David Koubek: Czech Radio’s former man in Brazil on the World Cup, the Olympics and the country’s Czech connections

David Koubek, photo: Khalil Baalbaki

While most of us can only dream about attending a World Cup or Olympic Games, David Koubek got to experience both as Czech Radio’s correspondent in Brazil. In his two and a half years in Rio de Janeiro, Koubek also got to travel to many other parts of South America and met all kinds of interesting people, including – he told me after his recent return to Prague – a German “Bohemian” community proud of their Czech roots. But when we spoke, I first asked the Czech Radio man how he had managed to cover the 2014 World Cup, given the sheer vastness of Brazil.

David Koubek,  photo: Khalil Baalbaki
“I’ve calculated that I travelled 90,000 kilometres in South America. For the World Cup it was 17,000; I was in nine host cities.

“It’s a huge country and sometimes it was really tough.

“I remember once I was in this city, I don’t remember which one [laughs] because there were many trips during the World Cup.

“My plane was at 3 o’clock in the morning and I was really exhausted – and the next day I was supposed to be in another host city.

“But it was a lot of fun. And I don’t think that there could be any better way to get to know Brazil than during this crazy trip, this crazy period of work.”

Tell us about when you saw the famous game in which the Brazilians were beaten by the Germans. Did you report on that?

“I didn’t report on the game specifically. My colleagues in Prague did an off-tube broadcast of this match; there was no-one doing a live broadcast from the stadium.

“But I did the reactions after the game and it was something extra-terrestrial [laughs]...”

“Brazil is known for doing things at five minutes after 12 [laughs]. The Olympics were one minute to 12 – but it did work.”

It must have been like a national tragedy or something?

“It was a tragedy. The whole stadium was in shock.

“They were looking at each other going, What’s happening? What is this?

“Because the goals were really quick. Some of them were so angry that they left the stadium during the first half.

“After that, I think it was with the fifth German goal, they started applauding the Germans.

“Because they are great fans of football. And when they see that their team is not really good, they can be really angry with them.

“If you want to make a Brazilian angry, bring this up [laughs].”

The Czech Republic weren’t at that World Cup, but obviously they had athletes at the Olympics this summer. Was there more interest from Prague in Brazil at that time because of the Czech participation?

Photo: Filip Šedivý
“Yes, definitely. I was so lucky that I was not really asked to do a lot of things. That doesn’t mean I didn’t do anything [laughs], but everything I proposed was accepted.

“So I think there was great cooperation between Prague and the Rio de Janeiro branch of Czech Radio [laughs].

“And yes, the interest was much broader.

“There were preparations for the Olympics – test events – and a lot of Czech athletes came to Rio before the Olympics.

“That was a great opportunity to talk about the Czech athletes’ training, but also about the preparations of the stadiums and venues in Rio de Janeiro.

“A lot of the people told me that they were so surprised, because the difference between what they saw during the test events and what they experienced during the Olympics themselves was huge.

“I usually said that Juscelino Kubitschek, the great president, had Czech ancestors. But everybody is from somewhere in Brazil.”

“Brazil is known for doing things at five minutes after 12 [laughs]. This was one minute to 12 – but it did work.”

What was your personal stand-out moment of the games? Was there any particular moment that will stay with you?

“Yes. I was not present at many venues for many events during the Olympics, because my colleagues from the sports desk came to Rio de Janeiro.

“So they were doing the sport things – I’m not really good at sports [laughs] – and my job was to report on other things around the Olympics, everything connected with them.

“During the gold medal victory for the Czech Republic with Lukáš Krpálek in judo we were at the Czech House. And there was a visit by Mrs. Maria Estela Kubitschek, the daughter of Juscelino Kubitschek, the great Brazilian president, one of the most famous presidents, who constructed Brasilia, the new capital.

Brasilia,  photo: David Koubek
“She brought her grandson with her, and he had never seen an Olympics before, I think.

“He was a great fan of Karpálek and his name was Lukas. So Lukas Kubitschek, Lukáš Karpálek – it was a connection [laughs].

“I did an interview with him during the ceremony and he was so proud and his grandmother was so proud and so happy to have been invited to the Czech House by the Czech Olympic Committee and to have the opportunity to see the Czech gold medal.

“She told me she felt more Czech than Brazilian at that time.

“Brazilians are really great on emotions – they are very emotional people. She is also an emotional woman and she was really living that moment very emotionally.

“She hugged me and kissed me because she was so happy. This is my personal and emotional highlight of the Olympics.

“And then I felt a lot more emotions during the Paralympic Games.

“Brazil’s Bohemian Germans are proud of their Bohemian origins. They don’t care about the Second World War or about the expulsion of the Germans after the war.”

“They were great. The public was more Brazilian than during the Olympics and they were great.”

Apart from those two enormous events, did you have any other particularly memorable reporting assignments?

“I had a lot of meetings, a lot of encounters, during that two and a half years.

“And every meeting with an interesting person – by which I mean with a person who achieved something; it could be the poorest person, but has a goal, has achieved something – was a great one.”

“I think South America in general is a continent of unlimited opportunities.

“The people try hard and every time I met such a person, it was great.

“I also remember some other interesting meetings.

“I met the younger brother of Ernesto Che Guevara, in his hometown. It was a total coincidence. And there were a lot more interesting interviews.”

Typically when you said that you came from the Czech Republic, what was their reaction? What was the perception of the Czech Republic?

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro,  photo: David Koubek
“Usually they don’t know the Czech Republic. They usually know Czechoslovakia. Sometimes it’s worth explaining, sometimes not.

“Maybe if you said Prague, a lot of Brazilians in particular know Prague and they like Prague.

“A lot of Brazilians came to Prague before the crisis and they’re spreading the great name of Prague throughout Brazil [laughs]. Talking about Prague with Brazilians is easier than talking about the Czech Republic.

“I usually said that Juscelino Kubitschek, the great president, had Czech ancestors. But that doesn’t mean a lot.

“Every Brazilian has a lot of ancestors from a lot of places. This is an immigrants’ country.

“The Indians, the indigenous people, count for zero-point something percent of the population.

“So this mixture, this melting point, is also very interesting. Everybody is from somewhere in Brazil.”

Is there a Czech community in Brazil, or in Rio?

“In Rio there are some people, though I wouldn’t call it a community.

Sao Paulo,  photo: David Koubek
“There is a Czech community in small places in Brazil. In Bataipora, which is in Czech Baťova Dobrá Voda.”

I was going to say, that’s the town that was established by Jan Antonín Baťa, right?

“Exactly. And there are three more towns that he established: Bataguassu, Batatuba and Mariapolis.

“He was a great entrepreneur and unfortunately he died very early.”

But are there still Czech communities in those places?

“There is still a Czech community, a large Czech community, in Bataipora. They have the elementary school of Jan Antonín Baťa. And they have a Czech teacher.

“There are two teachers who teach the Czech language. One is in Sao Paulo and the other is half the year in Bataipora and the other half of the year in Nova Petropolis, in the south of Brazil.

“There is also a community of Czech Germans, or Bohemian Germans. They call themselves Böhmisch.

“They are proud of their Bohemian origins. They are Germans, but they really feel strong ties to what is now the Czech Republic.

“They don’t care about the Second World War or about the expulsion of the Germans after the war.

“They feel this is their home and they come back to visit the cemeteries and the places where their families used to live.

Rio de Janeiro,  photo: Klaus with K,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“And they have a Czech teacher and they try to speak Czech. It’s so funny sometimes, but it’s very emotional as well.”

My final question is, after two and a half years in this really colourful country of Brazil, how has it been readjusting to living here again?

“It’s not that hard, though the weather is really different, because I came from summertime to wintertime. But it’s not that hard.

“Living abroad for some time makes you more resistant to changes.

“The only thing I miss are smiles. I think Czechs should smile more [laughs].

“But still I can see a lot of smiles. Especially at Czech Radio.”