Ever since being teargassed at a bad-tempered Prague derby in 2008 I’ve been hooked on watching football in Europe. It’s much less sanitised – for better or worse – than England and always offers something interesting, if not always on the pitch. I’ve experienced the electric atmosphere of the San Siro in Milan, Hertha Berlin at the impressive Olympicstadion and the rustic charm of Artmedia Bratislava in a cowshed in Slovakia and I hope to see a lot more football action in the future.
On Saturday, it was again the Prague derby of the city’s main rivals, Slavia and Sparta. This year’s contest didn’t really look like it was going to be a classic with Slavia underperforming after some crippling financial difficulties and Sparta sitting pretty on top of the league. And, in the end, it wasn’t, as the two teams played out a spirited but rather toothless one-all draw but it was still a really nice day at the shiny Synot Tip Arena topped off with a much-needed bout of sunburn.
Slavia took a surprise lead after a beautifully delivered corner found Martin Latka’s head and the underdogs could have had a few more. Then after forcing Slavia ‘keeper Martin Berkovec into a couple of stunning saves, Sparta eventually scored through Tomáš Přikryl (just try saying that) before the game petered out a bit and the off-field antics became a lot more interesting.
Three of us were sat right next to the Slavia Ultras – a set of hardcore fans who seemingly model themselves on the British fans of the Eighties (even down to their use of British flags and terms like ‘The Slavia Gentlemen’). These guys never sit down and certainly never shut up – even down to the children’s match at half time as the fans went crazy when a seven year old Slavia lad scored and then wheeled away with a classic airplane celebration. I’d definitely recommend that you try to sit by them but maybe not in amongst them though as you might find yourself out of your depth as they don’t take too kindly to tourists.
There seemed to be quite a few measures in place to placate the Ultras and to avoid any violence. For one, only non-alcoholic beer was served, which scuppered our plans of drinking in the glorious sunshine, but could be understood. Secondly, their every whim was catered for. Whenever they wanted to unfurl banners across the section, set off a couple of flares or cart in a tonne of flags, the officials were happy acquiesce, stand by and watch and do the occasional bit of firefighting. Overall, they whipped up and raucous yet non-violent atmosphere and a fun, awesome spectacle.
Cooped in the opposite corner the Sparta Ultras were obviously jealous of this attention, threw their toys out of the pram and kicked off in the second half. It started with what looked like a toilet seat being thrown onto the pitch. Then came a series of plastic seats that had been ripped up and flares were then let off in the middle of the mass of fans. The firefighters’ unenviable job was to get amongst them and to put the flares out whilst the police went in and arrested the perpetrators.
Unfortunately, kind of behaviour is virtually institutionalised in football in Central and Eastern Europe now which leads to families staying away and for a pretty intense, unwelcoming atmosphere. Add to that a generally poor standard of football and a game in these parts shouldn’t be a great prospect but somehow it is. Tickets are cheap, beer is normally plentiful and if you choose the right section in which to sit and the right game (derbies, historic rivalries and top-of-the-table clashes are always best) then the entertainment should be there. It’s an experience that I don’t think should be missed especially as almost every city in Europe has at least one decent team, each has a unique atmosphere and it’s a chance to see the locals at their best and their worst