The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Czeched Out

Posted by steigs on June 16, 2008

The Czech collapse against Turkey yesterday was startling, a rapid unraveling of a previously solid team.  (Wait, Petr “possibly best goalie in EPL” Cech made a crucial error?)  Credit the Turks for an impressive display of fortitude.  My wife M. says she likes to root for teams that show “can do” spirit — clearly she should be cheering on the Turks now, given that remarkable comeback plus the way they came from behind against the host Swiss in that wicked rainstorm.

This may represent the end of an era for the Czechs, who like other smaller nations with strong soccer cultures, usually need a couple of stars to lift them from the “regular qualifier” level to “dark horse threat to win it all” level.  (See also: Croatia, Sweden, Bulgaria etc.)  American fans remember all too well the way we were dismantled by the Czechs at the 2006 World Cup, before the Czechs went awry at that tourney.  They’ve had a handful of world-class players in recent years but they are largely moving on — Pavel Nedved has retired from international play, giant Jan Koller will join him soon, Tomas Rosicky has injury problems and missed this tourney.  They’ve still got Cech but he wasn’t exactly helping the cause yesterday. 

This Czech side peaked at Euro 2004, where they arguably played the best soccer of any team before running into the brick wall of the Greek defense in the semi-finals.  I was lucky enough to see them beat Denmark in the quarter-finals.  What was it like?  Here’s a taste.  For more, read on after the jump.

Around minute 30, the Danes start swaying in unison.  The Czech fans, on the other hand, perhaps provoked by the Danes, begin doing one of the stranger cheers I have seen.  First, they chant “Czech-ia!” and then “Hop Hop Hop” hopping as they say it. 

As best I can gather it means “Onward, Czechs!” but the effect is as if the section beside us is getting a Ramones concert on a frequency the rest of us can’t hear and doing the pogo — either that or offering encouragement to rabbits.  “Hop!  Hop!  Hop!”

The last quarter-final is at Porto’s new Dragoa — or “Dragon,” in honor of the Porto team nickname — Stadium.  The Czechs versus the Danes, with the winner playing the upstart Greeks in the semi-final.  Both teams have to be thinking if they can win this one that, with only the Greeks in the way, they will be in great shape to reach the final, there to face the winner of the other semi-final, the hosts versus the Dutch. 

 


Porto is much larger than Braga or the other cities I have visited during the tourney.  The fans are mostly swallowed up by the city, except for the sidewalk cafes in the Praca Libertad, where I see the Czech fans in large numbers.  I wonder what they make of the Portuguese beer, so much weaker than their own.  Perhaps that simply means that more must be consumed.  The other place fans are abundant is down along the riverfront, where the Danes in particular seems to have descended, with their Viking helmets and red face paint, “roliganing” the afternoon away.  Maybe it is the ancestral pull of the water for them.

 

Red is everywhere in the Ribeiro.  Red and white for the Danes, red and blue for the Czechs.  Face painting is available and I see one brave and bald Dane going for the full head paint job.  The Danes are living up to their reputation for liveliness.  There is a genial party atmosphere.  I hang around in the late afternoon, mingling with the Danes.

 

The Dragoa Stadium is up river from the city center, through a couple of miles of residential neighborhoods.  Porto has a new subway — the city’s economic vitality belies its quiet downtown — but the warm early evening makes walking seem the obvious choice. 

 

When I near the stadium I come across a city park loaded with souvenir and sandwich stands.  I browse and snack before continuing on and, all of sudden, there it is, the new Dragao, as the hill falls away to the right to the river far below.  There is little else in the neighborhood.  Well, there is a McDonald’s right across from the Dragao, overflowing this evening.  But not much else. 

 

The main north-south highway in Portugal cuts through Porto beside the stadium.  Convenient for suburbanites who wish to drive to games, like in the United States, but it does little for the atmosphere.  I enter the stadium grounds and follow the crowds down the hill.  The concessions are the same as all the other games.  Circling the Dragao I find that the walkway on the back part of the stadium is effectively a scenic overlook — miles of eastern Porto and the Duoro lay before me.  I soak up the view before moving on.  

 

I find I have an absolutely great seat — eighth row, almost dead-center.  Just to my right is the Czech fan section, a sea of white replica jerseys.  The Danes are off in a far corner and appear less numerous, although you wouldn’t know that from the decibels they achieve with their cheers and songs.  I seem to be in an area of Russian fans, one in a Zenit St. Petersburg jersey, and their English is as minimal as my Russian.  So we communicate mostly by pointing out famous players warming up.  “Koller.”  “Thomasen.”  “Rosicky.”  There is also a quiet, well-dressed Portuguese couple and some Japanese kids, one with Danish face paint.  The five billion person party indeed, I think.  There look to be perhaps 10,000 empty seats in the huge place — the Czechs and the Danes lack the glitz of, say, the Italians to draw the neutrals, even if they have made it further into the tourney than “the Azurri.”

 


The Czechs, in white jerseys and shorts, start the game well, led by Pavel Nedved.  He is small and determined man with shaggy hair, somewhat resembling the “Tommy”-era Roger Daltrey of the Who.  On the field he is always busy, often taking the ball away from the Danes, often distributing it too, a rare blend of flair and grit.  Tall Jan Koller is up front with the quick and rather girlish-looking Milan Baros.  Midfielder Tomas Rosicky contributes interesting passes as well.

 

The Danes, who are in red jerseys and shorts, have trouble coping.  Bald and scary-looking midfielder Thomas Gravesen is yelling at his teammates, at the ref, at everyone.  He knows they’re in trouble.  Or maybe he’s just one of those over-intense maniacs.

 

The Danish fans are standing the whole time, regularly making noise.  The nearby Czechs take awhile to get going, doing only an occasional cheer until midway through the first half.  I eye the Czech banners.  They seem to represent fan clubs — Brno, Olomuc, Obranic — and hardly conjure up the tourist dream of the Italian banners.  Around minute 30, the Danes start swaying in unison.  The Czech fans, on the other hand, perhaps provoked by the Danes, begin doing one of the stranger cheers I have seen.  First, they chant “Czech-ia!” and then “Hop Hop Hop” hopping as they say it.

 

As best I can gather it means “Onward, Czechs!” but the effect is as if the section beside us is getting a Ramones concert on a frequency the rest of us can’t hear and doing the pogo — either that or offering encouragement to rabbits.  “Hop!  Hop!  Hop!”

 

At the half, the game is scoreless, with the Czechs having played the better.  It’s rather dull, actually.  The crowd has been livelier than the teams.  The Czechs, though, come out strong in the second half and grab the game.

 

About five minutes into the second half, the Czechs earn a corner.  It floats in and Koller — who supposedly is 6-6 — gets a head to it.  1-0, Czechs!  “Hop!  Hop!  Hop!”

 

The Danish fans keep up their cheering, trying to rally their side.   For another ten minutes it is back and forth.  The next goal is vital — will it tie things up or give the Czechs the decisive lead?  The tension rises.  “Hop!  Hop!  Hop!”

 

Milan Baros, the Czech forward, decides matters.  First, he sprints on to a nice through pass and chips a shot over the Danish goalie.  2-0, Czechs!  Then, before we have even processed that score, he adds a second goal just two minutes later.  3-0, Czechs!  Game over, and everyone knows it.  The Danish fans continue to sing, if not quite as loudly, but they know it too.  They had a good run but it’s all over.

 

By the end the Czech fans are doing the wave and taking turns celebrating their favorite players.  “Pa-vel!  Ned-ved!  Mi-lan!  Bar-osh!”  Even up 3-0 the Czech coach, Karl Bruckner, a gray-haired bear of a man, is pacing the sidelines, shouting instructions.  As if the Danes might find a miracle.  They don’t, of course, and it ends 3-0 to the Czechs.  “Pa-vel!  Ned-ved!” rings out into the night, as we depart the Dragao.  (Little did I know I was watching a preview of the US-Czech game in the 2006 World Cup, with Rosicky playing the two-goal scorer role of Baros.)

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