Saturday 26 October 2019, Prague, Czech Republic. Just over a year to the day when I was last in the Czech capital on holiday and day four of my trip. Vacation is a time to relax, discover or explore, or even in some cases – including mine – all three. Saturday has arrived, and while Wigan Athletic remain my undeniable first focus and passion, my need for a football fix never subsides irrespective of where I am.
Nor does it subside irrespective of how I am feeling. Friday night only concluded at 6am after Becherovka, salami and cheese at my French friend’s flat, several beers in pubs, a pit-stop at a Czech craft beer bar, me rediscovering my party-animal youth dancing the night away in a club and a late night burrito.
To say I have felt better on many a Saturday morning compared to how I was upon awaking at 10am on Saturday 26 October was an understatement. Nonetheless, despite the alcohol-full sore head and grogginess, it was game day and it had a good beginning. Non-footballing reasons were the reasons for such a positive start as I celebrated England’s superb and shock victory over the All Blacks in the Rugby Union World Cup semi-final whilst devouring some hangover remedy beans on toast at Beckett’s Irish bar.
However, my main passion sports-wise is about to begin. This football matchday starts at an initially surprising venue, Stadion Viktoria, in the Zizkov district of Prague, home to FK Viktoria Zizkov.
Think of football in Prague and one instantly recites names such as Slavia and Sparta, the two most successful clubs in both modern Czech Republic and Czechoslovakian history. However, Viktoria Zizkov, or Viktorka as their fans affectionately call them, are a club steeped in history. Founded in 1903 in the Zizkov district of the Czech capital, in-between the two world wars, Viktorka were one of Czechoslovakia’s most successful clubs. One national league title triumph in 1927/1928 and seven Czechoslovak Cups between 1913 and 1940 are testimony to this.
However, that golden era is now a long way away. Zizkov are now in the second tier, and having only just escaped relegation to the third tier of Czech football last season face off against FC Zbrojovka Brno, one of the promotion favourites. Along with many other football supporters I often bemoan the scheduling of matches at noon on a Saturday away from the sacred 3pm slot. In this case though the scheduling works in our favour; Zizkov normally play their matches at both a unique and curious time of 9:15am on Saturday mornings.
With our matchday ticket purchased, myself, my French expat friend and his compatriot friend enter the stadium after a brisk search by an on-duty match-day police officer. We meet five fellow attendees, one visiting Prague from as far away as New Zealand, the others expats now residing in Prague. Upon looking around, FK Viktoria Stadion is reminiscent of a time which with each passing season is disappearing in English lower league footballing circles. It is a ground with a capacity of 5,037 surrounded by residential areas, many of which are beginning to disappear in England to be replaced with new out-of-town arenas.
Against one of the promotion favourites, Zizkov put in one of their best performances of the season to win 1-0 courtesy of a brilliantly executed free-kick from 22 year-old Sparta Prague defensive loanee David Brezina. It is a victory which lifts Viktorka up to 7th in the standings in front of 1,453 spectators, their biggest attendance of the season so far.
Think of this level of football (based on what I saw, comparable in quality to a mid-table EFL League Two fixture) and one might assume that Zizkov may be comprised solely of local Czech players, cast-offs from the likes of Sparta and Slavia. However, one would be mistaken. Alongside the presence of local players in Viktorka’s squad, there is an international presence and from corners of the globe one would least expect to find here.
Of the starting eleven, two are non-Czech. The first is Augusto Batioja, a 29-year-old Colombian defensive midfielder. The second foreign player in Zizkov’s line-up is a name familiar to fans across the pond in the United States: 25-year-old attacking midfielder Luis Gil, a winner of two caps for the US national team in 2014 and with over 150 MLS first team appearances for Real Salt Lake, Orlando City, Colorado Rapids and Houston Dynamo. Even more remarkably, Zizkov count a third foreign player on their bench, unused substitute Issac Muleme. The 27-year-old played in this summer’s African Cup of Nations for his native Uganda. Proof of the global reach of football, if ever one needed it, that international players can be found in even the Czech second tier.
As the final whistle was blown, I walked away from the stadium with my head still sore and the day still young. Later in the day, me and my fellow attendees were present in the Bohemians Prague away section in the Sparta Prague v Bohemians derby at Sparta’s Generali Arena. A level of football far higher than Zizkov v Brno with better facilities, more familiar players and an enjoyable experience to boot. Post-match drinks and food with some Bohemians supporters at a bar opposite their stadium capped off a memorable day.
Yet, attending Zizkov v Brno and paying the admission fee gave me far more pleasure. I left Viktorka’s stadium feeling a sense of supporting and becoming absorbed in something that truly belongs to the local community. I may not know a word of Czech, yet I yelled “VIKTORIAAAA……ZIZKOVVVVV!!!” with passion and vigour. It is a throwback for many who have attended a lower league game in England in front of an old charming stadium now sadly consigned to the history books.