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Czechs up

Bohemians of Prague return to the top flight. Frantisek Bouc reports

In mid June, the Czech Republic’s football community had a few significant issues to deal with. National coach Karel Bruckner came under pressure after his team’s mediocre Euro 2008 form continued with a goalless draw in Wales; rumour had it that former German international Lothar Matthäus could soon take over. At the same time, the Czech Under-21 team was taking part in the European Championship in the Netherlands, where they didn’t get past the group stage. However, this was all overshadowed by the return to the top division, the Gambrinus Liga, of one of the country’s most popular clubs, Bohemians of Prague.

Promotion would normally generate little media attention, but Bohemians are a special case. Struggling in the second division in the winter of 2005, Bohemians’ debts of over £1 million made them the first club in the Czech Republic to be forced into bankruptcy; various would-be investors claimed to have plans to save them but none came up with the funds. Instead, supporters set about a rescue effort of their own, raising £75,000 in a nationwide collection in spring 2006. This helped restart the club in the third division, under the name Bohemians 1905, the date a reference to the original foundation.

The new team made quick progress, taking over the second-division spot of Prague-based club Xaverov, whose owner had decided to withdraw his backing. “We grabbed the chance that we got, but we could hardly expect that our campaign in the second division would be so successful,” said Antonin Panenka, the club president and their most famous player – he scored the ­winning ­penalty when Czechoslovakia won the 1976 European Championship. Panenka had departed for Rapid Vienna when Bohemians won their only league title, in 1982‑83, but he did contribute to the club’s best ever era – they finished no lower than third for six seasons from 1979-80 onwards.

With many of the club’s home matches this season played before sellout crowds of 8,500, turnout was often higher than the top-flight average, which currently stands at a modest 5,500. A second Prague club, Viktoria Zizkov, were promoted alongside Bohemians. Despite being a traditional name in Czech football history – and the only club aside from Sparta and Slavia to have won have the league in the inter-war period – Viktoria struggle for support these days and play their games in the morning in the hope of attracting floating fans.

Bohemians’ promotion campaign brought out many of the club’s hitherto secret supporters. Martin Pulpit, head coach of Banik Sokolov, did not celebrate his team’s away win against Bohemians in early June, the league leaders’ first defeat in 18 games, because he’s a Bohemians fan and had been among the hundreds of club loyalists who initiated the fundraising campaign two years ago. He even apologised for their defeat. “I hope that Bohemians will make up for the loss today. It was a horribly difficult game for me and I was full of emotion,” Pulpit said, reaching inside his shirt to show a small kangaroo pendant hanging around his neck – the kangaroo became Bohemians’ official club mascot after a club tour to Australia in 1927 and is also incorporated in their official logo. Pulpit admitted he wanted to succeed against in order to boost his future job prospects: “I’d like to coach Bohemians one day and I would not look trustworthy if I told my current team to let the opponents win.”

Meanwhile, Sparta Prague’s communications director Lukas Pribyl has faced threats from hardcore fans after he was photographed in a Bohemians shirt, celebrating the promotion. “It does not affect my work at Sparta,” said Pribyl, before quickly adding. “But I do confess that I’m a Bohemians fan.”

From WSC 246 August 2007

 


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