The story of how a crumbling old stadium – that had been left derelict and forgotten for 14 years – was resurrected to host a match with a sell-out 23,000 crowd has really captured the imagination in the Czech Republic and beyond.
Displaying the immense power of a community united, the project was recently awarded the ‘Sustainability & Community Award’ at TheStadiumBusiness Awards 2016 – recognising the volunteer workforce for their achievement in a real community-driven project, and celebrating the worldwide media coverage the story drew in.
We spoke to Marek Fišer, the man behind the journey to bring Lužánky Stadium back to life.
Firstly, can you give us a little history about why Lužánky Stadium was abandoned?
Back in the 1990’s Zbrojovka Brno had the biggest attendances in the whole of the Czech Republic, averaging between 20,000-30,000. A local businessman bought the stadium and planned to develop it into a bigger sports complex, but the money ran out before the stadium could be repaired. It’s a sad story, he ended up in jail and with the stadium structurally unsafe and in such a bad condition, it had to be closed in September 2001.
The club then moved to the smaller Municipality Stadium, but with another rival club already playing there many of our fans didn’t feel like it was home. So the attendance dropped dramatically and recently they have been down to around 5,000 per game.
Where did the idea and inspiration to revamp Lužánky Stadium come from?
Back in 2014 an activist who was running in the local elections came to me and asked if I could join his movement. I said I would with two conditions; one was that we form a pre-election coalition with some more established parties to make us credible, and the second was we would fight to get Lužánky Stadium open again. He agreed, we made the coalition and he said I could try and do whatever I wanted with the stadium.
At the local election we ended up as the third strongest party in Brno, from nothing to 12% of the vote, so I established a working group and started to fight to bring new life to the stadium. Then Petr Švancara, one of Zbrojovka Brno’s most famous players came to me with an idea to play his final farewell match at Lužánky. At first I thought he was crazy, but I like crazy ideas so I arranged a meeting with the mayor to talk about the possibilities. He liked the idea too, so we proposed to try and do it, but realistically we knew it was going to be incredibly difficult because we knew just how bad the condition of the stadium was – there were 14 year old trees growing in the terraces!
But Petr really wanted to play his goodbye game at Lužánky, he is a big name in Brno, people liked him a lot, so we used his name to try and increase the profile of the project and our part was to try and ensure the political support.
When did you get the project underway?
We started on 13th February and the game was planned for 27th June. So we had just 4 months to prepare everything and we started with nothing; the pitch was completely overgrown and the terraces had a lot of 14 year old trees! Also, not everyone in the city was enthusiastic about the plans. It meant a lot of work for officials and it was unclear how everything would end up, but most importantly we had the political support of the mayor and his deputy so the city had to co-operate with us.
And what was the reaction from the local public once you announced that Švancara wanted to play his farewell match at Lužánky Stadium in just 4 months time?
We had no idea how many people would react so positively to the news. Once the media coverage started we realised we were onto something huge. Altogether we had up to 300 volunteers clearing the stadium at any one time, including a hardcore team of about 40 people who would come any day they could. The volunteers we had were really amazing, and we even had tourists turning up to help and people who originally worked on the stadium when it was built back in the 1950’s. They would look on with tears in their eyes once they saw what was happening.
And it wasn’t just individuals. Local companies here in Brno were offering us everything to try and get the stadium ready. The brewery brought us beer for the volunteers and local restaurants made Goulash. Other people were offering us tools, transport, everything we needed for free.
Marek will be on site at the Summit to share more of the incredible story. Meet him (and 60+ other global projects) by joining us in Manchester (1-2 Nov). Earlybird passes available here with 2 free hotel nights.
And what role did you play throughout this incredible four months?
I was involved in pretty much everything. My primary role was to ensure we had the political support but I was also communicating with the fan groups, even with the hooligan groups, which wasn’t always easy. On May 1st there was a big demonstration in Brno between the right wing supporters and the other factions in the city and there was a lot of trouble. But the very next day, you could these same far right hooligans at the stadium working together with everyone else as if nothing had happened, it was incredible how it brought everyone together.
I was also communicating with the media and press and writing all the press releases, and I was also leading the fundraising where we had a transparent account where people could send us money to help with activities planned on matchday. Finally, I even played in the game and scored!
Of the many challenges you faced, what was the biggest one that you had to overcome?
Once we had cut down all the trees we found a huge crack in one of the stands and we realised that we probably wouldn’t be able to make the deadline. Petr was playing in a match that weekend in the regional league in Austria, and he, like all of us, was really down. But I spoke to a friend of mine whose father owns a building company, and we got the help of other building companies and over that weekend we managed to repair the 30m long crack.
How did you plan and manage ticket sales, and how many fans were you expecting?
We managed to sell out all 23,000 tickets within 10 days from just one shop in Brno! We had no internet, no marketing, nothing. It was incredible. So we showed that people didn’t forget the stadium. It was like a time machine going back 20 years, with all the old school fans coming back and it was really amazing.
How did you feel when Švancara’s farewell match was held on 27 June 2015, did everything go according to plan?
The day before the match we had a live broadcast on Czech TV with the Mayor, myself and Petr, and we could already start to feel what a big day it was going to be. We had other big names on the pitch including professional Ice Hockey players, actors, old footballers from Brno, even the Mayor played, so it was an autograph hunters dream.
Matchday itself actually became quite stressful, because when I arrived at the stadium I knew we had a lot of problems. According to the police they estimated around 35,000 actually turned up at the game, so we had another 12,000 without a ticket trying to find a way in and I saw there were people in places where they shouldn’t be. The police ended up bringing in support from all around Brno to the stadium, so we were on the edge of success, or jail!
What has happened to Lužánky Stadium since the match?
We can’t host big events like we did last year because of reconstruction on land surrounding the stadium, but we have organised a classic car show and an open theatre for the first time in the stadium’s history. We have also used the stadium a lot for football. The city rents the stadium to our fans group Věříme Zbrojovce, who still look after the pitch and have an online calendar where you can book to use it.
Zbrojovka Brno’s youth teams are training there and we have also created our own team, Lužánky United. We started with a friendly against a team from England, Wembley United, and in September we will play in a mini-tournament that will include a fans team from Heerenveen from the Netherlands. From next season Lužánky United will hopefully start in the lowest Czech league, and we have already had local companies come in and design the logo and create a new website because they want to be a part of the project.
And what does the future hold for Lužánky Stadium?
A lot of people saw it as a goodbye game, but for us the goal was to start the process of building a new stadium. One week before the match the city appointed me as the head of the working group for the future renovation of the stadium. Because the city has elections every 4 years the political situation is difficult, it really is now or never.
We chose Brněnské Komunikace (BKOM), a local city-owned company who do a lot of infrastructure projects, to oversee and manage the project so that if the current coalition falls, no-one would hopefully look to end the agreement. So whatever happens politically, the responsibility of the project will hopefully stay with BKOM and the rest of the project team that includes the local architect, key people from different departments of the City, and the owner of the club would also remain.
We have just issued a tender for the feasibility study which was presented on 15th August to the Mayor, and then we can decide what we will be able to implement in the design. We know we are short of time because of the elections, so we didn’t have time to launch an architecture competition, We have had to use what we have available locally whilst trying to get as many second opinions as possible. We need planning permissions for the whole area as well as the buildings permissions so we know it will take some time, but we want these permissions and the winner of the tender for the building of the stadium in place by the third quarter of 2018.
Will the old Stadium be completely replaced, and how will it be funded?
We are calling it a modernisation because it will be easier to get funding for that, but in reality the current structure will have to be torn down.
We also want to create a new parking area under the stadium and we will hopefully get European Union funding for that, so in terms of the funding there will be two separate elements to the project, the parking, and the stadium.
The state, the football association, the city, and the province will all contribute to the funding of the stadium. The total estimated cost is around €60 million, we don’t have all the money in place but we have enough to get the project started and then be able to look for other possibilities. So for us, money is not the big issue. The big issue is time, and politics.