IT WAS not the best moment to visit Prague football for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Czech capital was being hit by thunderstorms which made for just about the worst flight I have ever experienced. My shirt was wringing wet when I got off the aeroplane and the incessant turbulence had even silenced the grossly irritating stag-weekenders on the flight. We all felt like kissing the ground when we disembarked.
Secondly, it was mid-August and tourism was at its peak. So congested was the Charles Bridge, the main navigation point in the city, that people were looking for alternatives to cross the Vltava river. It was positively heaving on that bridge – it made you wonder about weight restrictions.
Thirdly, and perhaps most relevantly, Czech football received another body blow recently when its chief, Miroslav Pelta was arrested over corruption allegations, along with the man responsible for the Czech Union of Sport. So frequent have been the outbreaks of malpractice that the long-time sponsor of the league, brewery company Grambinus, has pulled out of deals with the Czech FA. Look back across the history of football in what was once a central European stronghold, and scandal and abuse of power seems to be commonplace. It’s a far cry from the days when Antonin Panenka chipped his penalty kick past West Germany’s Sepp Maier to make Czechoslavakia European champions and create an iconic moment in sporting history.
I had to cast this aside for I had a busy schedule. Commissioned to write a piece on Dukla Prague, a cult club with a song named after them, I was also visiting Slavia and the newly relocated club, Olimpia for the derby with Viktoria Zizkov.
Prague has a good transport infrastructure and the trams take you anywhere you want to go and they are superbly frequent. Slavia has its own stop on the number 22 tram and the Eden Arena is just a few yards away.
I’d always assumed that Slavia played second fiddle to Sparta and if there’s an “old firm” in the city, it has to be these two clubs, but Slavia are the reigning champions after lifting the crown in 2016-17.
How Prague’s big two fared in 2016-17
|Slavia Prague||1st||SF||Europa League play off round||11,625||1-1|
|Sparta Prague||3rd||R16||Europa League Round of 32 after losing UCL play off||10,014||0-2|
There’s something of a resurgence going on at Slavia, a club that’s always been linked to liberalism and progressive values. They’ve had a more middle-class audience than say, Sparta, and often linked with the intelligensia. Hence, among the crowd I could see a banner claiming the club was, “the intellectuals”.
But not all is happy in the state of Slavia. The club is, ironically given the anti-communist stance of most people connected with it, 60% owned by China’s CEFC China Energy. In fact, the money pumped into the club by CEFC effectively saved Slavia from going under in 2015.
The influx of Chinese cash should not surprise too many people. The country’s occasionally controversial President, Milos Zaman, has been encouraging far eastern investment. “There are direct flights from China now and so we have thousands of Chinese tourists. They spend so much money which is good for our economy. But we are still waiting to see the big investments from China that have been talked about. Perhaps they will come soon,” said Pavel, a hotelier who has no interest in Czech football anymore because “it is rotten”, but admits to enjoying higher turnover because of the tourism.
Despite some comments about living under Chinese oppression, it is not a bad time to be a supporter of Slavia. The title was won in 2017 with a two point margin over Viktoria Plzen. They are still in the UEFA Champions League and, at the time of writing, are playing APOEL Nicosia in the play-off round. The potential earnings of making it through this round, and therefore reaching the group stage, are substantial for a club like Slavia.
Věčná Slavia have started the season well. They got through the third qualifying round of the Champions League by beating BATE Borisov of Belarus on away goals. In the league, they are unbeaten after three games, the most recent being the game attended by Game of the People, a 2-0 win against Vysočina Jihlava. One of the scorers in that game was Danny, the 34 year-old Portugal international who showed flashes of skill if occasionally ill-disciplined. Also notable was Josef Hušbauer, who scored the first goal from the penalty spot. And then there was Milan Škoda, who scored the vital goal against BATE that gave Slavia victory.
It remains to be seen if Slavia can maintain the momentum from last season’s title win, and how much of an advantage Chinese ownership can bring them. There were 10,000 people at the Slavia v Johlava game, lower than last season’s 11,625 average (up 30% on 2015-16), but this game was a hastily rearranged televised game on a Friday night. Two years ago, they were attracting much lower crowds. The question is, are Slavia about to shift the balance of power in Prague? Sparta may have something to say about that, but the signs look positive.