All right, maybe football isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when people consider visiting Prague, but if you’re a fan, it sure has plenty to offer. The city actually has a rich football history – along with Vienna and, to a lesser extent, Budapest. Prague played an important part in developing what would later be called ‘the Danube school.’ Between WWI & WWII, football in Prague thrived to the point that it was known as one of the best in the world. Sure, ‘the world’ during that era consisted mainly of the UK and Prague is in fact not built upon the Danube river, but that’s nitpicking. The city has a famous, century-long tradition, is what we’re saying.
You may have heard some of the names – Josef ‘Pepi’ Bican, for example, or Karel Pešek-Káďa. Those two were the world’s cream of the crop during their era. The former is a legend of Slavia Prague (and, according to some, the world’s most prolific striker of all times); the latter became a symbol of Sparta. The list of world-class Czech (or Czechoslovakian) players is surprisingly long for such a small country – František Plánička, Antonín Panenka, Josef Masopust, Ivo Viktor, Pavel Nedvěd, Tomáš Rosický, and Petr Čech. But we’ve chosen to mention Bican and Pešek-Káďa because their names are firmly tied with their respective clubs.
Sparta Prague is arguably the bigger of the two. It was founded in 1893, and everything about its existence will remind you that it is, in fact, a working class club – named after a Greek nation famous for its toughness. Sparta always presented itself as a hard-working, hard-fighting team. Even their anthem is called ‘Železná Sparta’ (Iron Sparta), which is a title Sparta fans are very proud of. It’s meant to symbolize that regardless of consequences, this team will never give up. The collective spirit that defines Sparta also fit nicely with the official politics of the USSR, which is why during the Communist era, the club was clearly more politically ‘correct’ and in turn more supported than the bourgeois Slavia. It’s not exactly something that should overshadow the club’s amazing successes, but the pieces come together almost instinctively.
It would be unfair, though, to label Sparta a ‘communist club’ because that is simply not true. They were not founded nor officially sponsored by the regime – it’s just that they shared some crucial moral values with the prevalent political doctrine. There is a club like that in Prague, though. Hailing from the Dejvice district, Dukla was always a proper ‘communist’ representative, founded by the regime as an army team. It wasn’t until after the Iron Wall disolved that they slowly descended into oblivion. The Dukla Prague team you see playing in Czech league today is, in fact, another club that simply bought the rights to use the name. But let’s not make too much of this because name changing in Czech football is so common and seemingly random that even local fans often don’t know what the hell is going on.
The difference between Sparta’s and Slavia’s philosophies is almost anecdotal. For starters, Slavia, founded in 1892, is called ‘The Sewn-Ones’ because their trademark red and white shirt symbolizes traditional Slavic colors (check out the flag of Poland). So, naturally, does their name. The club’s values center around the then-prolific nationalist movement driven mostly by writers, poets, and other intellectuals. This is where the differences are most distinct – Sparta’s main priority was always to fight and win, while the people around Slavia were vastly more into theoretical concepts. Plus, The Sewn-Ones hail from Vinohrady, which is historically a rather fancy district. So basically, one represents the bourgeoisie while the other is working class. It’s far from being this simple, but you get the idea.
By the way, Sparta’s nickname is ‘Rudí,’ (Blood-Red). A nickname for a football club doesn’t get more strict and powerful than that. How different from the underlying delicateness that surrounds Slavia! While Slavia’s philosophy can somehow remind one of Arsenal, it’s ironic that one of the two clubs actually wears a shirt specifically designed to look like Arsenal’s did 100 years ago. Hint: it ain’t Slavia .
The rivalry itself is not that fierce today, though. First, Slavia is going through some of the toughest times in its history right now, which is partly due to financial problems brought on by some reckless economic decisions made after coach Karel Jarolím famously led the team to Champions League in 2007. They are actually under threat of relegation this season, which would be catastrophic for the club, so it’s easy to see why they tend to care more about themselves. Sparta, on the other hand, is practically a not-yet-crowned champion, maintaining a comfortable lead at the top of the league table. If they emerge as victors, and based on everything that makes sense, they will; it’ll be a sweet satisfaction after three years of losing the title to Viktoria Plzeň (and Slovan Liberec).
Ironically, the sight of Sparta finishing second so many times gave Slavia fans one of a few reasons to laugh – Slavia is often called ‘Věčně druzí’ (always the second) because in the last few decades, that was the case. Sparta, though, was winning titles then. Now, some mock the proud club by calling them ‘Věčně druzí’ too.
In the second part, we’ll introduce you to some other famous Prague clubs (Viktoria Žižkov and Bohemians), and also inform you about problems with hooliganism in Czech stadiums. Don’t worry – compared to most other countries, there are none.