From Letna to Dolicek: A Journey through Czech football

I’ve been working remotely in Prague for the past number of weeks and as I usually do when I’m here, I try to attend some of the local football. Being here for three weeks meant there was ample opportunity to catch games. In the past, I’ve been to a number of AC Sparta Praha games, in the main because they were closest to where I was staying and because, as the city’s biggest club, it was something of a no-brainer. Yet, the more I visit Prague, the more and more obvious it becomes that this is far from a one-club city. So, this time I decided to go beyond Sparta’s home turf of the Letna Stadion.

SK Slavia Praha 0 – 2 AC Sparta Praha (Synot Tip Arena), 27 September 2014

A cloud of smoke from flares and smoke bombs drifts across the pitch during the Prague derby.
A cloud of smoke from flares and smoke bombs drifts across the pitch during the Prague derby.

For the first time, I got to see Sparta’s biggest rivals, SK Slavia Praha in action. It was just my luck too that the game I decided to go see them in was the Prague derby between them and Sparta. The plus point about this was that this game was taking place in Slavia’s home ground, the newly-renovated Eden stadium (now called the Synot Tip Arena), which played host last year to Chelsea v Bayern Munich in the UEFA Super Cup. A bowl-like modern stadium, you don’t realise its a football ground from the outside because the stadium is part of a complex that includes a hotel and several shops. Awkwardly, the entrances for the ground are at the goal ends, meaning that for this game, with an attendance just shy of 17,000, getting into the ground took some time. But from inside, and from the seat I was in  – up in the gods – it was very impressive. Being the centre piece of Czech domestic football, the atmosphere was extraordinary. Most impressive of all were the displays of the home fans, especially those who numbered among the ultras, the Tribuna Sever.

This rivalry, although rooted in the different origins of both clubs in the 1890s (Sparta the team of the workers and Slavia the club of choice for middle-class university students), the rivalry these days is as much geographic and cemented by the varying degress of success of both clubs than that simple binary suggests. Indeed, the Slavia fans unfurled banners that suggested that much of Sparta’s success was down to the former Communist regime, rather than any particular talent. This seems a relatively odd charge to me given that DUKLA Praha, as the military team, were the ones most obviously favoured by the old Communist regime. The rivalry is a pretty serious one and their was a very heavy police presence, including dogs, horse and what appeared to be effectively a SWAT team at the ready outside the ground. A few people were arrested from what I saw, but most of the rivalry was played out in a good natured fashion – in front of me were two friends – one head-to-toe in Slavia, the other in Sparta and their photo was taken by a third man proudly donning his DUKLA jersey.

Slavia fans taunt Sparta about their success under Communism.
Slavia fans taunt Sparta about their success under Communism.

The game was a decent one, Slavia coming out strong initially in the first half before fading away and while Sparta ultimately ran out 2-0 winners, the scoreline flatters to deceive. Slavia missed some golden chances, and should have capitalised more on the shift in momentum when Sparta missed a penalty. The second half, with the sun gone down, and the floodlights up, was a much livelier affair. The supporters had gotten wild by then with flares and smoke bombs going off – a Sparta flag had been stolen by some intrepid Slavia fans and was set alight for all to see.

An AC Sparta Praha flag is burned by Slavia fans during the derby.
An AC Sparta Praha flag is burned by Slavia fans during the derby.

Such was the cloud of smoke at one point, that the game had to halt for a number of minutes before play resumed. It was an exhilarating ninety minutes.

Firemen race to get a shower of flares off the pitch down in the away end at the Eden Arena.
Firemen race to get a shower of flares off the pitch down in the away end at the Eden Arena.

Bohemians 1905 0 – 2 FK Baumit Jablonec (Dolicek Stadion), October 9 2014

IMG_1498
Entrance to Bohemians 1905 ground, Dolicek.  

If the Sparta-Slavia rivalry can be said to be about more than a simple left-right dichotomy, then Bohemians 1905, a club who play near to Slavia in the Vrsovice district, are unmistakably left-leaning in their support. The club, and its support base, is generally considered to be more left-wing and liberal than any of the other clubs in the city and when you go to see them this becomes readily apparent. Although this match wasn’t exactly packed to the rafters, drawing only the most dedicated (and my good self), the majority of the crowd could be found behind the home goal, the end of the ground known as The Boiler.

Behind the goal, inside The Boiler.
Behind the goal, inside The Boiler.

Even though the crowd was small (about what you’d expect for a cup match of a Thursday night, really) they made serious noise and the atmosphere was both friendly and a bit like a party. As with all Czech clubs I’ve been to, beer was readily available along with hot food. Amusingly, the plastic cups which your beer came in had Bohemians based designs, like so:

IMG_1489
Plastic beer cup at Bohemians 1905. Reads “Tady Jsme Doma” or roughly “Our House”.

The atmosphere at the game was its saving grace because the football on offer was far from spectacular. Jablonec came out strong and remained strong throughout. Both of their goals came about thanks to a porous Bohemians defence and the Bohemians in front of goal were largely toothless, missing some excellent chances and squandering others thanks to some very poor passing at times. Despite this, the Bohemians fans remained in full voice, waving their scarves and enjoying a good time among friends. Their side is never likely to be as successful as their bigger cousins in the city, but as a club with a distinct identity, you get the feeling that they don’t much care. Czech football seems to share a lot, in my view, with the League of Ireland – relatively low attendances for one, but as well as obvious negatives it also shares with the Irish domestic game dedicated supporters determined to show that this thing of theirs is worth following.

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