When Half Man Half Biscuit released All I Want For Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit in 1987, the Czechoslovakian giants were already well known due to their exploits in European competition. The previous season, the Army club of Czechoslovakia had reached the semi-finals of the Cup Winners Cup losing 4-1 on aggregate to eventual winners Dynamo Kyiv. The journey to the semis, however did include impressive wins over Benfica and AIK. As well as going deep in UEFA’s greatest competition, Dukla hold the record for the amount of games played by a Czechoslovakian club in the European Cup before in became the Champions League. After the split of Czechoslovakia however, Dukla found things hard. In 1996 they merged with FC Portál Příbram, playing one last season in Prague before moving to Příbram and becoming 1. FK Příbram. The name Dukla Praha would however return in 2001. Local Prague club FK Dukla Dejvice who had formed over 40 years previously took on the famous old name as well as the gold and maroon colours. The Stadion Juliska has always been in the Dejvice neighbourhood and with the support of old Dukla supporters the club rose up the Czech pyramid. In recent years the club has even played in the top flight again but, currently finds itself in the second tier after relegation at the end of the 2018/19 season.
In this era of Covid, I’d not been to a game in 3 months and 29 days. Since leaving Estádio São Januário after an entertaining night of humid Brazilian football the world has changed a great deal. Football through much of Europe and the world is behind closed doors with a few exceptions. Itchy feet and the lifting of the UK’s 14 day quarantine rule after travelling had me logging onto Soccerway and seeing what fixtures were being played, what flights were going and finally which games had fans. After looking at the potential of a trip to Poland was scuppered by a limit on attendance the next plan was a trip to the Czech Republic. After consulting Brno based English teacher and FK Blansko’s top boy Ralph Davies, Prague was on. Once booked and sorted I received more than a couple of enquiries including one from another European based ground chaser, Watford and HSV fan Tom Beck. Tom had moved to Potsdam a few years ago and with the help of his SAP fuelled automobile had been ticking his way around Germany and it’s neighbouring countries.
After driving to Heathrow and dropping my car at an airport parking golf course carpark, masked up I made my way to the airport. Pandemic airports are an odd place, most people wearing masks, some in hazmat suits some in hazmat suits without masks… Oddly. Very few shops were open and there was only one place to get Airport Pints. The flight, was pretty packed, again everyone donning a face covering apart from when eating or drinking. It’s slightly odd after over three months of limiting human contact to be back in that sort of situation. Social distancing is obviously difficult but people adhered where possible and getting off the flight was much more chilled than usual. Prague airport being out of town I decided to hop in an uber (my first since leaving Buenos Aires) and headed straight to my hotel. According to the waiter in the Italian restaurant I went for scran opposite the Astronomical Clock, Prague was quieter than usual but picking up. After eating pizza I met Tom, and his wife Yvonne for a mooch across the Charles Bridge before settling down for some pints.
A rainy start to Saturday saw me trek up (in an uber) to the Great Strahov Stadium, built for mass displays of synchronised gymnastics. From 1955 until the Velvet Revolution in 1990 the stadium was used for the Spartakiad, now however it has taken on the role of Sparta Prague’s training complex. With it’s official capacity of 220,000 it is the largest sports stadium ever built. Made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003 the crumbling Soviet era masterpiece does need some TLC but is well worth a visit. After taking in the stadium I then made my way to Dejvice for some pre-match pints.
Stadion Juliska is at the top of a hill with beayutifu the Czech capital. A classic Eastern Block bowl with large stand straddling one side of the athletic track and open terraces around the other three sides the stadium. The ground is also overlooked by beautiful floodlights, what more could you want for the return to football? I met Tom in the ground, grabbed a beer, spicy sausage and sourdough bread and made our way uninvited to the VIP area and well used but padded seats. Dukla dominated the first half with Ivorian midfielder Mohamed Doumbia running the show. The visitors Varsdorf were keeping the visitors at bay until five minutes before half time when Kozma rose to head home from a corner. The second half was much of the same with Dukla dominating when against the run of play Varnsdorf equalised when a strike from Schön flew into the bottom corner. The hosts however continued their entertaining, attacking football and were rightly rewarded with a winner seven minutes after the equaliser when Jakab stabbed home from another corner. Varsdorf huffed and puffed but were kept at arms length for the rest of the match. An entertaining game and a real pleasure to be back watching live football.
Did Dukla have the bedlam of South America? No. Was it the most exciting place to watch football? Absolutely not. However, it was live football, it was beautifully framed with views across the city, it was incredibly enjoyable and there was good beer. While we may have football back on TV, there’s something special about entering a stadium for the first or one thousandth time. Football for those who attend isn’t really about the football, it’s about the smells, the sights, the feelings that it gives you. The pre-match routines, the friends, the gasps and smiles. Watching as a neutral allows all of that without the pain or jubilation supporting a club gives you. This trip allowed me to enjoy a lot of those feelings again, I can’t wait to get back to the pain and jubilation again, though.