Football in the Czech Republic
Like nearly all of Europe football is one of the most popular sports in the country
Even though the Czech Republic have only appeared at one World Cup since the revolution, falling at the group stage in 2006, like nearly all of Europe football is the most popular sport in the country together with ice hockey. They may have failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup (one more win would have seen them in the play-offs) but have been ever-present at the European Championships since the split in the early 1990s, finishing as runners-up after losing to Germany in the 1996 final (although as Czechoslovakia they won the tournament in 1976).
While the national team are a well-known and respected quantity, having produced world-class players in recent memory such as Pavel Nedvěd, Petr Čech and Tomáš Rosický, the national league isn’t quite as revered. Currently ranked 16th in the UEFA league rankings for Europe (between Romania and that other European (?) country Israel), most of the best players soon get snapped up by richer clubs in England, Italy, Spain etc. The quality may not be Premier League standard but it is still competitive, with five teams winning the league in its 20 year history. Cheap tickets mean the chance to absorb the often passionate atmosphere and see the next Nedvěd before he gets picked up elsewhere is always on the cards.
Prague is home to 14 of those 20 titles, with 11 belonging to Sparta Prague. Founded in 1893, this year saw their 120th anniversary although they failed to mark it with another title, finishing second in the league. They are regular participants in Europe, appearing in the Champions League seven times but also getting knocked out six times in the qualification stages. The current squad features only three non-Czech players as well as Roman Bednár (famously suspended by West Brom after being caught buying drugs). Their stadium, the Generali Arena, can be found in the pleasant area of Letná and is used for a lot of national team matches. Average match tickets cost between 130 and 400 CZK.
Holders of the other three league titles in Prague, and one year older than Sparta are SK Slavia Prague. Their fierce rivalry with Sparta is the biggest in the country and attracts plenty of attention (both from fans and police) each year. Slavia won the last of their titles in 2010 but later in the year suffered financial difficulties forcing them to make cuts as their manager and top players left. The troubles were echoed on the pitch as they finished just outside the relegation zone the season after and still today look a long way from reclaiming their crown. Their modern stadium the Eden Arena opened in 2008 and is also used for national games and held the European Super Cup in 2013. Ticket prices are similar to Sparta’s, although when the two clash prices increase due to demand.
The third oldest club in Prague, Bohemians 1905 are known more for having a kangaroo as their mascot and on their club emblem than their success. After an Australian tour in the 1920s the club were given two kangaroos which they donated to Prague zoo and the kangaroos nickname stuck. They were promoted back to the Gambrinus Liga in 2013 and have a strong rivalry with Slavia as both their stadiums are in Vršovice and only 1km apart. Their ground is understandably smaller, only holding 7,500 fans, with tickets slightly cheaper.
The final team from the capital currently in the top league is FK Dukla Prague, which has a confusing history. Originally founded in 1948 and run by the Czechoslovak army, they were fairly successful winning 11 league titles and playing more European games than any other team from the country pre-1990. Due to links with the military they were never that popular, although those came to an end in 1994 before the team merged with Příbram (based in that city) and Dukla Prague ceased to exist for a while. However, FK Dukla Dejvice, who have been going since 1958, became known as FK Dukla Prague in 2001 when playing at the fifth level of Czech football. Their owners bought out another team, Jakubčovice and FK Dukla Prague replaced them in the second division before eventually gaining promotion to the top flight in 2012. They now play at an 8,000 capacity stadium in Dejvice, Prague and wear the traditional Dukla colours of yellow and red.
Outside of Prague the newest challenger to the capital’s dominance has been FC Viktoria Plzeň who won the league for the first time in 2011 and then again in 2013. Originating in 1911 and undergoing various name changes until they stuck with FC Viktoria Plzeň in 1993, their greatest success has come in the past three years, winning the Czech cup in 2010 and then the league. They qualified for the Champions League in 2011 and 2013 but were given tough groups both years and failed to progress. Like most teams in the country their squad features mainly Czech players (as well as four Slovakians and one Bosnian) and when they recently played Manchester City was compared as costing £2m as opposed to the Sheikh’s £200m.
FC Slovan Liberec are another successful club outside Prague, having won the league three times, most recently in 2012. They were the first team to break Prague’s dominance, winning the league in 2002 and again in 2006. Due to the city being on the German border and having many German inhabitants their early history involved rivalries with their neighbours and both German and Czech teams playing in the city. There was a period of inactivity during World War Two before two teams were merged to form FC Slovan Liberec in 1958. The team has competed in the UEFA Cup/Europa league, reaching the quarter finals in 2002.
The only other team to win a title are FC Baník Ostrava, based in the country’s third largest city of Ostrava. Near the Polish border in the East, the club has a friendly rivalry with GKS Katowice as it is closer than any other Czech football team of note after SFC Opava were relegated in 2005. The club has one of the larger stadiums in the country (17,000 capacity) and some of the loyalist supporters, but has been known to regularly underachieve. In 2004 they finally won the league but underwent big changes the following season, losing their manager and best players. They still won the Czech cup that year but are yet to threaten for the title again.
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