Escaping the “Beast from the East” weather front which had hit the UK hard at the beginning of March was touch and go for most of the week. Strong winds and high volumes of snow had bombarded the country for a few days, leading to substantial travel disruption.
It was a great relief therefore to jump in my airport taxi at 3.20am on the Friday after a relatively clear and snow free evening, with my airline phone app still showing my 5.30am flight as being “scheduled”.
After a short delay of 30-40minutes or so to clear the runway and defrost the plane, the plane took off for the first leg of my journey – I was connecting flights in Frankfurt en route to Prague. But I was off, escaping the adverse weather for a weekend of football (and catching up with @velvetsoccer) in the city on the Vltava.
I’ve written before on a previous idea or dilemma (The Supporter’s Dilemma) on whether to switch Scottish Football, predominantly the National Team, for European Football – in terms of costs, quality of football and overall experience. Given the turmoil and uncertainty over the National team in recent months (long run manager search and vacant Chief Executive role), as well as a degree of apathy and disenchantment on my behalf with the Scotland Supporters Club in terms of overall value – both monetary and from an experience perspective – Prague represented a welcome option or alternative at this juncture for a Football Expedition.
Landing in Prague and meeting up with @velvetsoccer for a spot of lunch, we discussed the football intensive weekend ahead. That night, we were heading to watch Bohemians v Dukla Prague before heading to Viktoria Zizkov v Olympia Prague on Sunday morning and then Sparta Prague v Brno on Sunday evening. Match summaries and a more in depth overview of the individual experiences of these games are available here: Panenka and Klobasa – Bohemians Praha 1905 v FK Dukla Praha ; Rabonas and Brazilian Flair – Viktoria Žižkov v Olympia Prague and Fire, Passion and Emotion – Sparta Prague v FC Zbrojovka Brno.
We had a lot of football to look forward to, but had additional time outwith the matches to wander round the city and soak up some added culture – football related culture where possible of course. Like many cities in this part of the world, Prague is an immensely beautiful city – with stunning architecture, wide imposing avenues interspersed with narrow winding cobbled streets and plenty of art deco style buildings and apartment blocks down almost every street. This is not to mention the plethora of smashing wee restaurants and bars down most streets and alleys, offering coffees and beers for the equivalent of £1-2 each as well as a variety of local cuisine for similarly reasonable prices.
Prague is also a very walkable city, the centre can be navigated fairly easily with the main attractions all relatively close to one another. Even moving outwith the defined centre, some of the outer areas and residential districts are similarly extremely walkable, both in terms of time, distance covered, permeability and the visual appeal whilst travelling through.
On our Friday afternoon wander we walked up the Petrin Hill to the west of the Vltava River, beyond the Charles Bridge and just south of Prague Castle. Notwithstanding the steepness of the hill and also accounting for the superb views when we reached the top, we continued walking further westwards and reached the huge Strahov Stadium. Formerly used as a huge gymnastics arena, it now hosts Sparta Prague’s training centre with around 6/7 pitches inside as well as a small café which is open to the public also. We sat amid the memorabilia, sipping on warm coffee and looking out into the stadium before asking to take a closer look after we had finished and paid up.
The stadium is a vast, concrete structure with a total capacity reaching something in the region of 220,000, albeit with 56,000 seats. When standing within the arena you get a perspective of the vastness of the structure – almost so big that you forget it is a single stadium. From the outside it does begin to look all of its 90 years old but is nonetheless a really impressive place to be. Perfectly manicured pitches, all with goals set up and separated by advertising boards mark this out as a professionally run operation. An innovative tented pitch was also tucked away in behind one of the stands, providing some solace and respite from the elements to the team training within at the time of our visit.
To the rear of the Stahov is the old National Stadium, again not something on the main tourist trail but also a place with a long sporting history and worth a visit, even just to appreciate the vastness in scale of the stadia in this part of the city. The Czech Football Hall of Fame is also located up in this part of the city, unfortunately we didn’t visit on this trip but it adds to the draw up in this part of Prague – as long as you don’t mind walking up steep hills (however the is a funicular railway for those unwilling to climb).
That evening we watched Bohemians v Dukla Prague, a lower profile Prague derby (Panenka and Klobasa – Bohemians Praha 1905 v FK Dukla Praha). This included a great game of football, an “interesting” pre match pub and a tasty sampling of beer and klobasa – the pie and Bovril of this part of the world. This is also the fixture where in 1975, a certain player by the name of “Panenka” changed penalty taking technique forever – although this was to remain a little known spark of genius until the European Championship the following summer. This was a fantastic experience and a great introduction to watching Czech Football in person, a change from watching on TV or online (Bohemian Armchair Football ).
Saturday came and after some wandering through the more upmarket Vršovice district in the morning, past all the trendy coffee shops, full to the brim with well to do couples and groups meeting for breakfast and brunch, we headed back towards the centre. When it was time for lunch we headed to the U Fleku restaurant – a traditionally themed Czech restaurant serving Czech cuisine, beers and spirits. The dining room is set out in a traditional communal hall style layout where waiters swing round with trays full of beers, dropping these down on the table whenever you look like you need a fresh one. The traditional restaurant, drink and food was great – but for a football tourist this isn’t the main reason to come here.
Within the courtyard of the restaurant, above some outdoor picnic tables hangs a plaque. This on first impression isn’t especially noticeable. However upon closer inspection you notice that this is the spot where the Croatian side Hadjuk Split were formed in the year 1911 by some students hailing from that part of the world but at that point enjoying the hospitality in U Fleku. This is a great wee spot for a bit of, relatively unknown football fact finding and serves not only as the answer (hopefully) to a future pub quiz question, but also as an illustration of the reach and power of football at a basic level, crossing boundaries, borders and cultures and being respected across different countries – and also the fact that good company and good beer (or non alcoholic alternative) are in many respects at the epicentre of football, rather than the moneyed commercialism we see so often today.
With no live games in Prague that afternoon, we visited the Charles IV museum for a bit of high brow culture before we sought solace in a small Czech restaurant to watch Lazio v Juventus on the TV (we had to ask specially for this to be played – but the staff were more than accommodating and happy to put it on). After the conclusion of that game, we headed to a small Italian (Roman) restaurant – Giallorossa, where we had booked a table ahead of the Napoli v Roma game on TV. This little restaurant was a little part of Rome at the time of kick off, with numerous expat Romans coming in to watch the football. Roma won the match 4-2 and with each of the 4 goals, the little restaurant erupted with cheers, grown men jumping around, landing on the floor and knocking over tables full of beer and pasta. The food, beer and wine were great – but the atmosphere and enjoyment of watching a Roma match in this little Roman corner of Prague was truly memorable and highly recommended.
Sunday morning brought a game at Viktoria Zizkov, facing the newly formed Olympia Prague in the second tier of Czech football (Rabonas and Brazilian Flair – Viktoria Žižkov v Olympia Prague). The name Viktoria Zizkov may strike a chord with many UK fans – they played Rangers in European competition at the start of the century. For roughly £2 we watched a reassuringly high quality game of football, complete with a Brazilian import pulling off a “Rabona” in the second half. Another great experience and with the timing of the game, perfect for anyone on a football themed trip – especially with regard to seeing more games (like us) or indeed flying home in the afternoon for example.
That afternoon, we travelled to the south of the city where @velvetsoccer was playing for his amateur team. A cold and windswept astroturf pitch, complete with it’s own café and wooden hut selling klobasa, was the stage for a slightly lower quality football spectacle compared to what we had enjoyed over the weekend so far – with @velvetsoccer doing his utmost to pull the strings in the midfield, but in the end falling to a defeat.
Back into the city and after a turnaround and bit of food in the centre, we headed northwards towards the Generali Arena – home of the famous Sparta Prague. Struggling in the first half of this season and of late (Czech First League – Mid Season Review), Sparta are nonetheless one of the biggest clubs in the country and a visit to one of their games ensures that this is an unmistakeable fact. Fire, Passion and Emotion – Sparta Prague v FC Zbrojovka Brno.
The big stadium, noisy Ultras, club anthem and general atmosphere around the stadium was that of a top side. Even some of the play and action on the pitch was of an extremely high quality – notwithstanding some of the vulnerabilities and deficiencies which have undermined the team this season. The atmosphere generated, passion, noise and overall game experience was however befitting of a top club and with a successful team on the park, this would be a brilliant venue to watch football in (it was great even with a less than half full stadium, with a struggling team).
Overall, this was an excellent football weekend. We saw 3 high quality games for a combined ticket price of roughly £21. Tickets were easily found and bought through official channels online with the option to print at home, print at specified outlets or simply carry an “e-ticket” on a mobile phone. Aside from the games themselves, we managed to take in some of the lesser known footballing sights, which in themselves help to paint a picture of the football history of the city and outline what role this plays within the culture of Prague – which after all is home to a strikingly high number of professional sides. A great city and experience and also a football trip which did not break the bank – reasonable prices for flights, fantastic value tickets and then a very welcoming price range for food and drink make for a really enticing and welcoming option – especially when compared to making trips within the UK, taking into account train travel, hotels, expensive tickets and prices for food and drink. Clearly, there were also personal reasons to visit Prague, but nonetheless this was a great trip and something I would highly recommend – I for one am really looking forward to setting up future football expeditions to both Prague and elsewhere.