“The squares of Prague are heavy with the weight of history.” From these same streets fans of Bohemians 1905 gather to make their way acros the city to the home of Sparta. Among them is ex-pat David Toms. It’s derby day in the Czech capital.
There’s safety in numbers. That’s why we joined the crowd on Námĕstí Republiky on Sunday at 4pm. Ahead of the derby against Sparta Prague across the river in Letná, Bohemians supporters congregated on this famous square to begin our long march along Revolucní, and across Stefanikuv Most, through the Letná tunnel to emerge by Sparta’s ground – deep in hostile territory.
The last time I was part of a large, purposeful crowd on Námĕstí Republiky was on September 12th earlier this year, when many hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of people around Europe showed solidarity with the thousands of refugees pouring over our borders from Syria and elsewhere as war begot humanitarian crisis, begot the largest movement of people in recent memory. That day, we began our show of solidarity on Václavské Námĕstí (Wenceslas Square), standing in front of the statue of Svaty Václav himself. One speaker on the day, I recall, opened his speech by saying (in Czech) “Here in the centre of Prague; in the centre of the Czech Republic; the centre of Europe…” reminding all of us present that this was the heart of Europe. If the heart of Europe could not welcome refugees, what chance did the rest of it have?
Prague is a city of squares. These open public spaces are important not just in terms of providing a place to sit and chat, to encounter people – but they are important as places of congregation. They are sites for protest and debate. Václavské Námĕstí is famous for the images of it throughout twentieth century Czech history: the Nazis made use of its great boulevards for marches; under Communism, May Day parades passed through here; in 1968, when socialism with a human face was crushed by the arrival of Soviet tanks, their presence on Václavské Námĕstí was part of the theatre of takeover; it was here that Jan Palach, in January of 1969, seeing no other way to register his disgust at what happened after the Prague Spring was crushed, burned himself alive on the steps of the National Museum that stands at the top of the square. And, in 1989, when the Velvet Revolution climaxed, it climaxed in the same spot. The squares of Prague are heavy with the weight of history.
On that day in September, those of us who wished to say that in Prague, in the Czech Republic, refugees were welcome did not do so alone. These are not just locations for demonstration, for protest. These are also contested spaces. So there was a counter-demonstration – to say that in Prague, in the Czech Republic, refugees were not wanted. Many of those demonstrators waved flags: the Czech national flag, but also flags with a worryingly common logo: A mosque with a stop sign through it, and these words: No to Islam in the Czech Republic. That day, we marched, to block the counter march by these various right-wing, nationalist, and anti-Islam groups.
“This weekend, the march began at Námĕstí Republiky. There were eerie similarities to how I felt on both occasions. As though one was an action replay of the other; one centred on football, the other on politics”
Námĕstí Republiky is a storied place in Czech history too. It was at Obecní Dům (Municipal House) that the First Czechoslovak Republic was declared on 28th October 1918, with the square taking the name it has now in 1919. It was also here in 1989 that the first meeting of the Communist Party executive council took place with the Civic Forum led by Václav Havel.
So it was from here, around the corner from Obecní Dům that we began our march to Letná Stadion to face Sparta. The whole way along, as we passed buses, trams and cars on the street, we chanted and waved scarves. On Štefáníkův Most, we were joined by a substantial contingent of riot police before entering the Letná tunnel, and when we emerged on the other side, we were brought the long way around to the away end of the ground with plenty of time to spare to pick up a beer and take our spot in the stadium. We had allocated seating, but more or less treated it like the section behind the goal in Ďolíček – the array of Bohemians stickers on seats and railings attesting to the fans’ frequent presence here.
The game got under way but a little after twenty minutes it was turned into an uneven affair thanks to David Bartek’s sending off following a second yellow. Being ten men down so early meant that Bohemians played deep in their half for most of the game. Occasions to break forward were few and far between. The class that gave Sparta a deserved 2-2 last Thursday night away to Schalke 04 was on full display here. The truth was that rather than a game so close to this weekend’s fixture tiring them, they instead seemed vitalised by that successful away adventure. Their captain, the seemingly ever-young David Lafata, was instrumental. Bohemians looked beleaguered at times, boxed in. Even Jhon Mosquera was unable to provide some of his trademark playmaking under such intense pressure. Zdenek Zlámal did his best in goal, but the sheer weight of pressure saw Sparta rack up the goals.
It is tempting to think that had they gone in at half time still at 0-0, there may have been a chance to snatch something, but by goal number two, the game was over as a contest between the sides. It was agony to watch at times, but the party atmosphere – the sheer defiance that comes with being a Bohemians fan never let up. The Rude Boys, Barflies, and everyone else smoked, drank, sang and ate in the face of impending defeat. There were two displays: At the beginning, in memory of recently deceased vice-chairman and one of the architects behind the saving of the club in 2005, Vladislav Suchy, a black banner dropped with his initials and a cross in his memory. But there were also green and white balloons, and another banner unveiled. The fervour displayed by the fans as much memorial to him as the minute’s silence that started the game.
Despite going down 3-0 to Sparta, the Bohemians fans rarely let up the singing. So it was, from Námĕstí Republiky early in the afternoon to Stadion Letná under the cover of the floodlights – whatever else the score might have said – Bohemians: Nejlepší Praze! Bohemians: The Best In Prague!