From the bottom to the title – the fairy tale story of Slavia Prague

2009, the fifth of August. An ordinary summer day for most people, but not for fans of Slavia Prague. One of the historically most successful Czech sides in football and the then- league champion are playing the return match against Sheriff Tiraspol in third round Champions League playoff.

The Red and whites, winning their second title in a row, cheered by the audience of Eden Stadium are the clear favourites for going through, even though they couldn’t score a goal in the first match in Moldavia.

Everything is going fine thanks to the goal of Adam Hloušek, but then the late equaliser silenced literally everyone on the stands. Just seconds remain to the end of the match when Libor Tafat, who was sent to the game as a substitute by coach Karel Jarolím just minutes ago, misses the ball in a bid to play it away and the Brazilian back José Nadson writes down a final score of the match.

That closes the gate to the Champions League for Slavia in the season. The disappointment is enormous, neither fans nor the players cannot believe what actually happened.

Nevertheless, the players came out to the north stand, where the group of Slavia hardcore fans has its place, and shout the famous Slavia after-match chant – Po výhře, po prohře, vždycky jsme s váma (After a win, after a loss, we’re always with you).

None of the thirteen thousand people who attended the match knew that from that moment, probably the worst and most frustrating period in the modern history of the club starts, and will take almost seven years…

It would take loads of paper to describe in detail all of the inquites Slavia fans had to come through during these years.

Changes of owners, some of them quite controversial. Changes of coaches, when none of them were in charge for at least one complete season. The last straw for the Slavia community came in October 2011, when František Straka was appointed head coach of the team.

The former Bundesliga defender called “Franz” was taken as one of the biggest faithfuls of Sparta Prague, the arch rival of the Red and whites in the business.

Straka had played for Sparta for more than ten years, he also coached the side for a short time and always declared himself a true and faithful Spartan who will be always prepared to help the club, even though he was fired from it.

The instalment of the coach who never hid his warm relationship with the main opponent was the last proof of Slavia’s downfall. Immediately after the Straka announcement, Ondřej Zlámal, the club spokesman, resigned from his position.

The current UEFA.com correspondent told Czech media that he couldn’t imagine the possibility of cooperation with a man with such a controversial image.

Slavia fans unsurprisingly never accepted Straka as their new coach and the wave of protests, lead by Slavia ultras, including digging symbolic graves for the club board right at the training ground, went on throughout Straka’s time at Slavia.

The situation wasn’t stable in the issue of owners or coaches, and the sports results did not live up to the reputation of the club.

The league champions from 2008 and 2009 and the main, though unsuccessful competitor for Sparta in the previous seasons (that’s why the club was called “Forever second” by Sparta or neutral supporters) became an average Czech club, without any chance of battle for European cups spots. In the next six years, the seventh place in the table was maximum for Slavia.

Despite the fact it looked like there cannot be anything worse than Straka’s appointment for Slavia fans, the 2013/14 seasons showed their potential in that way. Even the beginning of the new year of football brought probably the most humiliating defeat in Slavia history.

The dismantled team was literally destroyed by the mildly above-average Czech side Teplice. The Sewn-ones lost the match 0:7 at their home ground, a historically highest debacle in more than 100 years of the club.

Former Slavia youth coach Michal Petrouš, who had been in charge when the crushing defeat with Teplice came, was replaced by Miroslav Koubek.

From today’s perspective, the most defining (and entertaining) moment from this period for the fans was Koubek’s step to play centre forward Milan Škoda as a centre back. Škoda later returned to his natural position and became one of the most productive strikers of the club history…

Koubek wasn’t the last Slavia coach of that season – he was later replaced by Alex Pastoor, the first ever Dutch manager in the Czech football league. The current Sparta Rotterdam coach wanted to play exciting football with the team, but the results weren’t very good and Slavia saved their attendance in the highest tier in the very last round.

They ended the season with just one point ahead the relegation position and only the lucky results of other games held the Prague club in the first league.

Adam Kotrbatý, journalist and Slavia supporter, says about this topic:

It was just terrible. We lost to Ostrava and I was just checking the live results of the games played by our rescue-battle competitors. If we fell down to the second tier, just five years after the title, it would be an incredible disgrace for the club and the whole fan community.

The sports tragedy didn’t happen, but probably the most difficult moment for the desperate Slavia fans was still to come. Even though the results weren’t as bad in the next seasons, especially because of the strong start of the league campaign under the new coach Miroslav Beránek, the club wasn’t very stable from an economic point of view – Slavia was in huge debt, the players didn’t get their wages regularly and when, in 2015, some of the creditors came with their insolvency proposals, the situation appeared really bad for the famous side.

The resurrection of the club came at the beginning of September 2015. Jiří Šimáně, a Czech businessman, and the Chinese company CEFC bought the club. They paid all the debts and the fans could breathe easily again – the insolvency proceedings stopped and the club was suddenly economically stable.

It’s definitely one of the most important moments in the club history – as Šimáně said in the interview for Czech newspaper Hospodářské noviny, if he hadn’t persuaded CEFC to buy a club, Slavia would be destroyed and probably would be playing some amateur league nowadays.

The vision of Slavia’s saviours was significantly different – Šimáně wanted to create a club in the style of Ajax Amsterdam – with a great youth academy, trying to prepare talented players and then sell them to bigger clubs for big money.

The Chinese company, represented by former Czech minister Jaroslav Tvrdík, wanted an immediate success and to build a competitive club in central Europe. Because of the difference in opinions, Šimáně left the club, which is now 100% owned by CEFC.

In the first season of the “new Slavia”, the Prague side, coached by Dušan Uhrin, ended up in fifth place on the league table. There were some interesting and expensive new players, such as Gino van Kessel, who became the most expensive signing in club history.

Slavia, who could enjoy their first European cup match after many years while playing in the Europa League playoffs, claimed their aim for the next season to make the top three of the table and

become a serious competitor for two best Czech clubs of the recent years – the classic arch-enemy Sparta Prague and Viktoria Plzeň, a provincial club which became super-successful in the era of Pavel Vrba, who reached two league titles and proceed to the Champions League group stage twice during his five years in the club.

The start of the season wasn’t very good for Slavia, while they got five points only from the first four matches. The bad beginning was fatal for Dušan Uhrin, who lost his job, and former Slavia player and current Dukla Prague coach Jaroslav Šilhavý was appointed.

With a new man on the bench, Slavia got in great shape and they didn’t lose any of the remaining league matches, which is actually the second longest unbeaten streak Czech league history.

Even though the team was playing really well, the board, including the coach, still stayed humble and repeated to media that a spot in the top three would mean a successful season for the Sewn-ones.

The situation changed in March, when Slavia beat the main title favorites Viktoria Plzeň at Eden Stadium, thanks to the late goal by Michal Frydrych, who had become a father earlier that week.

Because of the terrible season made by Sparta, who finally finished third with twelve points less than Slavia gained and not really excellent performances by Viktoria, who surprisingly fired the coach Roman Pivarník in the first week of April, even though the Plzeň side was still at the top of the table, the Red and whites suddenly became the title favorites for the public.

The situation has changed and the expectations of the fans and football spectators were generally higher than anyone in Slavia probably thought before the season. It was quite clear – the Šilhavý boys were playing for the cup.

After a surprising Plzeň draw in Jablonec, when the reigning champion lost two points after a 2:2 result, the situation was quite good for the Prague ones – a win in a small derby against city rivals Dukla would mean four points margin and just two games remaing – a mighty chance to win a title.

However, the performances of Slavia individuals weren’t very good at the back-to-back part of the season, as they probably realize they’re battling for the league victory. Also, the playing system changed – there wasn’t so much combination and attractive moments in Slavia games as in the first part of the season.

The Sewn-ones got just one point from the Dukla match and situation before their last away match in Mladá Boleslav suddenly didn’t look so well. They were still the leading side of the table, but the head-to-head stats from recent years were quite bad for Slavia.

The Red and whites came with a brilliant performance and celebrated a deserved 2-1 win. However, they weren’t quite happy after the final whistle. Why? If the title competitors from Plzeň would get one point only from their match against Zbrojovka Brno, the game would be over even one week before the last round and Slavia would have a trophy.

There weren’t any goals for most of the game, but then Plzeň managed to win a match with a late screamer by Michael Krmenčík. The dissapointment of both fans and players was evident. It was so close…

A week later, the last round of the campaign was there. Slavia as the leading side of the table still had everything in their hands – if they win their last home fixture, they’ll become champions, no matter how Plzeň plays.

However… home fixture.

It was known for a long time before the end of the season that the last home game of Slavia couldn’t be played at their home stadium in Eden. At the start of the league campaign, the stadium had a different owner than the club.

That was changed in April, when CEFC finally bought a stadium and since that, the club and the stadium has a common owner.

So, because of the different situation months before that, they were some gigs of Rammstein and Depeche Mode set to the last week of May. Because of the planned concerts in Eden Stadium, Slavia couldn’t play the decisive game of the season at the same area as usual.

The Sewn-ones were forced to have their final battle in Stadion Evžena Rošického at Strahov – which is the place where Slavia played before their new stadium in Eden was build.

The return to the place, which brought one of the most fantastic moments of the whole Slavia history – at Strahov Stadium, Slavia beat Ajax 2-1 in Champions League playoffs and reached their historic (and only) spot at the group stage of the most prestigious European club competition.

For the record, the two-goal hero from that match, a legendary Slavia striker Stanislav Vlček, went to the good old Strahov pitch once again – for this time as a team manager.

The start of the match was quite nervous for both Slavia fans and players. The moments of joy came after twenty minutes – thanks to goals of Frydrych and Tecl the favorites got a two-goal lead and the sitatuon looked quite hopeful for the red-and-white nation.

After another goal by Tecl and the fourth one scored by Ngadeu (a centre back from Cameroon, who was transformed to a brilliant defensive midfielder by Šilhavý predecessor Uhrin) it was quite clear – and the chant, sang by the whole stadium Slavia Praha, mistr ligy was to become reality in a few minutes – Slavia Prague, the league champion.

Just before the final whistle, it was followed by another – Bican, Puč a Plánička, z nebe se dívají, jak Slavie válí – a chant mentioning the biggest legends of the club history, including Pepi Bican, one of the best strikers that football has ever seen, how they look down from heaven, as their club rules.

If they see it, they must be satisfied. Slavia, as one of the club anthems says, is really eternal. Not even two years after the rescue in the literal last minute, they won a league title. Of course, you can be cynical and say it’s just because of money, which saved the club.

Football nowadays is (unfortunately) business and if your club is not economically strong, you cannot achieve big success. However, Slavia, like Sparta, is an important part of Czech club football and the tradition and rivalry of these two clubs is something, which makes this game in the heart of Europe really special. And they both should have their place at the top of the table, battling for the title.

The unbelievable story was written, Slavia Prague won a title. The club, where players didn’t get their wages regularly, the club, which was one of the relegation candidates to the very last round of the campaign just three years ago, is the best in the league. And the fans are looking forward to the Champions League summer playoffs, wishing their side can repeat the Ajax miracle from 2007.

Stanislav Vlček is here, so why not? But even if Slavia doesn’t proceed to European cups this year, even if they fall to the bottom of the table again, one thing is quite sure- they will not lose the fans and their unflagging support. Because We are always with you. After a win, after a loss…

Author Details

Jan Pikous

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