Saturday 10th November 2018 ko 11.00
1. Celostátni Liga dorustu U19 (1st Czech U19 League)
A.C.SPARTA PRAHA 1 (Voltech 17)
S.K. SLAVIA PRAHA 1 (Cerv 23) Vit missed pen 60
No Extra Time- Sparta won 4-3 on penalties
Att c300 at the Great Strahov Stadium, Prague
It was nearly midnight on Friday night and Robyn, Sim and I had been in Prague for less than 2 hours, and in the case of the other two had been in work at 3.30 that afternoon. We needed food, and since just about every restaurant had shut we found ourselves sat on a bench in Praha hlavní nádraží, Prague Main Railway station contemplating sandwiches, a Danish each, and fairly anonymous bottle of pop. Nearby there was a communal piano and a group of students were plonking out bits of Beatles songs, then the one song they really had to play given where we were. Yes, Bohemian Rhapsody…. we were off and running.
The advantage of staying close to the station was that we could make full use of our three-day passes for Prague’s excellent public transport system. We’d bought ours at Václav Havel Airport for 310 Kč (around £10.50). The ticket includes the bus from the airport to Zličín metro station and from there into the city. The thought that last time I’d been in Prague, Václav Havel had been president was not lost on me.
Since that visit over 20 years ago, Prague has modernised, and in some ways suffered from the more corrosive Western influences. It remains a stunningly beautiful city and thankfully the artistic and cultural leanings that meant communism was lass enthusiastically adopted here then elsewhere in the former Warsaw Pact countries, still give the city its unique feel and flavour. There is always a poster advertising a recital nearby in Prague!
If every single football club in Prague had been at home, I’d have still wanted to see a game at the Great Strahov. It sits atop Petřín Hill and your ticket does cover the funicular to the top, but we took a tram from Jindřišská to Jiráskovo náměstí by the River Vtava, walked on to the bridge and caught the 176 to Stadion Strahov. Now I knew what to expect, I’m not sure the others did, but how do you give someone an idea of what to expect from the biggest stadium in the world?
The stadium was built in the 1920’s to hold 250,000 of which 56,000 were seated, and was designed as a home for Sokol, or huge displays of synchronised gymnastics. The Germans call this Turnen, and any sports club with the TSV (Turn- und Sportverein,) prefix, such as TSV 1860 München will have the sport in their background.
The original wooden stadium dated from 1926 but by 1936 the stands were converted to concrete, with further construction in 1948 and 1975. What makes your jaw drop in the sheer scale of the place, the playing area is 63,500 square metres, the size of 9 football pitches.
Post Second World War Communism saw Sokol replaced by the 5 yearly Spartakiads, although other than the political angle, the content remained fairly similar. The aim of the Spartakiad was to “celebrate” the so-called liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Red Army in 1945. The 1960 event featured a cast of 750,000 and was watched by a total of 2.5 million people. Over the years many gymnasts volunteered to participate in these events, but there were also large numbers of conscripted military personnel whose participation was mandatory, so in the eyes of some the Spartakiads have come to be a symbol of Soviet oppression.
The final event in 1990 was interrupted by the Velvet Revolution but once that scaled-back event was finished, the stadium quickly fell into disuse. After all, who needs a 250,000 capacity stadium with a pitch 9 times the size of a normal football ground? Should it be seen as a historical building, it is UNESCO site after all, or should it be razed to the ground as nothing more than a symbol of communist hubris?
Post-communism the Strahov slowly decayed while the authorities wondered what to do with this whitest of white elephants. It became a music venue, the Rolling Stones played here twice, attracting 100,000 both times, but that was unlikely to ever be a profitable use for the stadium.
Eventually the ownership was transferred to Prague City Council who’ve granted Sparta Prague a 15-year lease to use it as a training facility, but that is merely a means of putting off a decision on its long term future. I suspect it’ll end up being some kind of sports, leisure, and conference facility, so while it’s still here in its current form visiting is a massive priority to any sports fan visiting Prague.
So what’s it like? The word I found myself whispering to myself was “Monstrous,” the scale of the place does rock you back on your heels, in the same way the now rebuilt Népstadion in Budapest did 5 years ago. It’s big, ugly and virtually derelict and it’s completely out of step with the city of Prague’s needs for this century, but it is unique, and utterly fascinating.
If you imagine the playing area as 9 football pitches, one is now the car park and a prefabricated block built by Sparta for changing rooms, a bar, and offices. The other 8 are either grass, artificial, and indoor pitches, and its worth noting that save to for the one section of terrace with the barriers repainted Sparta red, and a toilet block, nothing of the extant stadium is in use. It is however straightforward to climb over the fence at the back of the terrace and explore virtually the whole stadium!
Other than for training, Sparta’s B and under 19 teams use the Strahov for games, and it isn’t a difficult task to keep an eye on the Sparta website for fixtures. There is no issue getting in, the gate at the Koleje Strahov side is open, the team sheets are in a pile at reception and you just walk round the changing room block to access the show pitch, in the far corner.
The game saw the junior version of the Prague derby, just a few days after the adult version finished 2-2, you could even collect a free copy of the programme with your team sheet! Sometimes the age-based versions of famous derbies lack the passion of their larger siblings. This didn’t, it was obvious what this meant from the moment we arrived to the moment we left.
It was a game with a real edge, and on another day I’m sure the tensions could have bubbled over. I thought Slavia were marginally the better team, and if Vit had converted his penalty few neutrals would have begrudged them the win. But since a draw was the result we saw something I believe to be uniquely Czech.
The Czech FA have introduced penalty shootouts to settle draws in divisions below the second tier, as an attempt to create more excitement. The method seems to be similar in aim to how Ice Hockey deals with draws. So in relevant competitions it’s now 3 points for a win, and 1 for draw; with an extra point for the winning team in the shoot-out. Here the shoot-out went to the wire, sudden-death with Sparta eventually winning out, but it didn’t seem to generate any extra excitement!
We trooped out and waited for the bus at Koleje Strahov for the highly recommended Strahov Monastery. The library ceiling there evokes Michelangelo’s Cistine Chapel, there’s a microbrewery and the restaurant is excellent.
But as I stared up at the monstrous Strahov, a decaying monument to totalitarian excess, I hoped that somehow a use can be found for it that doesn’t make it lose it’s sense of self. It deserves no less.