You love football, and you love your team, but you are moving to a new country and a new life. When geography is an issue, you really need to adopt a team to follow. New to IBWM, Mark Smith did just that. Welcome to the Czech Republic.
Before I moved to the Czech Republic in August 2009, I ‘checked’ out the local football team to see who I should follow. This was before I had found a job or somewhere to live – you can see I had my priorities in the correct order.
My initial feeling was to go for Sparta Prague as Patrik Berger was still playing there (think he made a handful of appearances before retiring in January 2010). The ex-Liverpool player was a hero of mine, in fact all of the Liverpool players when I was growing up were heroes to me. Berger bought something different though, his flair, passing and ability to score absolute screamers endeared him to the Liverpool fans. I thought ‘right that’s it, Sparta Prague for me’.
I emailed the club whilst still in England enquiring about a season ticket etc. No response, I was a bit miffed about the customer service here (something I have grown accustomed too). Surely the club would want my cash and patronage? I arrived in Prague in August 2009 without a club to support.
My first few months were taken up with job hunting and settling into Czech life. When I say settling into Czech life I mean drinking copious amounts of Czech beer and eating untold quantities of meat. Eventually I got round to going to a football game, ironically it was April fool’s day when I visited Slavia’s new stadium to watch them play local rivals Sparta in the quarter finals of the Czech Cup.
As an Englishman, I thought that a Slavia v Sparta Prague derby would be an absolute blockbuster., like Liverpool v Man Utd or Spurs v Arsenal, maybe I was a bit naive expecting to see top quality football served up.
The game ended 1-0 to Slavia in what was a poor game to be fair, Sparta Prague were hugely disappointing and the completely anonymous striker Wilfred Bony had an absolute shocker - he looked scared to go anywhere near the ball.
I made a few more trips to watch Slavia play at home at their shiny new stadium. Although the match day experience wasn’t great, the prices were cheap and we always got a free beer (not sure if the girl serving us had problems counting to three?), but there was no atmosphere, which is inevitable when you have 4000 fans in a 20,000 seater stadium. The Slavia stadium is reminiscent of Ikea flat pack furniture - it looks nice but has no character.
By this time I was taking a keener interest in Czech football, making sure to check the scores for every team and the league table. One thing I had noticed was that the league was so open. With five or six games to go there were still four teams in with a shout of winning the league – Sparta, Jablonec, Banik Ostrava and Teplice. My adopted team, Slavia, had been long resigned to a mid table finish by this point.
Sparta Prague went on to win the league on the final day of the season, Tomas Repka scored the winner that sealed the title. It was an exciting climax - Ostrava had looked like likely winners but faltered in the closing stages allowing Sparta to seal the Championship.
This season I was expecting Sparta or Ostrava to run away with the league or even the impressive Jablonec of last season but its Plzen who have made a blistering start , taking 25 points out of a possible 27 whilst Sparta are already 10 points behind. Last seasons challengers Banik Ostrava have made a woeful start too, rock bottom with just 5 points and knocked out of the Europa League qualifiers – a complete contrast to last season.
Slavia have taken their usual mid table position and their troubles look to continue on and off the pitch. A ground share with local team Bohemians 1905 have kept the fans away for the early part of the season. In addition, the failure to sign a goal scorer is a massive problem on the pitch as they lack a cutting edge. The same problem that Ostrava has encountered, since selling their young starlet Matej Vydra to Udinese in the summer, Ostrava have been struggling for goals.
It really is a level playing field in Czech football, Sparta are of course the strongest team in the league and will more than likely win the league at the end of the season but everyone else really is evenly matched. All it takes is one player of real quality to make a difference in this division, but the clubs cannot attract these types of players.
With the German league flourishing at the moment it is hard for the Czech league to attract players, even the Slovakian league is performing better on the European stage with MSK Zilina reaching the Champions League group stages.
A recent notable return to the Czech Republic is 29-year-old Radek Sirl, who was released from Russian champions Zenit St Petersberg and signed for Mlada Boleslav on a 2-year contract. Sirl will make a big difference to Mlada Boleslav and it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see them challenging this year.
Next up for Slavia Prague is the derby game on Monday with Sparta Prague, I shall be in attendance with a few friends hoping we find the same girl who has problems counting to three!
If you would like to read more from Mark, please visit the excellent Play Waved On and follow @play_waved_on on twitter.