The football club that fell with the Iron Curtain

PUBLISHED: 14:15 29 August 2017

Czechoslovaka squad before a game against Germany in Prague, 1958. Photo: PA.

Czechoslovaka squad before a game against Germany in Prague, 1958. Photo: PA.

Czech News Agency/Press Association Images

Dukla Prague were one of
football’s giants of the Eastern Bloc. But, as NEIL FREDRIK JENSEN explains, the club’s cult status abroad is in contrast with how the former state side is regarded closer to home

Politicians, indie bands and football hipsters love them.

Their small band of supporters in Prague are among the game’s most passionate. But Dukla Prague’s cult reputation masks the fact they were far from being a “club of the people” in their heyday.

The very name “Dukla” is intriguing and associated with the days when Eastern Bloc football teams were eyed with curiosity and no small amount of suspicion. Dukla Prague were actually named in honour after a small Slovakian town that is now part of Poland. Dukla defiantly stood up to the German army, but 90% of the town was left in ruins.

But the story of Dukla Prague is a typical tale of how Communist-era football in Czechoslavakia, indeed most countries behind the Iron Curtain, was shaped by politics, the armed forces and the security services.

Dukla was the club of the Czech army, while neighbouring team Slavia briefly became Dynamo Prague and Bohemians, another cult club, adopted the name Spartak Praha Stalingrad for a few years. If you were attached to either the army or the secret police, you never had too many friends as the perception was the competition was always rigged in favour of the state clubs – witness the situation in the old DDR with Dynamo Berlin.

There is still an air of cynicism in modern-day Prague, despite a robust economy and plenty of tourist euros. You can buy T-shirts with ‘KGB – Still watching you’ emblazoned on them, and Soviet memorabilia still commands a premium. The Czechs have never forgotten the events of 1968, either, when Russian tanks rolled into the delightful capital city. Today, the invasion in Prague is from Beijing and other parts of Asia, the direct flights from China filling one of the most picturesque cities in Europe with visitors hungry for luxury goods and enamelled souvenirs. And you’re just as likely to see replica shirts of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich walking the cobbled streets as you are a Czech football strip. Therein lies a big problem for Czech football – well, one of them, at least.

FK Dukla Prague may be a top-flight club today, but they have to battle to attract public interest. Their crowds hover around the 2,500 mark on a good day. In fact, Czech football, generally, still struggles to win support, last season’s average attendance in the top division barely reaching 5,000. The days when big crowds flocked to stadiums like Strahov and Letna have long gone. Too many fans have become disenchanted with Czech football, which like so many segments of the European game has become marginalised by the behemoths of the continent.

It doesn’t help that the domestic game too often flirts with misdemeanour. Only recently, the head of Czech football, Miroslav Pelta, was arrested over corruption allegations, along with the man responsible for the Czech Union of Sport. So frequent have been the outbreaks of malpractice that the long-time sponsor of the league, brewery company Grambinus, has pulled out of deals with the Czech FA. Look back across the history of football in what was once a central European stronghold, and scandal and abuse of power seems to be commonplace. It’s a far cry from the days when Antonin Panenka chipped his penalty kick past West Germany’s Sepp Maier to make Czechoslavakia European champions in 1976 and create a famous moment in sporting history.

Dukla themselves were once perennial Czech champions, thanks to their unique position in the state as Armádní Tělocvičný Klub, the Military Club of Physical Education. Two men were responsible for giving the club this elevated and privileged status: Alexej Cepicka, a full-on Stalinist, and minister of defence who effectively militarised Czech society; and his father-in-law, Klement Gottwald, a hard-liner who implemented the Soviet model of Government in Czechoslavakia. The pair drove the project that allowed Dukla to select the best players in the Czech army. This didn’t go down well with other football fans and even members of the Communist Party showed their disapproval of the process. The rationale was to create a football team that was a flagship for the state, underlining the strength and vitality of its young men.

Dukla, despite being the most successful club in the years after the Second World War, were not popular with the people. Their team formed the backbone of the national squad in the World Cups of 1954, 1958 and 1962, the latter of which saw them reach the final against Brazil. Their talismanic midfielder, Josef Masopust, was a Dukla player, in fact he was devoted to the club and played around 500 games in the famous claret and amber shirts. He became the first Eastern Bloc player to be named European Footballer of the Year in 1962, but he was only allowed to leave Czechoslavakia at the tail-end of his playing career.

Crowds at Dukla’s Juliska Stadion were never big. While they were winning titles year-in, year-out, they would get around 9,000 people in the ground, lower than the league’s average and less than half the support enjoyed by Prague rivals Sparta and Slavia. The club was even sent on a charm offensive in the 1960s to the US, playing in the International Soccer League and American Challenge Cup.

Dukla’s star faded a little in the 1970s and the national team no longer relied so heavily on the army team. In fact, at the Mexico World Cup there was a strong Slovak influence on the team and only one player, Ivo Viktor, was from Dukla. Viktor and Zdenek Nehoda were in the Czechoslavakia team that won the 1976 Euros, and a year later, Dukla were champions again.

Two more titles followed, in 1979 and 1982, but it was obvious that Dukla’s influence had waned. Dukla went on to win three Czech Cups in the 1980s and in 1986, reached the semi-final of the now defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup, losing to Dynamo Kyiv. Sadly, it was the last embers of real success.

Also in the same year Birkenhead-based band Half Man Half Biscuit recorded a song titled All I Want For Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit. While this appealed to the When Saturday Comes generation, it also kept the name Dukla Prague alive as the club began its decline.

With the Velvet Revolution and the collapse of the old regime, Dukla almost disappeared from view. In 1994, their association with the military came to an end and they also suffered relegation, dropping down two divisions. Their last prize had been a Czech Cup triumph in 1990. The club moved out of Prague in 1997 following a merger with 1.FK Pribam, playing some 60 kilometres from the capital to become FC Dukla Príbram.

The subsequent nomenclature saga is as complex as a royal line of succession, but the current club, FK Dukla Prague seemingly has no claim on the heritage of the old. FK Príbram, which plays in the second division, still insists it is the natural successor to the Dukla Prague that once reached the semi-finals of the European Cup.

Regardless of arguments over the family silver, Dukla may not be the multi-sport organisation that once included athletics, rowing, handball and cycling, among other activities, but the name still has enormous cachet. Thankfully, they have clawed their way back to the Juliska, a fascinating stadium perched on a hill, and once overlooked by the luxury homes of sporting legends such as legendary runner Emil Zapotek and tennis star Jan Kodes. Masopust, who died in 2015, is remembered with a statue outside the stadium and, perpetually, a rose is placed at the foot of what is a graceful monument.

As for the current team, Dukla will probably never grace the heights they enjoyed in the 1960s. The class of 2017, playing in a sparsely-filled stadium, struggle to live up to the reputations of former Dukla giants like Masopust, spectacular goalkeeper Ivo Viktor and Zdenek Nehoda.

On a bright summer’s evening on the hill above Dejvice, Prague 6, Dukla recorded their first win of the season against Zlin. It was a scruffy victory, 1-0, thanks to a free-kick from veteran defender Ondrej Kušnír. There were just 2,400 people at the game, but the club’s small band of ‘ultras’ were delighted their team had got off the mark after losing their first two fixtures. They’re a lively bunch, but a lot of people still remember Dukla were once beneficiaries of what was de facto state manipulation, and the recent problems surrounding the credibility of Czech football just serves to remind everyone that level playing fields have rarely existed in this corner of European football.

Neil Fredrik Jensen is a freelance business and football writer. He is editor of the award-winning website Game of the People and author of a forthcoming publication on Central European football, Mittel. He is also CEO of creative agency Isherwood Editorial.

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