This is Slavia
Think of Prague and what comes to mind? The astronomical clock dating back to 1410? A thousand places to enjoy a local beer for less than a Euro? English tourists on a stag do hilariously dressed as Borat? I saw all of those things on my visit to the city, but I also witnessed one of the most unexpectedly brilliant atmospheres I’ve ever seen.
When I went to Borussia Dortmund for the first time, I knew it was going to be loud. When I went to Feyenoord vs. Ajax for the first time I knew it was going to be intense. When I watch Wales play football, I know I’m going to get drunk and talk about how brilliant Hal Robson-Kanu is with some bloke from Wrexham. This one was a little different, as I wasn’t sure what to expect from the biggest rivalry in the city of Prague. I’d heard some good things about Slavia supporters in the past, but with Czech football culture not enjoying the kind of exposure that Germany, Poland, Serbia and more recently Sweden does, I had no real evidence to go by.
Still, with a few days holiday left from work, a return flight available for 40 Euros and a couple of grainy YouTube videos, I decided to see what Slavia vs. Sparta was all about. It wouldn’t be a disappointment.
Sparta regularly win the league in the Czech Republic while Slavia regularly win nothing, so there was little doubt which set of supporters I would identify with best. I initially planned to go in Tribune Sever where the Slavia ultras are housed, but while celebrating Wales’ winning goal in Cyprus I had torn two ligaments in my knee which made it difficult to stand up for long spells of time, never mind jumping up and down, leaping over seats and generally going a bit mental, so I did the next best thing and booked a seat in the block next to them. It was the first time on one of my trips I hadn’t gone in the most hardcore block in the stadium, and it will also be the last assuming I don’t end up getting anything amputated when Wales go to Bosnia in a couple of weeks’ time.
Even though it was a shame not to be in the thick of the madness, the Slavia supporters would put on one of the most memorable displays of support I’ve ever seen. As is often the case for matches in Europe, the drama had started outside of the stadium with a march to the ground from the Sparta fans. Parading through the streets of Prague in big numbers under a huge blue, red and yellow banner, there were some small clashes as they got close to the stadium – mostly kept under control by the Czech police who were dressed like missing members of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
A couple of cans of beer were thrown at the Slavia supporters, and a yellow smokebomb caused a police horse to jump in the air and almost kick his rider off, but it was mostly peaceful in terms of violence. In terms of chanting was the complete opposite, as both sets of supporters insisted that the other one f*ck off. Eventually Sparta made their way into the stadium, but not before turning the road outside the stadium red yellow and blue.
With the stadium completely full some time before kick-off, it was the Slavia fans who were making all the early noise – the capos at the front of the stand whipping the crowd into a bit of a frenzy. There was a great atmosphere as the players came out but there was one thing missing from usual, neither set of supporters displayed a tifo. I had seen what certainly looked to be tifo materials on the seats in Tribune Sever, so I was very surprised not to see anything done to start the game. “Maybe Czech fans don’t do tifos…” I thought to myself. It turned out I was partially right, as the Slavia fans had indeed not planned a tifo. Instead, they had planned four!
There have been some one sided results in derby matches in recent years. Perhaps most famous is Manchester City destroying United 6 – 1 on their own turf, the game which signalled their arrival as a serious title contender – lovable losers no more. Then there is the darkest moment in the history of Hibs, when they were crushed 5 – 1 by Hearts. Losing by this margin to their rivals at Pro Evo would have been bad, to do it in a Scottish Cup final unthinkable. DIF 9 – Hammarby 1, Villa 5 – Birmingham 1, a 5 – 2 win for Rapid in the Vienna derby…the list goes on.
The point I am making here is that this derby should be remembered as being just as dominant, only this time it was in the stands rather than on the field. Slavia absolutely ran the show in the stands, with a display that will live long in the memory and no doubt be mentioned in arguments between both sets of supporters in the bars and cafes of Prague for just as long.
Even the most hardcore of Sparta fans will be forced to admit their away end was disappointing, especially when the march to the stadium had been so impressive. No such disappointments in the Slavia end, the action on the field almost a sideshow compared to their performance, featuring even more choreography and costume changes than a Madonna concert.
The first tifo featured a banner which read ‘Slavia Praha Ultras’ along the length of the stand, signed with all of the names of the various groups. Some clubs, most notably Borussia Dortmund and Partizan Belgrade, have a deep divide between ultra groups which can lead to violence and arguments (Partizan even have two separate away ends), so this was a clear display of unity from Slavia. The message was obvious “We’re all working together for you, work hard for us”. In addition to this banner, almost every supporter in the stand held up a banner – creating a visual masterpiece and getting the half off to the best possible start.
The second tifo was a simple card display, with ‘DERBY’ written in blue text on a red and white background. Not too sure about the message behind this one, but I felt as though it was a reminder to the players just how much it meant to them and how much the game mattered. With Slavia recently enjoying some financial investment, it served as a reminder that some things are more important than money.
Before the game I had noticed that the majority of Slavia supporters were wearing red t-shirts with Tribune Sever written on them and a picture of Bart Simpson. Presumably they felt as though Matt Groening probably wouldn’t be at the game and they wouldn’t be forced to have a 30 on 30 fight in a field against the Simpson’s legal team. Bart was also featured in the third tifo of the match, wearing a Slavia shirt on a large banner which took up most of the stand. With Hammarby supporters producing a Mr Pringles banner in the last European derby I visited, I’m now looking forward to which popular character will pop up next.
Whether its Oasis not singing Wonderwall to the last song of the evening or the 1812 Overture ending with someone setting off a cannon, it’s always important to have an impressive ending to your show. This advice was certainly followed by Tribune Sever, with their fourth and final tifo also being the best one. Yet another long banner was run along the front of the stand, with red, white and black material running up to the top row. With a mostly even first half coming to an end, Slavia supporters made one last effort to inspire their team to score the opening goal. Once the stand had been fully covered by these banners in their team colours, the top part of the stand burst into flames, dozens of flares being set off in a line.
You often hear about pundits mentioning “The football Gods” deciding that something should happen. While if there is a God he probably has better things to do than ensuring Barnsley miss a penalty, it was hard to argue here that Slavia had earned some divine intervention. I have been lucky enough to see some truly amazing goals scored live in my lifetime, and of all these spectacular, magnificent goals, this one will certainly be remembered as not being one of them.
With just a few seconds left until half time, a Slavia player directed a fairly weak shot at goal. The Sparta goalkeeper seemed to collect it easily, but then somehow conspired to chuck it over his own goal line. If you imagine an 80 year old snail which had just taken a considerable amount of heroin, that still doesn’t quite do justice to how slow this ball was moving. It seemed as though the goalkeeper had time to get up, go and buy a pie, wash it down with a pint and still get back in time to stop it going in, but somehow it made it over the line.
Time had stood still in the Slavia end while the ball was trickling in, and it then descended into madness. The tifo was still being displayed as the goal was scored; causing banners, flags and flares to fly about everywhere. These supporters had been forced to wait a couple of years for a derby victory, and they were certainly making the most of it now it seemed as though one might arrive. The half time whistle blew almost immediately after the goal was scored, but the resulting scenes went on for some time into the break.
The smoke had completely covered the stand by this stage, meaning all you could see was the occasional fist punching out of the gloom, and the occasional person wandering back up the stairs in a daze, trying to remember where they had been standing a few minutes ago.
Eventually the players headed back out and the second half got under way, with the action on the pitch remaining quite balanced. Slavia were having more of the ball and were able to win a number of corners, but Sparta were by no means out of the game and had some opportunities of their own to send their travelling supporters into delirium.
Speaking of the travelling supporters, they would finally come to life a bit in the second half, and although it was not really in a way to be particularly proud of, this kind of thing is a feature of intense derbies in Europe. The away end at Slavia is situated in one of the corners, and of course fate would have it that the longest series of corners during the match would come just in front of them. With the hatred Sparta have for Slavia and the added anger of being behind, you don’t have to be Einstein to predict what would happen next – the game delayed for several minutes while beers, flares and explosive crackers were thrown on the pitch in the direction of the player trying to take the corner.
Some stewards ran on the pitch to collect these objects, while two more stood next to the corner flag with umbrellas to allow it to be taken. Presumably at the next derby they’ll ask to be in charge of the family stand, leaving away end duty to someone else.
The game got back underway after a few minutes, with Slavia supporters directing plenty of abuse at their neighbours for this little outbreak of violence. There would also be a mild disturbance in the home stand, with a group of stewards entering Tribune Sever to try and kick someone out of the stadium. Have you ever had a really bad idea? Sending that girl a drunken text at 3am? Encouraging your mate Barry to drink 22 Jaegerbombs on his 22nd birthday and then going to hospital with him?
No matter how bad your worst idea may have been, being part of a group of five or six stewards piling into the middle of a group of several thousand ultras is without question worse. It’s safe to say that their target did not end up missing any of the game, and they soon legged it down the stairs and back to safety out of the stand – never to return.
Time was winding down on the game, and the Sparta fans clearly gave up hope on their team scoring a goal – deciding to set of all of their pyro with about 10 minutes to go. It would prove to be the final act of defiance from Sparta, turning their corner of the stadium into a sea of flames. While their performance had overall been very disappointing, they did have some signs of life in the second half and ensured that the derby was not completely one sided. Still, if it had been a boxing match it would have looked a bit like Mike Tyson versus Milhouse
The noise from Slavia was immense by this stage, but with seconds left it looked as though the party would be ruined. A long ball was played into the box, with a Sparta player somehow unmarked in the box. He was a maximum of five yards out, and had the opportunity to score a last second equalising goal in a derby, not only that, but right in front of the most hardcore opposition supporters. It’s the kind of thing you dream about as a player, but his dream would become a nightmare – somehow conspiring to miss the easiest chance of the game. If it had been a less important game, or even if it had been earlier in this one you felt as though there was no chance he would have missed, the pressure proving too much on this occasion.
With this final scare survived it was party time for the red and white side of Prague, the last blow of the whistle from the referee sparking a big smoke show and even bigger celebrations, the pitch once again totally obscured by the resulting pyrotechnics. The players went to join their supporters as the celebrations went on and on, capped off by the winning goalscorer joining the ultras in the stands and leading a number of chants, the rest of the players joining in and happily bouncing around in a way you sadly never see in the top games in England.
Sparta have been the dominant force in Prague for some time, with Slavia forced to watch on as their rivals lifted trophy after trophy. Only time will tell if this will be remembered as a single happy memory or as a seismic turning point in the history of this rivalry and indeed Czech football, but all of that stuff doesn’t matter yet. In the city which is famous for being watched over by a statue of the Good King Wenceslas, it is Slavia who are kings of the city until the next time these two sides meet.