Germany 3 Denmark 0 (20th June 2015)
Here’s a tip – if you ever fly to Prague, it’s best to avoid doing so on Friday with a budget airline. Being the modern location of choice for overseas stag-party trips, it’ll only be enjoyable if your idea of fun is being cramped into a confined space with dozens of men in “team” t-shirts, maybe the odd guy or three dressed as angels or some other comedy outfit, who spend more time getting up to go to the toilet than a junior school outing. It’s the first time I’ve been on a plane where the refreshment trolley was entirely stocked with cans of beer.
And if you do go for one of those beers, don’t drink it out of a paper cup. The beer against the paper takes on a yellow hue which makes it look disturbingly like the chap next to you with an amusingly contrived nickname on the back of his t-shirt couldn’t wait for the toilet to become vacant, and your cup was the best available receptacle to hand.
The beer was, as this was a Czech airline, Czech beer, which didn’t please some who were used to their mass-produced lager from home, so they (and I guess very few others) would have been pleased to find the only beer available at any of the tournament venues wasn’t Pilsner Urquell, Budvar, Krusovice, Staropramen, or any other Czech variety, but a corporate brand chosen for its ability to pay UEFA a sum of money – probably.
There was at least some local flavour to the food stalls, with the hot dogs being the typical Central European variety served with a large thick slice of bread – something I can only assume the local population must have got used to because proper hot dog rolls were banned as a sign of western decadence in the cold war era. As much as I don’t wish to offend local culture, I do always feel the urge to point out there are bread products available much more suited for being served with a sausage.
It’s twenty five years since that cold war era ended, and Slavia Prague’s Eden Stadium could provide a very loose metaphor for how things have gone since then. Back then, it was a functional venue, with a covered main stand and three sides of open terracing forming an oval round the pitch. No frills – a stadium for the working man.
Roll forward to 2003, and my first trip to Prague, and financial reality had started to bite. Eden was now a crumbling ruin on three sides. Slavia had been forced to move out to the Strahov on the other side of the city. Back at Eden, the terracing was covered in weeds, and one side had been partially demolished.
Returning to Prague a few years later I saw a sign advertising “Tesco Eden”, and naturally assumed that yet another football ground had been replaced by a supermarket. Thankfully I was wrong. The shop was across the street, and a brand new 21,000 capacity stadium was being built directly on the old Eden site.
And a smart old place it looks too, at least from three sides. The ground incorporates a hotel, a branch of McDonalds, a bank, and some other small offices – all very modern. Perhaps less so welcome, except financially, is the renaming of the ground to be the Synot Tip Arena, after the local chain of betting shops. I doubt any of the locals call it anything other than Eden though.
The east side of the ground, hidden from view of the main roads, is a little less lavish. A stark slab of concrete and brick rises up against a rather scrubby area of land, strangely lower than the rest of the site. It’s this site that attracted the attention of Prague’s graffiti artists, which one piece just reading “Slavia Praha!”, showing that even if there are fans happy to deface their club’s stadium, they can at least punctuate whilst doing so.”
This area backs onto various training pitches used for other sports connected to Slavia. Perhaps most surprising is one set up for rugby, in a country not known for the sport at all. Even more surprising is that the rugby club were formed in 1927, but even with derbies against RC Sparta Praha, it’s struggled to catch on.
Possibly starting to catch on is the UEFA U21 tournament, held every two years, and based in a host nation since 1994. Two of the four venues used in this year’s edition are in Prague, and even with the host nation playing at Sparta’s Letna Stadium a few hours earlier in the evening, a total of almost 30,000 fans would watch the two games this evening.
13,268 of those would be at Eden for this match between Germany and Denmark, although I would suggest the figure looked a tad ambitious. The new Eden looks similar to Reading’s Madejski Stadium, and the crowd looked smaller than a 13000 crowd does there, and that’s in a ground that holds 3000 more.
It’s not exactly the same as the Madejski though, perhaps thankfully. For a start, the two tier main stand blends in almost seamlessly with the one-tier ends at the Madejski, but here the top tier juts out, with only a wall and a handrail preventing a drop into the end seats below. I’d assumed this very end would offer an excellent view, and it would have done had the handrail not been a slight obstruction. Perhaps more troubling was that this handrail also appeared to be the favoured perching spot for the Vršovice district’s pigeon community, and you really wouldn’t want to forget and lean on it.
Also different was the decision, with the stands at either side being different heights, to build the roof at each and at an angle, so it sloped from one side down to the other. The slope was subtle enough to cause something of an optical illusion, making appear the architects had looked at Wycombe Wanderers’ old Loakes Park for inspiration, and incorporated a sloping pitch into their design. One nice touch, however, was that the underside of the roof was lined with a wooden false ceiling. Whether this was just for aesthetics, or to stop those pigeons, it certainly looks good.
Another difference was the assumption that the top tier would be a little more luxurious than the other stands. OK, with tickets universally priced at 100 Czech Crowns (about £2.50) I wasn’t expecting fitted carpets and a piano bar up there, but it was still a little surprising to find that the upper tier concourse didn’t contain a single thing in the way of facilities. To even get to the top tier you had to go through a side door at the back of the lower concourse, looking like people were being ushered into a storage cupboard.
Outnumbered in the stands by the travelling German fans, and possibly not too popular with the locals after beating them in the opening game, Denmark would always be up against it against a fancied German team. They actually started the better team though, looking pretty dangerous, before Germany settled and slowly took control.
Germany went 1-0 up after half an hour, winning the ball deep in their own half before breaking upfield and putting Hoffenheim’s Kevin Volland away, and he finished with ease.
Germany then blew Denmark away early in the second half. First Volland was on hand again to curl a free kick from 25 yards into the bottom corner, just three minutes into the half. It was during this exact time that some family nearly made themselves very unpopular too me, deciding that a free kick around the box was the exact time to stand up in the gangway and arrange themselves and their food purchases, completely blocking my view. As good fortune would have it, they moved just in time for me to see the ball crossing the line and hitting the back of the net. I would not have been happy, especially as it’s not as if there weren’t empty seats around.
Five minutes later it was game over. A cross was played in from the left with the outside of the boot, and a stooping header was enough to flick it past the Danish keeper from close range. From there it was a case of how many more.
Or perhaps it should have been. Germany went into “job done” mode, and their habit of rather aimlessly knocking the ball around at the back drew whistles of derision from the Danish fans at the far end, and probably a few neutrals too. “You’re shit, and you know you are” sang the Danish fans, happy to take any joy they could out of the night.
In fairness Germany did manage to force the Danish keeper into another good save or two before the night was out, but the excitement after that was perhaps mainly provided by three German pitch invaders. Two ran on carrying a flag between them, and a third, with this being the connected media age that we live in, decided he had to run on too, and film them on his phone. One wonders if the hits on youtube will be worth the bans and fines handed out to the three of them.
All that was left was the fun and games of catching a tram back into the centre at the overcrowded Slavia stop. With the games not starting until 8.45, it meant a post 10.30 pm finish, and less frequent trams. As impatience grew, a head and neck based version of the Mexican wave started, as each person looked past the crowd for an oncoming tram, those further along would feel the need to look out too, to see if they’d seen anything. There wasn’t too much of a wait though, and by 11 pm I was back in the centre, where beer, proper Czech beer this time, awaited.