Fresh off the tram and the boulevard of Vršovická intersects a flat and unpromising quarter, on the boundary of middle-class comfort and working-class expediency, between elegant apartments and the ubiquitous panelák (the kind of tower block seen in the background of any respectable Cold War thriller). It is winter in Prague. Orders coming from Moscow are a thing of the past, but my blueing lips tell me the November wind still makes the trip, and I’m growing self-conscious about the din of my dental castanets. My guide is late.
Prudence trumps fashion here, and padded coat after weathered fleece after dubious fur cap pass by. Young, old, male, female, sober, stumbling and everything in between are making their way excitably toward an antique loudspeaker’s call. Between the coat-collars of a few: a flash of green, and a pure white. A brave, bare-armed contingent sport replica stripes and little else. All are heading for the source of the sound which is crackling through the floodlit night, a prime example of the terrifying phenomenon that is Czech PA, emanating from the lop-sided silhouette of the Ďolíček stadium. I am surrounded by the fans of Bohemians Praha 1905, and will share their weekend world for a few eccentric hours.
The dated jingle of a tram, and my guide arrives. A fellow Geordie abroad, he has selflessly volunteered to drink and watch football with me. After much swearing and meteorology, we cast about for the necessary provision for our preservation – shelter – and for the indisputable and inescapable necessity of everyday Czech living: beer. Following the pattern of the city in what seems to be adherence to government decree, the opportunities for such a glass of bubbling goodness are never more than twenty yards apart. Through the door of the nearest hospoda and the barman invites us to sit and warm up, even through the language barrier he understands the chattering of my teeth. The beer arrives, and keeps arriving, and the talk swiftly turns to football – though with Newcastle United a shared passion, not much turning is required. Away from the bipolarity of our club, our expat team tonight, I learn, is consistently bizarre.
Founded in 1905, Bohemians are the third team of the Czech capital. Their trophy collection is dwarfed by (extremely) local rivals Slavia, based a mile down the road, and the giant of Sparta to the north of the city. Without the silverware of their neighbours, Bohemians have developed the self-deprecating humour of a feckless family failure, and an ironic appreciation of their place. City rivals nod to nationalism with names and colours – after a 1927 tour of Australia, Bohemians adopted as their much beloved emblem the not-exactly-native kangaroo. So much for nationalism. While the ultras of Sparta sing of knights, iron, enemies and battle, it is to the talismanic animal the Ďolíček faithful direct their chants. This kind of off-beat opposition defines the politics, attitude and culture of the club. Their independent spirit, typified at the time by now-chairman Antonin Panenka (the chap who gave his name to those cheeky chipped penalties), made them a popular choice under communist rule.
They’re the team of artists and actors, of the proles and the party goers, and they are the pluckiest of underdogs. In 2004/05 they were banned for half a season due to some seriously shaky accountancy, then relegated to the Czech third division – in this circle of hell, Vinny Jones would look like Nureyev – only fan contributions saved the club from insolvency. En route back to the top flight, the DIY style of the Ďolíček didn’t fly with officialdom, and the kangaroos were evicted, forced to move in with Slavia, their bitter derby rivals. Now they’re home, they’re up against a team I’ve never heard of, and kick-off is approaching.
I step out of the bar feeling like Captain Oates, and head for the turnstiles. They’re a series of small huts, separating icy, uncovered streets, from icy, uncovered club property. I step up, like most Czechs, the girl can smell the English on me at a hundred paces. ‘Adult?’ My beard says obviously. ‘Main stand?’ I chance it. ‘150kc please’ I hand over the equivalent of four quid, and click through before they change their mind.
My subconscious has prepared me, over the years, to expect disappointment behind the St James’ turnstiles. A dingy concourse, chlorinated pints selling like saffron, nuclear pies and the sweatiest of burgers. Instead, I enter a paradise. Everywhere there are timber kiosks, flames and fire-pits, some keep chatting fans warm, others roast spinning joints of Pražská šunka, Prague ham. Bratwurst and kielbasa and a dozen other sausages are smoking away, mulled wine is steaming. A group of scruffy musicians play jaunty tunes, and everywhere, always, beer is being served. About one pound for the drink, another for the glass: keep hold of it, and keep refilling it. It’s a BBQ, it’s a carnival, it’s a street party, and when the PA reminds everyone what they’re here for, when we file up the wooden steps into the stands, none of the fun is lost. The food, the beer, the clouds of smoke from Sparta brand cigarettes – it all comes too.
Since the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985, the natural combination of a beverage and a live football match became a criminal offence. I once explained this to a Czech acquaintance, more interested in ice-hockey than the beautiful game, and received a look of disgusted disbelief in return. The stand behind the goal to which the most colourful, the loudest and seemingly most committed fans are headed, myself swept along with them, has a bar, fully manned and serving, set into it. The ‘main stand’ was a good choice. Directly opposite is a building site. To the right, a large seated stand accommodating the few journalists who turned up, and the more cautious observers – it’s nearly empty. To the left an MDF fence, cheerfully painted green and white, comprises the fourth side of this crazy rectangle. Between this and the building site could generously be called the ‘away end’, it is at least where the fifty or so FC Slovacko die-hards have draped their banners. I gather they’re a nothing team from the middle of nowhere, their anonymity and the passion with which their hairless fans are singing makes me glad they’re as far away as possible.
ACDC roar through the PA system, and the teams emerge. Bohemians are led by their mascot, a towering kangaroo figure who stirs up the support, backflips and all. Soon the chants of the masses around me drown out the away contingent.
There are no seats for the travelling fans, or the hundreds cramming onto the concrete terrace where I stand, no choice unless you want fag-ends and spilt beer on your jeans. The impact of the Taylor Report on English the landscape of the terraces has had a similar if opposite limiting of options – you sit, or you don’t go. The events which caused the overreaction are understandable, but footballing culture has moved beyond the need to treat fans as troublesome students, forced to sit still and quiet in the library. Even St James’, one of the more vocal venues, can feel more suited to borrowing books than supporting a team.
As the match kicks off, the fans do likewise. A man armed with a megaphone mounts a ladder in-front of the already bouncing crowd. No clue what he said, but this screaming cheerleader got even monolingual me joining in. My companion and I are jumping. We’re not the only expats. Hammers in front of me hear our accent, turn, and apologise for serving Newcastle drubbing earlier that day. A Leicester fan, one of Tottenham’s too, join in the rounds from the bar just feet away. Bohemians win a pen. Silence. A miss. Czech expletives, then the party continues. This is a glorious holiday from bubble-wrapped Premier League stadia. In England it now takes the lawlessness of an away day to offer close to a taste of the Czech football experience.
In the Ďolíček’s anarchy of alcohol, cigarettes, and occasionally something stronger being passed along the rows, there is a certain respect. Away from the condescension of English footballing authorities this club is a revelation. A defiant green flare is lit as a first Slovacko goal bobbles in. There is noise everywhere, and laughter what’s more. This place is one of joy regardless of the score it seems. It is also one of colour. Confetti and enormous banners add to the spectacle of green and white already present in scarfs and shirts. Outdoor toilets offer a view of Slovacko’s second goal without the slightest inconvenience. A volley of forsaken deposits fly as plastic cups are hurled toward (or over) wisely placed netting.
The Kangaroos lose two nil, but when the final whistle blows not one decibel is dropped, and the home team come over to applaud their support. I can’t help but wish that, in this setting, even with this result, the applauding players were in black and white. People spill out of the ground, but nothing outside can’t be found within – and inside there was football. For the locals at least there is the promise of next time. I must exit the union of spectacle and fandom, must leave this crumbling venue where the sport’s value is understood, and its costs ignored.
Bohemians 1905 are, in a word, bohemian. They do as they please, and are afforded the freedom to do so. They are invited to a public space and enjoined to have fun, to do and to watch what they love. Being bohemian probably means little to the patrons of this rock’n’roll oasis, this sanctuary for fans: it is simply the way they are, and I am supremely envious of these green and white kangaroos, and their riotous home.
First published in True Faith