Thirty Hours In Praha

Italy or Australia… Was there really any debate? Were thoughts exchanged?
Whilst we’d reached the educational zenith of graduation – in a parallel universe – the zen-like David Hasselhoff had gradually begun tearing down the Berlin Wall. Back home, mortar boards were exchanged for crap employment, which in turn gave rise to savings and before too long, we were bidding farewells at Terminal 4. In the trials of youthful rites of passage, our next move was critical.
Long before some creative types had truly commercialised “gap years” – teary parents or not – this was our break from the dutiful responsibility of middle-class existence. Work was way off the radar for Steve and I.
Despite his father’s best intentions for North London, my compatriot and his starry-eyed brethren had all leaned much further north, to descendants of Aston, Buchan and Charlton. Caring for neither big club, the only ABC I’d ever known was Armstrong, Blissett and Cally. Differences apart, we were united by a love of football and open to ideas; the oyster of our world was about to open up.
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In 1978 – fixated in World Cup deliria – sat before the television, I couldn’t even comprehend this dazzling footballing universe. Without the current media frenzy, drooling over the sport from every crevice on the planet, only FKS and Panini brought these tournaments closer to home. Player stickers spiked one’s interest in style, badges and team shots taught us geography. If only I’d been older I’d thought… then cheering on Lima’s finest might just be possible.
Of course a pre-teenage me had precious little concept of finances and flight times but, there were just details I could overcome.
Ticker tape or not, in ’78 the Chumpitaz’ crew wowed me. In ’82 the enigmatic Socrates spoke, whilst Northern Ireland stole my heart. Barnes and Belgium were everything in Mexico; England and Cameroon made any Ordinary Joe’s ’90. The US saw Franco’s last stand, we davored Šuker’s genius in ’98 (see what I did there?) and smirked as Iran gave the previous hosts the bird. Soon every big club rushed out to get themselves a South Korean, before Germany’s Poles, Cahill’s goals and Zidane’s butt confused our preconseptions. Mandela took centre stage at the tippy-tappy games, the Dutch spanked Spain and a world watched as from its pedestal Brazil fell.
From Krankl to eternity, my qualifiers were always spurned for club games but when the summer came around; the Worlds, Euros and Swapsies blinkered my view. To miss quote the fab four; There are contests I remember… some forever not for better… in my life I’ve loved them all.

150620 U21 Eurpean Championships Praha (30)


UEFA European U21 Championship
Czech Republic v Serbia
Saturday, 20th June 2015, 6pm
Stadion Letná (home of AC Sparta Praha)
Entrance Kč100, No Programme
Distance 444 miles, Attendance 16253
A cruel twist of paternal willpower and educational fate kept me from chez Sparta 32 years ago. Since then it’s gone through three commercial rebrands not a small amount of remodelling. Thankfully it’s still a real four-sided arena with all the quirky trappings of inner-city evolution.
Sitting flush to the main road from the airport, the ground is tidily hemmed between irregular residential streets and a park. Unlike the neighbouring ghastly global drive-through, Stadion Letná’s asymmetrical form – with colour-coded seats at close quarters – is a thing of utter beauty in the sunlight, and wondrousness in the shade. The club shop (sadly closed upon arrival) sits at road level where all gates lead up to an open concourse, three sides of which the hoi polloi could freely inhabit. There UEFA – probably respecting sponsors’ demands – had replaced the local souvenirs with meagre official merchandise, which garnered precious little interest from the audience therein. This was overshadowed somewhat by the far greater crime for those inside; the beverages.
Before jetting off I’d hastily typed into my phone “Things to do in Praha”. Regardless of the site checked, the answer was unequivocal; a variety of stunning landmarks in the old town, the palace and its gardens, and beer.
Like much of Europe, Praha does brewing with aplomb. With King Vratislav II’s royal approval, its Praha origins date back to 10th Century Benedictine Monasteries. The city may now be dominated by Staropramen but dozens of smaller breweries still thrive, drawing well-wishers from all over the continent. Evidently a thousand years of proud history meant little to Platini’s cronies, who felt we’d be far happier with the non-alcoholic cousin of a seventy year old, heavily marketed Danish brand.
Food consumed and frustrations spent all round, a quick tour of the venue found me in my seat without a programme. Glancing about, it was clear I wasn’t the only one. Still, I’d gleaned a pile of team sheets set out pitch-side for the photographers and made it my halftime mission – without any knowledge of any Eastern European dialect – to procure one. About me the partisan crowd was almost entirely Czech. A smattering of groundhoppers were spread liberally throughout the stadium, and an even smaller section of Serbs stood in the second tier to my left.
For fifteen minutes they were proudly boisterous but, once the anthems and opening exchanges were out the way, reality struck home. Having lost the toss and been forced to change ends, the Czechs seemed vigorously unprepared to make further concessions.
Having lost their opening fixture, any further poor showing would have meant curtains for the hosts. Subsequently they tore into the Serbs, offering little room for return. Throughout the match, the Serbs had possession but the strength of the Czech defence made any forays they attempted, totally fruitless.
The ever impressive Jan Kliment bagged the first of eventual hat-trick on seven minutes – rifling home a sublime Matěj Hybš cutback from 12 yards – and got the second 15 minutes later in true poachers style. In between, fullback Vaclav Kadlec struck the cross bar and Kliment came out second breaking one-on-one. The first and only real Serb attempt of the half saw big-bearded, Czech stopper, Tomáš Koubek save well from Miloš Jojić.
After the break the Czechs pressed on further and, their young support celebrated with whoops and cheers and clapping and desperate attempts at Mexican Waves. The latter of which gratefully failed.
Thankfully foregoing any further pathetic attempts to draw a penalty – yes Pavel Kadeřábek, we saw you late in the first half – Kliment rounded the keeper inside ten minutes of the restart and slotted home from a tight angle. Within five minutes, right in front of us, Hybš crossed from the goal line and Martin Frýdek volleyed home from the back of the box. It wasn’t technically perfect but, we’d all take it.
A fifth could have followed but Aleksandar Pantić’s block saved the day, after his keeper had been circumnavigated. As the posh seats on both sides of the ground emptied on 80 minutes, up in the Serb quarter they looked dejected. Contented with the day thus far, my mind however, was already planning the next stage of my journey.
Final score: Czech Republic 4-0 Serbia

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The Garden of Eden

UEFA European U21 Championship
Denmark v Germany
Saturday, 20th June 2015, 8.45pm
Stadion Eden (home of SK Slavia Praha)
Entrance Kč100, No Programme
Distance 448 miles, Attendance 13268
It’s not about “living on the edge”, I just hate Risk Assessments; they’re a blight on an over-protective society that refuses to offer any responsibility to common sense. Thus, I’d left home without much planning of how I’d actually manoeuvre between my ultra-bland hotel and two sporting venues, none of whose whereabouts had been designed to make this any easier.
With two games in a day, and a little over a 45 minute window between them; to cross a capital rammed with tourists literally anything could go wrong. My short weekend of freedom deserved far better.
Drawing criticism afterwards – that’s right I did – I hastily employed a besuited hotel chauffeur, and the resplendent comfort of his “Skoda Superb Limousine”. His very genial manner and Sparta leanings were amusingly offset numerous tales of his eight year old son following his father’s side (the local rivals) Slavia, and then there was his offspring’s innocent confusion as to why his father spoke perfect Russian but little English.
We can quibble over ostentatious practises affecting beer consumption but, the stress-free ease with which my day progressed, compared with those rushing for buses and trams at full times, whilst battling the elements, was marked. For the equivalent of just €50, it really was money well spent. Would I do it again? Hell yes. The floodgates to such small luxuries are well and truly open now.
Strolling out of Stadion Letná at full time, from the concourse I’d seen numerous battling taxis u-turning for quick escapes in the side streets. Through the crowds and out on to the main street I ambled. There beside the club shop, with door open for me, was George standing by his vehicle; “waiting for my [his] client” as he’d told the police. Not knowing this actually meant opportunist Englishman in Northern Soul t-shirt they’d agreed.
Fifteen painless minutes later; I alighted in the pouring rain, near the main entrance at Stadion Eden. Inside a rainbow was forming above the easterly facade of the 2008 construction. Scouring memory banks for said weather features above stadia, his could only be a good sign.
Two years in the making, Eden has some wonderful architectural features. Not your average concrete bowl, this asymmetrical profiled arena is higher above the posh seats, than the other three sides. Though not pre-planned I imagine this afforded them the room to store the match programmes that are seemingly only being given to the UEFA VIPs and sponsors this tournament. Still a kindly hint from a well-heeled German lady led to me strolling into said VIP seating, asking a couple of suited corporate stewards a couple of right questions and, leaving five minutes later with the booty.
With a late kick-off and no host nation, families made up a far smaller gate percentage than the first game. Down the far end, The Danes, resplendent in colour-coded Nordic costumes, congregated behind the far goal. Up our end, much as the rest of the ground Germans dominated. The ground however, despite incredibly cheap tickets, was far from full. Even worse, Carlsberg Void had been installed in this venue too, and was again informing us to “celebrate responsibly”.
Above the red seating – all of which had a perfect view of the action, and ample leg room – striking wood panelling lined the ceilings. Affording the cosmopolitan crowd easy opportunity to create a real football atmosphere and (also) taunt opposition fans, the consequent acoustics were marvellous. On the pitch. The atmosphere was only heightened by a fine up-and-at-‘em start.
With the Danes having the best of the opening exchanges, it would have been easy to believe they had a chance. Once however Germany had sized up the opposition, calculated the weaknesses, more and more the ball was fed to Amin Younes. Repeatedly skipping past his markers, Younes eventually destroyed the Danes resolve and created numerous spaces for others to exploit.
First Leonardo Bittencourt shot over with an open view of the Danish goal, then Yussuf Poulsen returned the favour when Marc-André ter Stegen narrowed his angle. Emre Can then split the defence and Kevin Volland shot home between the advancing keeper’s legs when through. Younes soon put wide after a fantastic passing move down the left and, the half petered out with the Germans rightfully ahead.
Highlighting the difference between a strong Danish side and a deadly German one, Volland struck in a deft free-kick form 30 yards so after the return. And before those celebrations had properly died down, Younes made for the goal line, lost his marker and crossed back for Matthias Ginter to glance a header on target.
The following procession saw Max Meyer hit the side netting, songs sung about small countries to the north, a very unmenacing pitch invasion and, the brilliant Younes deservedly walk off with all the plaudits.
Back in the car, George asked of the Czech chances of reaching the final…
Final score: Denmark 0-3 Germany

150620 U21 Eurpean Championships Praha (29)   150620 U21 Eurpean Championships Praha (27)   150620 U21 Eurpean Championships Praha (21)   150620 U21 Eurpean Championships Praha (122)   150620 U21 Eurpean Championships Praha (7)   150620 U21 Eurpean Championships Praha (26)   150620 U21 Eurpean Championships Praha (121)   150620 U21 Eurpean Championships Praha (104)   150620 U21 Eurpean Championships Praha (14)

Earlier in the day, the Czechs had been clinical but, one feels, more through desperation to appease the home crowd than by design. The Germans on the other hand would give many senior sides a good run for their money; they were functionally brilliant. Both had produced entertaining encounters but I just cannot see the hosts beating Germany tonight let alone in a final. Will they see out a mutual draw and both progress? Doubtful, all four sides on view seemed more interested in enjoying the sporting contest than being cynical.
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There’s an Italian bar in Melbourne – well there was – twenty minutes’ walk from our residence on Bourke Street where the Barnes rap was scrawled on the wall between the beds. Numerous dodgy dealings were probably going on out the back of said establishment – the police raided twice in our time – but in the bar a TV set became our Mecca for an entire three weeks.
Steve and I could have gone to Italy. We could have seen Gazza cry in the flesh; instead we plumped to go as far away as possible and reduce the size of the world forever. The regrets in this choice are thus small. For months we did all the things we should and shouldn’t but, for just three weeks we slept all day and watched TV all night, never missing a match of Italia’90. During the group stages, just the two us made the daily pilgrimage to the set in the corner; by the time Lineker was advising the bench to “have a word” the bar was packed with other travellers. Due to future work, that was the last time I could have attended a summer tournament, until this year…
I’m older now and maybe even more responsible so, I filled my days, wading through tourists to soak up some notable landmarks; the Karlův Most, Staré Město, graffiti spraying, Josefov, orloj, Vltava cruise boat turning,  Kostel Matky Boží před Týnem and Staroměstské náměstí, I’ve still no idea what’s going on with the local dialect, nor the student drama groups and their street “performing” on Sunday morning but; for thirty hours Praha was simply stunning (my wife will love it when I take her back), the football additionally was everything I wanted and more.
Going into the final group games of this summer’s tournament, the football thus far has been incredible. irrespective of the presence of a man with a stick behind the goals, all eight countries can still qualify for the Semi Finals and having finally tasted the tournament season in the flesh, I am already planning jaunts to France next year, Poland the year after and much more beyond. Like Tammi Terrell, I now want more, more more…

150620 U21 Eurpean Championships Praha (67)   150620 U21 Eurpean Championships Praha (97)

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2 Responses to Thirty Hours In Praha

  1. Reece says:

    You paid €50 for a taxi in Prague? You well and truly had your pants pulled down. One of the cheapest cities in Europe and you spend a fortune. You could get the width of the country and back again for that much!

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