You’ve unpacked the boxes and started the new job. But how will you spend your Saturdays? In a new city with many teams, which one will you choose – and what are the ingredients that will seal the bond? A new arrival to Prague finds that the club’s wins and a nearby stadium matter less than sense of belonging it offers.
I landed in Prague on April 2, 2015. The place I had visited on and off for the past three years was now to be called home.
When you move, everything is strange. Everything is new and different. This can be a shocking experience. To ground yourself, you reach for the familiar, for something that makes you feel you belong. When I moved to Prague, I reached for football. Football matters hugely to me. For me, it is more than a game – it is part of my identity. It is personal and deeply political. So when I moved to Prague, I faced a dilemma. How would I choose a new team? Proximity to where I live mattered, but that isn’t all. You want to find a team that helps you feel you belong, that makes you feel less alienated. As a stranger, I sought a club that welcomed strangers.
On previous visits to Prague I had gone to a couple of games – mainly to Sparta, but also to Bohemians 1905. Most people who visit Prague and want to take in a game are likely to end up at Sparta. The most visible of the country’s clubs, with the easiest ground for tourists to track down, Sparta Prague is for many the outward face of Czech club football. When I first moved, Letná Stadium was all of a ten-minute walk from my apartment, so I attended a few more Sparta matches. But I had an uneasy feeling about their ultras.
To be fair, the Sparta ultras are, by nature, ultras – meaning they are the most extreme of all fans and don’t necessarily represent the great body of people at the ground. Still, the vibe from the Sparta ultras was an unpleasant one. Many stickers on lampposts in the area read, in an inversion of a famous antifascist message, “Good Night Left Side.” This was not the team for me. Open, inclusive and progressive football clubs: those are the clubs for me. As a Waterford United fan, and as someone who saw firsthand what Cork City FC did in Ireland, I knew the value of small, community-oriented clubs.
Not long after moving to Prague, I moved to the other side of the river, to the part of the city known as Vršovice. I lived about ten minutes from the ground of another club, Bohemians 1905, and I started going there for what remained of the season. Bohemians 1905 are near the bottom of the table in the Czech first division, and unlike Sparta, they haven’t played in European competition since the 80s. But they are the only club in the Czech Republic with a supporters trust. It felt like a community that didn’t mind strangers. I felt safe, I felt welcome. I had found my club. In the close season, I bought my permanentka, my season ticket.
Fast forward to the beginning of the current Czech football season. The major world news story last summer was the ever-increasing influx of refugees fleeing an increasingly vicious war in Syria. Millions were – and still are – flooding over the Syrian border and making deathly dangerous attempts to reach Europe. In central and eastern Europe, however, the reaction is mixed. As one of the former Soviet satellite states and an EU member only since 2003, the Czech Republic has not experienced the same degree of immigration in the past 25 years that many other European states have. Here and in other countries that have only recently experienced immigration, these “hordes” from Syria are something to fear. Stripped of their humanity, they are merely Muslims, and in the Czech Republic, in Prague, Muslims are unwanted. In fact, there are very few Muslims in the Czech Republic, but anti-Islamic feeling is stoked by dubious news stories, including a notorious one where Muslims apparently attacked some Czechs in Olomouc.
As the refugee crisis deepened, many in football’s family made efforts to show solidarity and took steps for real, consequential action. In September 2015, UEFA took the decision to donate a small percentage of the gate receipts of European club competition ties to refugee charities. With Sparta playing in the Europa League, their first round game against APOEL Nicosia would be used to donate money to the refugees. Given the right-wing tendencies of Sparta Prague’s ultras, this was unsurprisingly met with some consternation. The Sparta ultras let their disgust at this action be known via Facebook, and they encouraged other Sparta fans to stay away. (It should be said as well that anti-Islamic and anti-refugee displays were not unique to the ultras of Sparta Prague. See, for example, the actions by Viktoria Plžen, Jablonec, and Sigma Olomouc fans.)
The Sparta ultras did stage their protest at this redirection of funds by staying away. Ironically, however, the crowd at the Europa League game was larger than usual. This speaks to a major problem for many Czech clubs, who rely on ultras as their core fanbase. When the ultras are gone, more people seem to come. Perhaps Sparta ultras drive away Czech football fans in the same way they drove me away.
A few weeks after the ultras’ demonstration, I was with supporters of the club I had chosen instead of Sparta. It was the day of one of Prague’s lesser derbies – lesser, if you’re a Sparta fan, but not if you follow Bohemians. While crude characterisations should always be avoided when it comes to the fan base of football club, there is usually some basis for the various characterisations. Sparta has right-wing tendencies among its ultras, but not all of its fans. This was proven by their reaction to the refugee crisis and UEFA’s plan to raise money via Europa League ties. In contrast, as a recent piece for Vice Sports showed, Bohemians is the club not just for people in Vršovice, but it is also broadly speaking the team of choice for many in Prague with left or liberal leanings, both Czechs and non-Czechs.
I joined my fellow Bohemians supporters a few hours before kick-off at Letná. Knowing that there’s safety in numbers, we took the 135 bus into the center of Prague and joined the crowd on Republic Square. From here, we would make the march along Revolution Street, across Stefanik Bridge, and through a long traffic tunnel to emerge by Sparta’s ground – deep in hostile territory. By turns exciting and slightly terrifying, the experience reinforced a sense of us against them. Decked in our green and white, we were a kind of army making an incursion, under heavy police guard, across the river. It was what I had always imagined European football to be – theatrical, territorial, tense.
The march reminded me of another time I had been part of a large, purposeful crowd in Prague, just a month earlier, in September, when many hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of people around Europe showed solidarity with the refugees pouring over our borders from Syria and elsewhere. That day we gathered on Wenceslas Square, standing in front of the statue of Saint Václav himself. Prague’s squares are sites for protest and debate, and Wenceslas Square has been its most important throughout the twentieth century. It was here in January 1969 that Jan Palach, a student seeing no other way to register his disgust at Soviet tanks crushing the Prague Spring, burned himself alive. Twenty years later, the Velvet Revolution climaxed in the same spot. The squares of Prague are heavy with the weight of history, for the Czechs and for all of Europe. One speaker at the pro-refugee demonstration opened by saying (in Czech): “Here in the centre of Prague, in the centre of the Czech Republic, the centre of Europe,” reminding all of us present that this was the heart of Europe. If the heart of Europe could not welcome refugees, what chance did they have?
On that day in September, those of us who wished to say that refugees were welcome in Prague did not do so alone. But Prague’s squares are not just locations for demonstration. They are also contested spaces. So there was a counter-demonstration. Many of those demonstrators waved flags: the Czech national flag as well as flags with a worryingly common logo – a mosque with a stop sign through it – and the words “We Do Not Want Islam in the Czech Republic.” That day we marched to block the counter-march by these various right-wing, nationalist, and anti-Islamic groups.
There were eerie similarities between the marches. When I returned to Republic Square with other Bohemians supporters, it felt as though our march to Letná was an action replay of the earlier demonstration in support of refugees. One centred on football, the other on politics. For me, both were about finding belonging in a strange land.
Bohemians were beaten 3-0 that day. We went home defeated and deflated. Beaten, perhaps, but unbowed. The march in support of refugees also didn’t bring the result we hoped for. The refugee crisis hasn’t disappeared. It has only deepened. The Czech Republic still doesn’t want Muslims. Martin Konvička, leader of the anti-Muslim faction in the country, has grown emboldened. On November 17, anniversary of the student demonstrations that started the Velvet Revolution, he shared a platform with Czech President Miloš Zeman.
Here in Prague, the cold has set in. There has been snow. It’s now the winter break for Czech football. Who knows what’s in store once the season restarts. What I do know is this: in this city I call home, I am still an outsider. But there have been times when I have felt less the stranger. I’ve stood alongside Czechs and non-Czechs to show support for refugees. And I go to Bohemians and join in with the crowd in what they call the Boiler Room. Here, I feel welcome.
David Toms teaches at the Council of International Education Exchange (CIEE) at Charles University. He is the author of Soccer in Munster: A Social History, 1877-1937. He blogs about history and sport in Ireland and the Czech Republic, and tweets from @daithitoms.