Knowing Me Knowing You...Praha
This morning's Champions' League 3rd Qualifying Round Draw saw us pitted against familiar rivals in the shape of Czech champions' Sparta Praha. It's fair to say we could have been handed easier opponents (sadly, Tottenham weren't in the draw), but I was just keen to avoid Fenrbahce and Spartak Moskva. We should have enough to dispose Prague over two legs.
Anyways, I thought I would just give a short rundown on Czech football's shining beacon. The first important point of note is that Sparta have enjoyed somehting of a renaissance of late, and are not the shell of a side scraping around the middle of the table as they were when last we met. Prague's two performances against us in the Group Stages of our nearly year were two of the most meek I have ever witnessed. The club appeared to be on a real downward spiral, indeed one of the most surreal experiences I have encountered following Arsenal was watching Thierry Henry break the Arsenal goalscoring record in front of a half empty stadium. Prague had been forced to forfeit half of their capacity as punishment for racial abuse meted out to Ajax players. Their captain at the time, Karol Poborsky, had been banished on loan as punishment for a heated exchange with Prague's head coach. Their performance at Highbury was pitiful. Having taken an early lead through Thierry Henry, Arsenal proceeded to stroll through the game with the demeanour of a team on the cusp of sleep. One could almost see our defenders stifling yawns in the manner you do when conversing with somebody lacking in a fertive imagination. If Arsenal had been Ronnie O'Sullivan that night, we'd have been cueing up the frame clinching black with our toes.
However, last season the Czechs came storming back to reclaim their place as Czech Republic's hallmark club, becoming the first Czech side to win the domestic double. The playing staff has not changed dramatically in that time either. Seasoned internationals Repka, Simunek, Kisel and the ever dangerous Slepicka are still numbered among their playing staff. By contrats, Arsenal have shed Ashley Cole, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Jose Reyes, Dennis Bergkamp, Lauren, Thierry Henry, Pascal Cygan, Sol Campbell and, err, Mart Poom. We also met with Sparta Praha back in the 2000-01 campaign. A mazy run and clever finish from Silvinho gave us a narrow victory in Prague. While an Arsenal side in a fetching blue ensemble deconstructed Prague 4-2 at Highbury, Parlour, Lauren and Dixon were amongst the goals earlyu on, before a Lobont (I think?) penalty made it 3-1. A typically unorthodox Kanu goal put the seal on it, before a young upstart known as Tomas Rosicky dribbled round four players, unleashing a low shot which had Highbury on its feet in applause of recognition. Interestingly, Rosicky is the only current Arsenal player who remains from those fixtures.
Sparta were formed in 1893 by the three brothers Rudl, who were presumably bored and just decided to start a sports club. (There's an idea for my next lunch hour). Sparta's name is thought to connote the courage and fighting spirit of the ancient Greek city of Sparta. Interestingly, our links with Sparta go back 101 years. Prague had played in black jerseys, until then club president Dr. Petrik journeyed to see Arsenal play in London, whereupon he was so struck with the South London club that he decided to adopt their dark red jerseys. Sparta's rise to prominence began after the first world war, a period of glittering success for the club known as 'Iron Sparta.' They picked up titles in 1919, 1922, 1926, 1927, 1932, 1936, 1938 and 1939. Sparta also collected the Central European Cup (Czechs will always be eager to remind you that they are not in Eastern Europe, but Central Europe), which back in the time they won it, 1927 and 1935, was a competition of great prestige. By the time they won the trophy again in 1964, it's grandeur was non existent in the face of the great Real Madrid sides and the formation of the European Cup.
The birth of the Socialist regime brought many changes to Czech football, and Sparta suffered considerably throughout the 1950s, winning nothing of note. Indeed, those of you that have ever been to Prague will have noticed the huge amount of museums dedicated to remembering their Socialist heritage. But it is not a memory that is generally treasured by the Czechs, it is seen very much as a time of oppression and suffering. Prague, a team whose success has typically been confined to eras of glroy followed by eras of indifference (much like Arsenal), enjoyed another rebirth in the sixties, nabbing two titles and contributing greatly to the Czech national team finsihing second in the 1962 World Cup. Fortunes have continued to fluctuate for Sparta, most notably in 1975, when they were relegated to the second tier of Czech football for the first and only time in their history. But there were no Tory MP chairmen to reinstate them (sorry Spurs fans), they were promoted at the first attempt in 1976. Sparta have regularly competed in Europe's elite competition throughout the eighties and nineties, when the club again won their title with regularity. However, there has only been one campaign of distinction when they got to the semi finals of the inaugural Champions' League in 1993. Last season they became the first Czech side ever to win the domestic double.
Famous past players of note include Pavel Nedved, our own Tomas Rosicky, Petr Cech, Karol Poborsky, Petr Gabriel (not the fruitcake from Genesis), Jiri Novotny and in particular, the players from the 'Iron Sparta' era, such as 1934 World Cup Golden Boot winner Oldrich Nejedly. Sparta Prague are a club with a rich and coloured history, rooted into the fabric of the old Communist regime, invoking the spirit of Ancient Greece and with a stadium sponsored by a well known car firm! Prague is one of the most beautiful cities you could visit. It has of course, become a popular place to visit for stag dwellers and those in search of some cheap drinking since the fall of the iron curtain. But there is also something for the more cultured amongst you. The gothic architecture of the town, particularly as you view the Prague Castle from the Charles bridge, lends the city an aura of history surpassed only by Rome and Athens. The street entertainers that line the bridge are much more interesting than those utter berks that paint themselves blue and sit on a unicycle on the South Bank! The food is the best I have ever tasted in any destination in the world. If you are going, trust me, order steak. You'll know what I mean when you taste it!
There is a rather unfortunate irony in this draw for me, which I will relay to you in anecdotal form. Due to work commitments, I am unable to make the away leg of this tie, meaning I will miss a game for the first time since God was wondering what to do with the third day. Earlier in the summer, I had booked to take a weekend break in Prague with some friends from the weekend 31st August- 3rd September. I was insistent that this was the only date I could go due to it being an international weekend. Imagine my horror when the fixture list was released and I discovered that, typically, the international weekend had been moved from its usual spot to the second weekend of September. Unwilling to miss the home game with Portsmouth I swiftly cancelled my booking and swallowed the fee, leaving me rather unpopular with said friends. ('What? You mean you choose football over your friends?' These guys have known me half my life and they still needed to ask me that question!!!!) The fact that we have now drawn Prague and I cannot go, is an irony I am sure I will be reminded of more than once tonight!LD.