FC Artmedia Bratislava have struck a blow for Europe's smaller clubs by winning through to the group stage of the UEFA Champions League for the first time.
The Slovakian side famously defeated former European champions Celtic FC in the second qualifying round and they caused another upset on Tuesday by knocking out FK Partizan on penalties. "I have never played a game like that," goalkeeper Juraj Čobej said after saving Nenad Brnović's decisive spot kick in Belgrade. "I just concentrated on the penalty as hard as I could and it paid off."
It paid off big time. Artmedia, accustomed to playing in front of less than 5,000, can now expect sell-out crowds of 30,000 when Group H rivals FC Internazionale Milano, FC Porto and Rangers FC come to town. Artmedia's tiny Petržalka ground does not meet UEFA requirements, but SK Slovan Bratislava's Tehelné Pole stadium does and the increased attendances will provide an additional boost to an annual budget expected to double from television revenue alone.
"We could only dream of this at the start of the qualifying rounds," Artmedia chairman Peter Kašpar told uefa.com. "For Slovakian football it is absolutely the best success. It is hard to say but we think the income from our participation will be one of the highest in Slovakian history. It is worth the equivalent of how much we would make from playing two years in the Slovakian league."
Artmedia's presence in the competition is remarkable. Along with holders Liverpool FC, they are the first side to win through three qualifying rounds to reach the group stage, unquestionably the high point in their 107-year history. Playing under the name of ZTS Petržalka for many years, the club recruited its sides from the discards of Slovan’s reserve team in the old Czechoslovakia. Artmedia are only now enjoying their first prolonged taste of top-flight football, winning their inaugural championship last season.
Artmedia, however, are not the only side this summer showing history counts for little when it comes to qualifying for the Champions League. Villarreal CF and FC Thun have also caught the imagination with their own dizzying climb from the lower leagues to the Champions League group stages. Real Betis Balompié and Udinese Calcio are also in the competition for the first time.
This is exactly what we need to keep interest and show we can have surprises in football," UEFA Chief Executive Lars-Christer Olsson said. "It shows it is possible to get there. Every youngster getting their first ball dreams of becoming a star. This shows on the team side it is possible to get to the top. It's not only your wallet that decides if you are going to be successful. I think the successes of these smaller clubs give the incentive to other smaller clubs to invest and work hard and see that it works, that it is possible to qualify."
Winning a point would be a good start. Artmedia would become the first Slovakian side to do so, though another team from their nation has got this far. 1. FC Košice made the group stage in 1997/98 but were knocked out without gaining a point. Worse was to come. Despite heavy investment from steelmaking tycoon Alexander Rezeš, Košice could not repeat their achievement. When Rezeš died in 2002, their fortunes declined irreversibly. In 2003, with no backer on the horizon, Košice were acquired by second division FC Steeltrans Licartovce. Slovakia's first Champions League entrants had ceased to exist.
'Nothing to learn'
Artmedia see a different future. "From the sporting point of you view we have nothing to learn from them," Kašpar said. "We just need to prepare for each match. It is a very short time after the qualification to the Champions League and we haven't decided what we are going to do yet. But of course we want to invest the money we earn for the improvement of the club and its infrastructure."
Slovakia's internationals play abroad, the country's football fans prefer foreign leagues on television to watching their own Superleague, and in recent years they have had to travel to Prague for their nearest taste of live Champions League football. Do not be surprised if attendances at AC Sparta Praha dip this season. Bratislava is finally on the Champions League map and this time Slovakia is ready to make an impression.
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