“THE PROBLEM with Dukla is that nobody really liked them,” said Filip, the taxi driver who ferried me between football grounds in the Czech capital. “Army. That was the reason. OK, so we had Masopust, a great player, and Nehoda and Viktor, but the rest of the Czech football world didn’t like us.”
UK politicans, football hipsters and an indie band from Birkenhead may have done their best to make Dukla into a cult of a sort, but they were far from being the club of the people.
The very name “Dukla” is intriguing and associated with the days when Eastern bloc football teams were eyed with curiosity and no small amount of suspicion. Dukla Prague were actually named in honour after a small Slovakian town that is now part of Poland. Dukla defiantly stood up to the German army, but 90% of the town was left in ruins.
But the story of Dukla Prague is the typical tale of how Communist-era football in Czechoslavakia was shaped by politics. If you were attached to either the army or the secret police, you never had too many friends as the perception was the competition was rigged in favour of the state-backed clubs – witness the situation in the old DDR with Dynamo Berlin.
There is still an air of cynicism in modern-day Prague, despite a robust economy and plenty of tourist euros. You can buy t-shirts with “KGB – Still watching you” emblazoned on them, and Soviet memorabilia still commands a premium. The Czechs have never forgotten the events of 1968, either, when Russian tanks rolled into the delightful capital city. Today, the invasion in Prague is from Beijing and other parts of Asia, the direct flights from China filling one of the most picturesque cities in Europe with visitors hungry for luxury goods and enamelled souvenirs. And you’re just as likely to see replica shirts of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich walking the cobbled streets as you are a Czech football strip. Therein lies a big problem for Czech football – well, one of them, at least.
FK Dukla Prague may be a top flight club today, but they have to battle to attract public interest. Their crowds hover around the 2,500 mark on a good day. In fact, Czech football, generally, still struggles to win support, last season’s average attendance in the top division barely reaching 5,000. Too many people have become disenchanted with Czech football, which like so many segments of the European game has become marginalised by the behemoths of the continent.
It doesn’t help that the domestic game too often flirts with misdemeanour. Only recently, the head of Czech football, 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.
Dukla themselves were once perrenial Czech champions, thanks to their unique position in the state as Armádní Tělocvičný Klub, the Military Club of Physical Education. Two men were responsible for giving the club this elevated and privileged status: Alexej Čepička, a full-on Stalinist, and minister of defence who effectively militarised Czech society; and his father-in-law, Klement Gottwald, a hard-liner who implemented the Soviet model of Government in Czechoslavakia. These gentlemen drove the project that allowed Dukla to specially select the best players in the Czech army. This didn’t go down well with other football fans, but even members of the Communist party showed their disapproval. The rationale was to create a football team that was a flagship for the state, underlining the strength and vitality of its young men.
Dukla were the most successful club in the post-WW2 years and their team formed the backbone of the Czechoslavak national squad in the World Cups of 1954, 1958 and 1962, the latter of which saw them reach the final against Brazil.
Crowds at Dukla’s Juliska Stadion were never big, though. While they were winning titles year-in, year-out, they would get around 9,000 people in the ground, lower than the league’s average and less than half the support enjoyed by Prague rivals Sparta and Slavia. The club was even sent on a charm offensive in the 1960s to the US, playing in the International Soccer League and American Challenge Cup.
In 1986, Birkenhead-based band “Half Man, Half Biscuit” recorded a song called “All I want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit”. This obviously appealed to the When Saturday Comes generation, but it is doubtful if more than a handful of people have ever heard the actual song. But it kept the name Dukla Prague alive as the club was about to decline.
With the Velvet Revolution and the collapse of the old regime, Dukla almost disappeared from view. In 1994, their association with the military came to an end. Their last league title was in 1982 and their last Czech Cup triumph was in 1990. The club moved out of Prague in 1997 following a merger with 1.FK Pribam, playing some 60 kilometres from the capita to become FC Dukla Příbram.
The current incarnation of the famous name, FK Dukla Prague seemingly has no claim on the heritage of the old. 1. FK Příbram, which plays in the second division, still insists it is the natural successor to the Dukla Prague that once reached the semi-finals of the European Cup.
Dukla may not be the multi-sport organisation it once was, but the name still has enormous cachet. Thankfully, they have clawed their way back to the Juliska, a fascinating stadium perched on a hill, and once overlooked by the luxury homes of sporting legends such as runner Emil Zapotek and tennis star Jan Kodes. Josef Masopust, who died in 2015, is remembered with a statue outside the stadium and, perpetually, a rose is place at the foot of what is a graceful monument.
As for the current team, Dukla will probably never grace the heights they enjoyed in the 1960s. The class of 2017, playing in a sparsely-filled stadium, struggle to live up to the reputations of former Dukla giants like Masopust, spectacular goalkeeper Ivo Viktor and Zdeněk Nehoda.
On a bright summer’s evening on the hill above Dejvice, Prague 6, Dukla recorded their first win of the season against Zlin. It was a scruffy victory, 1-0, thanks to a free kick from veteran defender Ondřej Kušnír. There were just 2,400 people at the game, but the club’s small band of “ultras” were delighted their team had got off the mark after losing their first two fixtures. They’re a lively bunch, but a lot of people still remember Dukla were once beneficiaries of what was de facto state manipulation, and the recent problems surrounding the credibility of Czech football just serves to remind everyone that level playing fields have rarely existed in this corner of European football.
So that was the end of Game of the People’s Prague assignment. Visiting Dukla was an ambition, because although we know what really happened, their name remains part of the history of European club football.