Bookies backing Slavia to retain title as Czech soccer season begins

Slavia players with the coach Karel Jarolím, photo: CTK

The Czech Republic’s Gambrinus football league gets underway on Friday evening, when Teplice host last season’s runners-up Sparta Prague. Both will be hoping to overtake reigning champions Slavia, who the bookies have backed to retain their title. Otherwise, the new season comes with a number of interesting talking points.

Slavia players with the coach Karel Jarolím,  photo: CTK
Czech bookmakers are backing Slavia Prague to end the 2009-2010 season as champions, which would be a remarkable three league titles in a row. Slavia’s ascendance (they also now posses the country’s best stadium) has come at the expense of Sparta, the most successful club in the history of the Czech league, who have been somewhat at sea in recent years.

Coming first will mean more this season than it has done for a decade. From 1999-2000 to last season both the champions and the team that finished second were in with a chance of reaching the Champions League. However, following several years of poor showings by Czech clubs in Europe, the country’s coefficient has dropped and only the title winners will get into qualifiers for the lucrative competition’s group stage.

What are referred to as the Prague “S”, Slavia and Sparta, begin the season with question marks over the futures of the clubs’ – and the league’s – biggest stars. Slavia’s Vladimír Šmicer says he is fighting to come back from after a knee operation largely to be able to bid his farewell to the game on the pitch. Meanwhile, there seems to be a real chance that Šmicer’s good pal Patrik Berger, who is captain of Sparta, may never play again due to an ankle injury.

There are an unusually high number of foreign players in the first division this season. Nearly 100 foreigners are registered with teams in the Czech top flight, with less than half from neighbouring Slovakia. Ten hail from Brazil.

Bohemians 1905 coach Pavel Hoftych,  photo: CTK
This season there are two clubs called Bohemians in division one with extremely similar strips and the same kangaroo logo. Bohemians Praha were formerly known as Střížkov and simply bought the name a few years ago when the original Bohemians went bankrupt. The original Bohemians were later revived as Bohemians 1905, who are generally considered to be the real Bohemians. With a legal dispute over the name ongoing, Bohemians Praha are saying they may refuse to play their first ever “derby” with Bohemians 1905, which is set for October and is sure to be a fiery clash.

After three years in which she was not allowed to referee in the first division, the first Czech woman ever to officiate in the top flight is set to return; the head of the referees commission says Dagmar Damková will take charge of at least one top flight game between now and the winter break.

Unlike in some countries, Saturday is not when games have traditionally been played here in the Czech Republic, with Sunday the day most matches take place. But thanks to Czech Television’s wish to broadcast games then, fans can look forward to at least one first division clash every Saturday between now and May 22.