Francois Omam-Biyik and African football’s false dawn

Biyik

When current Cameroon goalkeeper Carlos Kameni tells the story of his favourite World Cup moment, it is evident that he still lives the experience every time he tells the tale “He rises so high off the ground!” He says in obvious wonderment, “He virtually gets his boots at the same height as the Argentinian defender’s chest, and heads the ball… It’s euphoria. An entire nation lives the moment, and Cameroon win.”

The moment Kameni is describing is the header which saw Cameroon cause arguably the biggest shock in World Cup history when they beat reigning World Champions Argentina 1-0 in the opening match of Italia ’90 at a packed San Siro Stadium. The Argentines were considered among the favourites to retain the title they had won in Mexico four years previously. Boasting stars such as Claudio Caniggia, Jorge Burruchaga and the great Diego Maradona, and teeming with experience, Argentina were expected to progress comfortably from a group containing Romania, the Soviet Union and Cameroon’s ‘Indomitable Lions’.

But from the first minute in the San Siro, things did not go according to plan for the ‘Albiceleste’. While the Argentines were clearly technically superior to their opponents, they struggled to deal with the physicality of a Cameroon side not short on skill themselves. While Maradona, booed and jeered throughout by a Milan crowd still hurt by Napoli’s Serie A victory in the previous season, pulled the strings early on to create early half chances for the Argentines, Cameroon looked extremely dangerous on the counter attack, and it was the Indomitable Lions who came closest to breaking the deadlock. Kana-Biyik broke down the left, leaving Argentinian defenders in his wake, before his dangerous ball into the box was almost turned into his own net by Lorenzo. But Maradona’s influence was not waning, and his lofted through ball just minutes later found Jorge Burruchaga, only for the Nantes star to be denied by Cameroon goalkeeper N’Kono. Just before half time, another swift break from the Africans saw Omam-Biyik’s powerful drive parried away by Pumpido in the Argentina goal.

But the second half saw things start to go wrong for Cameroon. Despite their continuing threat, Argentina were swift to capitalise on any opportunity to raid forward, and they soon controversially got their reward. A rapid breakaway led by Burruchaga and Maradona saw Claudio Caniggia flying down the left, only to be taken down by the recovering Kana-Biyik. Fans and players alike expected referee Michel Vautrot to produce a yellow card, only for the Frenchman to stun the crowd by producing a straight red card. The Cameroonians could have been forgiven for surrendering to what seemed to be the inevitable. But inspired by the injustice, they continued to fly forward, bewildering the Argentinians with their pace, and in the 67th minute came the game’s defining moment.

Cameroon were awarded a free kick 18 yards out on the left hand side. The ball delivered was tame, but the Argentinian defence, which had looked suspect throughout the encounter, were only able to clear the ball high above their own heads. As the ball looped back towards the ground after being suspended in the air for what seemed like an age, defenders jostled for position with a solitary figure in green. Francois Omam-Biyik lurked, and then, when the time was right, leapt. The Cameroon number 7’s jump left his marker Roberto Sensini rooted to the ground, and as his header squirmed through the grasp of Pumpido, a wave of euphoria rippled through the San Siro.

Yet there were still 23 minutes left for Cameroon to hold on against a now desperate Argentina. Chances fell to Maradona and Sensini, before Cameroon saw red again, with Massing punished for a brutal challenge on Caniggia in the 89th minute. But still Argentina couldn’t break down the men in green, and they held on to secure a most famous victory. Omam-Biyik’s header had lit the touch paper on what was to be recognised as one of the greatest ever World Cups. Cameroon would go on to the quarter finals, beating Romania and Colombia, before being beaten by Bobby Robson’s England in an exhilarating extra time battle in Naples.

“If we had beaten England, Africa would have exploded. Ex-plo-ded. There would have been deaths. The Good Lord knows what he does. Me, I thank him for stopping us in the quarter-finals.” Roger Milla

But Omam-Biyik’s header on a day he described as “the best of [his] life”, was supposed to be a spark for more than a fine run for Cameroon at a major tournament. For this was supposed to be the moment that African football, so long the poor relation of their South American and European cousins, came of age, the moment Pele’s prediction that an African team would win the World Cup by the year 2000 came to fruition. Even in 1990, when African stars such as Roger Milla, who had returned to star for Cameroon at Italia ’90 after an intervention from President Biya, and George Weah of Liberia were gracing the upper echelons of European club football, there was a stigma attached to African football that it simply couldn’t shake. Even as Cameroon went toe to toe with the world’s best, they were still being described as a “happy, go lucky bunch of fellas” by the BBC’s commentator for the game. In the eyes of many, African sides were plucky and passionate but ultimately lacking in quality.

For at least a few weeks, Omam-Biyik’s Cameroon threatened to change all that. The Guardian’s football correspondent David Lacey wrote that African football had “long since threatened to arrive on the wider footballing stage in style, but nobody seriously expected Cameroon to make the entrance they did”, before going on to say that such was the superiority of the Africans, they “still finished looking as if they had more men on the pitch than their hapless opponents”. People had started to take these standard bearers for African football seriously, and those involved in the Cameroon setup were under no illusions as to the impact they could have upon the tournament. Before the tournament even began, Cameroon’s Soviet coach Valery Nepomniachi told the New York Times that his team had “decided to change the tradition” of African sides not competing strongly on the biggest stage. Cameroon had become representative of a new era for African football, and a whole continent was behind them.

But the revolution everybody had anticipated, ultimately failed to happen. The Cameroon of Italia ’90 became little more than an anomaly, as African football withdrew back into the shadows of Europe and South America. While Nigeria impressed in the USA in 1994, topping a tough group including Argentina and a Hristo Stoickhov inspired Bulgaria before being knocking out in extra time in the second round by eventual finalists Italy, Cameroon and Morocco, Africa’s other representatives, only mustered 1 point between them. France 1998 told a similar story, with Tunisia, Cameroon and South Africa knocked out comprehensively. While Morocco were unfortunate not to progress, and Nigeria again topped a tricky group before being outplayed by European Champions Denmark in the Second Round, the new dawn promised by Cameroon’s 1990 cavaliers seemed a distant memory. Omam-Biyik’s header had lost its symbolic significance.

Africa’s failure to make good on its promise to compete with world football’s elite nations was also reflected in the fortunes of Omam- Biyik himself. After showing huge promise at Rennes, where he had scored 13 goals in 38 games for a team which only avoided relegation due to financial irregularities at  Girondins Bordeaux, Stade Brest and OGC Nice , the then 25-year-old was given his big chance with a move to champions Marseille. But with Jean –Pierre Papin and new Ghanaian star Abedi Pele the preferred partnership at L’OM, Omam-Biyik’s chances were incredibly scarce, and by the time he left in October 1992, just 3 months after his big move, Biyik had made just 1 appearance for the club. While he went on to boast strong scoring records at RC Lens and Club America in Mexico, the man who would go on to become the captain of his national team at the 1994 and 1998 World Cups never made an impact on the biggest stage.

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So what happened to the African Revolution? Why is it that since Cameroon’s great feat, only Senegal in 2002, and Ghana in 2010, have been able to emulate Milla, Omam-Biyik and co.? There is no question that the continent has been able to produce some phenomenal footballers since the age of Weah and Milla. Abedi Pele, Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Michael Essien and Samuel Eto’o have all excelled on the biggest stage, with Eto’o and Drogba key players in Champions League winning squads at Barcelona and Chelsea respectively. Furthermore, the under 23 squads of Nigeria and Cameroon clinched Olympic Gold in 1996 and 2000 respectively, beating prestigious European and South American nations along the way. So why have Africa’s superpowers repeatedly failed on the big occasions in the senior ranks?

While there is no definitive answer to this question, it is hard to dispute that at least part of the issue is a lack of finance for African football. While huge leaps have been made in this respect, with the CAF (Confédération Africaine de Football) increasing their development budget from a measly $100,000 per year to $2 million, and introducing other programmes such as the $1.3 million , which focuses upon encouraging growth in grassroots football and improvements in infrastructure across the continent. Despite this investment, the gap between African and European football remains huge, and this is due in no small part to the rampant corruption and political interference which has beseeched African football for decades.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to name an African FA which hasn’t become embroiled in a corruption scandal in recent years, but perhaps the most glaring example of how African football is robbed of its ambition by its FAs came in Kenya in 2004. According to Brian Oliver of Kenyan Government investigations showed that KFF (Kenyan Football Federation) officials had “repeatedly ignored or broken 12 of the 21 articles in the KFF constitution, repeatedly failed to produce annual audited accounts for four years, and refused to allow member clubs to inspect the accounts.” Additionally, officials “allegedly stole more than $700,000 from their own body’s and Fifa’s funds” leaving clubs, players, referees and coaches in a developing footballing nation in dire straits. When presented with the evidence, FIFA banned the Kenyan national team until the KFF officials which had been proved to be corrupt were reinstated, citing “Government interference” as the reason for their intervention. With millions of dollars at stake, the Kenyan Government backed down.

While the Kenyan case showed how deep seated corruption can be within African FAs, the consequences of such corruption can run far deeper than the starving of football development. The failure of the Ghanaian and Ivorian football authorities (both of which have been investigated for corruption in recent years) to impose sufficient safety regulations at their stadia, has led to 2 of the worst stadium disasters in recent times, with stampedes in Accra and Abidjan killing a combined 145 people. If funds intended for infrastructural improvements had been allocated as such, such catastrophes may never have happened. If funds intended for football development had not been pocketed by greedy, corrupt officials, footballs long-awaited African uprising might just have happened. Instead, Africa’s strongest national teams are still the plucky outsiders, still a “happy, go lucky bunch of fellas”.

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As for Omam-Biyik, while his goal did not prove the catalyst for an era of African dominance, his header will always live on in the hearts of Cameroonians. Now the manager of Gabon Championnat side US Bitam, Omam-Biyik still remembers his defining moment with startling clarity. One of his most vivid memories is the welcome the team received when they landed in Douala after their defeat at the hands of England. “When we arrived at Douala airport, the aeroplane had to pull up and come around again, because the runway was totally flooded with people” recalls Omam-Biyik. A national holiday had been proclaimed by President Biya and the players were showered with honours. A nation was celebrating the long-awaited apparent emergence of Africa as a footballing superpower. 24 years later, it is painfully clear that Francois Omam-Biyik’s header was the catalyst for nothing more than a false dawn.

Schalke vs BVB: A History of the Revierderby

Schalke-vs-Dortmund-Bundesliga-October-2012

War analogies often find their way into the language of football. Visits to hostile grounds are often described as visits to enemy territory, commanding midfielders have become ‘midfield generals’, aerial challenges are aerial ‘battles’, and the list goes on. But few derbies in world football will go as far as to infer battle in the name of the clash. That said, few derbies are as intense as the ‘Revierderby’ (territory derby) between Schalke and Borussia Dortmund.

The Ruhr area of Germany is arguably where working class football began in the home of the current World Champions. Until the start of the 20th Century, football was largely restricted to the upper and middle class members of gymnastics clubs, who would ask potential players to pay a small fee to play what was considered a less than virtuous sport, while those who could pay for the privilege but were deemed unsavoury would also be turned away. But all that changed in 1904 when a group of miner’s sons formed Westphalia Schalke, a club which would go on to become one of the largest and most prestigious in Europe.

In 1904 the Ruhr, as it is today, was the industrial heartland of Germany. Just 50 years earlier, the region was populated only by small towns and villages, with Gelsenkirchen home to 2,000 people, and Dortmund the region’s largest town with a population of 13,000. But all that was to change with the industrialisation of Prussia in the late 19th Century. With the Ruhr now the home of mining in modern Prussia, workers from across Prussia and Eastern Europe flocked to the Ruhr in search of a decent wage and a new way of life. Soon, these tiny villages had swelled and amalgamated into one vast metropolis in a new German Republic, and by the turn of the century, Dortmund had grown to a city of 214,000 while Gelsenkirchen had grown at a staggering rate to become home to 170,000.

But mining in the Ruhr was not for the faint hearted. The settlements formed around the mines were often tightly packed, dank, cheaply built properties, built by companies intent on capitalising upon Prussia and later Germany’s industrialisation, while conditions in the mines were as unsavoury as any in Europe. Nevertheless, the close packed housing meant tight-knit communities formed around the mines, and soon miners clubs, and in turn football clubs were established. After Schalke’s formation came the creation of Rot-Weiss Essen (1907) and Borussia Dortmund (1909), while Duisburg (1905), and Bochum (1911) too turned their attentions to football for the working class.

Despite the number of clubs in the area, it was always the rivalry between the coal miners of Gelsenkirchen and the steel miners of Dortmund has always been the most intense. Early in the rivalry, it was Schalke who dominated, with the Königsblauen team of the 1920s, known as the ‘Spinning Top’ dominating their local rivals. The team, starring club legends Fritz Szepan and Ernst Kuzorra triumphed in all 3 encounters in the 20s, including a 2-7 humiliation of their opponents in 1927. The Schalke domination continued into Germany’s Gauliga era under the Nazis, with Schalke claiming 14 wins and a draw from the clubs’ 16 encounters. The scorelines did not become any more promising for BVB either. Schalke’s 10-0 win over their local rivals on the 20th October 1940 is still the greatest margin of victory in Revierderby history, and the Schwarzgelben had to wait until 1943 for their first victory.

But in 1947, the rivalry, while already intense, was launched into another stratosphere. The rivals met in the town of Herne to contest the Westphalia championship, a competition which Schalke had dominated before WWII. With the ‘spinning top’ and the forward thinking philosophy that surrounded it long since condemned to the annuls of history, Schalke were no longer the formindable opponent they once were, while Dortmund had improved dramatically from the side routinely annihilated by their rivals from Gelsenkirchen over the past 3 decades.

Despite this reversal of fortunes, it was Schalke who took the lead in the first half, with Hinz putting the ten-time champions in front. But just into the second half, BVB equalised through Michallek, only for a superb Tibulski free kick to put Schalke back in front, and for all the Dortmund resistance, it seemed as if history was set to repeat itself. But this was a new Dortmund, and indeed a new Schalke, and instead of Schalke building on their momentum and putting the game beyond doubt, Dortmund staged a stunning, era defining comeback. First to turn the tide of history was defender Heinrich Ruhmhofer, who struck an unlikely equaliser, before a 17-year- old Herbert Sandmann struck the winning goal with mere seconds remaining. The travelling Schwarzgelben fans celebrated wildly. A new era was beginning.

During the Oberliga era of 1947-1963, Dortmund won 9 of the first 13 Revierderbies, and 15 of the 32 contested overall, winning 3 Oberliga titles in the process. But since the advent of the Bundesliga in 1963, the rivalry has been relatively even, with the dominant team seemingly changing with the wind. Dortmund won 8 of the first 10 Bundesliga Revierderbies, before a dramatic decline resulted in relegation for Borussia in 1972, ceding superiority to Schalke. The sides wouldn’t meet again until 1975, when the Blues were able to continue their domination, until a 1-0 win in 1977 sealed BVB’s first victory in over ten years. Dortmund went on to win 11, and Schalke just 6 of the derbies before Schalke were relegated in 1987.

Since Schalke returned to the Bundesliga in 1991, the rivalry has arguably become even more intense. Both clubs have grown to exist amongst German football’s great heavyweights, slugging it out for dominance year after year. But while Schalke have the superior record in head-to-head contests since 1991, it is Dortmund who have gone on to become a powerful force in the Bundesliga and in Europe. While Schalke have won a UEFA Cup and 3 German Cups since 1991, Dortmund have won 5 Bundesliga titles, a European Cup and an Intercontinental Cup.

While this rivalry has continued, the Ruhr has modernised, with the mines closed and open green spaces, the region has come closer to its humble roots than at any other time over the past 160 years. With the region’s transformation has come the growth and modernisation of its most famous clubs. Schalke left the Parkstadion, their home for almost 50 years in 2001, moving into the 61,000 seater Arena AufSchalke (now the VELTINS Arena), while the Westfalenstadion, home to BVB since 1972, has grown to become the biggest stadium in Germany, housing 81,000 fans since its last phase of modernisation in 1997.

While the landscape of this rivalry has transformed as dramatically as the region Dortmund and Schalke fight over, the Revierderby will never lose its intensity. The clubs which contest it remain close to their roots, and as such, too close to each other for comfort. History suggests that every clash between the two could be the catalyst for a new era of the rivalry, a new chapter to be written. When the two sides clash this Saturday, a war which has raged for nearly one hundred years will see yet another battle over the Ruhr revier. May the best side win.

The Mobster’s Grandson

fotosculli

On April 22nd 2012, chaos descended from the stands of Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris. With the troubled Rossoblu trailing 4-0 just after half time against Siena, a gang of 60-80 Ultras broke into the family stand, climbed atop of the players’ tunnel and demanded the match be stopped, throwing flares and fireworks onto the pitch until, in the 63rd minute, their demands were finally met. With Siena players and officials ushered off the pitch by the gang to warm applause, and showdown was now on between the Ultras and the home players, who were essentially being held hostage on the pitch. When the leader of the mob demanded to speak to club Captain Marco Rossi, nobody was especially surprised to learn that their end game in this bizarre display of fan power was the ritual humiliation of the players they believed were embarrassing their city and their club. “We want your socks, we want you in your underpants” came the cries from the terraces. The players, some of whom were in tears, duly obliged, terrified of the consequences of disobeying a group who had already showed their capacity for violence. But as Rossi led his players away from their tormentors one man stayed behind to confront the Ultras. Walking straight towards the apparent leader of the group, Giuseppe Sculli grabbed the man by the scruff of the neck, stared him in the eye and told him “I’m not taking it off, it’s mine.”

After the dust had settled from this bizarre incident, decried as “a chilling spectacle … right out of the dark ages” by Corriere della Sport, came praise for the bravery Sculli had shown in confronting a gang which had overthrown any sense of order in the stadium. Asked what had inspired him to confront the Ultras instead of accepting their ultimatum, Sculli attributed his bravery to his grandfather, a move not too controversial, until you realise that Sculli is the favourite grandson of Giuseppe Morabito, the former boss of the infamous ‘Ndrangheta mafia clan.

Morabito’s is a name which resonates through the mountain passes of his native Calabria. Heavily involved in the Second ‘Ndrangheta War between mobs affiliated with the Imerti and de Stefano clans, Morabito, nicknamed ‘u tiradrittu’ or ‘Shootstraight’ chaired the annual ‘crimini’ meetings at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Polsi, and led an ‘Ndrangheta cell in the Sicilian port city of Messina which exerted considerable influence over the port authority and University in particular, with several explosions, kneecappings and car fires across the campus over a 25 year period traced back to individuals involved with the Morabito clan.

However, it is drug trafficking which Morabito is perhaps most famous for, establishing a huge network between mafia clans in Italy and the Balkans to smuggle vast amounts of cocaine, hashish and heroin into the country, falling upon his experience of brokering deals between the ‘Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra in Messina to establish smuggling routes through Morocco, Lebanon, Venezuela, Colombia and Argentina. When the Police’s special antimafia unit uncovered Morabito as the leader of the operation in 1992, Morabito went on the run, leaving his son Francesco, Giuseppe Sculli’s father, to become the de facto leader of the operation. By now, Giuseppe had left Calabria, leaving his family behind for Turin to pursue a football career with one of the biggest clubs in the world.

Sculli remembers his time in Turin as a difficult period of his life. He describes how he found Turin to be a “hard city, somewhere very closed off for a kid.” While he missed his friends and “the warmth of the South”, Sculli persevered and impressed enough in the Juventus youth team to be called up to the Italy squads at every youth level. However, since showing enough early promise to be handed a professional contract by Juventus at the age of 18, his career has been a less than remarkable one. While he showed enough promise to earn 23 caps for the Azzurri’s Under 21 side, where he scored a respectable 8 goals, as with many young Italian talents, Sculli spent much of his early career on loan in the lower echelons of Italian football. While still on the books at Juventus, he spent time at Crotone and Modena between 2001 and 2003, and when he failed to impress, was sold to Chievo Verona for 450,000 Euros as part of the deal which took Nicola Legrottaglie to the Old Lady. Following the pattern of his early career, Sculli’s time in Verona was underwhelming, reflected by a paltry tally of 2 goals in 18 appearances over 2 years, before he was again shipped out on loan to Brescia, where he didn’t manage a single goal in 18 appearances before returning to Juventus, where he was again loaned out, this time to Messina and Genoa, where he finally found his home, scoring 4 goals in 11 games during the 2006-7 season before ‘Grifoni’ made the move permanent. After 4 years and 114 appearances for Genoa, he was sold to Lazio for a paltry 500 Euros, before returning to the North Western port city on loan in 2012 and 2014.

So far, so non-descript. But throughout his career, Sculli has managed to court controversy, which has inevitably led to connections being drawn between him and the business of his predecessors. In 2006, Sculli was found guilty of fixing a match between Calabrian side Crotone and Messina, where his grandfather rose to prominence, on the final day of the 2001-2 Serie B season. Sculli was banned from football for 8 months. 5 years later, Sculli was indicted in the Calcioscommesse scandal, accused of being part of a group of players who sought to manipulate the outcomes of matches involving Lazio, Genoa and Lecce, and was placed under investigation by the Magistrate court. During the investigation, it was found that Sculli had met with Bosnian career criminal Safet Altic, who was known to have fixed matches in the past, and Juventus’ Italian international Domenico Criscito just hours after Genoa’s Ultras had taken the Stadio Luigi Ferraris by force. The trio had met to discuss the extortion of Azzurri legend Luca Toni. Sculli had attained photographs of his then team mate, in his words, “getting cozy with girls” while his girlfriend Marta Cecchetto was pregnant. Sculli was later cleared of any involvement in the Calcioscommesse scandal, though the episode remains a stain on his character.

But what makes Sculli’s career so fascinating is what police describe as the “awkward”, yet close relationship he still has with his grandfather, who he hasn’t seen since 1992, and his steadfast refusal to distance himself from the family business. Interviewed in 2004, Sculli spoke of his continued adoration for his “kind, considerate” grandfather, who he says taught him to “behave [himself] and give respect to people, especially to the forces of order.” The start of Sculli’s career is inescapably intertwined with his grandfather’s lifestyle, with Morabito attending every one of his favourite grandson’s games before hosting lavish banquets for the players and families of Sculli’s youth team in Brancaleone, Calabria, and the relationship the pair enjoyed through Sculli’s football did not end when the favourite grandson left for Turin.

Police believed the ties between Morabito and his grandson were so strong that ‘shootstraight’ would arrive at stadiums around the country where Sculli might be playing, despite the huge risk of being recognised and captured, just to catch a glimpse of his favourite grandson in action. This resulted in investigators themselves arriving at matches in which Sculli may have been participating in, combing the stands for any trace of a man listed on the list of most wanted fugitives in Italy until he was finally captured in 2004. Morabito remains the driving force behind Sculli’s 16 year prosfessional career, and indeed when Sculli won an Olympic bronze medal in Athens, the undoubted highlight of his career, he dedicated the medal to his grandfather, stating “I know I’m his favourite grandson. That is something I will never deny.”

While Sculli hasn’t visited his grandfather since he was jailed, something which he puts down to him “being hurt by the thought of seeing him behind bars”, his actions are still, and will always be influenced by the looming figure of his infamous grandfather. When the ‘Ndrangheta question has been raised throughout his career, Sculli has always puffed out his chest and declared his grandfather to be a great man, claiming that ‘u tiradrittu’ is “a person respected by everyone in the country” who could open doors for himself and others “not because he was a boss, but because he was always good to people. As a kid he always said, “Peppe, if you do good, you will always receive the goods.”” Given his rap list, it is questionable how intently Sculli was listening when his grandfather uttered those words. Accuse him of inattention if you will, but you could never accuse Giuseppe Sculli of being dull.

Moyes’ Manchester United, Metamorphosis, and the struggle to get out of bed

It is difficult to make sense of the transformation of Manchester United since David Moyes took over from Sir Alex Ferguson in July 2013. Once a formidable force capable of destroying any opponent in its path, under Moyes, United have become a timid shadow of the side they once were, a fact which became abundantly clear after the 0-3 humiliation at Old Trafford at the hands of fierce rivals Liverpool. Despite a recent recovery of form against Olympiakos and West Ham United, the Red Devils still seem strangely subdued, and recent reports emerging from the club of the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick being told what Phil Jagielka or Leon Osman might do is nothing short of bizarre. While it would perhaps be a stretch to describe United’s extraordinary demise as Kafkaesque, it is worth deconstructing some of the major moments of Moyes’ tenure alongside the opening passage of the forefather of exsistentialism’s most famous work, Metamorphosis. While firmly tongue in cheek, some of the similarities, given a little imagination on the part of the reader, are truly remarkable. Enjoy the read, and please don’t take it too seriously! 

Cockroach David Moyes saw his Manchester United side lose to Sunderland in the League Cup semi-final first leg

“When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach.”

When David Moyes awoke on the morning of July 1st 2013, he found Manchester United, once a team feared and loved in equal measure across the land, had transformed into a hideously lethargic cockroach.

“However vigorously he flung himself to his right, he kept rocking on to his back.”

When difficulties first arose at Old Trafford, it seemed as if no matter what he tried, Moyes’ United kept rocking onto their back, legs flailing frenetically and helplessly in the air as their main title rivals started to open a gap on the champions.

“If only I didn’t have to follow such an exhausting profession!”

As United’s woes mounted, supporters, players and management alike begin to realise that perhaps success in football as it had seemed to be during Sir Alex Ferguson’s historic tenure. Moyes started to age horribly, wearing the haunted expression of a man under the weight of history.

“He would have needed arms and hands with which to get up; instead of which all he had were those numerous little legs, forever in varied movement, and evidently not under his control.”

With scrutiny now growing on the work Moyes was doing to try and get Manchester United out of bed, it soon became apparent that a fully fit and functioning partnership between Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie was essential if United were to once again function as they were supposed to. Instead, the numerous little legs of his bewildered and disjointed side, particularly those of Rooney and Van Persie, were flailing forever in varied movement, evidently not under Moyes’ control.

“At first he thought he would get out of bed bottom half first, but this bottom half of himself, which he had yet to see, and as to whose specifications he was perfectly ignorant, turned out to be not very manoeuvrable; progress was slow; and when at last, almost in fury, he pushed down with all his strength, he misjudged the direction, and collided with the lower bedpost.”

Having acknowledged the transformation of Manchester United into this monstrous cockroach, Moyes decided the best course of action for getting the club out of bed was with the support of the club’s loyal fanbase. But having only witnessed these fans giddy and impressionable, fed on a diet of success, he now found them to be distant, unfamiliar and far less manoeuvrable and supportive than he thought them to be. When in the near fury of the Liverpool defeat the support were galvanised, and provided Moyes with the support and movement he needed, Moyes made a misjudgement, collided with the figurative bedpost and declared that United, even in their present state were capable of not only escaping their present torment, but also able to exploit the ‘weaknesses’ of an apparently invincible Bayern Munich side.

“He didn’t forget to remind himself periodically that clarity and calm were better than the counsels of despair. At such moments, he levelled his gaze as sharply as possible at the window, but unfortunately there was little solace or encouragement to be drawn from the sight of the morning fog, which was thick enough to obscure even the opposite side of the street. ’Seven o’clock already,’ he said to himself as his alarm clock struck another quarter, ‘seven o’clock already, and still such dense fog.’ And he lay there for a little while longer, panting gently, as though perhaps expecting that silence would restore the natural order of things.”

Despite what was beginning to look like an eternal struggle, Moyes was aware that it was better to stay calm and clear of mind in order to fully comprehend and finally overcome the predicament his club had found itself in. Wallowing in the depths of despair would do nothing to end his torment. In his search for clarity, Moyes gazed out of the window, hoping to at least revel in the woes of Liverpool and Manchester City as they lurch from disaster to unlikely disaster. Only today, Moyes found his view obscured by the thick fog of pessimism outside his window. Moyes was astonished. It was late March and his team still hadn’t shown any real signs of becoming what it had been before that fateful morning. 

The Romani Predicament

Mihajlovic

The treatment of the Roma is a litmus test for democracy“- Vaclav Havel

The issue of discrimination in football is one which casts a dark shadow over the modern game. Despite numerous well-funded and well publicised initiatives such as the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign in the UK and FIFAs own anti-discrimination lobbies have tried in vain to overturn a social ill which seems to rear its head in football far more than any other sport. While these campaigns deserve praise for initiatives in the community focused on eradicating discrimination at the grassroots level, the problem persists from the foundations to the pinnacle of the pyramid of world football.

But for all the publicity far reaching anti-discriminatory bodies such as ‘Kick It Out’ receive, much of it is focused upon eradicating racism towards black players from the game, with recent high profile incidents involving Luis Suarez, John Terry and Emre highlighting the difficulties faced in attempting to rid the game of this societal ill. Any glance towards the bile thrown at talkSport pundit and former player Stan Collymore is an unfortunate reflection upon the work still to be done to erase this form of discrimination from the game.  Yet for all the attention attempts to eliminate discrimination towards black players in football rightfully receives, attempts to remove other forms of racism from the game sometimes seem to pass under the radar. While the recent debate at Tottenham over the application of the term ‘yid’, and Nicolas Anelka’s controversial ‘quenelle’ gesture has raised the profile of football’s fight against anti- Semitism, an equally pertinent channel of discrimination, that of anti-Roma discrimination seems to have gone largely unnoticed by football’s governing bodies.

Sinisa Mihajlovic has a reputation for being one of the most abrasive people in football. Hailing from a small village near the Serbian border town of Vukovar, where the Balkans War began in 1991, Mihajlovic, despite having a Croatian mother, has become a symbol of Serbian nationalism. A status controversial not only in the Balkan tinderbox, but around the world, where Serbian nationalism will forever be associated with the horrendous massacre of 9000 men and boys at Srebrenica to name but one of the atrocities committed by Serbian nationalist forces during the war. While at Red Star Belgrade, Mihajlovic is known to have associated with ‘Arkan’, the warlord at the head of the infamous ‘Tigers’ nationalist paramilitary group, and openly mourned when he was assassinated in 2000. On the pitch, Mihajlovic’s reputation was that of an ‘enfant terrible’, a player with outrageous skill, but a combustible temperament to say the least. Mihajlovic’s combative style combined with a penchant for overstepping the mark saw him in front of UEFA disciplinary panels more often than most, with his list of charges including spitting at opponents on multiple occasions, pushing opponents to the ground and repeatedly kicking Adrian Mutu of the ball during a Champions League match in 2003.

However, perhaps Mihajlovic’s most unsavoury misdemeanour came during a Champions League clash between Lazio and Arsenal in October 2000. After clashing with Martin Keown and Robert Pires during the match, Mihajlovic had to be pulled away by team mates after a confrontation with Patrick Vieira, who also had to be dragged back by team mates. After the game, Vieira told the media that Mihajlovic had racially abused him, suggesting the Serbian had called him a “black monkey” and a “black piece of shit”. Mihajlovic subsequently publically apologised for his actions, and as part of an agreement with the Italian authorities who could theoretically have thrown him in jail, denounced racism from the centre circle of the Stadio Olimpico before the next Champions League game, and was banned for 2 games by UEFA. As despicable and inexcusable as Mihajlovic’s actions were, his defence is a fascinating one. In an interview with Jonathan Wilson for Behind The Curtain: Football in Eastern Europe, Mihajlovic says of the incident that while he insulted Vieira, he did so “only as an answer to his [Vieira’s] insults. He called me a ‘gypsy shit’, and so I answered back with ‘black shit’” adding that he “certainly didn’t call him [Vieira] a monkey”  before stating in reference to the ‘gypsy shit’ jibe “if I am a racist, so is Vieira.”  The fact that Vieira was never charged for his ‘gypsy’ taunt, while Mihajlovic was, albeit rightly, reprimanded for his actions says a lot for  UEFA’s treatment of the Romani predicament when compared to its efforts to eliminate other forms of racism from the game, and while on the pitch examples of antiziganism are rarer than other racist actions, it is still very easy to find examples in the stands.

It is in the football stadia of Eastern Europe where discrimination against Romani groups is most prevalent. It is an unfortunate fact that antiziganism is more prevalent in Eastern European society than in Western Europe. Further to discriminatory chanting in football ground, Romani people face a renewed threat from far right groups such as the Noua Dreapta in Romania, Ataka in Bulgaria and perhaps most worryingly, the Jobbik party in Hungary, all of whom could prove considerable stumbling blocks for the integration of Romani groups in Eastern European society. In Hungary for example, the rise of Jobbik, now the country’s third largest party, has coincided with the increased presence of far right supporters at football grounds. The influence of Jobbik and the rebirth and Hungarian ultra-nationalism saw Budapest clubs Honved and Ferencvaros in particular struggling to deal with the racism, anti-Semitism and antiziganism of its fans.

It was this behaviour which led to Honved making the unprecedented move of banning a section of its own Ultras from their home ground. In an interview with the excellent HungarianFootball.com, Honved’s Hungaro-American chairman George Hemmingway said that he believed that such was the prevalence of discriminatory chants and behaviour amongst the clubs most fanatical fans, that the only option was to issue bans. While this has severely dented Honved’s home attendances, such behaviour is now much rarer than in the past. While Honved’s actions have helped at least limit the presence of groups associated with Jobbik from Hungarian grounds, it hints at a far wider societal problem which will prove extremely difficult to eliminate. While Honved is traditionally supported by more right wing fans than cross-city rivals Ujpest, for example, the fact that it took banning orders to eliminate routinely racist behaviour from the ground shows that there is still a long way to go before the issue can be eradicated at its source.

It was this behaviour which led to Honved making the unprecedented move of banning a section of its own Ultras from their home ground. In an interview with the excellent HungarianFootball.com, Honved’s Hungaro-American chairman George Hemmingway said that he believed that such was the prevalence of discriminatory chants and behaviour amongst the clubs most fanatical fans, that the only option was to issue bans. While this has severely dented Honved’s home attendances, such behaviour is now much rarer than in the past. While Honved’s actions have helped at least limit the presence of groups associated with Jobbik from Hungarian grounds, it hints at a far wider societal problem which will prove extremely difficult to eliminate. While Honved is traditionally supported by more right wing fans than cross-city rivals Ujpest, for example, the fact that it took banning orders to eliminate routinely racist behaviour from the ground shows that there is still a long way to go before the issue can be eradicated at its source.

While Jobbik’s rise threatens the very essence of Hungarian football, it is in Romania where perhaps the most well documented examples of antiziganism occur, and during the heated Bucharest derby between Steaua and Rapid, tensions have a tendency to boil over into discriminatory behaviour of fans. While secondary to the rivalry between Steaua and Dinamo Bucharest, encounters between these two clubs can prove extremely hostile encounters. As with many major cross-city rivalries, the rivalry between Rapid and Steaua is rooted in politics, with Steaua, the Army team, traditionally followed by Right Wing supporters, while Rapid are known to be the most popular club amongst Bucharest’s prominent Romani community. While always intense, the rivalry between fans has escalated significantly since the turn of the century, with the lowest point in the recent history of the rivalry coming at Steaua’s Stadionul Ghencea in April 2005.

The build-up to the match was dominated by politics which perfectly encapsulate the Steaua-Rapid rivalry in a social context, with Steaua owner Gigi Becali, a supporter of the fascist Noua Dreapta movement, (an organisation which incidentally categorizes Roma as a “subhuman group which steals our bread, dilutes our traditions, mugs our brothers, and kills our parents”), declaring that he would assault Rapid’s former owner, who happened to be of Romani heritage were he to set foot inside the Ghencea. Apparently spurred on by their owner, radical elements of Steaua’s support set about intimidating Rapid by any non- physical means possible. Their principle line of attack was to racially abuse Rapid’s Romani following from the first minute to the last. “Gypsies and UFOs”, a well-known antiziganist Romanian song was broadcast over the stadium loudspeaker, while the Steaua Ultras chanted “we have always hated gypsies, we have always pissed on you” throughout the match. After the match, it is alleged that Steaua icon Gabi Safta approached Rapid coach Razvan Lucescu and called him a “stinking gypsy”. Remarkably, despite the numerous well-founded allegations of Rapid and its fans, Valentin Alexandru, the Romanian Football Federation’s match observer on the day said in his official report that “the game was played in normal conditions.” No further action was taken against Steaua.

But antiziganism is not an issue confined solely to the grounds of Eastern Europe. Whenever Sevilla visit the Santiago Bernabeu to face Real Madrid, they are routinely greeted with a noisy rendition of ‘Sevillanos yonkis y gitanos’ (Sevillans, junkies and gypsies) from Madrid’s infamous Ultras Sur, in reference to the high proportion of Romani peoples in and around the Andalusian capital. The application of the term ‘gitano’ as an insult is a complex one which bares similarities with the ‘Yid’ debate surrounding Tottenham Hotspur and its fans, and while Sevilla as a club and a city associate with, and indeed are proud of the ‘gitano’ element of their heritage, there can be no doubt that when sung by the Ultras Sur, a group known to count neo- Nazis among their number, the term is a derisory one, designed to taunt Sevilla and Sevilla CF on the grounds of the city’s racial heritage. In relation to the term ‘gitano’, the taunting is not isolated to Madrid fans, with a YouTube search on the subject quickly throwing up footage of Malaga and Osasuna directing the same taunts towards their opponents.

 

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When attempting to confront the issue of antiziganism in football, one of the major problems is the lack of integration of Roma communities within wider society. The tale of Andrea Pirlo’s Sinti grandfather is a tame, yet perfect example of the hostility Romani groups can face across Europe, and the often stunning antiziganist predisposition of some European societies. Upon arriving in Italy from Eastern Europe, he presented himself at the local town hall to declare himself as an Italian citizen. In an act of mockery enabled by the newcomer’s poor grasp of Italian, the town official informed the man that his surname would be “Pirla”, the Italian equivalent of ‘dickhead’ or ‘idiot’. While this could be considered a light-hearted jibe enabled by a language barrier, the ostracisation of Romani communities in Europe exemplified by the origins of the surname ‘l’architetto’ now bears. A search for prominent professional footballers of Romani origins reveals a surprisingly short list of names, but a list that includes the likes of Pirlo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and French striker André Pierre Gignac., while retired professionals Eric Cantona, Hristo Stoickov and the aforementioned Mihajlovic also have Romani heritage. Nevertheless, Roma groups are grossly under represented when you consider that there is an estimated absolute population of 9.8 million Romani in Europe today, especially when compared with the number of Black Europeans represented in Europe’s major leagues from a population of approximately 5 million.

Much to the credit of UEFA, the problem of under representation of Romani communities in European football has been recognised, and with the support of the governing body’s Respect campaign, a conference was organised to discuss opportunities for Roma populations in football. The conference featured speeches from UEFA Special Advisor William Gaillard, Piara Power of the FARE network, and Romani footballer Bănel Nicoliță of French club FC Nantes. On the topic of the under representation of Roma, the committee made a point of discussing the popularity of football in Romani communities, with committee member and member of European Parliament Livia Jaroka describing football as “an opportunity to positively celebrate our heritage and get into the mainstream”. UEFAs Gaillard added that “UEFA is committed to making football accessible to all communities whatever their background and social position. Football is a universal language that we must continue to use for the social benefit of European society. We will continue to support initiatives that work for Roma inclusion.”

Furthermore, European governments are starting to recognise the problems a lack of Romani integration is causing, and are starting initiatives in an attempt to deal with the issues. In 2005, on the back of the 2003 conference “Roma in an Expanding Europe: Challenges for the Future”, 12 European nations (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Spain) signed up to the ‘Decade of Roma inclusion’, a political commitment to close the gaps between Roma and the rest of society. Part of this initiative was the ‘European Action Week against Racism and Discrimination in Football’, part of which was to call for “the greater participation of ethnic minorities and migrants” in football, and included initiatives for further Romani inclusion in football. While groups within football and outside it continue to try and promote Romani integration through sport and other initiatives, centuries of discrimination is unlikely to be eradicated after just a decade of serious action, and it is critical that governing bodies do not rest on their laurels having recognised the issues in front of them.

The football crowd in Europe in particular is perhaps as accurate a microcosm of society as you could possibly find, given the game’s appeal to people of a variety of backgrounds, and the fact that it is easy to find flagrant examples of antiziganism displayed in football grounds on a frequent basis is as accurate an indication as any that antiziganism is as deep rooted a social problem as any other form of discriminatory behaviour. Former Czech President Vaclav Havel once declared that “the treatment of the Roma is a litmus test for democracy.” Given the discrimination still ongoing at this moment in time, football, and society at large are returning results that are anything but neutral.

Peaceful Reconciliation: Does the solution to the decline in Czech and Slovakian domestic football lie in the dark past of these still young nations?

Petr Cech in action for Chelsea v Wigan

Petr Cech: Chelsea and Czech Republic goalkeeper

 

The modern day nations of the Czech Republic and Slovakia are places where reminders of the past are abundant and difficult to ignore. For every stunning example of Bohemian, Moravian, or Slovakian architecture, whether it be Prague Castle, Olomouc’s Holy Trinity Column or the charming labyrinthine streets of Bratislava’s Old Town, there is a reminder of the two nations’ more chequered recent history in the form of the vast Soviet era ‘panelkas’, the Slavin Monument overlooking Bratislava or the plaque at the site of Jan Palach’s chilling self-immolation. Although two nations in their own right since the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, these states share so much in common history that to walk around Prague or Ostrava, Bratislava or Trnava, one cannot help but encounter reminders of the Czech Republic and Slovakia as one united nation.

When Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring in August 1968, the 1968-69 season of the Czechoslovak First League was just getting underway, with reigning champions Spartak Trnava looking to defend their title. Under the stewardship of Anton Malatinský, the club from a large town North East of Bratislava had been transformed from also-rans into one of the giants of Czechoslovak football, winning 5 First League titles, 3 Czechoslovak Cups and 2 Slovakian Cups. In doing so, the the Bili Andeli (White Angels)unsurprisingly felt the intensification of rivalries with clubs which had been at the top of the Czechoslovak game for decades. When Sparta Prague or Slavia Prague came to town, the atmosphere was now transformed from cordial to heated, as the Prague giants sought to reclaim their place at the summit, while the traditional rivalry with fellow Slovakians Slovan Bratislava hit new heights as the two clubs battled for supremacy for nearly a decade.

Led by Trnava and Bratislava, the First League also underwent a transformation on the European scene. With Trnava reaching the semi-final of the European Cup in 1969, and the quarter finals in 1973 and 1974 after winning the Mitropa Cup (an early incarnation of the Europa League), Slovan also made a mark, winning the 1969 European Cup Winners’ Cup. Together, the Slovakian giants had produced a golden era for the Czechoslovakian First League, which culminated in a team consisting only of players from the First League upsetting World Champions West Germany to win Euro 1976 for Czechoslovakia.

Today, the impact made by the Czech Republic’s Gambrinus Liga and Slovakia’s Corgoň Liga could not be much further from the heady days of the early 1970s. Of the 8 teams to qualify for European competition from the two leagues, only two teams, Viktoria Plzen and Slovan Liberec, made it to the group stages. In recent years, only Sparta Prague have made any significant inroads in European competition, reaching the Round of 16 of the 2004 Champions League, and the Round of 32 of the 2011 and 2013 incarnations of the Europa League, with most clubs from the two nations falling at the first hurdle. In order for this depressing trend to be reversed, changes need to be made.

Since the split of Czechoslovakia, both leagues had suffered as the most promising talents from both nations had sought their fortune abroad after cutting their teeth on home soil. The likes of Nedved, Berger, Skrtel, Hamsik and Cech have all seen it necessary to depart the two leagues in search of success elsewhere on the continent, and this is largely down to the limited revenue of even the biggest clubs in the two nations. A recent study comparing Sparta Prague’s economic standing with that of clubs in Europe’s major leagues concluded that even Sparta, the most sustainable of clubs in the two nations, was on the verge of bankruptcy, and therefore were at pains to sell their most valuable assets. One of the major factors behind this startling revelation was that matchday revenue only provided 5% of the club’s total income, compared with Olympique Lyonnais’ 10%, Everton’s 27% and Arsenal’s 41%. This means that 95% of income has to come from other sources, meaning that to prevent falling into irretrievable debt, the club have to sell their players to survive In the case of Sparta, the number of talented footballers they are able to produce before selling on to Germany, England or France is just enough to keep their heads above water.

However, as the more talented players move to pastures new, attendances will inevitably decline. So far this season in the Gambrinus Liga, it is champions Plzen who can boast the highest average attendance, which stands at a measly 10,000, with attendances at Prague’s big two clubs Sparta and Slavia at 9,500 and 7,000 respectively, in stadiums with a capacity of 20,000, while attendances in Slovakia are even more derisory. So what can be done about the situation the two leagues find themselves in?

The solution, at least according to the Czech and Slovakian Football Associations, is to return to the pre-separation format, and form a new Czechoslovak super league. The major force behind the idea is to breathe new life into the Gambrinus and Corgoň Ligas by reigniting some of the famous rivalries of the Czechoslovak First League’s golden years, with fixtures such as Slovan Bratislava vs Sparta Prague and Spartak Trnava vs Slavia Prague returning to the fixture lists. Furthermore, friendships between clubs from across the Czech- Slovak border could result in higher away attendances, as Spartak Trnava and Slovan Bratislava fans travel to certain fixtures with Banik Ostrava and Zbrojovka Brno respectively. The theory is that such clashes will at least increase revenue domestically, and see higher crowds at the bigger grounds across the two nations, even if the impact on the wider European stage remains limited. Furthermore, there has been success in the form of merger leagues in other sports in the former Czechoslovakia, with both the men’s and women’s handball leagues in the Czech Republic and Slovakia being contested by clubs from either side of the border. Meanwhile, there has been recent success in the form of a merger league in football as recently as 2012, with the creation of the ‘BeNe League’, a merger between the top divisions of Dutch and Belgian women’s football, which has proved a success both in terms of the quality of football played and the value of the division to sponsors alike.

However, as with any proposal for change, there is plenty of opposition to reverting to a division of a bygone era. Most of this opposition comes from the smaller members of the Gambrinus Liga, who see the move as being only beneficial to the bigger clubs in the Czech Republic and the selected few chosen from Slovakia, who were most likely to see higher gates and revenue from the merger, while the smaller clubs are saddled with higher costs in shipping players and fans across a much larger area and a smaller share of TV revenue, with Pribram president Jaroslav Stark suggesting that whoever came up with the idea of reforming the old first division should be “put straight into custody” as “the Slovak clubs have enough of their own problems”.  Therein lies the major problem with this proposition. Even in comparison with the Gambrinus Liga, the Corgoň Liga is truly in dire straits. The quality of football, size and significance of sponsorship deals and size and quality of stadia pale in comparison to Gambrinus Liga clubs. Perhaps most telling is the difference in the quality of stadia between the two nations. According to prominent Czech journalist Michal Petrák, only Žilina’s Štadión pod Dubňom would meet the regulations set by the Czech FA for First Division stadia if the merger league were to start today, an extraordinary fact when you consider the likes of Bohemians 1905’s Dolicek and Viktoria Zizkov’s Zizkov Stadion, both extremely basic facilities by anyone’s standards, have been deemed fit for purpose by Czech FA inspectors in recent seasons. As long as this huge infrastructural gap between Czech and Slovak clubs exists, the prospective merger is unlikely to ever be anything other than a pipe dream.

Another problem faced by supporters of the proposition is the consequences a merger league could have upon clubs below the new first division. If the merger were to eventually get the go ahead, the ‘Czech- Slovak Super League’ as the media have dubbed it, would consist of 14 Czech clubs and just 6 Slovakian clubs, leaving the remaining Slovakian First Division clubs to fend for themselves in a new Second Division alongside Czech minnows, starved of the revenue and attendances which would have been provided by visits from some of the better supported Slovakian sides as the bigger clubs grow stronger from the increased revenue provided by keeping the company of the likes of Viktoria Plzen and Sparta Prague. Despite the possible ramifications, the merger received unanimous backing from all 12 Corgoň Liga clubs, while Czech clubs are far more sceptical, with only 6 of the 16 Gambrinus Liga clubs coming out in support of the idea, while Czech fans are also unconvinced, with a recent poll by sports website ‘iSport.cz’ showing that just 29% of readers were in favour of rebooting the Czechoslovak First League.

Whether or not this idea comes to fruition, it is becoming increasingly clear that as the leagues of Western Europe continue to grow, with astounding figures being thrown around like water, leagues in the former Eastern Bloc such as those in the Czech Republic and Slovakia are beginning to drift into anonymity, suffering from a lack of interest from the general public and sponsors alike. While the debate continues over how much of a benefit a merger league between these two nations would prove, the gap continues to widen, and the storied and diverse world of Czech and Slovakian football embodied by the great Spartak Trnava, Slovan Bratislava and Sparta Prague teams of years gone by, begins to circle the drain.

 

Many thanks to Michal Petrák of ‘iSport.cz’, who was hugely helpful in providing information on the prospective merger.

Bohemian Like Who? Charting The Decline Of Czech Football (Written July 2013)

CZ

Pavel Nedved. Karel Poborsky. Jan Koller. Petr Cech. The big names in Czech football’s recent history have been recognisable the world over. Representing some of Europe’s most prestigious clubs, and playing in some of the biggest matches in world football, Czech footballers have undoubtedly made an impact on world football. In reaching the final of Euro 96, just 7 years after shrugging off Communist rule through the protests of the Velvet Revolution, a new nation with its own identity was competing for one of the biggest trophies in football. In turn, the Gambrinus Liga, the Czech Republic’s top divison, was in rude health, with Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague battling for supremacy, while representing their nation strongly on the European stage. But as we enter the 2013-14 season, Czech domestic football is in danger of falling off the European road map of the continent’s biggest clubs.

As recently as the 1990s, the Gambrinus Liga was making an impressive impact on the European scene. Fuelled by an exciting new generation of players born into a new, optimistic post- Soviet nation, the Czech Republic’s two Bohemian behemoths, Slavia and Sparta Prague relished representing the fledgling nation on the European stage. In 1992, led by the likes of Horst Siegl and Petr Vrabec, Sparta advanced to the Semi Final Group Stage of the European Cup, finishing 2nd in a group containing Barcelona, Dynamo Kiev and Benfica, beating eventual champions Barcelona (including Laudrup, Koeman and Stoickhov) , Marseille and Glasgow Rangers on their extraordinary journey. Throughout the decade, the Prague club were mainstays in Europe’s premier competition, and while they never again reached the dizzying heights of their 1992 campaign, Sparta were unquestionably worthy of their place amongst Europe’s elite. Across the River Vltava in Prague’s Vrsovice district, deadly rivals Slavia were on a trailblazing mission of their own. With the help of investment from Czech- American businessman Boris Korbel, Slavia had put together a team of young, remarkably talented Czechs including Vladimir Smicer, Karel Poborsky and Patrick Berger, to try and put an end to a title drought going back four decades. In 1996, after 49 years of looking on as Sparta seized the league title with ominous regularity, the oldest club in the land regained a long lost friend, emphatically sealing their 14th title by a 9 point margin over Sigma Olomouc, themselves reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, where they were beaten by eventual runners up Bordeaux. This Slavia team would go on to form the backbone of the national team’s unexpected run to the final of Euro 96, where they were unfortunate to be defeated on penalties by a German side inspired by their victory over bitter rivals and tournament hosts England in the semi-finals.

However, ever since this remarkable period of relative success on Europe’s biggest stages, a rot began to set into the Czech domestic game. With the national teams unexpected success at Euro 96, the scouts of Europe’s biggest clubs began to take a closer interest in the talent on display in the Gambrinus Liga. Slavia’s Berger, Poborsky and Smicer, players who had come to represent the very essence of the ‘Eternal Slavia’ were promptly sold to Borussia Dortmund, Manchester United and RC Lens respectively, with the club in desperate need of financial support despite Korbel’s continued backing, and the players lured by bigger wages and the possibility of playing with some of Europe’s most prestigious names, such transfers were inevitable. While champiosn Slavia had lost their soul, rivals Sparta were also bemoaning their misfortune, as they saw some of their most promising talents, most prominently 2003 Ballon D’Or winner Pavel Nedved, depart for Serie A giants Lazio. The purge of the Gambrinus Liga’s brightest talents had been emphatically completed.

Inevitably, the abrupt end of this golden era resulted in the demise of the Gambrinus Liga as a competition recognisable outside the country’s borders. With most established clubs in Spain, Italy, England, France and Germany having scouting networks in the Czech Republic since 1996, the nation’s most promising talents in the country are being snatched before they can even make a mark in the Czech domestic game. A prime example of this can be seen in the current national squad, with the nation’s biggest stars, Chelsea’s Petr Cech and Arsenal’s Tomas Rosicky managing a combined 95 games for domestic Czech clubs before leaving for Stade Rennais and Borussia Dortmund respectively, and young prospects Tomas Kalas and Vaclav Pilar moving soon after rising to prominence in the Gambrinus Liga, with Kalas playing just 5 games for Sigma Olomouc before moving to Chelsea for £5.2 million.

However, while the quality of the league taken a considerable hit as a result of such prominent early departures; the competition has become far more competitive in recent years. While Sparta Prague dominated the first decade of the 21st Century, winning 6 of the 11 titles on offer from 2000 to 2010, clubs from outside of Prague have started to make a more lasting impression on the domestic game. In fact, since Sparta’s last triumph in 2010, the league title has not returned to Prague, with Sparta continuing to lose key stars, most recently Wilfried Bony, and Slavia recovering from financial turmoil brought about by financial planning that even Harry Redknapp would be ashamed of. As a result of the crumbling of the fortresses of these great Prague institutions, a new giant of the Czech game has risen from the plains to the West of the Vltava, the Red and Blue of FC Viktoria Plzen. Following their Czech Cup triumph in 2010, Plzen have won 2 of the last 3 Gambrinus Liga titles, and secured a famous victory against Milan in Prague’s Eden Arena in their first ever Champions League campaign in the 2011-12 season. However, despite such sudden and unexpected success not dissimilar to the success of Sparta and Slavia in the 1990s, Plzen’s squad has not been torn apart by departures to Europe’s major leagues. With the exception of national team members Theodor Gebre Selassie and Vaclav Pilar, who left for Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg respectively after the Czechs’ moderately successful Euro 2012 campaign, Plzen’s predominantly home grown squad has remained largely intact. This stability on the pitch is matched off it by Pavel Vrba’s now 5 year tenure as Head Coach, and continued investment in the infrastructure around a club which until 2010 were a local club for the residents of Plzen, scrapping for Gambrinus Liga survival, or at best mid table mediocrity. Viktoria now have a stadium fit to host Champions League football, bringing European football back to the ancient Bohemian city for the first time in its history, a squad capable of being competitive with Europe’s superpowers.

Despite Plzen’s impressive rise, in order for the Gambrinus Liga to make appearances in the latter stages of Europe’s biggest competitions once again, Prague’s giants need to be strong once more. However, it would appear that despite impressive signings by Sparta, and a fantastic new home for Slavia, a return to former glories seems a long way off for these historic clubs. Sparta concluded their pre-season with an unconvincing victory on penalties over minnows Bohemians 1905, before conceding two second half goals to draw 2-2 with Allsvenskan runners up BK Hacken, despite 2 goals from recent signing David Lafata, the Gambrinus Liga’s top scorer for the last 3 seasons. With Plzen beating the same Bohemians side 5-0 on the opening day of this season, there is clearly work for the Rudi still to do. If Sparta are to retain their crown, the performances of striker Lafata, and prodigiously talented home grown trequartista Vaclav Kadlec will be vital to any success they have. At the tender age of 21, Kadlec has already made 106 appearances for Sparta, bagging 29 goals in the process and earning himself a place in the Czech national squad. If Sparta are to claim the title once again, they need to buck the trend of selling prized assets to the highest bidder, and keep hold of their brightest young star. The rise of Kadlec, however, is something of an anomaly in Sparta’s recent history. While their academy has sometimes been plundered through no fault of their own, the nation’s biggest academy has recently failed to produce players worthy of representing the first team. Of the current first team squad, only 5 players have been produced by the academy at Strahov, with the club instead relying onexperienced headline signings such as Marek Matejovsky and Roman Bednar. While this has led to moderate success for Sparta, and they are undoubtedly Plzen’s biggest rivals for the title, the sustainability of their model is questionable, with the club struggling to fill the holes left by their veterans when they depart in search of more money or a last shot in Europe’s more established leagues.

Slavia on the other hand are quite a way from returning to former glories. The 17 time champions have failed to mount anything resembling a challenge since their most recent success in the 2008-2009 season, and the club are only now beginning to recover from the 2010 financial crisis which threatened the very existence of this footballing institution, with the club owing £3.6m to former owners the ENIC group as a result of the mysterious involvement of Key Investments, a company which represents numerous anonymous investors, withdrawing their backing from the club after a failure to qualify for the 2009 Champions League group stages. This left the club with no choice but to sell its key players, and rely on their famous youth academy for playing staff. As a result of this Slavia’s performances inevitably suffered, with the majority of the title winning side of 2008 and 2009 being sold in an attempt to manage the crippling debt. Despite finally residing in a stadium fit for the club in its spiritual home of Eden, the dreadful state of the club off the pitch over the past 4 years has resulted in Slavia falling away from the limelight and through the stage door, finishing no higher than 7th since the 2009 title win. While Slavia can rely on the fanatical support of the Severni Tribuna, and their financial troubles finally subsiding under new, more stable ownership, it may still be a while before Slavia can once again challenge deadly rivals Sparta, and new powerhouse Plzen for Czech supremacy.

The tale of the Gambrinus Liga since the Velvet Revolution is without doubt a cautionary one. When aiming for the stars, Czech football has inevitably come crashing down with a bump, with the Euro 96 triumph costing the domestic game its most prestigious talents, and ill-fated attempts to revel in the wealth of Europe’s premier competition almost accounting for the demise of the nation’s most historic club. For now at least, it looks as if Viktoria Plzen will be Czech football’s representative on European club football’s biggest stage. If they hope to reach the dizzying heights of Prague’s great institutions in the 1990s, they must chase their ambitions with an element of caution and responsibility, following a sustainable model of growth under coach Vrba. It may seem dull, but they only need to look towards the capital for what can happen if ambition reigns over responsibility.