Prague the perfect host

Posted by Mark Lomas


From Wenceslas Square to Charles Bridge, and beyond, throngs of football fans mingled on Prague’s cobbled streets, lapping up the sunshine and supping pints of pivo -- eagerly anticipating the first Super Cup to be held outside Monaco in 16 years.

- Lomas: Bayern create history in Super Cup
- Worrall: Resilient Chelsea slip to unlucky defeat

For thousands of unprepared tourists, the presence of supporters in red and blue came as quite a shock. Chelsea’s contingent set up camp in the city’s most famous English pub, the George and Dragon, located in the corner of the Staromestske Námesti (Old Town Square); their raucous renditions of terrace anthem "Carefree" provided a particularly interesting juxtaposition with the medieval folk music at the square’s centre.

Bayern’s roten army were also there in vast numbers, the prospect of an hour-long hop over on a plane from Bavaria proving an attractive one to those who prayed the club would finally break their Super Cup duck. The yachts of the Mediterranean were replaced with pedalos on the Vltava and most, it seemed, felt it a welcome change of scenery.

"I first went to the Stade Louis back in 1998 when we beat Real Madrid," longtime Chelsea fan Dave recalled as we both ticked a visit to the charming ground of Viktoria Zizkov off our respective Prague to-do lists. "Don’t get me wrong, Monaco is an amazing destination, but it’s not a place for the common fan. You get the feeling it was held there as a sort of start-of-season party for UEFA’s bigwigs. It wasn’t as supporter-friendly. Chelsea played in the first and last Super Cups in Monaco, but it’s good to explore new places."

UEFA’s decision to rotate the hosts of the Super Cup is designed to bring a major football spectacle to nations that would otherwise not experience it. This is not quite akin to FIFA giving the World Cup to Qatar, spreading the game into new territories like some money-hungry colonialist; it is simply giving existing countries with strong football traditions the opportunity to play a greater role in, to borrow Michel Platini’s somewhat cringe-inducing parlance, "the UEFA family." It is the same principle that governed his decision to increase the number of direct qualifiers into the Champions League from less illustrious footballing nations. Inclusion is at the heart of it.

So the inaugural edition of the itinerant UEFA Super Cup came to Prague, a city aiming to "show visitors that we are good people and more than able to stage such events," according to Juventus and Czech Republic legend Pavel Nedved, a fitting ambassador for the event.

Monte Carlo’s is an obvious glamour, an oligarch’s playground not dissimilar to the top level of the European game these days; its most notable landmark is a casino, providing a quite fitting metaphor for football’s modern propensity to splash the cash with little regard for consequences.

And if Monaco is a flashy teenage upstart, Prague is the wise, affable grandfather. It does not beg to be loved, but is respected because of what it has lived through. Prague Castle, Narodni Divadlo (the national theatre), the astronomical clock -- this is old money, with class and grandeur placed above nouveau riche pretension.

Prague has its wild side, too, though. This is a grandfather who still likes to have a good time. The city boasts a vibrant international student community and has emerged as the undisputed stag capital of Europe since the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992, with most revellers lured primarily by the promise of some of the continent’s finest beer at its most reasonable prices. On that front, Prague never disappoints.

With six football clubs and one of Europe’s oldest and fieriest derbies in Sparta v Slavia, Prague is a footballing hotbed. Aside from the big two, Bohemians 1905, Bohemians Prague, Viktoria Zizkov and Dukla Prague -- famously immortalised in Britain by Half Man Half Biscuit’s hit song -- complete the city’s colourful footballing patchwork. The wider country achieved notable international success, first as part of Czechoslovakia -- reaching the 1934 World Cup final and winning the 1976 European championship -- before narrowly losing out to Germany as an independent nation in the final of Euro ’96.

Boasting a rich footballing history, it is only the absence of a sizeable stadium that previously prevented Prague from welcoming Europe’s elite for a continental showpiece. There will be nothing to rival Old Trafford, Camp Nou and the San Siro any time soon, but Slavia’s Eden Arena -- opened in 2008 -- is a modern venue that actually facilitates an excellent atmosphere because of its relatively small 21,000 capacity. The noise is tightly contained and, helped by Bayern’s boisterous fans, there was an atmosphere to rival many a recent major European final. The storylines surrounding the game, with Bayern’s renewed rivalry with Chelsea and Pep Guardiola’s renewed rivalry with Jose Mourinho, plus the drama of the match itself, meant this was unquestionably the most memorable Super Cup in recent history.

Whether in the city’s smoky tavernas or bustling nightclubs, the Bayern and Chelsea fans who were celebrating and commiserating in equal measure should have taken time to raise their glasses and bid na zdravi (good health) to the UEFA Super Cup. Prague can’t take all the credit but it has helped breathe life back into the competition. Cardiff and Tbilisi, the next two hosts, have a tough act to follow.

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