The 5th of December is no ordinary day in the Czech Republic. It is the feast of St. Nicholas, or Mikuláš, the forerunner of Santa Claus. And like in many central and eastern European countries, Mikuláš is still celebrated here even if the jolly fat man who tumbles down your chimney is increasingly present in the imaginations of Czech children. In most homes though, presents come on the 24th of December, delivered by Ježíšek. That is, the infant Jesus.
On the 5th, a few weeks earlier, Mikuláš rolls into town in the company of his two pals, the Anděl (angel) and the Čert (devil). According to the tradition, Mikuláš arrives to assess whether children have been good or bad, and depending on how good or bad they have been, kids either receive sweets from Mikuláš and the Anděl or else a lump of coal from the Čert. In some scarier versions of the tradition, the Čert threatens to take bad children away to hell with him in his sack. A bad child can escape this fate with either a story of song, and if they impress Mikuláš sufficiently, can come away with sweets and their mortal souls.
This year, the 5th of December also marked the final game of the first half of the Czech football season. With a break which will last now until well into February, I was eager not to miss out on seeing Bohemians one last time before the sport’s hibernation kicks in here. So, my mate and I took ourselves out to see Bohemians play Jablonec – relative high-flyers compared to Bohemians and we were lucky enough to encounter something of a Mikuláš miracle at the Ďolíček.
There was a decidedly festive atmosphere about this game. With a 5.30 kick off, half an hour later than usual thanks to being a televised game, we had a bit longer in the pub. At the ground itself, the festivities had begun at 3pm with a programme for kids to celebrate Mikuláš. Children were even free for the game. The previous home match had been against Baník Ostrava, a club with the unfortunate distinction of having some of the most unpleasant fans in Czech football. At that game, trouble was definitely expected thanks to Baník fans’ reputation and the ground was crawling with police. In a rare display of superiority, Bohemians won that game 3-1 and the Baník followers were fairly well contained with no major incidents to report.
Jablonec, sitting eighth in the League, brought a small but determined set of fans to Prague for this weekend’s game. They were determined not alone to support their team, but also to cause some trouble. Like the Baník fans, they brought with them some fairly provocative banners – including a confederate flag – but more than that, brought pretty provocative behaviour as well. Over the course of the match they lit several of the seats in their section on fire – at one stage requiring the firemen to deploy the hoses; while some of their supporters made a serious attempt to climb the cage separating them from the Bohemians crowd on the same side of the ground as they were. They were met with Bohemians fans just as ready and willing to fight, and a significant contingent of riot police. Luckily, no real trouble appeared to kick off, though those of us in the cramped Boiler behind the goal were certainly distracted from the action by what was happening across the touchline to our left.
Despite all of this, there was plenty worth watching on the pitch itself. Given Jablonec’s considerably higher league position, while drinking in the pub before kick-off, we were rather less than optimistic about our chances for the game. This seemed confirmed when the away side took the lead after just 9 minutes. A swift reply from Bohemians a few minutes later was given offside, and that sinking feeling began to return. We’d been doing so well since that 3-0 defeat to Sparta. Two wins and two draws and it looked like it might all unravel here. Bohemians kept themselves in it up to half-time and scored two in quick succession after the break to give a lead that would be held until the final whistle.
The atmosphere in the ground among the home support was as fun and friendly as ever – overhearing my friend and I’s conversation some of the Bohemians fans around us asked where we were from and about our home clubs – they’d recently been to Munich to watch St. Pauli they told us. We shared in the celebration of this victory together – this Mikuláš miracle.
David Toms is a sport historian and author of ‘Soccer in Munster: A Social History, 1877-1937′ published by Cork University Press. Follow on Twitter: @daithitoms