Czech football clubs face lean times

Photo: CTK

This week we take a look at the financial state of top Czech football clubs as they struggle to come to terms with more meagre earnings from the transfer market.

Photo: CTK
Czech football is going through schizophrenic times. While the national team is flying high - and is well on course to take part in the 2016 European Championships in France after significant wins over the Netherlands, Turkey, and Kazakhstan – the domestic game is in the doldrums.

Just before the Christmas break, the last Czech club with a chance of continuing in UEFA’s Europa League competition, Sparta Prague, went out after a 2-0 loss to Swiss club Young Boys Berne. Sparta had already dropped out of the much more prestigious Champions League.

Current first division league leaders Viktoria Plzeň had already exited the Europa League competition weeks earlier. That means that no Czech club will go into the current new year playing top flight European football for the first time since 2010. So how is Czech football doing overall? And in particular how well are clubs faring financially as European football’s governing body UEFA tries to impose some moderation on the sky high transfer payments that some top European clubs have been paying.

January was the start of the transfer season and in the recent past has been an eagerly awaited opportunity for Czechs to sell off some of their stars to bigger and richer leagues in England, Germany and Italy. This has often been a major cash lifeline for Czech clubs, but this time round the transfer activity has been rather subdued.

Jiří Valín is the executive director of the Czech sports and marketing agency, the All Stars Team, and a licensed agent for players. The agency represents around 30 players, most who are competing in the top Czech League.

Jiří Valín, photo: archive of All Stars Team
He says participation in the later stages of European competitions has always provided a much needed cash injection into the domestic game and has been fundamental in sparking activity on the local transfer market: ‘’It always depended on how successful Czech clubs are in Europe, especially in European cups and most of all in the Champions League. If Czech clubs are able to reach this competition, they are in a position to receive more money and the money is then spread through domestic football. In this case the situation is a little bit better. Otherwise, we are a very, very, modest football country.’’

Purchases of top Czech stars by well heeled European clubs also provided cash and created gaps that Czech teams had to fill, often in the form of younger Czech players still looking to make a name for themselves.

But at the moment, Valín says the odds are against Czech players following in the heels of Arsenal’s Tomáš Rosicky or Chelsea’s Petr Čech into the big European leagues. ‘’It is extremely difficult for Czech players to enter these top leagues in Europe. On the other hand, during each transfer window we are able to realise some transfers which are more than modest. For example, this winter Sparta [Prague’s] player Hušbauer moves to Italy to first division club Cagliari. So sometimes in this respect we are successful, but generally this is an exception. There are few, few, players that are in a position to continue their playing careers with top European clubs.’’

Josef Hušbauer’s move to Sardinia is perhaps a sign of the caution in the current transfer market. The offensive midfielder who helped Sparta Prague to become league champions last season is only on loan for a year for around one million euros. Only then will Cagliari consider whether to make the transfer permanent at the cost of another three million euros.

Valín says the difference between the situation now and a decade or more ago is that there is even greater competition from players to make the big time with talent from Africa, Asia, and Latin America increasingly on show. He says clubs are more careful about taking risks and want to see proof that the players they are purchasing are long term reliable prospects and not ephemeral talent.

Josef Hušbauer, photo: CTK
Former Czechoslovak international and member of the European Championship winning team in 1976, Zdeněk Nehoda, later went on to play for clubs in Germany, Belgium, France, and Austria. He founded the agency Nehoda Sport in 1996 and it now represents some top Czech footballers such as Tomáš Hübschman and goalkeeper Tomáš Vaclík, as well as Slovakia’s Michal Ďuriš. He says quite a few Czech players who were signed up abroad in recent years failed to make their mark: ‘’Recently players that transferred abroad, with the possible exception of Tomáš Vaclík of Basle, that means [Václav] Kadlec at [Eintracht] Frankfurt and players from Plzeň such as [Milan] Petžela or [Václav] Pilař or others had to quickly throw in the towel and come back. ‘’

The players from Plzeň were all able to showcase their talents in the club’s memorable run in the Champions League and playing for their country. But somehow the moves to German clubs did not work out and they have returned to the West Bohemian club.

For aspiring Czech players, there is another factor as well that is undermining their prospects. While Czech players might look like bargain buys to major clubs in Western Europe, the same is even truer for footballers from even less developed countries or clubs, for example, in South East Europe for Czech teams. So it was perhaps not so much of a surprise when Sparta Prague announced the signing of Albanian international Herolind Shala as the replacement for Hušbauer.

The 22-year-old had been playing in Norway. Sparta and Viktoria Plzeň previously had been competing for the favours of Bosnian attacker Aidin Mahmutovič. The 28-year-old had been with Czech club Teplice for eight years

Valín agrees that the Balkans are now a happy hunting ground for Czech football scouts as they look to keep a lid on costs. ‘’The strongest clubs are limited in money as far as foreign transfers are concerned. So Czech clubs are looking for players who are not so expensive but who are still competitive for the Czech first division. Our clubs have to be careful about transfer fees but also about the players’ salaries. So there are two aspects and both have to be taken into consideration.’’

Zdeněk Nehoda, photo: David Sedlecký, CC BY-SA 3.0
As if to underline the financial situation, Sparta Prague announced at the start of the year a loss of 144 million crowns for the 2013-2014 season. This might be regarded as a relative success given that the losses in the previous year were 191 million and in the 2011-2012 season an even higher 237 million. Viktoria Plzeň’s last figures are for the 1012-2013 season when they made a slight loss of 15 million crowns. Most of the major Czech clubs are the play things of rich businessmen backers and owners with losses one of the accepted burdens. The idea of fans having a stake in the clubs, which has recent surfaced in England, is not a topic for discussion here.

If the current situation on the football market is not that bright, Zdeněk Nehoda says one hope could be the fact that the Czech Republic will be hosting and taking part in the European Under 21 championships this summer. That, he hopes could provide the opportunity for upcoming Czech talent to shine through on the international stage.