Sparta Prague v Bohemians
Letná Stadion / Czech First League / 19th February 2017
I’m sure that when your average football fan thinks of Czech football they probably think of Sparta Prague. The mighty ‘Iron Sparta’ of Prague – the most dominant force in Czech football history. Their list of achievements is a long read: 36 domestic league titles, 27 domestic cup triumphs, 3 Mitropa Cup wins (the Central European predecessor to the European Cup) and a 1969 Pequeña Copa del Mundo de Clubes trophy win – the original Club World Cup competition. When it comes to Czech football they have reigned supreme and dominated their crosstown neighbours Slavia Prague in games and in the league, even when Slavia were the far richer club. Sparta – named after that imperious city – are the tough, working class team of the city. Of course, their arch nemesis is Slavia Prague – where I had spent the day before. I’d not be attending the real Prague derby today, but I suppose they were sort of competing against each other to win the ‘Lost Boyos best Prague football experience of the weekend’ – a prestigious prize if ever there was one. However, it may have not been THE derby, but Sparta were contending a derby on this Sunday evening against the lesser known Bohemians Prague – a club I rather like, as I mentioned in the Slavia blog. More on that later though. But enough of Bohemians and Slavia for now…THIS…IS…SPARTA!!!
(Sorry – I had to get that iconic exclamative in somewhere…)
After the post match pork schnitzel, plenty of fine Czech beer and a combination of shots the night before, the lie-in until 10.30 am was much appreciated on this Sunday morning (this really was late for me). My hosts, Iain and Billie, were already up and about and preparing food to get a bit of energy in us for the football outing ahead. After some lovely potato and cabbage soup and toast, we headed the ten minutes from the flat and into the city. Unlike yesterday, we were heading for the iconic Old Town this time; although admittedly we sort of skirted around the outside of it – I’d done all the ‘touristy’ stuff when I visited for the day back in December anyway.
I may have done most of the tourist sites on my first visit to the Czech capital, but I had missed a must for football fans: a small indoor stall selling wooden dolls in the shirts of every football team known to man – from Accrington Stanley to Željezničar Sarajevo. I made sure I found the Swansea doll, before then seeing the price tag and deciding that a wooden doll advertising BETEAST was not for me.
It seemed Iain and Billie had an idea of what pubs to hit and what would be to my liking before eventually hopping on the tram and heading up the hill to the Letná area of the city, where Sparta Prague reside. Fair to say, they nailed the pub choices which started with the rather bizarre U Dvou Koček. U Dvou Koček means ‘The Two Cats’ – not exactly a truly wacky name compared to other pub names. However, some of the stuff placed around the bar were odd. Firstly, I noticed the two model cats laying across the beer taps – that was fine and quite cool in my eyes – but there was something else that freaked me out a little bit. As we weren’t having lunch, we were forced to stand opposite the bar to drink our beers, where directly above us was a painted image on the wall of two giant cats with mini humans walking around them, some of them sipping on pints of beers. It was then I realised that they were obtaining the beer by milking the cat for beer; my flat mate has a cat and fair to say I’ve not looked at Mowgli the same since getting back from Prague. Most importantly though, the inhouse light beer was immense and perhaps the best of the whole weekend.
After two beers in U Dvou Koček (I swear no cats were actually milked for beer in the process of this blog) we made our way a bit further down the street to another recommendation of Iain and Billie’s. I was led into a fairly busy bar/restaurant, but we seemed to be ignoring this room and ploughing on ahead. After some zigzagging through some rooms and then up some stairs, our labyrinthine journey eventually took us to U Medvídku – a small bar full of its own beautiful beer, I guessed stored in the large bronzed canisters surrounding the bar. The bar was small enough to deny us seats, before, just as we were about to head back downstairs, a small party began to leave. I’m glad they did as once again the beer was terrific – the 1466 beer to be precise. The beer was so good that apparently there was another pub stop planned but I was enjoying the lovely 1466 brew so much we stayed for one more.
With about 1.5 hours until kick-off, we said goodbye to Billie and me and Iain headed for the tram stop outside one of Prague’s more glitzy, modern shopping centres. The tram was to take us past the Old Town and down the side of the Vitava river, past the iconic Charles Bridge and then across the Mánes Bridge, before climbing the hill up to the Letná region. It really was a very pleasant tram journey with Prague looking as delightful as ever on this clear Sunday afternoon, especially from the vantage point halfway up the hill on the other side of the river.
We alighted at Hradčanská and instead of changing trams to make the 2 minute ride up the street to the stop directly outside the stadium, we walked the short distance instead. It wasn’t long until the Letná Stadion (it’s now officially called the sponsor-influenced Generali Arena, but we’re traditionalists here) came into view and it was certainly more to my liking that the rather bland exterior of the Eden Arena the day before. Sparta’s ground had dealt an early and prominent blow to Slavia’s home in the battle for ‘which-of-the-big-Prague-clubs-ground-is-better?’ dual.
Letná Stadion was originally built in 1921, but its wooden stand burnt down in 1934 and so a concrete ground was rebuilt on the site. Over the next few decades, further redevelopments were undertaken until 1994, when the largest facelift of the ground was undertaken with the removal of the running track; largely, the 1994 upgrade is how the stadium looks today. And I love it.
Once past the large McDonald’s on the corner of the street, we were right outside the stadium and in particular the Ultras section. There were several stalls set up to sell the various Ultras’ groups merchandise and the walls of the stadium were covered in graffiti of varying slogans – all in the bright and vibrant blue, yellow and red colours of Sparta too. Then, we were on the corner where the official club shop could be found, but I wasn’t really too fussed about acquiring a scarf today – especially as the queue was already fairly long.
We headed to our stand and into the ground. This was probably my favourite part of Sparta’s home: the sort of balcony-concourse area. The concourse for our stand was open air and accessed by climbing a flight of stairs, meaning that the area is raised above street level. The whole area was littered with small bars, food kiosks and another section selling scarves (mainly of past European games). The food offering at Slavia Prague the day before had been poor to say the least, but here there were a range of delights being sold (including popcorn again – just like at Austria Wien the Sunday before. Is popcorn at football now a thing?) Anyway, I had my heart set on some klobása, but Iain had been raving about some smoke ham they sell here at Letná. He genuinely wooped with excitement as soon as he spotted that the stall selling it was still there. His joyous reaction made me realise that I couldn’t not sample this stuff too. Behind the small counter was a huge slab of pork being skewered; our portions of pork were cut straight from it and placed on a paper plate with a couple of slices of bread. Iain was spot on – this was absolutely perfect! It even made me forget that I was once again stuck with drinking the fairly bland, Czech football ground beer of choice Gambrinus. More football grounds need to sell smoked pork like this!
With a bit of time before kick-off, we headed down to our seats in the lower tier of the south stand. Just like its exterior, the inside of the Letná Stadion had a very traditional European feel to it too. Directly opposite us was the older main stand, which stood alone with the other three stands almost encircling it. In the north-west corner of the stand were a fairly healthy number of Bohemians fans. I’ve mentioned on a couple of occasions that I really like Bohemians due to how crazy and persistent their fans were when I saw them away at Karvina back in November; plus, they rather quirkily have a kangaroo on their badge – I’ll save the tale behind that for when I inevitably visit their home some time (I really am fascinated by them it seems).
In the opposite corner, assembled in the upper tier, were the Sparta Ultras who were preparing their tifo, as a group of fans began walking onto the pitch to our right. Soon, this group of fans were assembled in formation in front of us and soon a lot of flag waving on the pitch commenced; apparently each flag was celebrating a different supporters’ club of Sparta’s. This seemed to be the cue for the teams to begin the walk out onto the pitch and for the Sparta club anthem to begin. Iain declared himself not a fan of the club anthem Železná Sparta (‘Iron Sparta’ – the name given to their all-conquering team of the 1920s) but I found it quite cool actually – very..eh…communist sounding.
As the anthem finished, the teams sorted themselves out whilst Bohemians unveiled a tifo in tribute to their former director, Lukáš Přibyl. Sadly, Přibyl died from an undetected heart defect just aged 33 almost exactly 5 years before. Přibyl had also once been vice-chairman at Sparta and was apparently a very popular guy; so it was nice to see Sparta fans delaying their tifo unveiling to applaud the Bohemians fans’ tifo.
Sparta then produced their own tifo displaying all the years of the league championships they had won – meaning this was a big tifo. By the time that was being dropped onto the lower tier though, we were underway on the pitch.
I was very impressed with Slavia Prague in the game the previous day and with Sparta just behind Slavia in the league, I was hoping for similar things in this game. It really didn’t get going though.
The game proved to be a cagey affair with few real chances for either team. Instead most of the first half involved the Ultras pouring ire on one of Sparta’s own players, the Ivorian midfielder Tiémoko Konaté. Apparently Konaté was angered when Sparta wouldn’t let him leave for Steaua Bucharest back in September, so he began to miss training until he was demoted to Sparta’s youth team. However, in recent weeks Konaté has returned to the first team fold and started Sparta’s last Europa League game away to Rostov. Unfortunately for Sparta, they lost the game 4-0 and much of the blame was levelled at Konaté, who got himself 2 silly yellow cards in the first half hour to leave his team battling with ten men for over an hour. Trying to force a transfer, boycotting training and getting sent off after your return is never got to make you too popular with whoever’s fans you are playing in front. This was the first game since that Rostov loss and every time Konaté touched the ball, a chorus of boos roared from the Ultras. To add to the boos, they had also unveiled a sign with ‘Konaté Ven!’ written on it (‘Konaté Out!’) Rather interestingly though, the stand we were sitting in seemed to be trying to combat the Ultras’ boos by clapping Konaté – it was probably very confusing for the lad to know where he stood with the fanbase.
Whilst the majority of the Sparta fans concentrated on Konaté, I was falling in love with a footballer in the middle of the pitch. It took me just a few minutes to begin inquiring who the Sparta no.16 was. I would soon learn that this was young Michal Sáček – and what a player he is and will be. The 20-year-old absolutely bossed things from midfield and virtually everything had me declaring my amazement to Iain I soon realised – and this is a big claim – that he reminded me of a young Joe Allen. By the end of the 90 minutes, I even debated whether he was the best player I’ve seen on my central Europe travels so far; I thought more on this after the game and began to think that the answer may well be ‘yes’ (although there hasn’t been much competition to be fair). There’s been a few names mentioned in their youth on Lost Boyos who’ve gone on to better things and Michal Sáček is going to be my first central European tip for greater things. Remember the name.
Sáček aside, the game was fairly dull still and it definitely needed something spectacular to make it a bit more interesting. Sparta’s attacking midfielder Aleš Čermák obliged. 22-year-old Čermák had also been playing well and his goal in the 36th minute was something special. 25 yards from goal, Čermák received the ball with his back to goal, spun around and with one touch hit the ball to his left to set himself up for a shot. He then unleashed a powerful left foot drive that soared ferociously past the keeper and into the underside of the crossbar and in. Just watch below…
The goal was followed by a sudden announcement regarding the prohibition of pyro and a notice flashed up on the two big screens condemning its use and what the hefty fine would be should it be used. So, unlike yesterday at Slavia, the goal was not met with celebratory flares as the fans seemed to heed the warning.
Half-time: Sparta Prague 1 – 0 Bohemians.
At half-time, we went back onto the ‘balcony’ for a beer top up and also for some more pork (it really was good). Sadly, it seemed everyone else thought the pork was good too and there was none left for a second portion. I cheered myself up with thoughts of curry, as Billie had said she was making curry for us when we got back to the flat. This was particularly exciting for me as Slovakia seems to be a complete ‘no curry zone’. The central Europeans just don’t seem to do really spicy food (and I like my curry really, really spicy).
I thought the second half may be slightly more barnstorming, especially as Bohemians were immediately on the attack. Not even a minute into the second half, they broke forward and were soon 1-on-1 with the keeper, but the angle was slightly against the attacker and the keeper made himself big enough to repel the close range shot.
Then, minutes later, there was a comic moment, as Sparta’s centre back went to control the ball, but fluffed it completely with the ball inadvertently hitting him on the back of his heel. This played Bohemians clean through on goal, but Sparta’s defence got back quick enough to stop the attack.
There were a few more half chances throughout the final half hour, but nothing to get too excited about. The game was not exactly pulsating and instead I spent the majority of the second half still swooning over Sáček’s every little touch, Sáček’s every pass and Sáček’s genuinely brilliant decision amking sckills. I really thought he was flipping marvellous (if you hadn’t guessed that yet).
In the final minutes, the Bohemians goalie took the opportunity to venture into the opposing penalty box for a corner, but there was to be no goalkeeping fairytale here. Instead, moments later, the whistle was sounding for full-time and to confirm 3 points for Sparta.
Full-time: Sparta Prague 1 – 0 Bohemians.
Not content enough with booing Konaté all game, the Ultras – plus the majority in attendance – decided to boo the whole team at the final whistle. They really weren’t happy with their team’s performance; a true sign of how dominant Sparta have been in Czech football when not even a simple win is good enough.
Bohemians on the other hand, well, their fans just seem to enjoy being football fans. I’d seen them lose 3-0 at Karvina and their fans stayed behind to applaud and chant encouragment at their team, as well as setting off smoke bombs. This evening was no different as they called their team over to chant their love for them, whilst the Sparta players completed a rather quick and sheepish lap of the pitch and hastily exited.
Our journey back to Iain’s was an easy one as trams and underground trains all fell in our favour and got us right back to just yards from his home; this was also the first time I even became aware of a Prague underground network – somehow I had missed that.
We arrived home to the curry that had earlier been promised and it had been made ‘more English’ too, which apparently in the Czech Republic means making it more spicy. It was awesome and certainly made me happy I hadn’t had that second helping of pork earlier. What else could you need to finish off a good day out at the football? Oh yes, a few beers (and shots) in a small, dingy, smoky local pub full of rather interesting looking characters. Perfect.
I’d certainly enjoyed both days of my Prague football adventure. At Slavia, I felt that I had enjoyed a better game of football and felt the fans were a bit more fun, whereas if I had to recommend a ground for someone to visit it would definitely be Sparta’s home; plus, there was better food there and you can watch my new footballing idol Sáček play too
Huge thanks to Iain and Bille for having me for the weekend (and feeding me soup and curry) and cheers for a top weekend Prague. I look forward to seeing you again in May Prague for my birthday weekend with more Czech football on the agenda, as well as seeing British Sea Power live.
Highlights: beers in the Old Town, nice, easy tram journey, ground easy to get to, cool, traditional ground, the balcony-concourse, smoked pork, Michal Sáček is amazing, Bohemians fans (again)
Low Points: poor game, not a fan of booing your team after a win.
See all my photos from my visit to Sparta Prague’s Letná Stadion here. (Had some camera issues and lens on my camera phone is smashed a little bit so they’re not great).