As I exited the Hradcanska metro station and began to walk down the long street named M.Horakove, I was immediately struck by the little amount of people hovering around the area. Admittedly I had arrived at the Stadium Letna around an hour and a half before the game was due to start, but even at Home Park, home of my beloved Plymouth Argyle, if you were to arrive around the same time then there would be more of a clear indication that a game was about to take place.
Stadium Letna is home to Sparta Prague, the most successful and richest club in the Czech Republic and a club who boasts a record eleven league titles since the foundation of the Gambrinus Liga in 1993. Sparta also reached the semi finals of the European Cup in 1992 and have reared such talents as Pavel Nedved, Tomas Rosicky, Patrik Berger and Petr Cech.
I took the decision to watch Sparta during a recent ‘lads holiday’ to Prague in an attempt to break up the drinking which consumed much of our four days in the absolutely beautiful Czech capital. Zelezna Sparta (Iron Sparta) were to host Mlada Boleslav with Sparta currently topping the table as they looked to regain the title wrestled from their grasp by Viktoria Plzen the previous season.
Unfortunately for Sparta I proved once more to be a jinx, a running theme over my recent visits to various stadiums as I can’t actually remember the last time that I have actually seen a home side emerge victorious. Mlada Boleslav emerged with a shock 3-0 away victory, inspired by their visibly overweight but technically outstanding skipper, the former Czech international Marek Kulic.
The Stadium Letna has a capacity of 21,000 but the official attendance of the game was given as 7,307 and it actually seemed a lot less with empty seats all around what is actually a smart and modern looking stadium. Those that did part with the bargain admission fee (around £6) were undoubtedly passionate, especially the ultras who tucked themselves away in one of the lower tier corners behind the goal and generated a constant noise throughout.
I left wondering whether or not this had always been the case in Czech football and came to the mini-conclusion that before the break up of Czechoslovakia and the rise to prominence of the Premier League it had in fact, probably not been the case at all. As I made my way back to the bustling bars of Wenceslas Square to meet my friends and return to the drinking in hand, the metaphorical penny dropped.
Every bar we visited, from Hooters to backstreet local bars, displayed games from the Premier League, La Liga or the Bundesliga rather than the Czech leagues which take a quiet backseat. Sparta’s prized asset is 19 year-old striker Vaclav Kadlec who has been heralded as a potential star of the future. Yet the question on the lips of Sparta fans is when and not if he will leave for pastures new.
With Europe’s big hitters enjoying ever greater spoils of TV money and sponsorship contracts, the gulf between the rich and the poor of European club football is widening. Strolling through the Prague’s quaint cobbled streets there were more Barcelona and Manchester United shirts on display than there were Sparta and Slavia Prague, the two traditional heavyweights of the Czech game.
With Czech clubs receiving substantially less sponsorship money, prize money and TV money than leading European clubs they are thus working on far smaller budgets. Leading talents such as Kadlec have to leave to balance the books and the only returning big names are often well past their prime. This unfortunate scenario is also the case in other countries such as Serbia and Hungary, both countries whose clubs have made serious impact in European competitions in the past.
With limited talent in the domestic leagues of these countries, football fans make the decision to watch the likes of Messi, Ronaldo and David Silva on the television rather than go to the stadiums to support their local teams. With fewer and fewer people going to the stadiums and attendance figures continuing to dwindle, it appears impossible that the likes of Sparta Prague will ever reach the semi-finals of the Champions League ever again.