The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Slavia Do Toho!

Posted by steigs on January 11, 2008

Long-time bridesmaids Slavia Prague are having a year to remember.  Leading the Czech league at the break.  Getting a new stadium in March.  Made it to the group stage of the Champions League for the first time.  Maybe they were embarrassed 7-0 at Arsenal but they held the Gunners to a scoreless draw in Prague.  And they beat Steaua Bucharest to earn third place in the group — so they’ll face Tottenham in the UEFA Cup when the European Cups resume. 

I was lucky enough to catch a Slavia game in ’03 — one of the better (and cheaper) European soccer experiences I’ve had.  For more on Slavia, the wonderful city of Prague, and the meaning of the post’s title, read on after the jump…

Prague B August 2003             

M. and I are in the Museum of Communism.  The Museum is on Na Prikope in central Prague, just around the corner from Wenceslas Square.  Amusingly, it is B as the directions on its website put it B Afirst floor, above McDonalds, next to casino.@  Ah, that refreshing Czech delight in the absurd!  When you=re through visiting the Stalinist past, jump back to the crass capitalist present with a Big Mac or a turn on the slot machines. 

The Museum, opened in 2001, is a private operation, a brainstorm of one of those Americans who flooded into Prague as the Russians left.   He collaborated with a returning Czech exile, one who had fled the country in the wake of the failed 1968 revolution, to collect Communist-era antiques and artifacts.  The result is a mixed bag of memories B busts of Lenin, a set of aging Eastern Bloc motorcycles, a replication of a police interrogation center.  The gift shop contains an impressive array of sarcastic postcards featuring classic heroic worker figures captioned with slogans more reflective of the realities of life under communism.  For example: AOpening Late, Closing Soon, Annoyingly Long Lunch Break!@  Or AWe Don=t Have It, We=re Not Open, Go and Bother Someone Else!@

The campy mood of amusement is broken near the end of the museum.  Monitors in a room cycle videotapes from the AVelvet Revolution,@ the 1989 uprising that finally ended communist rule.  A more conventional museum would probably use news reports of triumphant rallies and heroic speeches from those amazing days.  Instead, we are shown internal police videos documenting how often the batons came out as the pressure grew on the failing regime.  Police wade into the ranks of the protestors in Wenceslas Square, battering away.  People break and run from the cops.  Even non-military Avelvet@ revolutions can involve violence, just as in our Civil Rights Movement. 

There is one particularly heart-rending video, an interview of a frightened teenage boy in police custody.  As the cops threaten him with a dark vision of his future for dissenting B thrown out of school, jail for sure and so on B I realize that I am only a few years older than this boy.  A reminder that while this is history, it is recent history.  Looking in the rearview mirror, history appears to be a smooth coherent series of inevitable events.  However, when you actually live through such dramatic events matters are always, at that moment, much more uncertain and confused.  The taunts the cops are making would undoubtedly prove as hollow as they regime they represented B but it would take a strong teenager to be sure the revolution was going to succeed and he would be a hero, not a felon.

Afterwards, M. and I step out into a bright, searing afternoon B a heat wave is baking Europe B and a city that now appears little different from those that were on our side of the Iron Curtain.  I first visited Prague in 1991, a stopover on an extended backpacking journey, and the feel of the streets then was quite different.  The shops weren=t so bright B in fact, there weren=t so many shops in the first place.  It is as if the neighborhood has been scrubbed clean since those days as well.  The sheen of money, I suppose.

There=s a soccer game on tap for the evening.  In the meantime, we dive into the heart of the Stare Mesto, Prague=s old town, along with the rest of the tourist masses.  The sidewalk cafes are crowded as people huddle under umbrellas for shade, desperate for a break from the heat.  There are tourists everywhere.  In a few short years, Prague has become one of Europe=s top destinations.

There are plenty of reasons for this.  To an American, Prague has precisely what we think Europe is supposed to have:  Pretty Baroque architecture, cafes on cobblestone squares, soaring churches, narrow winding streets, an interesting brew of historical events, with a castle looming over it all.  In central Prague you are always lost or on the verge of being lost as the streets bend or stop or split in two.  You round a corner and, wow, there=s a stone tower, black with age.  AIt looks like something a Disney villain would live in,@ comments M. about one such apparition, the Powder Tower.

We cross the 14th century Charles Bridge over the Vistula, along with pretty much every other tourist in town.  The bridge is limited to pedestrians these days.  Well, pedestrians and…tour groups in a Babel of languages, artists selling atmospheric pictures of the bridge with no one on it (AWhen is that?@ I ask M.), and busking musicians. 

The Hradcany, or castle, draws us up the Petrin hill, along with many others, to explore the Cathedral of St. Vitus, home to especially beautiful stained glass, and the rest of the castle complex B historic banqueting halls, supposed alchemist towers, quaint shopping lanes.  The history of the Hradcany is marked by Adefenestrations@ B the tossing of people out of windows, a rather Monty Python way to commit murder.  A photo of Adolf Hitler triumphantly peering down on Prague from one castle window is on display.  I can=t help but think that it was too bad they weren=t able to continue the tradition with him.

Also on the Petrin hill, a good half-hour walk further past the Hradcany, is Strahov Stadium, where Slavia Prague is playing tonight, or so I have been able to discern from the team=s website.  The Czechs have a long and distinguished soccer history.  There was a league here by 1912 and in the 1920s some of the best clubs in Europe could be found in Prague, including Slavia and their long-time rival Sparta.  The Czechs of that day, along with the Austrians and Hungarians, played a style known as the ADanubian School,@ which was highlighted by skillful passing.  It was perhaps the earliest threat to British superiority in the game.

Czechoslovakia was the runner-up to host Italy in the second World Cup in 1934, a loss they blamed on Il Duce=s way of leaning on the referees.  In years since, they have continued to play strong international soccer.  Czechoslovakia also reached the final of the 1962 World Cup, this time losing to Brazil.  (No shame, that.)  Czechoslovakia did win the European Championship in 1976, upsetting then-World Cup champions West Germany.  They made it to the final of the European Championships again in 1996, this time as the Czech Republic, following the AVelvet Divorce@ from Slovakia.  They lost in overtime to — who else? — the now reunified Germans.  The ever-changing map of Europe at work, although the loss probably didn=t have much to do with the Czechs losing the Slovaks and the West Germans gaining the East Germans.

As this review suggests, the Czechs have a long history of periodic success in international soccer.  It=s the most popular sport in the country.  (Ice hockey is probably second B in Prague I see as many Washington Capitals jerseys as I see back home, thanks to Czech star Jaromir Jagr currently being a Cap.)  The Czechs are usually dangerous in international tournaments but never a favorite.  A perennial dark horse, the kind you don=t want drawn into your group.  They punch above their weight, so to speak.                         

We come to the stadium area and find a decrepit relic, an abandoned-looking shell.  I had been expecting a newer stadium.  My Rough Guide, now three years old, describes Slavia=s old home ground, the charmingly named AEden@, as being Arickety@ but during the intervening years they seem to have moved into the Strahov, which also hosts Czech national team games.  I see weeds sprouting through the sidewalk.  The handful of cars in the parking lot look neglected, even wrecked.  I could swear the team=s website had said the game was here and that it was tonight.  Perhaps I am mistaken.

Not exactly Serie A, here.  See, for all their world-class national teams, the best Czech players have taken advantage of the end of communism to make big money moves abroad.  The current superstar Czech player is Pavel Nedved, a shaggy-haired, diminutive midfielder.  He plays for Juventus in Italy.  Two seasons ago, I saw his baby-faced understudy Tomas Rosicky play for Dortmund in Germany, along with the tall target forward Jan Koller.  Players start their careers with Czech teams, get noticed, and then get sold or go free agent to richer leagues. 

Still, I am hopeful of seeing a decent game.  Slavia is consistently one of the top two teams in the Czech league; rivals Sparta being the other.  In recent seasons Sparta has usually been first and Slavia usually second and both have put in respectable performances in European competitions, if never threatening to actually win the Champions League or UEFA Cup. 

There used to be a third power in Czech soccer, Dukla Prague.  During the communist years Dukla was the army=s team, which brought with it certain advantages.  (The term Aplayer draft@ takes on a whole new meaning in this context.)  As you might expect, the team=s association with the communists became a huge liability after 1989 and Dukla quickly faded, leaving Slavia and Sparta to continue a duel that dates back to their first game in 1896.

As we approach the battered hulk of a stadium it becomes clear there is actually a smaller, newer stadium beside it.  A-ha!  Yet it does not appear any more populated.  Kick-off is three hours away and only a handful of people of a somewhat shady look are in the vicinity.  The tradition of tailgating has not yet reached Slavia supporters.  Of course, given the quality of the beer in the numerous bars down the hill I suppose there is less reason to develop it.  The Czechs have a brewing tradition to rival the Germans.

M. and I circle the newer stadium in search of a ticket office and find none.  Eventually, as I try to puzzle out a next step, a window at one of the entrance gates slides open and a young woman sells us a pair of tickets for the equivalent of $7.  Total.  She also confirms that I have the game time correct, despite the ghostly atmosphere.

Tickets in pocket, M. and I retreat down the hill to the Hradcany environs, settling in at an outdoor café beside a charming Baroque church, the Loreto, for dinner.  Gholash and bohemian beer, a good combination.  In typical Central European fashion, Czech cuisine is, as our guidebook notes, Ahearty.@  Things would be perfect, except for the yellowjacket who continually buzzes M.=s meal.

M. has recently read a novel titled Prague, which is actually set in Budapest in the months just after the fall of the communist regimes.  Various Americans arrive in town, looking to make money or a name, conscious of being overshadowed by Prague=s reputation as the best place to recreate the expatriate Paris of the 1920s.  I=ve borrowed the book and we talk about it.  I remember those days.  During that backpacking summer of 1991 a college friend and I spent a long afternoon at a beer garden in Salzburg listening to a freshly-minted American MBA pitch Prague as the place to be, where the deals were going down, and the expatriate scene was glorious.  I didn=t follow the advice B I had a Washington job waiting and graduate school debts to pay.  An adventure left to others, which always leaves a trace of envy.

I knew the pull of Prague, though.  M. is seven years younger and she missed that moment when Prague was the height of cool.  In college we read Milan Kundera=s elegant novels, rich with philosophy and sex.  (A perfect combination for college students, when you think about it.)  Then came the Velvet Revolution, fresh and hip, led by Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright whose essays brought an existential edge to his courageous opposition to communism.  Once in power, Havel made moral pronouncements and was prone to praising Lou Reed in interviews.  The Czech dissident movement in the 1970s had even begun as a protest against the repression of an arty rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe.  To people like me, the Czechs were irresistible.

The Polish revolt against communism was led by their union and their church.  It was a rebellion of Detroit or Pittsburgh.  The Czech Velvet Revolution was led by their artists, a rebellion of Soho or South of Market.  This makes some sense, I suppose, when you consider that Prague is in Bohemia, after all, so the bohemians should lead.  In the early 1990s we used to talk of Prague all the time.  AHave you been yet?@  AAre you going this summer?@  AHave you read Havel?@  ADid you hear about the Pink Tank?@  ADid you hear about so and so=s trip?@  It was our place, one our parents didn=t B couldn=t B have.

It was obvious to me as we walked around town that Prague has become just another great European capital.  It=s now everybody=s place, as the crowds attest.  It is time, perhaps, that Prague had its day in the sunshine.  The city=s history B and that of the Czechs in general B is one long string of near misses.  Some examples:

$                   Charles IV, the monarch who built the eponymous bridge, was also a patron of the arts and learning and was, in general, the leading European king of his time, ruling the Holy Roman Empire from Prague.  Instead of building on his accomplishments, his son Wenceslas IV B ominously known as Athe drunkard@ B was deposed just in time for Bohemia to be torn apart by religious wars resulting from…

$                   Jan Hus, who led a Luther-like attempt to reform the Catholic Church in the early 1400s before ending up at the stake.  After his death, the land was devastated by the AHussite@ religious wars.  Today, Hus is remembered with a statue in the main square in the Stare Mesto…but if the printing press had been invented a little sooner would we have AHussians@ instead of Lutherans?  Meanwhile, Prague fell under Hapsburg and Viennese authority.

$                   Much more recently, Neville Chamberlain=s Apeace in our time@ deal with Hitler headed off Prague being the starting flashpoint of World War II, leaving the Czechs to the Nazis without much of a fight.  (This did help preserve the Stare Mesto for the enjoyment of future generations of visitors.) 

$                   Alexander Dubcek=s Perestroika-like APrague Spring@ attempt in 1968 to loosen the constraints of communism came a decade or two early and it only led to Soviet tanks rolling into the city.  Instead, it was left to Lech Walesa and the Poles to start the final struggle with the Soviet empire.

One result of this history seems to be a city with a taste for the offbeat and ironic.  Kafka wrote his twisted tales in Prague and Havel=s plays tend to the surreal and absurd.  The great Czech World War I novel, The Good Soldier Svejk, is a satire, not drama or tragedy.  (It=s also hilarious B if you enjoyed Catch-22 I recommend you give it a try, perhaps while drinking a Czech Pilsner Urquell.)

Game time is near.  We head back up the hill.  The sun has dipped well towards the horizon and there is more activity around the ground.  I lead M. on a brief search for a Slavia club shop.  No fancy emporium here, just a middle-aged man, assisted by his cute daughter, aged about eight, at a kiosk.  A Slavia t-shirt costs about $10.  The whole package for the game for the both of us, including souvenir, now costs about the same as a single DC United ticket.

Inside the Strahov is utilitarian, if in decent shape.  The chairs are plastic, the scoreboard electric.  Relatively clean and relatively barren.  The concession stands are simple, offering freshly grilled sausages, beer and sodas.  Hearty fare.  It=s like a backyard barbeque.  Well, with a keg.

Slavia Prague was founded in the late 1800s as, of all things, a literary society.  More specifically, a Czech language group, part of the nationalist ferment of the latter days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Slavia Prague was a statement, a protest.  As such, Slavia attracted non-conforming students B perhaps a redundant term B and intellectuals.  They formed a soccer team in 1892 and, to continue the Czech nationalist theme, took the national Czech red and white as their colors.  Their rivals, Sparta Prague, were formed as a team for factory workers in the same era, and an enduring conflict was born.

In the post-Communist era, these two teams have dominated the Czech league.  From 1990 to 2002, Sparta were league champions nine times.  Slavia were champions only once B the 1995-1996 season B but were perpetual runners-up.  This has given them a bit of a 40s/50s Brooklyn Dodgers, great but always coming just short of the Yankees feel. 

The teams complete their warm-ups just before the 7:30 pm kick off.  The sun is setting directly into our eyes.  Clearly, we would have been smart to buy tickets from a gate on the other side of the Strahov.  This may explain why our section is not crowded, despite being in the middle of one side of the field, in the second row of the higher of the two sections of seats.  A father and young son are in front of us.  The boy is maybe three years old and takes his shirt off in the warm twilight, carrying it off with the unselfconsciousness of the very young.  Beside us, a pair of male fans in their 30s have, as best we can tell, an intense discussion of the team=s situation.

A capacity crowd at the Strahov B say for a Czech World Cup qualifier B would be about 20,000.  Tonight there are, at best, 5,000 in attendance.  Whole sections are unoccupied.  Behind one goal are clustered a rather tiny section of ultras, numbering around 25.  DC United has more fans who stand and shout.  Nevertheless, a neat line of police is at the top of their section, just in case.

The nature of the match-up may partly explain the low turnout.  The visitors are Zlin, a regional team from near the border with Slovakia, a team happy just to be in the top flight.  There is a much more important game later in the week, a Champions League qualifier against Celta Vigo of Spain.  I expect that will draw a real crowd.  That said, the Czech league is evidently a modest affair.  I like it all the more, actually.

M. finds the fans, almost entirely male, oddly familiar.  She works for a Congressman from the Detroit area.  AThese are our guys,@ she finally says.  AUAW guys.@  I look around and ask her to explain further.  AThey smoke.  They don=t use sunscreen.  They=ve got mustaches or beards.  And,@ she adds, Athey=re hockey fans.@  Like the Czechs in general.

I consider our fellow spectators with a fresh eye.  She has a point, I concede.  The denim jackets, the burly bodies, cups of beers B yeah, they do look like a hockey crowd.  In the US they would look like a blue collar UAW bunch.  Slavia may have once been the team of students but they don=t look like it tonight. 

We talk about it a bit more.  It turns out that M. has been seeing this side of the Czechs from the beginning of our visit.  Without having read Kundera and Havel at an impressionable age, she=s not continually seeing the funky, arty, absurdist side of Prague the way I do.  Perhaps I see it because I=m looking for it.  It is not a vision that gives our AUAW@ friends around us much of a role.

I don=t think my view is inaccurate.  After all, one of our other Prague activities is a trip to the puppet opera, a Don Giovanni production that owes as much to the Muppets as to Mozart.  And here in Prague in the early 1990s, a Russian war memorial, a tank monument, was painted pink to get back at their former overlords B the Pink Tank.  A rather arty mocking protest, that.  My view is just too narrow, incomplete.

There is a taped mass chorus song just before the kick-off, probably a Slavia fight song but it could also be the Czech national anthem.  Then we=re off.  Slavia are in their traditional, rather striking, two-tone jerseys B half red and half white, with a red star on the white portion.  It=s like a jersey designed for the Batman villain Two-Face.  Zlin are in black jerseys with traces of yellow.  The start of the game is cautious and it soon settles into a predictable form B Slavia dominating possession and attacking, Zlin back in a defensive shell.

It is early in the season and Slavia has been in good form, coming in with consecutive 2-0 wins.  Their midfielders seem to be the source of this form, holding possession for long stretches as they move the ball around, looking for gaps in the Zlin defense.  The Slavia forwards, however, do not appear dangerous.  They have difficulty getting good shots off when the midfielders provide them the ball.

Zlin does manage a handful of quick counters, long passes forward to sprinting strikers.  Nothing much develops from these but they do serve as a reminder that for all Slavia=s dominance they are one error away from being behind.

When Slavia strings together a particularly impressive series of passes the crowd begins chanting something which sounds like ASlavia!  Do Toho!  Slavia!  Do Toho!@  M. imagines various interesting phrases this could be.  I hope it is something ironic, like a student-based team could develop.  Upon inquiry, it turns out to be a rather mundane exhortation along the lines of ASlavia!  Go to it!@ as if the team were a lazy employee in need of a reprimand.

At the half, the game is scoreless and the UAW guys are disgruntled, but only mildly so.  The summer evening may be simply too pleasant for stronger frustrations now that the day=s heat has faded.  Or maybe the beer and sausages are too tasty to allow for anger.  I get a beer and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere.  For all the chanting, this is one of the friendliest feeling games I have attended.

The pace of the contest picks up in the second half.  Richard Dostalek, one of the busy Slavia midfielders, scores a goal about 10 minutes in, as if tired of waiting for a forward to do it, taking advantage of some nifty wing attacking play.  Around minute 65, young forward Pavel Fort manages to convert a rebound to make it 2-0 to Slavia, like it always seems to be.

With the clear order established, the game loses its verve.  Slavia shift into cruise control.  They come close to a third goal a couple of times, enough to generate a few more rounds of ASlavia!  Do To Ho!@ but nothing comes of it.  Another 2-0 win for Slavia. 

M. and I stroll down the hill in the warm summer night, eager to investigate more of Prague=s twists and turns.



One Response to “Slavia Do Toho!”

  1. federica fontana bio

    Thanks for the nice read, keep up the interesting posts..

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