was Trenčín, which I visited on my week long reconnaissance trip to Slovakia in April – so I still need to revisit there this season to complete ‘my all grounds in one season’ task). With interesting options across central Europe looking particular scarce, this Saturday seemed as good as any to visit one of the more remote grounds in the Slovak Super Liga and add to my tally in that particular field.
Podbrezová are flying. They are an unlikely second place in the league and were keeping up with the all-conquering league leaders Žilina until a couple of weeks ago, when Žilina opened up a lead at the top. The unlikeliness of their position becomes apparent when you take into account that Podbrezová is a small, unremarkable village in central Slovakia. And it’s a bit of a pain in the arse to get to too.
To make the 2pm kick-off, I’d have to leave Trnava on the 6.27am train that crosses from one side of Slovakia to the other. I can deal with early starts, but they’re definitely more arduous when you’ve had your staff Christmas party the night before. Such a party had involved copious amounts of red wine all evening and none of it had cost us staff a single cent either; fair to say, it was probably the best Christmas party I’ve ever been to. I was definitely still a little bit tipsy as I made the brief walk from my flat to Trnava station at 6am.
I stocked up on Kofola to eradicate the taste of the previous night’s wine, as I headed 2.5 hours north-east, until I hopped off the train at Vrútky. It was then onwards to Banská Bystrica for another hour, but what a train journey that was. Usually, I read when travelling, but I didn’t bother this time as it was definitely worth gazing out the window instead. Slovakia is stunning in general and this part was particularly beautiful. The train journey was like an hour long postcard for Slovakia. My train headed through vast, snow-covered forests with isolated, bucolic communities hidden away amongst the huge fir trees. I was almost disappointed when the admittedly beautiful town of Banská Bystrica appeared and the train exited this scenic, winter wonderland of woodland.
At Banská Bystrica, it was onto a small, rickety local train – my final train of the morning – which would take me the final short stretch to Podbrezová. Unlike the central forest area, snow was less prevalent here, although towns still had a white-covered glint to them. After stopping at a series of little towns and villages, I finally entered the valley where I found the village of Podbrezová located on a hill.
It really is a very small place and the football stadium was visible straight away, perched at the top of the hill on which the whole village sat upon. Apparently, just 4,000 inhabit the village in the Brezno district of Slovakia with the village known as an industrial place more than anything else.
There was only one place to go from the train station and that was up the hill. I learned immediately that Podbrezová is really just one big housing estate and all a little bit ‘Deliverance’ with its isolated feel. There were chopped up logs of wood outside most houses – that sort of place. There really is nothing there and the only bar I found on my lap of the town wasn’t open until 8pm! This was a problem with the 2.5 hours ahead of me until the 2pm kick-off. I was fortunate on this excursion that I’d happened to turn up the same day as some sort of village fete was being held; its presence was revealed to me thanks to the loud music resonating from behind some sort of small town hall.
It really was a very local and traditional affair to which I was greeted to with the image of a large pig hanging cut open from some trees; yards away from the pig’s disembowelled body, his meat was being sold to customers wrapped up in their big coats and scarves. Also on sale today was a host of random jewellery, lots of random collectibles made of wood and t-shirts with some sort of witty comment in Slovak about borovička. I wasn’t interested in t-shirts about alcohol, but I was interested in actual alcohol. On sale was some sort of festive punch, which packed a hell of a kick.
I stood enjoying the folk band’s show when an animated lady came running up to me with a beaming smile and saying something very quickly at me in Slovak. For a moment, I actually wondered if this middle-aged woman in a small Slovak village was an excitable Lost Boyos fan girl. Sadly not. It seemed she could speak English and told me I looked exactly like a friend of her’s, who she hadn’t seen in a long time. She soon questioned why I was there and where were my friends. When I told her that I had travelled from Trnava to watch football here and I was by myself, she slowly backed away and looked at me like I should be immediately placed in a straitjacket. From across the small garden area, I could see her pointing me out to her friends and all were looking across at me concerned, like a wild, unpredictable animal had wandered menacingly into their midsts. It felt a bit like Slovakia’s answer to Royston Vasey and very much a local village for local people.
The fete ran out of punch, so I saw that as my cue to leave. That was until I realised I actually recognised the tune being played by the folk band. It took some sussing out, but I eventually realised that it was a rather stunning version of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters (I found a video on YouTube of the very same band – named Slančíkovci – performing the same cover at another concert, which you can watch here. It’s pretty cool). The rather incongruous Metallica cover made me stay for a bit longer. With punch no longer available, I opted for some hruška instead – a rather sharp pear spirit. It wasn’t to my liking and it certainly didn’t keep me hanging around to listen to more the more folky numbers from Slančíkovci.
There was an hour and a half until kick-off, so I went for another lap of the village, determined to find a bar of some sort. It was an unsuccessful lap. I feel for any alcoholics in the village who have to wait until the night for a bar to open.
I wrote off the idea of finding a pub, so headed to the top of the hill and to the football stadium. There was a large sign declaring I had arrived at the ‘ZELPO Arena’ above a bending country lane and at the start of this I found a portakabin selling tickets. To see the current second best team in Slovakia, I’d pay €3.
As the small country lane curved towards the stadium, I noticed a sign for beer attached to a small chalet-like house on the corner and I thought I’d finally found myself an elusive pub; alas, it was closed. Surely there’d be a bar at the football ground?
Thanks to my love of ‘pubbing’ I’m virtually never early to a football match. Today, however, with no open pubs at my disposal, I had arrived a whole hour and a half before kick-off. It seemed I was the first spectator to arrive too, as I was greeted at the electronic turnstile by a whole host of stewards. They’d soon have some work to do as my ticket wasn’t working on the scanners. I think they were confident that I hadn’t created a counterfeit of a €3 ticket for a Fortuna Liga game and they let me in, before having a heated debate about the faulty turnstile. I did ask about a bar (using German once again) but I was told that I’d have to wait until 1pm for beer to be sold at the booths in the ground. There seemed to be no actual proper club bar in the ground. Bugger.
It was 12.30pm and I had a whole football stadium to myself – and what a stadium Podbrezová have. There’s quite a modern feel to the ground, but the real awesome aspect to the ground comes in the form of its setting. It’s built into the hill and has woodland engulfing it with awesome views of the hills and valleys below. And you’ll find no better place to enjoy these views than at the top of the main stand – a steep, almost Kop-sequel main stand. I headed to the summit of this steep, mountain-like stand to get some photos, although even better was the fact I found a little booth selling beer. The €1 can of Kožel was not served to me in haste though – no, this is Slovakia and there’s a certain way to do things. I literally must have waited close to 5 minutes as they took the utmost care to pour my beer perfectly into a plastic cup; to be fair, the head they created from this can was magnificent and it seemed like that through some sort of necromancy, the barmaid had produced more beer from the can than was actually originally in there.
I stood atop the stand watching the tranquil,valley down below, when some other fans began entering the ground, led by Podbrezová’s very small band of drum-banging Ultras. Despite initial worries, waiting for kick-off went a lot quicker than I first thought. Admittedly, I found a lot of joy in watching Tatran Prešov warm up; every passing or shooting drill seemed to be going very wrong, much to my amusement. One player, who seemed to fancy himself as some sort of Slovak Lee Trundle, tried to perform a whole host of flicks and skills, with none of his fanciful tricks coming off; this would then prompt him to explain to his teammate what he was actually trying to do. Impressive…
Another particular highlight was spotting a Prešov player trying to smash the ball into an empty net, before heading back into the changing room; however, he sent his shot flying wide from 8 yards and quickly scuttled off before anyone noticed. Sorry lad, but I saw your tragic attempt at scoring an emphatic goal past an invisible goalkeeper. The warm-up was perhaps a comedic microcosm showing why Tatran Prešov are currently rock bottom of the league.
Soon, the real deal of the match was upon us and the teams lined up on the pitch ready for today’s Fortuna Liga game.
During the warm up, I had tweeted my disdain for Podbrezová’s number 19. What was the reason for my outrage before this guy had even kicked a ball in earnest? His mismatching boots – one a garish lime green, the other pink. How very modern football of him. However, after about twenty minutes, I decided that the #19 could wear whatever the hell he wanted on the pitch. This was Pablo Podio and it turned out that he was some sort of wonderful footballing wizard.
Slightly rotund and with a slight touch of the ‘Molbys’ about him, he defied this physical profiling by seemingly popping up everywhere on the pitch. As well as his ubiquity across the pitch, his touch and passing were superb and everything good went through him. There’s very little info on him on the internet other than he’s a 27-year-old who has resided at Podbrezová for a number of years and that he hails from Cordoba in Argentina. I did also find some reference to him playing some youth football at Inter Milan and some sort of link between Inter’s youth setup and Podbrezová, but there was little detail on this matter too. Anyway, he is quite easily one of the finest footballers I’ve seen in this part of the world so far.
Podio and his team mates were predictably dominating a struggling Prešov, but some of their finishing was wayward; especially against a nervy-looking goalie, who seemed reluctant to attempt to catch anything.
Podbrezová would finally get the breakthrough that their attacking intent deserved, although it would take until the clock struck 45. A ball into Prešov’s box was cleared to the edge of the box, where Michal Breznaník controlled brilliantly, cut across the box and fired his shot low into the bottom corner from 20 yards. The half-time whistle blew almost immediately after the restart from the goal.
Half-time: Podbrezová 1 – 0 Tatran Prešov.
As the second half was beginning to kick-off, I found myself drinking beer at a high table next to the food van parked near the entrance. I was rather hungry now, so I scoured the menu. They had all sorts advertised, but it seemed none of their more extravagant offerings were on offer on matchday. It seemed today’s matchday menu was typical of a crappy burger van back home with just hot dogs and burgers on sale – where was the klobása? A hot dog was ordered and it was suitably shit.
Podbrezová were less shit on the pitch, but their dominance from the first half was certainly waning. There were a few half chances, yet it felt like they should have already finished off a poor Prešov team already. They’d pay for it.
In the 65th minute, Prešov equalised. A shot fired powerfully at goal couldn’t be held by the home keeper and as he went hands first for the rebound, the striker slid in and bundled it home. 1-1 and the away team players were off to celebrate with the small gathering of away fans.
The closing 10 minutes saw Tatran Prešov’s keeper perform repeated heroics, including rapidly changing his footing to save one deflected shot, before then diving back to clear it off the line too. Then, in the final moments a superb cross was headed goalwards from 5 yards, only for the keeper to get down low and tip wide. He saved his team points and stopped them from being cut astray at the bottom of the league.
Full-time: Podbrezová 1 – 1 Tatran Prešov.
The game had been much a bit better in the second half, although the real highlight of the afternoon was the surrounding scenery looking wonderful under the reddening sky. The ground really did offer some wonderful views down the valleys. I took some final few photos of my surroundings and headed for the exit.
The little house by the ground now had its light on and I was delighted to now find its bar open. It was a snug, cosy little place run by a little, greying lady with a small fire and blankets on the seats. Imagine your nan owning a quaint little cottage in the mountains and opening a bar in its downstairs and you wouldn’t be far off what it was like here. The beer on sale here was the local Banská Bystrica brewed Urpiner and I had time to enjoy two here, as did a small band of Tatran Prešov fans, before I began my descent back down the hill to the train station.
There seemed to be nothing open at all and it seemed that the village had already gone into hibernation by 5pm; I hoped for the train station bar to be open and thankfully that was. In a rare nod towards modern society from Podbrezová, they even had Premier League football on in the bar too (this reminded me of the time and to check the Swansea score; much to my surprise we had actually decided to be decent for a change and were cruising to a 3-0 win over Sunderland). A couple of bottles were bought for the train back west and it was time to leave the solitary confinement of Podbrezová.
My journey back to Trnava took me a different route and towards Galanta just south of my adopted home. Much to my surprise – after partying the previous night, an early start and a day at the football – I didn’t fall asleep and wake up somewhere completely random on the train home. More of that please lad. Admittedly, having grabbed myself some pizza, I was straight to bed after arriving back in Trnava at 10pm.
It’d been a strange day, but certainly a worthwhile trip again. Once again, it was a classic case of when else or why else would I visit Podbrezová if it wasn’t for groundhopping? Some of the Slovaks I know hadn’t even heard of the place. If they were not football fans, I definitely wouldn’t recommend Podbrezová to them; there’s barely a shop there, so I’m fairly sure I’m not offending any village tourist boards there. I actually realised I had got a bit lucky as if there was no fete going on, I’m not sure what I would have done to fill a chunk of time there. However, in regards of groundhopping, I can only say positive things about the football club and stadium. I suppose with the club soaring in 2nd place, there wouldn’t be many better times to visit them (unless they climbed top – but that won’t be happening with Žilina truly imperious this season). The ground is a magnificent blend of modern, yet scenic and rustic. And if you are a fan of picturesque, Instagram-ready views, then the top of the main stand gazing down the valley is the place for you.
Highlights: enjoyed Slančíkovci (especially their Metallica cover), cheap entry, scenic area, nice ground, great views from main stand, Pablo Podio, little bar next to the ground.
Low Points: awkward place to get to, virtually nothing there.
See all my photos from Podbrezová here.