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Prague's football history

Fierce rivals Sparta and Slavia Praha are the standard-bearers for a rich and vibrant football scene in Prague.

Prague's Eden Arena, venue for this season's final
Prague's Eden Arena, venue for this season's final UEFA via Getty Images

This article also appears in the official UEFA Europa Conference League final programme. Get your copy here!

Many cities in Europe have a right bank and a left bank. Head down to the Vltava river in Prague, on the other hand, and you will be standing either on the right bank… or the wrong one. It all depends who you ask. For fans of Sparta Praha, the right side of the Czech capital is unquestionably the part of town featuring their home neighbourhood of Letná. Speak to a Slavia supporter, and the only place to be is across the river in the district of Vršovice. Two proud clubs divided by a vast waterway.

The bitter rivalry between Iron Sparta and the Red and Whites stands at the heart of Czech football culture. Both teams are backed by a massive fanbase – and not just in Prague but throughout the nation, with chapters in small towns and villages across the land decorating local bars in their favourite club's colours. Many descend on the capital to attend matches, waving flags that bear the name of their home locale. And the game they all want to win is the derby, a victory always marked by the mayor of Prague awarding the symbolic key to the city to the winners.

The story of football in Prague is more than the tale of Sparta and Slavia, however. Two stops on the tramway from Slavia's Eden Arena, Ďolíček is the home of fellow top-flight outfit Bohemians. The club were known as Vršovice until a 1927 tour to Australia saw them adopt their current moniker (it's much easier to say for an English speaker). It stuck, as did the nickname they gained on their return: the Kangaroos. Bohemians have since made an impression closer to home, too, reaching the 1982/83 UEFA Cup semi-finals – the season they clinched their sole Czech title.

European football history has also been written at Stadion Juliska in the Dejvice neighbourhood. It is here that Dukla Praha dream of a return to the glory years, when they twice reached the European Cup quarter-finals before progressing undefeated to the semis in 1966/67, their run finally stopped by eventual winners Celtic. A statue of Josef Masopust outside the ground stands as a reminder of that gilded era, the 1962 Ballon d'Or winner and Czech footballer of the century having helped the army club win eight of their 11 league titles. More recently, Dukla have been in the second division, but their games are regularly attended by 1976 European Championship winners Ivo Viktor and Zdeněk Nehoda.

Jimmy Johnstone (left) beats  Dukla Praha goalkeeper Ivo Viktor to score Celtic's first goal during the 1966/67 European Cup semi-final
Jimmy Johnstone (left) beats Dukla Praha goalkeeper Ivo Viktor to score Celtic's first goal during the 1966/67 European Cup semi-finalPopperfoto via Getty Images

Another of the city's traditional stadiums can be found in the lively district of Žižkov. This is where local side Viktoria Žižkov were founded in 1903, and though they have been cut adrift of the top tier for more than a decade, Viktoria can pride themselves on the 1927/28 Czech title and two Czech Cups. They also faced the might of Chelsea in the 1994/95 Cup Winners' Cup, playmaker Karel Poborský spurning a penalty in a goalless home draw following a 4-2 loss in west London.

Further down the ladder, Prague's various amateur leagues are the focal point of a thriving grassroots scene for players of all ages. The highest local division features numerous clubs with long histories of their own, including ČAFC Praha (founded in 1899) and Čechie Uhříněves (founded in 1908). And the capital is likewise the beating heart of the nation's women's game, with either Slavia or Sparta having snared every league crown but one since 1969/70. Sparta's tally of 33 domestic titles is a world record in women's football, while both have also reached the quarter-finals of the Women's Champions League, Slavia gracing that stage three times.

Overseeing this activity – in more ways than one – is the Football Association of the Czech Republic (FAČR), whose modern headquarters are located in Strahov, the hill looking down on the city. Along with a 12th-century monastery, Strahov is best known for its two famous stadiums, one next to the other. The little brother of the duo is Stadion Evžena Rošického, where Slavia defeated Ajax 2-1 in 2007/08 to reach their first ever Champions League group stage. And over the road is Great Strahov Stadium, once the biggest sports arena in the world and now home to Sparta's training centre and academy, with eight separate football fields nestled between its stands.

Slavia celebrate beating Ajax in 2007
Slavia celebrate beating Ajax in 2007AFP via Getty Images

Newly-crowned champions Sparta play their home games at Stadion Letná, their base of operations for a record haul of Czech league titles and cups. The club's nickname of Iron Sparta dates back to their dominant period after the First World War, and the long list of lauded players to have worn the shirt includes Tomáš Rosický, Petr Čech and Pavel Nedvěd. Nedvěd joined the year after Sparta excelled in the final season of the old European Cup, beating the likes of Rangers, Marseille and Barcelona at Letná as they came close to reaching the final.

Czech Cup holders Slavia were once based in Letná too and even shared Sparta's stadium for a while after their own ground was destroyed by shelling during the Second World War. The rebuilt venue was then demolished to make way for a giant statue of Joseph Stalin, forcing Slavia to relocate to Eden, once the home of an amusement park with an enormous rollercoaster. The club's all-time record marksman Josef Bican hit the first goal at the old Stadion Eden in 1953, and fellow club legend Vladimír Šmicer mimicked that feat at the Eden Arena in 2008.

Since then, the Red and Whites have played host to many of Europe's powerhouse teams at their new home, memorably knocking Europa League specialists Sevilla out of their favourite competition in 2018/19 thanks to an extra-time winner. This season's continental journey ended for Slavia in the Europa Conference League group stage, but a city united in its passion for the game now welcomes the final – and that is something fans from both sides of the river can agree on.

Perfecting the Panenka 

Antonín Panenka unveiled his famous penalty in Belgrade, but he invented it in Prague.

If you fancy catching a glimpse of Czech legend Panenka, chances are you will find him in the crowd at Ďolíček whenever his beloved Bohemians are at home. It is here that the former midfielder made his breakthrough in the game, having reportedly been rejected by both Sparta and Slavia in his youth for being too small and frail.

It is here too that he perfected the penalty technique that now bears his name. Panenka practised his iconic chip down the middle at the end of Bohemians training sessions and, after two years of fine-tuning, he felt ready to unveil his audacious innovation in the biggest game of his career: the 1976 UEFA European Championship final.

Czechoslovakia had played out a 2-2 draw with West Germany after 120 minutes in Belgrade, and everything now hinged on a penalty shoot-out. Panenka's room-mate Viktor warned the No7 that he would bar him from their hotel room if he dared attempt his signature spot kick, but try it he did – and wrong-footed Sepp Maier to clinch the trophy.

EURO 1976 final highlights: Czechoslovakia stun Germany

Nowadays the duo are able to laugh about that moment whenever they meet, and Viktor can even joke about his goalkeeping mistake that allowed West Germany to equalise late on: "Who would know about you without me? Had I not dropped the ball, no penalty shoot-out would ever have taken place."

Panenka played for Bohemians from 1967 until 1981, regularly delighting supporters with the flourishes of skill that defined his approach to the game. "I always tried to do something extraordinary," he later explained. "Some trick or a pass, something special that the fans could talk about after the game." Often he would commune with supporters in the close Ďolíček stands even more directly, chatting with them when preparing to take a corner.

Panenka never played for any other Czech club during his career and he is now Bohemians president, keeping a close eye on the Kangaroos from his seat in the main stand. The man who lent his name to a trademark piece of skill remains as hungry for the magic of the game as ever.

Get the official final programme

Get the lowdown on finalists West Ham and Fiorentina and look back at another memorable campaign with official 2023 Europa Conference League final programme. Soak up the tactical analysis, find out all you need to know about Prague and Eden Arena, pore over the season’s European football map and enjoy final ambassador Vladimír Šmicer reliving his glory days. Get your copy here!

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