AC Sparta Praha are taking determined steps to curb racist behaviour.
In addition to the excitement generated by the visit of one of Europe's most famous clubs, the Prague side have a historic connection to the north London club, having used Arsenal's recently revived deep-red jerseys as the inspiration for their own team colours. Instead of a celebration, however, Tuesday's game was something of an embarrassment for Sparta, and not only because they lost 2-0.
Because of racist chanting during Sparta's Matchday 1 game against AFC Ajax, the Czech champions were ordered to close part of their stadium for the Gunners showdown. Some 6,300 Sparta fans were shut out of the ground, reducing the attendance to 12,528, and the Prague club was fined an additional €32,000.
Having initially lodged an appeal against the severity of the ruling, Sparta withdrew their protest when their fans transgressed again, during Matchday 2's game against FC Thun, in Switzerland. "UEFA bodies will be punishing Sparta again in the near future, for further disorder, so we didn't want to risk having the original punishment increased," explained Sparta business director Dušan Svoboda at the time of the decision. "That could have meant the closure of the whole stadium for the Arsenal game."
For the Arsenal game, UEFA's measures seem to have had an impact. Perhaps most significantly, the section of the ground known as the "kotel" (cauldron), where Sparta's hooligan element congregates, was closed for Tuesday's match, and there was no obvious barracking of Arsenal's black players. Also, as part of the Action Week organised by UEFA's partner Football Against racism in Europe (FARE), which, ironically, coincided with the Arsenal game, flyers were distributed reminding fans that racism had cost Sparta both money and support, and public-address announcements condemning racism were made before the game.
Targets for abuse
Racist abuse is not a new phenomenon at Sparta or in Czech football at large. In a society that, until recently, has been relatively isolated from multiculturalism, black players have often been the target of racial abuse, both in the domestic league and in European competition. Liberian star George Weah was abused by Sparta fans in 1995, while playing a UEFA Cup tie in Prague for AC Milan, and in 2001, UEFA punished the club when fans targeted FC Spartak Moskva's Brazilian striker Robson da Silva during a Champions League game. At the time, the fine of €35,000 was the largest ever levelled against a European club for racism.
Aware that the problem is not going to go away overnight, Sparta are now taking a bold and radical step, refusing their allocation of tickets for their next Champions League match. "Sparta have decided not to offer fans any tickets for the away game against Arsenal," confirmed club spokeswoman Lenka Raková, "and we are considering doing the same thing for the Ajax game in Amsterdam."
Sparta's new coach, Stanislav Griga, has joined condemnation of the fans' behaviour. "It's really very sad that things like this are happening in the 21st century," he said. "I find it very embarrassing. It's not real Sparta fans that do this, because real fans couldn't possibly want to damage the club. It's like scoring an own goal."
Goalkeeper Jaromír Blažek has added his disapproval - but the Czech international is somewhat pessimistic about the chances of keeping racism out of stadiums long-term. "I'm afraid that we might see these things continuing," he said.