Sparta Prague are one of the most successful sides in the Czech Republic. With 33 domestic league titles to their name, 14 Czech Cups, 2 Czech Supercups and a Mitropia (Central Europe) Cup from the 1960’s. A success record only rivalled by their city neighbours Slavia Prague.
Based to the north of the River Vltava, a short Metro ride northwards from Prague City centre before a tram ride a few stops westwards to the large Generali Arena which is a modern style stadium holding roughly 20,000 spectators. Again the stadium is only rivalled by Slavia’s Eden Arena to the south east or perhaps the old National Arena just south west of Prague Castle, adjacent to Sparta’s youth and training centre.
Hopping off the tram immediately outside the stadium, we crossed the road and entered via the usual security searches and having our tickets – printed at a travel agency of all places following purchasing online via the communal ticketportal.cz site – scanned before entry. We were sitting in the East stand, located opposite the Main Stand. The Main Stand is a standalone structure, while the rest of the ground is effectively a bowl style form. Our seats were in the upper tier, in line with the 18-yard box, a pretty decent view and representing some of the more costly tickets for the match at approximately £11 each. An added bonus were the halogen heaters in the roof of the stand which ensured a slightly warmer environment from which to watch the game.
An attendance of roughly 7,500 had turned up for the game which seemed unfortunately low – perhaps a result of the Sunday 6pm kick off time, plus availability of the game on TV.
Notwithstanding the relatively low attendance, even upon entering the atmosphere was certainly noticeable. Old school rock music belted out from the tannoy which did seem to gee a number of people up. Furthermore, as kick off approached a number of flag-bearers entered the field to provide a display as the Sparta “anthem” was played – this could only really be described as a cross between a Soviet style brass band, or Russian National anthem crossed with Ivan Drago’s entrance music from the Rocky films. It was still impressive though and added to the sense of anticipation and confirmation that yes, this is a big club.
In addition to the more choreographed musical accompaniments, we also had the vociferous Sparta Ultras sitting just to our left in the South Stand. The first thing to notice was the lack of anyone whatsoever sitting in the lower tier beneath the Ultras – unless forced to, locals are clearly too wise to sit there and risk the bombardment of various missiles throughout the evening. Beers and flares were just a couple of the items lobbed down from the Ultras throughout the game – indeed such is the notoriety of the chuck-happy Ultras, the club has seen fit to enclose the entire section within a large net in an attempt to prevent any missiles reaching the playing surface.
The Ultras however were not only there to cause trouble. Throughout the game, they constantly led the signing, chanting and generated much of the atmosphere. At times they were even directing the stand in which we were sitting on which song to sing, when to clap, when to stand, when to sit – and at no time did anyone dare disobey. Notwithstanding the lower attendance, a cracking atmosphere was generated and I could only imagine what the atmosphere would be like with an extra 11,000 or so fans inside – something I’ll certainly be adding to the bucket list.
Indeed, Sparta as one of the most successful Czech teams have been struggling this season by their own high standards, and given their own high budget – at kick off they were some 15 points behind Viktoria Plzen at the top of the league. From a UK perspective, this was the boyhood club of Tomas Rosicky, a wonderful creative midfielder who played the Autumn season for Sparta but has since retired. His retirement was compensated for by the purchase of an equally high profile number 10, Nicolae Stanciu, a Romanian who was signed from Anderlecht for a rumoured Czech record fee of around €5Million.
Stanciu’s performance in this game was perhaps an accurate illustration of Sparta’s troubles this season. Despite Italian Manager, Andrea Stramaccioni, stating that he preferred to base his teams around an out and out trequartista style player (like Rosicky was for so many years) Stanciu found himself playing extremely deep. Whether this was by design or whether this was due to Rosicky’s ageing legs meaning he was forced to play deeper and tactics had simply not been updated to accommodate the new star signing remains unclear. When on the ball, moving forward and in space the Romanian displayed some wonderful creativity, passing ability and awareness to thread passes and play through the solid lines set up by an organised Brno side. However, far too often Stanciu found himself in a position in front of a bank of 5 defenders plus 4 midfielders and having to play impossible, World Cup balls through the eye of a needle. This seldom worked. Limited movement ahead of the midfield and wasteful wing play, in particular from another expensive import – the Israeli Tal Ben Chaim, meant that the first half closed out at 0-0. While Sparta had the bulk of possession, the organised Brno side actually looked more menacing going forward with organised and structured attacks – as well as the shaky looking Sparta rearguard.
Into the second period, it didn’t take long for Brno to make one of their useful attacks count. The left sided player Juhar picked up the ball on the left, roughly 30 yards out and progressed towards the box. Sparta decided to back off and Juhar progressed towards the corner of the box before unleashing a drive which took a slight deflection and ended up flying into the bottom corner. 0-1 Brno.
This was met with an angry reaction from the Ultras and many others inside the stadium as the chant of “Italiano Bastardo” became more and more prominent, the anger directed at the manager who then decided to throw on the fan’s favourite David Lafata (club captain) up front to try and rescue the game.
Before too long, Sparta were level when after a few minutes of intense pressure a corner was recycled and reworked before a cross was floated in from the right to be headed home by Zahustel to make the score 1-1 after an hour of play.
Pretty much from then on, the game was all Sparta. But they failed to capitalise even when Brno went down to 10 men after 69 minutes. Again and again Sparta had the ball in the final third, but lack of a killer pass or any cohesion going forward was evident and aside from a few half chances they never really looked close to scoring. Stanciu was pushed out to the right hand side where he was even less effective than he had been playing deep. However the main culprit in all of this was that man Ben Chaim who time after time found himself in space down the left but just couldn’t find a cross of any quality or the right or correct pass when in good positions. Also, most frustratingly was when he cut inside the right back onto his favoured right foot that his touch was always too heavy and always pulled him too far away from the box to enable him to shoot or float in anything resembling a dangerous cross. David Lafata in the centre cut an angry and frustrated figure, constantly berating his Israeli teammate for the lack of quality.
Lafata’s frustration was shared by the Ultras who continued to shout abuse towards the Italian manager, but also helped to create a brilliant atmosphere and make some amount of noise every time Sparta got close to the penalty box in front of them, looking for the ever more unlikely winner. Flares were lit and chants, songs and “the bouncy” were conducted to generate a physical and emotionally moving spectacle.
The match finished 1-1 to much derision from the crowd and Ultras as well as a lot of assorted missiles being thrown towards the pitch in disgust. The frustration had boiled over for some, who attempted to break onto the pitch to berate players or manager or both.
Despite Sparta’s shortcomings, there was no doubt in watching that they are a top side. Yes the defence is shaky and yes their creative players didn’t seem able to create, but there is certainly enough in the squad to be outperforming what they are doing at present.
The underperforming squad does however highlight the value and character of the Ultras. Watching a frustratingly poor side, they made noise and generated a fantastic atmosphere – so much so that I was caught up in the emotion at the goal, screaming “YES” when the ball hit the net before catching myself and trying to compose things. This however reiterates my point above, that with a successful team on the pitch the atmosphere within the stadium would certainly be something to behold. The passion, fight and emotion shown by the Ultras, if not the team was exceptional and certainly worth another visit.
In the days following the match, the Italian Manager Andrea Stramaccioni was sacked. This was no “mutual consent” job, it was a sacking and Sparta had said so in as many words. This was not surprising given the vitriol and clear frustration shown by fans, also by the clear tactical failings, not getting the best out of players and failing to prepare a side with a cutting edge.
However, despite the disappointing result from the home side this was a fantastic experience. Fans with this much passion warrant a side who can deliver, when and if that clicks then it really will be an experience to behold.
For more on Czech Football: Czech First League – Mid Season Review ; Rabonas and Brazilian Flair – Viktoria Žižkov v Olympia Prague ; Panenka and Klobasa – Bohemians Praha 1905 v FK Dukla Praha ; Bohemian Armchair Football