FC Fastav Zlín v Dukla Prague
Letná Stadion / Czech Liga / 16th February 2018
Winter is no longer coming and is soon to be leaving in fact. Unlike the Game of Thrones’ world of Westeros, where ominous winter brings the terrifying undead army of the White Walkers, winter in Central Europe brings a far more frightening entity: a football winter break. We’d all survived though and I had just about kept my football hunger at bay with three games in southern England over the festive period. Now, it was time to welcome football back to our part of the continent.
As we hit mid-February, only the ‘big’ top flight leagues in Slovakia and the Czech Republic were restarting. Having pretty much done all the Slovak league (aside from Nitra, but that’s complicated right now), I turned to look over the Czech border. All roads – or more accurately rail lines – seemed to point me to Zlín.
I’d actually really wanted to go watch FC Fastav Zlín play for a while now, thanks mainly to one man: Pablo Podio. Possibly my favourite player I saw play in Slovakia last season was Podbrezová’s Argentinian midfield maestro, Podio. When I went to watch Podbrezová v Prešov last season, the Jan Molby-esque Podio enchanted me with his range of passing and his general midfield dominating nous. I even forgave him for wearing a different colour boot on each foot. A move elsewhere for Podio seemed inevitable and indeed he did make a slight step up to the Czech Liga by moving over the border to FC Fastav Zlin. I had to see him play live again. However, it’s still yet to be; it seems Podio has hardly played for Zlín all season (why Zlín? Why?!) and just a few weeks ago he was loaned out to Keshla FC in Azerbaijan – and I currently have no upcoming plans to go groundhopping in Azerbaijan. Even after shipping out my beloved Podio, I forgave the club and decided to head there for my first game of football post-winter break.
When you think of architectural beauties, Zlín is probably not the first town or city that comes to mind. However, Zlín was initially envisioned as a small, industrial utopia. Certainly, ideas of utopia have changed dramatically over time with the principles of Zlín being based around the ‘Garden City’ concept. As well as this, it’s uniformed buildings were meticulously planned out from the start of the town’s early 20th century boom, as it was decided that the industry of the town should be reflected by the housing too; hence, the houses were made out of the same materials as the factories: red bricks, glass and reinforced concrete.
Zlín is very much a town that grew dramatically at the start of the 20th century because of industry – specifically the shoe manufacturers Baťa, started by Zlín local, Tomáš Baťa (a company that still lives on and thrives across parts of Europe to this day). As Baťa grew, more shoe manufacturers started up in Zlín and this is very much a town built on shoemaking money. Baťa wanted to make the town a ‘total environment’ for his workers and so as the town’s population massively increased he began building more shops and entertainment and sports facilities to keep the burgeoning population occupied and happy. Thanks to Baťa, Zlín went from being in the provincial doldrums to a thriving industrial livewire.
With Zlín being a town built on shoes, it is not surprising to learn that the football club are called Ševci – ‘Cobblers’…no it’s true…(apologies for using old Soccer AM jokes). As current Czech Cup holders, the Czech Republic’s answer to Northampton have played in Europe this season, having made it to the Europa League group stage; sadly for them, they finished bottom of a group containing Lokomotiv Moscow, FC Copenhagen and Moldova’s Sheriff Tiraspol.
Also, as it stands, Zlín are technically the champions of Czechoslovakia, even though no such country has existed for 25 years. When Slovakia and the Czech Republic were one, the Czechoslovak Cup was their regular domestic cup competition. After parting ways in 1993, of course that cup became a thing of the past too – until last year. The cup was brought back as the Czechoslovak Super Cup – a one-off final between the Slovak Cup winners and the Czech Cup winners. This meant that last June Slovan Bratislava took on Zlín to become the inaugural winners of the aforementioned cup. It was a fairly drab game played at Slovácko’s gleaming ground in Uherské Hradiště, which eventually went to penalties and was then won by Zlín.
Back to my day and after a 7am start and a couple of train changes, I found myself just down the road from Zlín in the town of Otrokovice. A quick beer in one of those shitty train station bars that I adore so much and then it was on to the little local train that slowly meandered down the line, passing through what seemed an endless line of stops in Zlín, before finally I disembarked at Zlín-stred (Zlín centre).
On walking out of the station, I wondered what I was in for today as two men stood outside an opposite pub began angrily shouting “CHELSEA! CHELSEA!” accompanied by quite violent looking fist pumps into the air. Then the train had the audacity to blow its horn, something that they also seemed to take exception with and so they began shouting and gesticulating aggressively towards the train. Not the most inviting locals to welcome you to a new town.
The town itself has to be one of the weirdest I’ve stepped foot in. As alluded to earlier, the whole place is completely uniform and everything is disconcertingly matching. A sign of this was clear when Ralph messaged me to say he was in ‘Building 13’ – or Kavárna Továrna to give its modern name. Every building it seems is referred to by its number or certainly once was.
In Kavárna Továrna, I found Ralph sitting at the back of the coffee shop sipping a hot drink. This wasn’t the sort of place to go for beer, but I did then order the only beer they had: an overpriced small bottle of Pilsner Urquell. There was some initial excitement as Ralph said he thought the guy sitting over the other side of the bar was former Ajax, Juve and Fulham defender Zdeněk Grygera (it wasn’t) and then we caught up on how each of us had survived the harsh winter weeks without going to football.
As we were leaving, Ralph announced that he had actually been up a tall building before I had arrived (he knew it was pointless waiting for me, as I am absolutely shit scared of heights). However, the tale of this building was interesting. This was Baťa’s Skyscraper (or Building 21 if you prefer) and it was originally the HQ for the Baťa shoe empire. Apparently, there were dreams of making this building taller than the Empire State Building and at one point it was the second highest pre-war skyscraper in Europe behind Antwerp’s Boerentoren.
When we exited the coffee shop and I came face-to-face with Baťa’s Skyscraper. I couldn’t believe that there was such heighty ambitions (pardon the pun) for this rather plain-looking building and it was a bit underwhelming to say the least at just 16 stores high. Anyway, above is a photo Ralph took from the top of it, which gives you a great view of Zlín.
We headed towards the Tomas Baťa University – he really did build and rule this town – before veering back down towards the main square. There wasn’t a lot to see here (although giggles were had at the cafe/bar called ‘Nobless’) so we headed into the Kožel-centric bar, Kozlovna. Whilst Ralph ate his soup, I went on a spiel dripping with love for my favourite Slovak footballer, Stanislav Lobotka (“He’s the Slovak Joe Allen and he can and should play for Barcelona!”) before we began coming up with a plan of when to head over to the football ground. It didn’t take much discussing before we decided to head towards the ground early and hopefully find a pub with wi-fi to watch the first half of Swansea’s FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday on Ralph’s iPad.
We wandered down the small road alongside the Dřevnice River and were very soon at the football ground. There was still two hours to go until kick-off, but already there seemed to be a hell of a lot of security around; this seemed really strange considering there was probably going to be a small crowd and not an ounce of animosity between the Zlín fans and Dukla Prague fans, who would also travel in small numbers. The football ground was shunned for now and instead we headed for the adjacent pub.
The Pivnice U Máců promised us Żubr beer, so we went in there, hopefully to set up base to watch the Swansea game too. The pub did offer us the promised Żubr and the place did also have wi-fi; however, the waiter soon told us that the wi-fi was for staff only and so there was no wi-fi for us and thus no Swansea game for us to watch. That was enough for us to quickly drink up and head next door.
In the Hotel Saloon, our quest for wi-fi came to an end and now our only problem was finding seats. It seemed that this was a popular prematch haunt for Zlín fans and many had reserved tables for 1.30-2.00pm. Just as we were about to ponder sitting on the floor, a seat came available and we sat down to enjoy Swansea’s latest step on their FA Cup journey (I say ‘enjoy’, but not much happened and it finished 0-0).
With about 20 minutes until kick-off at Zlín’s Letná Stadion, we left the pub and made the few steps to the ticket booth behind the ground. Just as we were about to head to the ticket hatch, a small child came running up to us offering us two tickets for 100kč. That would do for us. Thank you random little boy.
The act of ticket buying had turned out to be an easy one, but getting into the ground proved a more tiresome act. Although the security guys were smiley and friendly, I still had no idea why there were so many of them. After a very thorough bag checking (not the usual ‘cursory glance inside and move on’ technique used at other grounds I’ve been to) we were into the Letná Stadion.
Zlín’s ground may not be too wacky but there is a definite charm to it. The old main stand is a rusting, fading piece, although it definitely gives the place some character. Then behind the far goal is a small terrace built at the bottom of a large banking that leads up to a small section of woodland and more residential streets. Some cheeky souls stood up the banking and watched the whole game from up there; to be fair to these miserly lot, they probably had the best view of the game in the house…well, just outside the house. Behind the other goal, the Zlín hardcore were unfurling their large Ševci banner, whilst others headed straight for the concourse area under the large stand on one side of the ground. And that was where we would head too.
With beers in hand, we opted to go behind the goal at the foot of the ‘banking end’ with just a few minutes until the teams would be out. When they did emerge, there was to be some sad news for fans of the band Half Man, Half Biscuit: Dukla Prague would not be wearing their iconic and lyrically celebrated away shirts. Heresy!
The game itself was rather forgettable really, which wasn’t very helpful in trying to ignore the cold chill around the ground. There was some former Premier League talent on show though. Playing at full back for Dukla was former Birmingham City defender Martin Jiránek, who started for the club when they won the League Cup final against Arsenal at Wembley back in 2011. Despite now being 38, he was probably one of the better players on the pitch today.
Me and Ralph had decided that the player we repeatedly referred to as ‘The Big Lad’ was the dangerman for Zlín, as he kept the Dukla defence busy all afternoon. A quick google told us that The Big Lad was actually French striker Jean-David Beauguel – but we stuck to calling him The Big Lad.
For the close of the half, we headed up to the top of the taller stand, but even with a new vantage point, the football didn’t get any better.
Half-time: Zlín 0 – 0 Dukla Prague.
It was really, really cold by now and I didn’t fancy holding a cold beer out on the stands again. Maybe at a particular chilly game on British shores, this would be my moment to take a coffee or hot chocolate out on the terrace with me, but this is Central European football. Being Central Europe, there was no coffee in hand, but instead a warm plastic cup of what tasted like very strong rum (it was actually tea and rum – grog). It certainly warmed the cockles.
The second half would be an improvement on the first, although we were both a bit miffed by the fact that Zlín had substituted The Big Lad at half-time. This made me conclude that Zlín were definitely not going to win now.
Not long into the half, the home team had a huge break, as they earned themselves a penalty. However, they blew their chance and the Dukla keeper caught the pen to keep the game goalless – although not for long. In the 62nd minute, Dukla earned their own penalty and converted it to make it 1-0.
That was my cue for klobása, as I decided to avoid the long queue for the sausaged delight at half-time. It was good to have European football cuisine back (even if I slightly denounced such cuisine next to good old-fashioned British pies in my Burgess Hill blog). Ralph decided he wanted in on klobása too and disappeared back onto the concourse. Bad timing.
There’d be one more goal in the game and it would be an equaliser for Zlín in the 73rd minute, whilst Ralph wasn’t there to see it (a nice change from me missing goals this season). A lovely cross from the right was met by a precise, swooping low header, which flew into the bottom corner.
Full-time: Zlín 1 – 1 Dukla Prague.
Not the most exciting game to kick-off the second half of the season with, but nonetheless, it was good to have football back.
As good as it was to have football back, we weren’t too keen to hang around at the ground. Our train out of Zlín would be leaving 30 minutes after full-time, but we really wanted to get back to the train for some much-needed warmth as quickly as possible, as the second half had been a brutally cold 45 minutes. Thankfully, the little local train was already there waiting for us.
At Otrokovice, me and Ralph parted ways as he headed back to Brno, whilst I headed to the bar at the end of the platform – a bar with a bowling alley (the Czechs and the Slovaks bloody love a bar with a bowling alley). After a quick and cheap beer here, it was then onwards to probably my most visited Czech town, Břeclav, for the train back to Slovakia. I even had enough time and remaining Czech crown in my wallet for a thai curry in the restaurant on the train home. Although never exactly life-changing, I always find the food on the EuroCity trains pretty good and I found the curry no different either.
So, Zlín may have been a bit bleak in parts, but I have to say that at least it was actually interesting and a bit different compared to other towns; ironic really, considering everything is the same there. Ultimately though, football was back and it was good to have it back.
Highlights: football being back, maybe bleak but interesting town, decent ground, good klobása.
Low Points: Zlín really is bleak though, crap game, no Dukla Prague away shirts on show.
See all my photos from Zlín here.