75 years of turmoil and triumph - Bohemians' Dolicek Stadium celebrates its birthday

Bohemians-Stadion in Vrsovice

Bohemians' Dolicek stadium celebrates its 75th birthday this year. Over the years, this Prague landmark has become synonymous with a club that has a rich and venerable history.

Bohemians-Stadion in Vrsovice | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International
Founded in 1905 as AFK Vrsovice, after the area where today's stadium stands, the team took the name Bohemians after a celebrated 1927 tour of Australia, where they represented Czechoslovakia and were famously presented with two live kangaroos by their hosts. They are still known informally as the "Kangaroos" or "Klokani" to this day.

Although, they have only won the Czech league once, Bohemians are a hugely popular club in this country, thanks in part to the skilful, attacking football that the team has traditionally always tried to play.

Bohemians were also supported in the 1970s and 80s by many dissidents who preferred coming to Dolicek than going to the oppressive grounds of traditional "communist" clubs like Sparta Prague and Dukla Prague.

One of Bohemka's greatest players, Antonin Panenka, whom many listeners may remember as the man whose cheeky chip won the 1976 European Championships for Czechoslovakia, spent the best years of his career playing in front of the crowds at Dolicek. He says it is a ground that has always occupied a special place in his heart.

"I played here for 23 years. I joined Bohemians [as a youth player] when I was nine years old - in 1957 I think. For me it was an unbelievably big day when I first came to the stadium, and I will never forget the feeling I had when I stood on the pitch for the first time as young boy. I remember not sleeping a wink the night before it happened, because it was such a big deal for me. I was looking forward to it so much."

Antonin Panenka
Born in Vrsovice, just around the corner from the stadium, Panenka has been coming to the ground for as long as he can remember, first as a spectator and later as a player. He says it's a place that has always had a special atmosphere.

"Dolicek or the Bohemians ground was very like an old English stadium. There was no athletics track and the fans were about a metre behind the touchline. There were wooden stands here, like they had in old English grounds. This meant that people loved coming here. The atmosphere at home games was something they really liked."

The chairman of the Bohemians' supporters association Antonin Jelinek also comes from Vrsovice and has been supporting Bohemians since he was around four years old. Like a lot of Kangaroos' fans, he has many fond memories of seeing matches in the old Dolicek stadium.

"I live across the street and have a balcony that overlooks the stadium. I was not actually in the stadium for my first match but looking from the balcony. Since I was able, I have watched almost every single game. I still remember games where we were playing in the UEFA Cup and the European Champions' Cup, when we played Ajax Amsterdam. I can still recall that game even though it's almost twenty five years ago. I remember when Antonin Panenka played his last match and people were hanging from the lightning rods. It's an incredible memory."

Bohemians have suffered a drastic downturn in their fortunes since winning the league and competing in the European Champions Cup in 1983. After getting disastrously into debt in the 1990s, the club actually went bust and would have gone out of existence had it not been for a fan's initiative headed by Antonin Jelinek, which organised a collection and raised enough money to save the Kangaroos from extinction.

Because of the lack of money, investment in the stadium has been non-existent for years and two stands have actually been pulled down. Nevertheless, the dilapidated terrace and grandstand that remain are packed out every week. With regular crowds of almost 9000 people, Dolicek often has the best attended game in the Czech Republic every weekend despite the fact that Bohemians are now playing in the second division.

Antonin Panenka says that, despite the turmoil at the club in recent years, the atmosphere is still as special as it was when he played for Bohemians in their heyday:

"I think it's very similar, because Bohemians have always had their hardcore fans, whose heart, soul and body belongs to the club. It's actually thanks to them that the club didn't go out of existence and that this tradition still continues. There has always been a friendly, homely atmosphere here. People would come because they knew it would be a pleasant experience. Of course, the atmosphere is a little bit noisier today and the fans are a little bit more creative in terms of the banners they make and the ideas they come up with to support the team. But they are still among the best fans around, not just in this country but in the whole of Europe, because they totally get behind their team and you really sense this."

Despite a recent upturn in the club's fortunes, there are certain question marks hanging over Bohemians future at Dolicek.

Many supporters have mixed emotions about the fact that club is now challenging for promotion to the Czech league's top division. Although they are delighted their team is doing well, they are afraid they will have to move from Dolicek if they are promoted, because the ground does not meet the necessary criteria for playing games in the first division, such as having all-seating stands and floodlights.

Some supporters are also suspicious of a new investment consortium, which has taken over the club, fearing that it is only interested in commercially developing the Dolicek ground, whose central location makes it a prime piece of Prague real estate.

Antonin Panenka, who is now the club's president, has played down these concerns, however. He says the investors have committed themselves to developing the club and intend to modernise and improve facilities at the stadium. Many fans have been heartened to hear that he at least is convinced that the future of Bohemians football club will remain intertwined with the Dolicek stadium for a long time to come.

"Dolicek definitely belongs to this club and Bohemians actually belongs to Dolicek. This club has been here for many decades. Since the very beginning there was a club called Bohemians playing here. Bohemians are still playing here and we hope they will continue to play here. Everybody involved in football here knows what Dolicek means. If we say 'Dolicek' everyone knows we are talking about Bohemians. If we say 'Bohemians', people automatically think of 'Dolicek'. They belong to each other, like conjoined twins."

This is a view shared by the Bohemians fans Radio Prague spoke to at a match recently, when we asked them how they felt about the stadium that has been their club's home since the 1930s

"It's not going to be the same Bohemians if we go somewhere else. The only thing we can do is to stay here and try to save this place. It has to be Dolicek. Bohemians were born here. This is the only place we can play. If we move somewhere else, it's going to lose everything."

(American English teacher)

"I think this is my fourth time here. I like the Czech crowd. I think they're a rowdy bunch. I like the beer also. It's always good."

How does it compare to a sports event in the United States, like an American football or baseball game?

"It's pretty different. The beer doesn't flow as much back home. The stadiums are a bit bigger, and also cleaner, but otherwise the fans are a rowdy bunch there as well."

They're now talking about doing up the stadium. Do you think that would be a good thing or do you think it might lose something?

"Well it depends. Is it going to be much bigger and nicer? To be honest, I like the shittiness of this stadium. It seems very authentic."

(English editor working in Prague)

"I like it because it's not as sanitised as English football. There's a lot more atmosphere and people are more chilled out and stuff."I

Do you think the stadium might lose something if they did it up?

"I think it's fine the way it is. I don't think they need to redevelop it. I like the way you can stand here and that the place is crammed. It gives the ground a good feeling. I don't know if they need to get bigger because they probably won't get many more fans than they have already. I suppose football's about looking forward. The probably want to make themselves into a bigger team so I guess that's why they're doing it."

"I think I was 11 when I went to my first match. I'm 34 now, so I've been going to matches for more than 20 years. It's an incredible place. I can't imagine the Kangaroos playing anywhere else but here. It's an incredible atmosphere, especially when about 3000 people in the main stand shout "GREEN!" and about 5000 of us on the terrace answer "WHITE!". And then we go "Green! White! Green! White!" (a reference to the team's strip). It's really wonderful...