James Taylor watched Euro'96 in Prague, where local fans had plenty of oppertunities to toast the players health
Golden boys get silver was the newspaper headline as the Czech team arrived back to a crowd of 50,000 in Prague’s Old Town Square. How different from the beginning of June when most people were writing them off as no-hopers, lucky even to be on the map. A poor performance in the first game against the Germans did nothing to dispel this. Local papers concentrated instead on the Czech fans, who were surprised by the friendliness of the police and insisted on having their pictures taken with all the police horses Manchester could muster.
The pundits, of course, were less generous. Eurosport talked of the “workmen of the Czech Republic, they’ve come here with their dungarees”, while Ruud Gullit’s suggestion that the team would be on the next plane home provoked an angry reaction from fans and players alike. Vladimir Smicer summed up the feeling: “The criticism in the press made us really angry so we decided to make the group more interesting.”
After Italy were overturned by a fired up team, fans gathered in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, then marches on to Charles Bridge where they sang the national anthem, and on past the Italian embassy where diplomats congratulated them. Smicer had double cause to celebrate having bet his future father-in-law, former international Ladislav Vizek, a crate of whisky that the team would win a game. Radek Bejbl, meanwhile, had a UEFA-induced hangover as he had to drink five beers in order to produce a urine sample.
At breakfast before the game with Russia, Jiri Nemec said he had had a dream that the team was losing and Smicer scored to level the game. It came true with seconds remaining. “We’ll buy him a crystal ball,” said the players, who sang into the night accompanied on guitar by a famous actor, Miroslav Donutil. Back home fans celebrated with champagne and President Havel appeared among the broken glass and waving flags, to shake hands with fans.
Wives and girlfriends were allowed to fly out to Preston after progression to the quarter finals. Manager Dusan Uhrin explained his views on sex and football: “If it’s not too much and doesn’t disturb sleep, it’s OK.” The team doctor added :“Abstinence is worse than reasonable activity.” Preparations continued apace in Prague, where the popular pub Nad Viktorkou increased its offer of free beer up to two, for a victory. After the match fans in Nad Viktorkou chanted “Are you watching Gullit?” and spilled onto the streets letting off hand-held rockets. Even the notoriously miserable taxi drivers hooted and waved flags.
The players relaxed with a garden party on the farm of a butcher near Preston, enjoying local (?!) wine, peaches and a roast pig. Uhrin said they were very happy with the welcome in England. The Hotel Mariot likewise said the players were great and expressed amazement that they carried their own bags.
Journalists descended to quiz Uhrin. “What’s your favourite colour?” shouted one. “White,” replied Uhrin. “What do you think about yellow?” added another. “I dream about yellow,” was the enigmatic answer. He was probably thinking of the three golden beers on offer at Nad Viktorkou for the semi-final, or perhaps the four carded players sitting it out. The relaxed attitude and team spirit was evident as Hornak flew back for the birth of his baby, and Smicer went to get married in front of large crowds in Prague. TV Nova, the local commercial channel catching on to Western style reporting, even filmed the bride having her hair done.
Thousands of fans would have liked to join Smicer and Hornak in flying back for the final, but couldn’t go because the Czech FA had taken too few tickets. Instead fans from all over the country packed the Old Town Square in Prague to watch the final on giant screens (those, that is, not tempted by Nad Viktorkou’s offer of five beers).
The Germans’ winning goal was greeted with silent disbelief. Face paint ran with tears as fans chanted: “Thank you lads.” One 80-year-old Slavia fan caught the mood: “If only it hadn’t been the Germans.” Police stood guard over German cars and some fans were arrested for allegedly punching German tourists. Elsewhere, skinheads attacked a bar notorious for local and foreign drug users, but sixty pissed-off customers chased and surrounded their attackers until the police arrived.
Czechs are concerned about their image abroad, especially regarding crime and fear that they are becoming a less caring society. To gain positive recognition in Euro ’96 had been a great source of national pride.
From WSC 114 August 1996. What was happening this month