“Although Slavia-Sparta is the most intense rivalry given both clubs’ success, this is surely the most localised in Prague.” Ex-pat David Toms’ love affair with his adopted club continues as he takes in another dramatic derby in the Czech capital, Slavia Prague v Bohemians.
Prague is a city of districts. There is Old Town of course, New Town, and there is Lesser Town, the baroque beauty beneath the castle. There is Josefov, the historic Jewish quarter of the city. Žižkov, famed for its bars. Smíchov, a former industrial district where Staropramen is brewed. Karlín, all but destroyed in the floods of 2002, and newly gentrified. There is affluent Vinohrady. Letná, home to Sparta, and many of Prague’s long term expats. I live in Vršovice. Nestled between Vinohrady and Nusle (another district with its own flavour), Vršovice is part of Prague 10 – a municipal district with around 38,000 inhabitants. Vršovice was the recent focus of a Guardian article that characterised this vast area on the basis of one street: Krymská. The street I live on runs perpendicular to Krymská, and even featured in a photo for the article. But Vršovice is not Krymská, and Krymská is not Vršovice. To judge by the article, you would be forgiven for thinking it had nothing to recommend it as an area before Krymská’s ascent as one of Prague’s hippest streets.
But, Vršovice also means Koh-i-Noor, a button and textile factory that looms large over the main thoroughfare of Vršovická. There is Svaty Václav, a constructivist church built in 1930. The building is an early example of pre-stressed concrete in Prague’s architecture. There is also Husov Sbor (Hus House) built at the same time. And there is Svaty Mikulaš, an 18th century church built on a site where a place of worship of one kind or another has stood since the 11th century. Vršovice also means Bohemians. Or Slavia. It depends on who you ask. The grounds of both clubs are just 1400 metres apart. That’s about a fifteen minute walk. Although Slavia-Sparta is the most intense rivalry given both clubs’ success, this is surely the most localised in Prague. Last weekend I went a group of friends to watch the Vršovice derby at Eden Arena, Slavia’s home ground. The build-up asked who would be crowned O Král Vršovic, The King of Vršovice? Slavia is the older club in the area. Founded in 1892 by university students, Eden has long been their home. Eden itself was once the site of a giant amusement park during the First Czechoslovak Republic. Today, it is the largest functioning football ground in the Czech Republic, and was host in 2014 to Chelsea v Bayern Munich in the European Super Cup.
While they may occupy opposite ends of the table, Bohemians went into this game with confidence, having picked up their first win of the season, beating Jihlava 2-1. In that game they came back from 0-1 down at home on Halloween night. This was an excellent response to the turgid display where they were beaten 3-0 by an imperious Sparta a few weeks ago. Sunday was an unseasonably warm and cloudless day, with top temperatures of 17 degrees. We met, along with the other Bohemians fans, at Ďolíček at half past one, an hour and a half before kick-off. They opened the beer stand, and once we had our drinks in hand, the march from Ďolíček began. A fine crowd turned out, young and old, and even some with pets, to take part in the march, led by the various ultra groups. We sang and chanted our way through the streets of Vršovice, bedecked in green, waving flags and scarves, cheered by some from balconies and amusing onlookers along the route. By Svaty Václav church, there was a small group of Slavia ultras who stood very far away jeering us much to the amusement of most. Our police escort was sizeable for the occasion and we made the long march around the back of the stadium, well away from any Slavia fans in their imposing company.
Once inside the ground, we grabbed some beers, which horrifyingly turned out to be non-alcoholic. There wasn’t much in the way of real tension inside the group, more a sense of expectation of a good game to come. And what a game it was. In true derby fashion, the game opened with blistering intensity – the singing in our section hardly letting up during an action-packed opening twenty minutes that saw Slavia, to the surprise of everyone, ourselves included go 1-0 down to an own goal following a dangerous cross into their box. The tackles flew in from both sets of players, and while it didn’t seem that Bohemians could keep their lead, somehow, incredibly, they won a penalty claim following a run from Jhon Mosquera which was well taken to put us 2-0 up after 32 minutes. It was just as that penalty went in that Slavia fans had unveiled a huge tifo display with the numbers 123, the club’s age – a reminder that theirs was the older, more storied history. The colour cards collapsed as Jindřišek slotted the ball past the goalkeeper.
Incredibly, in the 43rd minute Slavia were awarded what seemed like a fairly soft penalty. The response in the away end was furious. Step up Zdenek Zlámal, the cult hero and goalkeeper for Bohemians. Zlamal parried the penalty away from goal and Bohemians went in at half-time leading. We were knackered from roaring, shouting, singing and chanting. This was the best forty-minutes of football I’d been present for in a long time.
The second half saw things get only more intense. Bohemians’ chief playmaker, Jhon Mosquera was eventually carted off on a stretcher after having had his legs kicked off him for much of the game. The referee, in the view of the Bohemians fans, was increasingly biased as the game went on. Chants of “Penĕžní! Penĕžní!”, or “Cash! Cash!” could be heard from our end. Empty beer containers were thrown onto the pitch. Slavia played a very high line, and in truth Bohemians did seem content to attempt to soak up the pressure for huge chunks of the second half. Always a risky tactic, but forgivable considering Slavia’s less than stellar home form. In the 86th minute, the equaliser came for Slavia. The flares were lit. It was 17 degrees at the start of the day, but now as 5pm approached, with the sun gone down, the cold crept back in. With the flare smoke clearing, Bohemians clung on to secure a draw. Going into the day, most would surely have taken a point away. But when we were in there, we almost took a famous scalp. How much better that would have been. So, no king of Vršovice was crowned this weekend. The return fixture at Ďolíček isn’t until April next year. A long wait for a king, but winter is coming.