The Stadion Za Lužánkami, better knowns as Lužánky, is a place that should be home. The ground used to welcome crowds in excess of 30,000 but now it’s sat there, waiting for a future. But the old stadium holds many memories and is the symbolic heart of a city and of a relationship.
The weeds that once claimed Brno’s Stadion Za Lužánkami were removed, once. But then they returned. And so too did the litter. As the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, a place that felt like home started to feel like a lost cause once more.
I first visited Lužánky, as the old stadium is more commonly known, in the spring of 2015. At that point, I was on a whistle-stop tour of the Czech Republic taking in Ostrava, Drnovice, Brno and Teplice in a madcap five days. For me, the journey was an extremely personal one, though not as personal or emotional as the trip I would embark on a few months later. It was pure escapism and Lužánky encapsulated that feeling. Here I was, in the midst of a cavernous bowl that had been lost yet remained a symbol of hope. Despite the stadium being in a state of decay and disrepair, a city loved it.
Not that it showed. Rubbish flickered and fluttered around the stands and on the pitch laid remands of the ground’s illustrious history. Old substation placards, advertising hoardings and even a very outdated inkjet printer lay left to rot. Trees had forced their way through the concrete stands. The scoreboard, as impressive as it looked, looked as if it could collapse if somebody laid a finger on its foundations.
But people ambled along the concrete stands. One person was even laid prone on the grass, basking in the midday sun. It was more a makeshift park than a football ground. And I’d arrived on one of its better days: In the months and years before my visit, the ground was abandoned to Mother Nature. It was a place claimed by weeds, wildlife and became a refuge for the homeless. Those with nowhere else to go turned to the stadium. Only a pheasant dared call Lužánky home. The politicians, those who owned the ground, certainly didn’t.
Remarkably though, everybody was gearing up to return to Lužánky for one final time. The former Zbrojovka Brno forward Petr Švancara decided that he’d like to play his retirement game at the ground. It was his dream to transform the crumbling old stadium into a thriving hub for the community again and see the crumbling terraces that once held close to 50,000 passionate Moravians full once more.
There had been talks about renovating the old ground before, of course there had. Even now the topic reappears on a regular basis, with various different people all spouting the same promise: Lužánky will be renovated or rebuilt, and Brno will again have a footballing cathedral.
“When we came back for the first time, you could have shot a beautiful horror film there,” Švancara said back in 2015. But Švancara was there with a purpose. He was on a reconnaissance mission and he believed that the impossible was possible. He was going to achieve what nobody else had. What started as a personal project, a dream if you like, quickly became a movement. The media got behind Švancara and so too did Brno. People volunteered their time; people donated their money. It captured the heart of a city.
Located over the road from Lužánky Park on the outskirts of Brno’s compact city centre, the Stadion Za Luzankami was officially opened in November 1953 with an exhibition game between Dynamo Moscow and a select Czechoslovak XI, comprised of players from the mining clubs of Ostrava and Kladno. Soviet dignitaries mingled with their Czechoslovak counterparts and the event was as much to do with politics and propaganda as it was to do with sport, though that didn’t stop the state-run newspaper from lamenting the decision to field a hastily assembled XI when Dynamo ran out 5-0 winners.
For the first decade of its existence, Za Lužánkami played home to TJ Rudá Hvezda Brno, a low-ranking club with overt links to the Interior Ministry. But with a showpiece stadium devoid of a high-ranking tenant, the state authorities pulled a few strings and jettisoned Rudá Hvezda from the regional leagues up to the second division. Four years later the club achieved promotion to the Czechoslovak First League, where they would remain until their merger with fellow Brno side Zbrojovka in 1962.
During this period, an upper tier was added to the west stand, making the stadium one of the largest in Czechoslovakia. However attendances rarely reached its supposed 60,000 capacity, and this figure was revised downwards in the following years.
With Prague and Bratislava the natural home for the Czechoslovak national team, Brno represented an attractive halfway house and soon began to host international fixtures on a semi-regular basis. East Germany were the first visitors to south Moravia and would leave defeated, a fate that would befall Denmark, Turkey and many other nations over the years. In 1961, a year before the Czechoslovak’s exploits in Chile, Argentina visited Europe and played out an entertaining 3-3 draw that thrilled all who witnessed it – except state party officials who bemoaned the end of Czechoslovakia’s five-game winning streak.
Given Brno’s stature as the Czech Republic’s second-biggest city, Lužánky rarely saw sporting success. Ruda Hvezda won the short-lived Spartakiadni Pohar in 1960 but the ground had to wait until 1978 to welcome some serious silverware through its main gates. After decades spent in the doldrums, Josef Masopust, the legendary ‘Czech Knight’, guided Zbrojovka and the city of Brno to their only league championship to date
After the success of the 1977-78 season, Zbrojovka fell into a state of disrepair and so too did Lužánky. Despite being constantly tinkered with during its formative years, renovations fell by the wayside as the decades passed. By the mid-1990s, people were talking in whispers that the vast and now ageing concrete arena might not be fit for purpose in a modernising world. Upkeep had been kept to a bare minimum and any work that was done quite literally papered over the cracks.
But people still turned up in droves. Lužánky was home, after all. In 1994, an independent Czech record was set when 28,695 people went to see the visit of Sparta Prague. That record was broken the following season, and then twice in 1996. First just under 40,000 walked through the turnstiles to see Brno face village club Drnovice and six weeks later 44,120 people saw Brno draw 1-1 with Slavia Prague, a landmark that still stands to this day and is unlikely ever to be broken.
However structural engineers had voiced their concerns. Soon after the Slavia tie, the upper tiers were cordoned off amidst concerns that the stands could collapse under the weight and movement of the supporters. It signalled the beginning of the end.
In 2001, Zbrojovka moved out and relocated to Srbska, a stadium towards the north of the Brno that hasn’t captured the hearts of the imagination of the club’s supporters. The decision hurt the identity of the club, Švancara believes, and it hurt Lužánky too: Ever since Zbrojovka left, the old ground was left to rot.
Ownership of the stadium was passed around like a hot potato until the city council purchased it for circa £450,000 in 2003 with the aim of renovating it the following year. However, after receiving a few quotations and faced with a bill in the tens-of-millions of pounds, the project was canned.
Mayors, politicians and ever the Czech FA have since laid out grandiose plans about redeveloping the site, but the city is still waiting for any of them to come to fruition. Artists have released impressions about what the site could look like in the future and every project looks exciting, but also unfeasible, costly and completely unviable. It’s been easy to state good intentions about the enchanting old ground, but it’s been impossible to deliver any viable plan for renovation. And so it sat there, waiting for somebody to truly take possession of it again.
Step forward Petr Švancara.
I was back at Lužánky and there the ground was, resplendent and brimming with life. Thousands of people milled around the stadium’s extremities, browsing the merchandise stalls, taking pictures and queuing to buy beer. For the first time in nearly two decades, Lužánky felt like home.
In the build-up to Švancara’s farewell fixture, the ground had been cleared to hold 23,000. Tickets had sold out within days. The former Brno forward believes that demand easily reached 50,000 but on the day, an estimated 35,000 crammed onto the concrete stands while others climbed nearby terraces to get a piece of the action.
And there I was, in the midst of it all. A nameless face in the crowd. I hadn’t been present during the renovation work, nor was I there when the Brnaci rebuilt a section of the ground that had been declared unsafe but I sensed the occasion meant something to the city. It meant something to me too, though I wouldn’t comprehend the significance of it for some time.
The game that afternoon was every bit the exhibition fixture it was billed to be. The two teams were made up of Švancara’s old teammates, his family, members of Zbrojovka’s 1977-78 title-winning side, celebrities and other sportsmen. Plenty of goals were scored, all of them thorough inconsequential. The real action took place in the stands as an estimated 34,499 people roared in delight at every minute spent inside the ground. Cheered every pass and celebrated every goal as if it might be the last one ever scored inside the hallowed bowl.
“I don’t want to wear rose-tinted glasses,” Švancara commented after the game, while wearing rose-tinted sunglasses, “but I think that [back here] Zbrojovka can expect to win the title again… Here in Brno, the place is essential.” And he’s right. Lužánky is home to so many people. To the older generation who remember the highs of the late-1970s and those that lived through the heady days of the mid-1990s, it’s a reminder of when the name of Zbrojovka meant something. Lužánky’s rebirth showed that anything is possible. If the old stadium can rise like a phoenix, so too can Zbrojovka.
But for me, I missed that game. Despite taking my place on the terraces and enjoying the atmosphere a beer or two, I slipped out before the opening whistle. I had a plane to catch and as I made my way out of the ground, I began a journey that wasn’t about rebirth and hope – it was about acceptance and death.
You see, at the beginning of the year, my Dad was diagnosed with cancer. The doctors said it was terminal. The first few months of that year were a whirlwind. He was in and out of hospital; my Mum and I were told that he wouldn’t make it past Easter after contracting pneumonia. But he pulled through. I worked 9-5 and then when I got back, I cared for him. My weekends were spent looking after him, giving my Mum two days off. It’s a cycle I’m sure lots of people are unfortunately familiar with.
However, personally, things had reached breaking point and it was kindly suggested to me by both parents that I take some time off and go on holiday. I’d been discussing a trip with some friends, Martin and Ondřej, and that soon spiralled into the five-day, four city trip mentioned earlier.
Come the summer, my parents knew that I had planned to go to the Under-21 European Championships in the Czech Republic before the diagnosis and I’d put that on hold. My Dad was okay, all things considered, so it was suggested that I go ahead with that plan. “Go to Olomouc. Go see Ralph. Go do some sightseeing and take your mind off of things,” they said.
So I did.
And it just so happened I could combine a game with Švancara’s farewell, though I managed to get my timings mixed up and booked an earlier flight than I should have done.
Being on those terraces and seeing Lužánky, a place written off and condemned, bustling with hope again is something that I’ll never forget. Symbolically, the place means the world to me. It is somewhere I went to escape from my troubles at home. But also, it’s something that came back from the dead. And when you’re repressing grief and mortality, that’s the hope and happiness that you cling to.
I walked away, leaving the raucous atmosphere behind, and headed towards the bus station to return home. My Dad died six weeks later.
In the months after, I’d think back to that afternoon when, lost in the crowd of 35,000 people celebrating a triumphant homecoming, I could honestly say that I was at peace with everything. I couldn’t say that for a long time after and at times I wonder if I ever will be.
As for Lužánky, it has been partially reclaimed by Mother Nature. Without private investment, Brno, the second biggest metropolitan area in the Czech Republic, will have no ‘modern’ amphitheatre for football.
For a one club city, that’s an unimaginable and frankly appalling prospect. Brno needs a home. Not just for my memories and what I associated the ground with, but for everything that it means to everyone.
Zbrojovka needs to return home.
Header picture: Chris Boothroyd