The Czech Republic, though small in size and population, is a global powerhouse when it comes to sporting achievement. Since independence they have certainly punched above their relative weight; from reaching the Euro ’96 final to producing world-class athletes such as Emil Zatopek and Roman Sebrle, they have certainly announced themselves on the sporting stage.
Though the national football team is currently experiencing a turbulent period – losing at home to Armenia is the currently nadir they are trying to clamber up from – the country is represented in the Champions League by Viktoria Plzen, who have given a good account of themselves in recent matches with continental powerhouses such as Bayern Munich and Manchester City. All of their European matches are on domestic television, allowing the whole country to get behind them, whether from Plzen or Prague.
Arguably their greatest successes have come on tennis courts, with Grand Slam winners such as Jana Novotna and Petra Kvitova complementing their continued presence at the top table of the national team tournaments, the Davis and Federation Cups respectively. This very weekend the men’s national team went into the Belgrade bearpit and beat the world number one’s country on his own patch, thus retaining the Davis Cup. A joyous moment for the country to unite behind.
Tennis should enjoy this moment in the limelight, because it won’t be seen on any back pages for the foreseeable future. Nor will Plzen’s assault on the Champions League. This is because one sport, ice hockey, dominates during the dark days of winter.
In addition to competing in the Kontinental Hockey League alongside such luminaries as the Moscow teams (as well as the also-rans of Astana), the country possesses a strong domestic league. As one would expect with one city topping the charts for area, population and money, Prague boasts numerous hockey teams within the fourteen-team league. The major two are Slavia and Sparta and, with many teams who share a fanbase within a large city, they abhor and despise one another.
It was thus incredible fortune that we came across an internet advert on the Saturday night before the next set of fixtures, which highlighted that these two giants of the ice were going to clash the following day, and that tickets were available for a mere 149Kc (or £5). There weren’t many left, so we snapped up the tickets in a lower corner of the Tipsport Arena and slept soundly, dreaming of flying pucks and flurries of fists.
Derby day came, so we took a tram across to Prague 7, where we were met by throngs of maroon shirts, signifying a mass of home support for Sparta. The hosts were top of the table heading into battle with their local rivals, who were languishing in eighth place. Remarkably, it seemed that most people were outside even with the game soon to start. It transpired that you weren’t supposed to smoke inside the stadium, so everyone was fighting the chilling breeze to fill their lungs before clearing them by shouting at the poor Slavia supporters.
Shouting loudly. A cacophony of noise erupted around the stadium when Sparta took to the ice through a hilarious blow-up helmet from the film 300. Not that we were cheering with them. You see, the Czech small print, if I’d bothered to read it, would have told us that our tickets granted us access to a small terrace…filled with the bright red of a minority of Slavia fans.
Not that this minority were quiet or intimidated by the home support. Far from it; at times it seemed that the away fans, led by a mad man wielding a megaphone, were winning the battle of the stands, even though the battle on the ice had taken a bad turn with an early Sparta strike. The men with megaphones at the front, who took turns to save their voices, were mesmeric: their command of the obediently crowd frighteningly tyrannical. From whipping off their T-shirts in such close proximity to ice, through leading chants with their mouths and flailing arms, to the steely stare at people who weren’t joining in with their hearts as well as their mouths (I will unashamedly admit I was able to hide behind taller men in front of me to avoid this death stare), these men possessed an enormous power over their subjects. They weren’t even watching the game.
Though they lost the match, I shall continue to support Slavia, mainly because it turns out that all of my children support Sparta but also because of the ferocious support of the travelling fans in the Tipsport Arena. The Czech Republic boasts brilliant and passionate sports fans, and successes on the clay of a tennis court or the ice of a hockey arena are the least they deserve for their loud devotion.
Love you all