Slavia Prague 1 Slovan Liberec 0 (16/08/2004)
It’s safe to say that Prague has a lot going for it. It’s arguably the most attractive city in Europe. Its women are as equally attractive. Beer is cheap, and anyone from a nun to the Marquis de Sade could enjoy a night out there. And it also has four football teams, all of whom will be in the top division again in the coming season.
It’s eight years since I first visited Prague, and I was sold on it instantly, from the warm glow of the streetlights on the buildings, to the rumble of cars over the cobbled streets. It certainly wasn’t the Eastern Europe of the history books. I was, it has to be said, aware that the city had a reputation for attracting tourists who, to put it delicately, liked to get better acquainted with certain sections of the local population. It turned out my hotel was on a street where independent businesswomen would try out their sales pitches to passers by, although thankfully on the other side of the street. Not that my side was pure virtue. On one side of my hotel was a dingy looking peep show, although I’m not sure if there is another kind, and on the other was a small Czech bar much like any other you’d see tucked away in the city. The only difference was that this one would be an ordinary Czech bar in the day, but at some unspecified time in the evening would revert to having a women dance round a pole on possibly the world’s smallest stage. The strange thing was that the pub had a plate glass window, and it was quite amusing to watch people out for an evening walk get something of a shock as they lazily peered in the window as the strolled along.
My first visit to Prague was purely about normal tourism. With no prospect of going to a game in the days I was there I did the usual business of going to the castle, as well as joining the huge crowds waiting by the Old Town Square’s astronomical clock, and sharing in the tradition of being hugely disappointed by the underwhelming wooden figures that emerge one by one from the clock face as it strikes the hour. It does though beg the question of quite what the tourists are expecting – the Tiller Girls and a lazer show, perhaps?
Not that I avoided football altogether. All the grounds in Prague are fairly central, meaning having a quick shufty round is quite feasible if you are in the area, or just have a spare hour or so. Sparta’s ground, for example, can be reached via a pleasant stroll from the castle. Although I did get in on a later visit, my first attempt at looking round was rebuffed by a security guard who acted like he missed the days of Soviet rule. As luck would have it his sort were no longer there when I attempted again a few years later. They still charged a small admission fee, but this time I was pursued by the security guard as I’d neglected to take a complimentary programme from Sparta’s previous match. The ground, it has to be said, was almost perfect as a blueprint of what a 20,000 capacity ground should aspire to be, especially now that it had been done up with new seats.
Not quite as grand was the small stadium of Viktoria Zizkov, a mile south across the river. The ground is roughly behind the main station, in the shadow of the Zizkov Tower – Prague’s most incongruous modern building, looking like the product of a giant’s child playing with 3 pencils and some plasticine. The later addition of some giant babies climbing up the structure just makes it stand out even more. The stadium is rather less imposing. Located still in earshot of the train announcements, Viktoria’s place could be flattering described as quirky, only having three sides, and two of those being terracing bearing enough green shoots to suspect the club was growing rice on them to supplement their income. “Security” here was in the form of an ageing man in what appeared to be a garden shed near one corner of the pitch. Whether he was a security guard, groundsman, or possibly both was hard to tell, but did have a visible stock of tickets for the forthcoming derby with Bohemians Praha. Seeing they only cost 40Kc, about 70p at the time, I thought one would be a good souvenir, even if I’d be home days before the match. Sensing I was a tourist he charged me 50Kc, despite the price being quite clearly displayed. Rather than be angered I actually found it almost sweet that he’d sting me for 10Kc. It might buy a small bar of chocolate for his grandchild or something.
There was also a security guard at the gate when I made my way to Slavia’s stadium. It’s since been knocked down, but after a long spell as a flat piece of wasteland it is now being rebuilt. When I went though it was still intact, sort of. I wondered if the guard would let me in, this coming after my experience at Sparta, and asked the guard. I needed have worried. He asked if I was English, and seem so thrilled that someone would venture out to the ground that he threw his arms open and generously said that if I wanted I could stay all day. I thanked him, but suspected that the stadium of Slavia Prague perhaps wouldn’t merit the full day excursion he was suggesting.
Slavia’s stadium was known as Eden, which was somewhat apt as the place was something of a wilderness. The well maintained pitch suggested matches were still being played there, but the sizeable terracing bristled with an array of undergrowth as three sides of the stadium were overcome by nature. Actually, I’m not sure what had happened to one side as it appeared to have been slightly bulldozed by a demolition team who didn’t know how to operate their equipment, and just sat there in lumpy overgrown neglect.
Slavia were to be the first team from Prague that I’d actually see play. I’d planned to see Bohemians first, the previous day, on a short stop of a few days in 2004, sandwiched between spells in Poland and Slovakia. Unfortunately Bohemians went and rearranged their fixture at short notice, which was rather inconsiderate of them. Either way, both games would have been at the same stadium, so I didn’t lose out too much. Clearly first team games were no longer being held at the garden of Eden, and they’d been switched to the national stadium, the Strahov, or the Evzen Rosicky as it’s more properly known.
The Strahov refers to a whole sporting estate of several stadiums next to each other. The strangest was the Spartakiadni Stadium, apparently the largest stadium in the world. A reported capacity of over 250,000 suggests a huge and imposing structure, but the reality is one tier of dreary concrete terracing but on a vast scale. If seen on google earth, the interior of this stadium shows it containing nine football pitches, arranged 3 x 3, but now that the big party parades are gone, it’s hard to see any future for it.
Directly behind was the Evzen Rosicky. Now all-seated and holding just under 20,000, it was Slavia’s home for their exiled fans. I’d rushed back to the Strahov from an unusual morning’s trip to the town of Sedlec. Its macabre attraction was an ossuary, where about a century ago a the owners hired someone to do something with the thousands of bones there. Whether the guy had a strange sense of humour, or was just plane barmy, is open to debate, but he set about turning the collection of bones into a series of sculptures – among other things a set of grand chandeliers and a family coat of arms. The remaining bare bones were piled high into stacks in the corners.
And bare bones was what Slavia’s support was down to up at the Strahov. Not an easy venue to get to, and many didn’t seem to be bothering to try. At least it meant getting in wasn’t likely to be a problem. As it transpired, the crowd was to be one of Slavia’s lowest of the season, with about 2,500 rattling about. The running track between the pitch and the stands just serving to emphasise the emptiness. The away support of Slovan Liberec, all 30 of them, did little to shake off the impression the match was one hour from kick-off, not one minute from it.
All of which is a shame, as the Evzen Rosicky is not a bad venue, and the fans did their best under the circumstances. Strangely I found myself sat next to a group of Slavia fans from Britain and Ireland. They were clearly ex-pats rather than tourists though, and supported with a fan’s intensity rather than a neutral’s. Their angry cries and suggestions to the players caused a few turned heads though. All made good use, in their correct professional capacity I should add, of the pretty serving girls who’d deliver beer to you seat. I don’t know how much Czech they’d learned while in Prague, but clearly “piiiiiivo!!!!” was regarded as one of the more important words to know. She did a roaring trade. Bar owners in Prague have clearly understood that pretty serving girls are good for business, as had the owner of the beer selling franchise at the stadium. At Reading we are quite blessed in that respect in the supporters’ bar, but having girls delivering beer to your seat at the Madejski would be perfect.
I don’t know if the sparse crowd got to the players, but I often got the impression that they put more effort into performing that mornings ablutions than they did on the match, and the motions that went through them that morning were more of an effort than the motions they went through that afternoon. As poor as Slavia were, Slovan Liberec were worse, and you felt if one of their strikers had gobbed on the floor, he’d have missed. Slavia eventually broke the deadlock, and did enough to hang on in a finish that couldn’t have been less tense if both teams had been administered with an industrial strength muscle relaxant. For me, the only relaxant was the beer, and Prague thankfully has more than enough of that.