From Riga to Alkmaar: Slovan Liberec’s great European journey

With twenty-minutes left to play in Noord Holland Yevhen Budnik tapped in his first goal in Slovan blue to cancel out Nick Viergever’s early strike. With AZ’s narrow victory in the first-leg, all it would take for the Czech side to progress was one more goal. And so Jaroslav Šilhavý’s side began to throw the sink at their Dutch opponents. Josef Šural went extraordinarily close to scoring, only a fingertip save from Esteban kept the scores level. The cavalry and then some had arrived. Blue outnumbered red and moments later, with seconds left and the natives holding their breath, Jiří Pimpara’s goal bound drive was blocked by Jeffrey Gouweleeuw. The appeals flooded in.

There is a picture of Vladimír Coufal leaving the pitch of the AFAS Stadion in tears. Alongside him stands an equally forlorn looking Marek Jarolím whilst in front walks club captain Radoslav Kováč, disappointment etched across his normally stoic face. The photograph, captured by Reuters, showcases just how much the Europa League matters to some. In a world where UEFA’s secondary tournament is, in leading footballing nations, maligned in the media and looked down upon, in Alkmaar there was enough proof that the competition means something.

“Handball!”

“Penalty!”

Silence.

Shortly afterwards the whistle blew to bring a curtain down on Slovan’s remarkable journey that lasted seven months, took in seven different countries, equalled a long standing Czech record and went against all preconceptions.

In the words of Kováč, who spoke in a reflective yet rueful tone after the game; ‘it was a beautiful ride, but the end[ing was] sad.’

Liberec are set to be reimbursed for their travails across Europe to the tune of £2.3m. Small change for a number of the participants left in the competition, but for a club of Liberec’s stature it is a vital lifeline. Apart from their financial windfall, their exploits in the Europa League have gone a massive way to ensuring that the Czech Republic will get an extra European berth from 2014-15 onwards. That season will see two teams from the Gambrinus Liga have a shot at the gold-plated Champions League instead of one. They had not just reaped the rewards for themselves, but have improved the stature of Czech football across the continent in process.

Baltic beginnings

It all began in the Baltic nation of Latvia in mid-July at a sparsely populated Skontos Stadion. Statistically at least Slovan dominated proceedings over the two legs but conspired to make progression hard work. Only Dzon Delarge’s powerful header in the second game between the two teams ensured that the Czechs would scrape through on the away goals rule.

Ahead of the third-qualifying round the general consensus was that FC Zürich would be too strong, too powerful and too organised for Liberec. That feeling was confirmed inside five minutes as the Swiss club swarmed all over the Stadion u Nisy and were, deservedly, in front through Davide Chiumento’s penalty. That, we thought, would be that.

But no, Slovan fought back and turned the game around to take a slender advantage with them to Switzerland. The return game at the Stadion Letzigrund followed the same script as the first-leg: Zürich took an early lead as a white avalanche cascaded down. But Slovan soaked everything up and struck back with two long range strikes that rippled the net. Next up would be Udinese. Again, it was perceived that this would be Liberec’s last stand. But Slovan played the role of the underdogs to perfection.

The Zebrette profligacy in front of goal was undone in a spectacular smash and grab showing that featured three strikes of genuine quality. Přemysl Kovář faced twenty-eight shots on his goal, yet only conceded once, leaving Slovan’s manager, Jaroslav Šilhavý, to thank his lucky stars and state: “I am not a naive man who thinks everything is decided.” But it was.

If any other confirmation was needed, Dzon Delarge settled nerves early in the second-leg.

The draw for the Europa League group stages in Monaco was its usual glamorous affair. After the pomp and pageantry at the Grimaldi Forum, Slovan Liberec and their fans were busy working out travel arrangements to Seville, Freiburg and Estoril. As had become tradition, amidst competition from the Bundesliga, La Liga and the Liga Zon Sagres, the club from the banks of the Lusatian Neisse were written off.

But football, as they say, is a funny old game. Frebirug imploded to hand Slovan a point in the first game before Estoril offered little resistance. Then, in the third tie of the group stages, a performance built around the template of Trieste saw Liberec go within two minutes of claiming the scalp of Sevilla and then in Spain the spoils were once again split as David Pavelka’s wonder-goal cancelled out Diego Perotti’s exquisite free-kick.

Somehow, some way, Slovan had racked up a nine game unbeaten run in Europe, equalling Slavia Prague’s record achievement from the 1995-96 UEFA Cup.

However Freiburg defeated Liberec on Czech soil, a result that would send the Gambrinus Liga outfit to the coastal town of Estoril with qualification out of their hands. If Freiburg picked up three points against Sevillia then any Slovan victory in Portugal, no matter the score, would simply be a pyrrhic one.

The magic of Estoril

The streets of Lisbon in the days leading up to the game were infrequently populated by visiting Czechs. Pockets of blue and white were apparent, if only for fleeting moments, before they were lost in the hustle and bustle of the Portuguese capital. But come the Thursday, it seemed that a cross-section of Europe had descended upon Estoril to cheer on Slovan. Czechs arrived by coach, Germans meandered up from the train station and, amongst the small crowd at the Estádio António Coimbra da Mota that night, even England had its representative. It wouldn’t be long until the Portuguese signed up either.

Amongst those who wore yellow, beat the drums and led the chants, Czechs were to be found. Where the Czech supporters sat, casually spread out along the stand, Portuguese people flowed freely.

Something special was in the air and everybody knew it.

In truth it was a limp affair that was settled early on when Josef Šural cushioned and, via the means of an overhead kick, acrobatically opened the scoring in one swift movement. With less than twenty-minutes on the clock the attention of the evening turned to events in Baden-Württemberg. And when news filtered through that Vincente Iborra had put the Andalusian side ahead, a nervous optimism crept through the stands. The whispers circulated; “are we going to do it?”

During half-time, as white and blue scarves were swapped with yellow and blue, people congregated together and by the time that Michael Rabušic had doubled the visitors lead, a party atmosphere was breaking out. The home support – which welcomed everybody with open arms – temporarily, transferred their allegiance, willing to bask in the reflected glory of Slovan festivities.

Not even Sebá’s late strike dampened spirits. Cheers erupted at news of Sevilla’s late second. Then, Halis Özkahya blew for full-time and the celebrations began in earnest.

Czechs, young and old, embraced. Šilhavý and his coaching staff clustered together wide-eyed with expression somewhere between disbelief and pure unadulterated joy. Those on the pitch mirrored the jubilant scenes in the stands. Those moments, directly after the final whistle, summed football up and why it matters.

“Tonight you drink with us!” An Estoril supporter called to a group dressed in white, and drink you imagine they did.

The meandering trek back down to Estoril station, for those who had trains to Lisbon to catch, was greeted by guard of honour; Portuguese cheering and applauding the Czechs. It was something to behold as football united rather than divided.

That mid-December night was special. The entire expedition from Riga to Estoril, the majority of it spent on the back foot, had been special and Slovan Liberec had emerged standing proud.

A sad end

When the journey resumed, Slovan had changed. Their financial situation had seen a number of assets depart and they would consequently enter their two fixtures with AZ cold.

Gallantly, Liberec held on in the first-leg for the majority of the ninety-minutes, only succumbing to defeat after an error by Přemysl Kovář had allowed Nick Viergever to score with time almost up. But if one thing had been learnt in the preceding seven months it was that you should never write Slovan Liberec off.

And so, the next stop on a glorious journey was the AFAS Stadion.

Post-game replays would show that Pimpara’s effort had been blocked by a flailing arm and Liberec should have been awarded a potentially tie-winning penalty.

As Kováč said; ‘it was a sad end’. A sad end to what had been a wonderful underdog voyage into the unknown.

  • Posted by Chris Boothroyd
  • On 3rd March 2014

1 Comments

Travelling Panda
  • Jun 14 2014
Great piece of writing! One old friend of mine is from Liberec and he happened to study in Freiburg. So I was lucky to see Liberec playing in Freiburg, and make the trip to U Nysy as well (my first ever trip to Czech Republic). Even if Freiburg won there, Liberec totally deserved to advance from the group stage and it was a real pity they lost against AZ.
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