Slavia Prague v Jihlava
Eden Arena / Czech First League / 18th February 2017
In biblical terms, Eden is supposedly the ultimate paradise. On looking at photos of Slavia Prague’s Eden Arena, it certainly didn’t strike me as the most paradisiacal of football settings; from what I could tell here was another rather bland, modern stadium. However, I very much enjoyed my experience at Slavia’s home and, although certainly no football utopia, it was a lot better than I first expected.I’d spent the day before Christmas Eve in Prague, before flying to France on Christmas Eve itself, and it really didn’t take very long at all for me to fall in love with the city. In fact, it would rank very much towards the top of my list of favourite cities. Beautiful scenery, stunning architecture, lots to do and cheap, good beer and I was head over heels for the place. One other thing that the city does in abundance is football. Having experienced and loved the city back in December, I most definitely had to go back to experience some football in the Czech capital. With a week off work and both Slavia and Sparta Prague playing on alternate days over the weekend, this weekend seemed as good as any to delve back into Prague.
Shortly after 8am on the Saturday morning, I was aboard the Prague bound train from Bratislava. 90 minutes into the 4 hour journey north, I was joined by my fellow Welshman, Ralph of Blansko Klobasa fame, as he boarded at his adopted hometown of Brno. Of course, we arranged to meet in the train bar and the next few hours flew by as we drank Pilsner and talked about Swansea’s revival under Paul Clement, why I need to visit Blansko and my controversial views on Paris (I may have used the word ‘shithole’). It wasn’t long before the graffiti-covered suburbs of Prague had replaced the more rural scenery and we were arriving into Prague’s main station.
Back in November I befriended Iain and Billie at a game in Košice. The couple live in Prague and told me to get in touch if I ever headed to the city for my regular football fix. Very kindly, they agreed to let me stay at their flat for the weekend and so Iain greeted us at the station and led us the short walk to his flat just 10 minutes away from the station. Even better, the walk involved casually popping into a football ground; the gates to FC Victoria Žižkov’s ground were wide open and so we had a walk around the home of one of the Czech football’s oldest clubs who now play in the second tier. It’s a snug, old place and it’d be great to watch a game there eventually.We arrived at Iain and Billie’s flat and Billie had kindly made us all soup to fill us up a bit before the walk to Slavia’s ground.
Billie and Iain’s flat is located in a great place just a short distance away from the Old Town, but also far enough away to feel not too consumed by the tourist hubbub. On this Saturday afternoon, we’d be heading in the opposite direction to the main centre and instead through the pleasant suburbs of the city, which were still alive with activity. 20 minutes of walking and apparently getting lost en route (I was oblivious to this though as I was following my Prague guides) and we arrived at our destination: a football stadium, but not Slavia Prague’s. Instead we were outside the home of Bohemians Prague – a club I have a real soft spot for and who I’d be watching at Sparta Prague the next day. We were here for our prematch beers in the bar opposite Bohemians’s Ďolíček ground. Apparently, this bar is sometimes frequented by Bohemians club president and all round footballing icon Antonín Panenka, but there was no sign of the legendary penalty taker today.Despite being a Bohemians pub with a few pieces of club memorabilia adorning the walls, the bar slowly filled up with Slavia fans. Not that I could see it, but Slavia’s ground was a mere 2 tram stops down the road and just 10 minutes stroll down the main road. Ralph noted how nice it was to see so many people wearing the club colours too, as a healthy crowd of red-scarved fans streamed down the street. It looked like a proper old-school, nostalgic football scene as folk made their walk down to the ground in theri red and white scarves.
In one of the lovely quirks of groundhopping and social media, another fellow groundhopper had seen me post on Facebook that I was heading to the Eden Arena. I’d met Vincent, who hails from Brussels but now lives in Prague, before attending Slovan v Bratislava v Spartak Trnava back in December. Soon, after telling him where we are enjoying some fine Czech beers, he joined our small party opposite Ďolíček.With just under an hour until kick-off at 16:30 we began joining the gatherings of red scarves heading up Vršovická avenue towards the stadium (I was still surprised I couldn’t spot it since apparently we were so close). It also occurred to me why we had chosen to drink at the pub opposite Bohemians, as there appeared to be little on offer in regards of pubs on the way to the stadium – this was very much an area dominated by modern apartment buildings. However, as the amount of red-scarved fans seemed to increase, I noticed that several buildings, including the large shopping centre, had the prefix ‘Eden’ attached. I began to realise we were now close, especially when I spotted that we were about to turn onto the street ‘U Slavie’.
Then, suddenly, there it was: the Eden Arena. Underwhelmed was probably the first feeling that swept over me. Essentially I was looking at a big red hotel – literally; the corner of the stadium we had arrived at was housing the stadium’s in-house hotel. Essentially, from the street we had arrived at, this stadium was just a big, red and white circle with no particular idiosyncrasies or quirks to stimulate my senses. I promise it does get more positive later.
Similar to how I chronicled the differences between the city’s two big clubs in my blog about the Wiener Derby last week, the historical philosophies of Prague’s two big clubs can be divided in its most basic terms to a class divide: Sparta are the team of the working class and Slavia of the bourgeois and intellects. Of course, in the modern era, this divide is far more blurred and virtually meaningless. Slavia are very a much a team of the football renaissance of the first half of the 20th century across central Europe and a key player in the ‘Danube School’ of football. It would actually be a Scotsman named John Madden, a former Celtic player, who would kickstart Slavia’s golden age as he stayed with the club between 1905 and 1930 bringing with him innovations from British football; although the good times carried on after he left with several more Czech titles won, particularly during the era of Josef Bican – a phenomenally clinical striker (395 goals in 217 Slavia games, 605 goals in 406 games across his whole career). Many consider Bican to be the greatest player in Czech history and some argue that he should be revered as much as the likes of Puskás and Di Stefano. His story is a very interesting one, but also a long one – I’ll let this excellent article on These Football Times tell the tale if you are interested.Slavia, who were formed by medical students way back in 1892 as a sports club, were actually removed from their original home in the Letná district to the suburbs of the south-east of the city. This act was apparently a forced act by the communist party in the 50s. Slavia’s more bourgeois connotations were not very popular with the communist party, whereas Sparta’s more ‘hardworking’ motives resonated more with the party; interestingly, Sparta had a brand new stadium built for them in Letná, where I would be watching them play just 24 hours after watching Slavia.
Slavia were moved to the grounds of where the Eden Arena now stands, although their old Stadion Eden was a crumbling old thing. There was much talk of renovation throughout the 70s and 80s, but floundering finances under communism saw such work curtailed, before conditions got so bad Slavia moved away and had a brief spell playing in other stadiums across the city – including the nearby stadium at Bohemians Prague. After the communist regime became defunct in the nascent years of 90s, Slavia moved back to Eden and talk of redevelopment began again.The Eden Arena as we see it now opened in 2008, after several delays. The stadium is state of the art and has hosted the national team on occasions, as well as being the first stadium to host the now itinerant European Super Cup final in 2013, after the cup final had solely been held in Monaco’s Stade Louis II for the 15 years previous (Bayern lifted the trophy there having drawn 2-2 against Chelsea, but then being standard Germans and winning on penalties).
Slavia have now gone down the wealthy route again, after years of financial struggle, with Chinese billionaires CEFC China Energy purchasing the club and pumping money into it since 2015. The company have also bought a 70% stake in the stadium and plan to renovate it further and make it the sole home of the Czech national team.
Clearly, such wealth had meant that giving away free tickets was not an issue and that was the case today. For every season ticket holder there was the option of receiving an extra free ticket. With Iain being a season ticket holder at Slavia that meant I had a free ticket for the game against Jihlava today and free tickets had also been acquired for Ralph and Billie too. So, after a look around the club shop, where I pondered joining the red scarf army but ultimately couldn’t be arsed to queue, we headed to the turnstiles and into this sparkling stadium.
The concourse was how I imagined it: concrete walls, your usual food and drink kiosk and everything just being a bit drab – apart from the colourful stall selling set up by the Ultras to sell their own merchandise. I could have been at any nameless, soulless, generic new build stadium on a retail estate back in the UK. Of course, this being Europe and not the UK though, we could purchase beer and so that was our first port of call. Gambrinus is one of the Czech’s more standard beers and nothing special, but certainly bearable; Ralph was less impressed with that being the only beer on offer and was slighlty apprehensive of drinking it once Vincent passed him a pint (eventually he’d write-off drinking it and give it to me later, after I kicked my beer over hurdling a row of seats to take a photo).From this part of the stadium, we could pretty much walk around the whole thing. Iain recommended we take a place in the slightly less busy east stand, just to the left of the stand that’d be occupied by Slavia’s Ultras. Although our walk around to the stand was slightly hindered by the fact that there was a sudden power cut and the whole concourse was plunged into darkness. Power was quickly restored, although the end housing the Ultras took a little while longer to come back to life.
This is where things get a lot more positive. Now pitchside, things looked a hell of a lot better and impressive. The Eden Arena isn’t going to win too many awards for innovation but it has some great features. Firstly, the stands were high, but also very steep meaning that you never feel too far away from the action. We actually opted to head right to the top row of the stand, almost being able to touch the roof – which brings me nicely onto that quirky feature. The inside of the roof above us was covered in wood and apparently this was recycled wood from the old stands of the old stadium, which I thought was a cool touch (disclaimer: a Slavia fan has since got in touch and told me this isn’t true and the wood in fact is brand new from Canada – so I don’t know who to believe now!). I mean this in the a nice way, but it reminded me slightly of Rotherham United’s swanky New York Stadium – perhaps if a bit more money had been pumped into it. And so there is the first written comparison of Prague to Rotherham ever published I imagine.We were in our seats in time for the 16:30 kick-off, but there was no sign of the players. Everything was back lit up again, but we were guessing that the power cut had had some sort of delay on the kick-off time. The delay wasn’t to stop the Ultras though and for the 15 minutes of waiting for the teams to emerge, they were energetic, lively and in good voice. This wouldn’t change too much throughout the whole 90 minutes to be fair to them.
15 minutes after the original kick-off time, we were underway. Today was the first game back after the football winter break in the Czech Republic and quite a big game for Slavia too. They had gone into the break trailing league leaders Viktoria Plzen by one point, although with having played a game more than the team from Plzen. From Slavia’s performance on this Saturday afternoon, it was easy to see why they were challenging for top spot.Put simply, especially in the first half, Slavia played some really attractive, attacking football. It wasn’t just tippy-tappy stuff either – no, this was rather direct and cutting. And as I’ve stated many times on this blog over the past few months, I really have witnessed very little real quality football on my travels across central Europe. The director of it all was Slavia’s no.27, Antonín Barák. Barák has just signed for Udinese, but will not be joining the Italian club until the start of next season. From this showing from the centre midfielder, it was easy to see why he’d be good enough to move to Serie A.
There was particular flowing move that saw Slavia break forward in numbers and put themselves through 1-on-1 against the Jihlava keeper. Instead, they tried to add one extra pass to another onrushing attacking player, but the touch for the pass was too heavy and the ball headed out wide and the attack broke down.
It was a constant stream of Slavia attacks with all wasted. Whilst Slavia continued to entertain on the pitch, the Ultras did off the pitch too with them being led by the ringleader with a microphone at the front. In the 15th minute, some sort of yellow and light blue tifo was raised, although I was unsure of the exact message behind it. It looked good though. This was then followed by a smoke bomb, which lasted seconds as the biggest and fastest crew of firemen I’ve ever seen at a football match emerged from the tunnel to put it out.In the 19th minute, I witnessed what probably has to go down as the best save I’ve seen on my travels this season. The Slavia onslaught continued and a great ball into the box was met by the head of Milan Škoda. Škoda had already started sprinting off to celebrate when Jihlava goalkeeper, Hanuš, threw himself to his right and at full stretch tipped the headed effort onto the post and back out again. An amazing save!
There were a few more half chances, until finally Slavia broke the deadlock in the 27th minute. A superb swinging ball from the halfway line to the edge of the box, landed perfectly at the feet of Škoda, who just about controlled, went through on goal and tapped past the keeper to make it 1-0.There was still time in the lat 15 minutes for Slavia to blow several good chances, another 1-on-1 at goal and to smash the post from 2 yards, but amazingly Slavia somehow only went in at half-time 1-0 up.
Half-time: Slavia Prague 1 – 0 Jihlava.
We headed down for some beers at half-time, even though the queues were a bit longer now. We ended up holding off on the beers as we quickly realised we had lost Ralph sometime between leaving our seats and heading down to the concourse. He was wearing a Super Furry Animals’ bobble hat, so we figured he’d be easy to spot; however, he’d vanished without a trace. That was the last we saw of Ralph that afternoon, but before fans of Blansko Klobasa begin adorning his photo to milk cartons and putting ‘MISSING’ posters up around Brno and Blansko, he got in touch (eventually) and all was good with him. He had stuck to his original plan of heading back to Brno post match anyway.
Iain and Billie headed up to the stand for the second half, whilst me and Vincent queued for the small Gambrinus tent. It was here I noticed that a little window had opened up from the club shop and onto the concourse, so I headed over to purchase a Slavia Prague scarf. I don’t get a scarf at every game I go to, but I was particularly glad I did here as I noticed that my scarf collection is currently very blue-orientated; and for someone who’s very patriotic and thus sees red as their favourite colour, I was pleased to add a tinge of red to my collection. Plus, it really was a beautiful scarf.
I returned to the queue to hear cries from the stand and it soon became clear that Slavia had themselves a penalty. Fortunately, there was a big open corner of the stadium near the beer tent, so we all headed out to there to watch the ensuing penalty, which went in via the crossbar to make it 2-0 and effectively kill off the game.On returning back to the tent, everyone organised themselves back into the same queue order that they were in before running off to watch the penalty – no queue-cutting here. One lad was served quickly though, as this very drunken and very loud, young lad had showed up chanting as loud as possible. The lad behind the bar had enough and left his post to bring a pint directly to this raucous young lad, before telling him to go away; everyone else in the queue gave the barman a nod of thanks.
For the rest of the second half we stood on the walkway right at the top of the stadium, behind the back row. Slavia were in full control, although less incisive and adventurous than they were in the first half.
Earlier, on arriving into the stand at the start of the game, I pointed out one fan nearby and how much I liked his flat cap. Around the hour mark, I turned around to find this flat-capped fan standing behind me, which was strange; even stranger though was when he spoke to me and said he knew who I was. This was Irishman James, also now a resident of Prague, but a follower of Bohemians rather than either of the big two. Apparently, he had found Lost Boyos having been a fan of Blansko Klobasa; I told him that Ralph of Blansko fame was somewhere, but I never got to introduce James to him as Ralph was still missing in action. I told him how I had a massive soft spot for Bohemians having seen how brilliant their fans were at Karvina a couple of months previous and he tried to encourage me to join him and the Bohemians fan on a march to Sparta Prague the next day; having my ticket in the Sparta Prague home end for the game the next day though, I felt I’d give it a miss.There were a few more half chances throughout the closing stages, but the result looked done and dusted a long time ago. The fans continued to sing to entertain themselves as they waited for the final whistle to sound.
Full-time: Slavia Prague 2 – 0 Jihlava.
The Slavia Ultras really had been brilliant throughout the game, especially in the first half, and now was their time to serenade their team. The Slavia team came over to receive the chants of the Ultras, before then participating in the usual sort of call-and-response process you find between Ultras and players following victories in this part of Europe.Back outside the stadium and still with no sign of Ralph (I promise you readers that he is alive and well) wehopped on the bus directly outside the stadium and headed back towards Iain and Billie’s cool little part of Prague. Vincent, who lives in a village on the edge of Prague, decided he’d join us for some beers and some food too.
Iain and Billie led us to one of their locals, the lovely named Pardubická Pivnice u Járy, and we enjoyed a good few beers here alongside some excellent food (I ended up with some sort of pork schnitzel with plenty of added lemon). I was then introduced to the Czech shot of… well, I can’t remember what it was called (it begun with ‘m’ I think?) which was a sign of this being the part where the night got hazy. We enjoyed one more bar with Vincent still joining us; he was only going to join us until his train home, but ended up staying out until the early hours with us, before getting a taxi home. Me, Iain and Billie’s night ended with shots of Balkan-favourite raki back at their flat and that was as good a way as any to end our day out.On arriving outside Slavia’s ground, my initial concerns about the place seemed to come to life and I feared I was in for a rather soulless football experience like back at some of the new builds back home in the UK. But not at all. The look of the Eden Arena won’t get pulses racing but the layout inside, combined with the excellent fans, make it a good place to watch football. Especially at the moment with the bigger crowds thanks to the more buoyant mood around Slavia Prague.
Plus, I can’t imagine anyone has ever been to Prague and not enjoyed themselves.
Highlights: revisit to Prague, Iain and Billie’s hospitality, ground easy to get to (by tram or walking), free ticket, good facilities, Slavia played good football, good fans.
Low Points: not much of interest near the ground, stadium looks a bit dull from outside.
See all my photos from my trip to Slavia Prague’s Eden Arena here.