Monkey chants and Nazi salutes: Czech football at a crossroads


Czech football has seen some great results in recent years. The Czech national team has been doing fairly well on the international scene and Slavia Prague made it into the prestigious Champions League this year. But all this could fade into the background if one issue is not addressed. In this week's Panorama, we look at the problem of racism at Czech football stadiums.

Gambrinus liga, the top Czech football division, has seen the first five rounds of the year 2007/08 and is now in recess as attention turns to the performance of the national team playing two crucial qualifying matches for Euro 2008. In the first rounds of the top Czech football competitions, fans from throughout the country enjoyed some great games but one issue has proved a thorn in the side for football bosses, footballers and football audiences. It seems that racism and anti-Semitism has made a comeback in Czech football arenas as several clubs have complained that they were subject to racist and anti-Semitic chanting. Byron Webster is a midfielder for FK Siad Most which is quite unusual in the Czech football environment as its basic line-up features eight foreign players. I asked him if he ever encountered racism in Czech football.

"No, not me personally but some of the other players must have. When we were warming up in Ostrava and Olomouc, a few of the fans were doing monkey chants and saying racist things. It was not all the fans; it was just a small minority of the fans that were doing the chants."

But it does not stop with monkey chants; some hard-core football hooligans supporting Sparta Prague have on several occasions chanted 'Jude Slavie', labelling their biggest rival, Slavia Prague, Jewish. This made Frantisek Banyai, the head of the Prague Jewish community, and Leo Pavlat, the director of the Prague Jewish Museum, send an open letter to the Sparta management asking them to prevent their fans from doing so. Leo Pavlat explains.

Leo Pavlat
"Before the match against a British club from London, against Arsenal, Sparta fans were warned about manifestations of racism during games. It was said that the authors of such manifestations can be identified and held responsible. After chanting the German word for Jew - Jude - we thought that it would be appropriate to approach Sparta and ask them to fulfill their promises."

Lukas Pribyl, the head of Sparta's public relations, told Czech TV that Sparta is doing more than any other club in Bohemia and Moravia to combat racism.

"Sparta is one of the most active among those who fight against racism, not just in football, but in the society as well. Sparta participates in several media campaigns which we finance. We hold press conferences and we also actively talk to the people who might have influence over the individuals who cause these problems. Unfortunately, these individuals are heard the most. We fight against them and we'll keep doing so."

The problem was that his gesture was dangerously close to the Nazi salute, and although Pavel Horvath as well as Sparta management vigorously denied that the gesture was in fact a Nazi salute, serious doubts have remained. Lukas Pribyl of Sparta again.

"It has got nothing, really nothing to do with racism. I would like to point that out very clearly. It was an unfortunate gesture but I don't think anyone can really assume that Pavel Horvath wanted to promote something with it; to me that seems really far-fetched and a little too much."

All those concerned agree that it is a minority of football fans who cause these kinds of problems. While the number of visitors to football stadiums in the Czech Republic is rising, Marek Suchanek of the Czech Interior Ministry estimates the number of the real hard-liners among football fans to be about two to three hundred. Moreover, Mr. Suchanek claims that the situation has been improving.

"In my opinion, the situation is getting better. There are not as many violent incidents as before, especially in the early 1990s. Several preventive activities have started based on the models from the U.K. and Germany. As far as violence among spectators is concerned, I can generally say that the situation in the Czech Republic is not as bad as in some Eastern European countries or in former Eastern Germany."

The situation might be improving but that does not mean the problem of racism and anti-Semitism should not be addressed, and stopped. In the game between Viktoria Zizkov and Sparta, the main referee interrupted the match in the 13th minute upon hearing Sparta fans shouting 'Jude Slavia' once again. Leo Pavlat says the police should act immediately without any other incentives.

"Look. Chanting 'Jude' is just a manifestation of racism that has nothing to do with Slavia or anybody else. It is a matter of fact that a part of Sparta fans are right-wing extremists who hate Jews; who are anti-Semites, and they show it."

Photo: CTK
The Football Association of the Czech Republic could learn from countries that have had the same problems, and have dealt with them successfully, pushing racist behaviour away from football stadiums. Ondrej Zlamal is the spokesman for Slavia Prague.

"Football is a game, and it's just a mirror of the society. I don't think that the roots of racism and this kind of racist behaviour lie in football. I think the Czech Football Federation has been doing a very good job so far monitoring, warning the clubs, but they could be stricter, in the same way the UEFA is. UEFA is able to ban the clubs from its competitions and that is something the fans would understand."

Photo: CTK
Although some clubs, including Sparta, claim they spend huge amounts of money on security and monitoring problematic fan behaviour, it seems that a clear signal has to be given to the fans which come to stadiums to make trouble. Football clubs as well as the Czech Football Association should tackle the problem head on. Byron Webster again.

"I am new to the area; I have only been here for a few months. I don't know what the Football Association does in the Czech Republic but I am sure they are doing the hardest they can to stop this. But like I said, people can work their socks off trying to stop it but it is the small minority of people who still want to do it and they are going to be persistently doing it. Maybe these fans need to be banned from the grounds. People can work as hard as they want trying to stop it but at the end of the day, it's the fans who are doing the chants."