Panenka scarves is one Canadian’s attempt to document his appreciation of the obvious and not-so-obvious experiences of a life in the Czech Republic. For previous Panenkas, click here.
In the past, I’ve usually spent my birthday watching hockey. Not for the whole day, but at some point I’ll find myself in front of a screen showing a game. After all, that week often coincides with the start of the NHL playoffs, and when you grow up in Canada you can be in a restaurant, department store, post office, or prison and chances are the game, any game, is being shown.
This year things were a bit different. Although the NHL post-season is set to begin in April the fall lockout has pushed the drop of the playoff puck to April 30th.
In order to satiate my thirst for sports, I had to find an alternative. Thankfully, Prague was set to host a clash between its two most popular clubs – AC Sparta Prague and SK Slavia Prague – in a longstanding tradition known as the Prague derby, which produces one of the best football atmospheres in the country. I’m not the biggest football fan there is, since a Canadian upbringing doesn’t exactly warm you to the sport and its strategies, but in lieu of hockey it was an acceptable substitute.
I’d been to the two previous spring derbies and while the game on the pitch isn’t exactly world-class, the real beauty of the experience comes from the crowd. I’ve mentioned a few things about Czech football in the past and I hope not to repeat myself here; I just feel that there is more to say.
These two clubs do not like each other, and history has shown that the fanbases of each side are certainly not friendly with one another either, so security is a serious concern. As you come closer to the stadium, the sound of a hovering helicopter overhead becomes louder, while the sight of police lined up in riot gear is more frequent. These are just two of the things that let you know you’re headed towards football.
I have only one burning desire…
The crowd is what makes this experience worthwhile. Sit anywhere near the fan sections behind the nets and you’re guaranteed to witness something much more entertaining than the game itself.
There are a couple of things that can happen in a football match that would never be allowed in a hockey rink, or most other public places for that matter. The most noticeable of which is the presence of fire! Pyrotechnics – flares, fireworks, and torches – are snuck into the stadium and set off throughout the game. Sometimes this is done to celebrate a goal, and sometimes it’s just to show the visiting fans (who have lit a fire of their own) that you can make a bigger one.
The best part of this, apart from seeing multiple fires in the stands at a professional sports match (won’t get that at Wimbledon) is the obligatory announcement that comes from the PA immediately after flames appear. For liability’s sake, the fans are reminded of the team policy on pyrotechnics – that it is not, in fact, encouraged and it would be appreciated if they stopped it. The announcement is made very politely (they say please and thank you) and occurs like clockwork every ten seconds after a fire is lit. Funnier still, sometimes the announcement simply incites the crowd to light more fires, because, let’s face it, that’s funny.
The choreography of the ‘kotel’
The crowd does more than light fires though. They are the engine that keeps the energy in the building at a high through their cheering, chanting, drumming, and jeering. Ninety minutes of so-so football won’t exactly ignite the crowd, but the kotel, fan sections of a Czech club which are situated behind the goals, do their best to make noise and even involve the other sections of the stadium.
That’s something I’ve grown fond of, especially since my seats are often near the kotel. They’ll start some chants with “Fandi cela Letná!” (all the fans in Letná – the neighbourhood where the stadium sits) repeated three times, imploring the fans on their right to join in on the next one. The cheers are all pretty basic and repetitive (to the point that, even with my limited Czech, I can already understand about 80% of them) and it really works to get other sections of the stadium into the game.
My favourite cheer, an old classic and likely the only English you’ll encounter during the whole experience, is the simple: Let’s go Sparta, Let’s go! (clap, clap). It’s one which nearly all sports fans know. The reason I like it so much, is that it’s been a Sparta cheer for decades, even used during the seventies and eighties as a bit of a Fuck you! to the communist regime, since English was not encouraged at the time.
However, there is an ugly side to this. As is too often the case in football, the unfortunate element of racism is present in a few of the cheers. The most notable of which is an unsettling Sparta taunt towards Slavia – “Jude Slavie!” – which translates into “Slavia Jews!”, and it’s used to provoke the Slavia faithful. The origins of the taunt harken back to the beginnings of both teams in the late 1890s. Sparta was a blue collar club, while Slavia was supported by wealthier businessmen and members of Prague’s Jewish community.
Still, if there is any good news to be taken from this, it’s the fact that the Jude Slavie! chant is becoming less frequently used, instead replaced by an Anti-Slavia! chant, which uses the same cadence and rhythm. In that sense, I suppose there is some hope for progress (though the Jude Slavia chant can still be heard every once in a while), as the club and their fans appear to be making an effort to remove this from the game. At the very least, they’re actually making more of an attempt than they have in the past.
The one downside to such intense fandom (apart from the aforementioned moments of blind racism) is the fact that it would be irresponsible on the part of the club to actually fuel the fire by selling alcohol at the matches. Instead, the Czech Republic’s sober uncle and non-alcoholic alternative, Birell, is the only thing available. While it looks like beer, and smells like beer, it just doesn’t make you want to throw a wrench at the referee and, therefore, it’s not quite beer.
Brawls and banners ablaze
At first, I couldn’t quite comprehend why there were so many police officers and firemen walking around the arena during the game. I thought it was a bit of a waste of time and money. But by halftime, you realize that it’s probably a good idea.
As I mentioned, beer is not sold at the match. To combat this, a healthy number of fans will get rip-roaring drunk beforehand. Always industrious, these fans will certainly account for the fact that they will not be able to continue drinking inside, and ensure that they are loaded enough to carry on well into the second half. What results is the occasional brawl in the seats. A 1-on-1 fight would be a fantasy, football tends to favour the “all of my friends versus yours” school of thought, and Prague is no exception. When the stadium is packed out, as it often is on derby night, all those cops are more than necessary.
But what of the firemen? Surely with all that fire in the stands there’s not going to be any chaos. And that’s mostly true until a few of the banners catch fire and in march the firemen to put out the blazes with extinguishers, tear the charred banners off the wall and head back, shaking their heads because they know that in about fifteen minutes they’ll have to do it all again. Then that same announcement will return for fifth time, asking the fans to cool it with the fire.
Once more, something that I perhaps take for granted during a hockey game, since I’ve never been to a Winter Classic (though give it a couple of years and I’m sure the NHL will start playing them in Europe as well), but when the skies open up during the 78th minute, there’s really not much you can do but sit there and get rained on. Sure it’s annoying, but it’s also kind of cool. You don’t get the opportunity to take on the elements as a spectator in a lot of my favourite sports.
To date, Sparta’s home pitch is the only place where I’ve gotten to witness a live football match. The Generali Arena – formally the Toyota Arena, before that the AXA Arena, and originally Letná Stadium – is where Sparta calls home. And in spite of changing its name more times than P.Diddy, it’s actually a wonderful place to watch a game.
In a gorgeous part of town that borders Letná Park, a beautiful green space that sits atop Prague and gives a ridiculous view of the city’s Old Town, the walk to the stadium allows you to chance to see Prague Castle eye-to-eye and from the backside, something which doesn’t happen very often. Normally, the Castle stands mightily atop its hill, ignoring everyone below, and wouldn’t dare to give you a glance from her back end.
The stadium itself is nothing special, built in the late sixties and given a facelift in 1994, but it doesn’t really need to be. It’s easy to find, easy to navigate, and easy to enjoy. In fact, a stunning modern stadium would just seem like an anachronism in Prague. I may yet watch this sport in a couple of different countries before it’s all said and done, but Letná will always be my first love.
Did not see that coming
In an odd twist of fate, and a certain sign that I’ve been away from home for much too long, I’m starting to enjoy the spectacle of live football more than I could have ever imagined. Which I suppose is a good thing, since I’m due to relocate to the Netherlands in four months – a place that is certainly football mad.
I like to think I’ve done my part for the home team. Sparta is now 4-0 with me in attendance. Then again, that’s like sporadically going to a Vancouver Canucks game over the last few seasons and attributing their success to your presence. Statistically speaking, Sparta is going to win most of the time, regardless of who shows up. Still, I like to think I’m helping. Canadian magic and such.