Prague's Hanspaulska Liga - Football League


Well the 2002 football World Cup in Korea and Japan is well under way, reaching a feverish pitch as 16 teams out of an original 32 prepare to advance to the next elimination round. So far the championship has seen no shortage of surprises, with highly-favoured France and Argentina making early exits, and Italy barely hanging on to reach the next round... which teams will reach the vaunted final is becoming more and more a speciality for fortune tellers to guess.

Throughout the Czech Republic Czechs too have been watching the championships closely, after all this is a country that loves football, and also has a rich football history. Here the sport is often called kopana - which comes from the Czech verb kopat - to kick: translated literally kopana is "the kicking game".

On a professional level former Czechoslovakia and today's Czech Republic, has produced its share of football stars and memorable championship moments. How many today, for instance, remember that the Czechs faced Italy in the final of what was only the 2nd world cup in 1932, and led 1-0 in the 82nd minute of the game, before ultimately losing the match. The Czechs also faced off in a second World Cup final in 1962 against Brazil, at a time when the great Pele was still in the Brazilian squad. Coming in 2nd twice, however, is as lucky as the Czechs have been: they did win the European Championship against the Germans in 1976, a feat they almost repeated 20 years later. Those two achievements stand as the most recent pinnacles reached by the Czech national side.

This year, Czech fans can only sigh with regret that once again their players aren't taking part in the football World Cup. Failure to qualify came as a major shock and disappointment for a strong generation of star footballers that include Czech mid-fielder Pavel Nedved of Juventus, mid-fielder Karel Poborsky formerly of Lazio Rome, and striker Vladimir Smicer of Liverpool, as well as new up and coming stars like Milan Baros, also of Liverpool, Tomas Rosicky of Borrusia Dortmund, and goalkeeper Petr Cech of Sparta Prague. Still, Czechs do love the game, and their team's absence in Korea and Japan has not hampered the spirit of football in the Czech Republic too much. After all there's always next time, and the younger generation of up-coming players who clinched the gold medal at the recent UEFA Under-21 tournament is expected to take the helm... With any luck perhaps 2006 will be the year this country of 10 million will once again make it's mark on the world stage of kopana, perhaps this time going all the way.

Stay tuned as Magazine continues: we look at what has become a grand tradition of football at the grass roots level - Prague's famous Hanspaulka League.

What you're hearing now could probably best be described as the quintessential football experience here in Prague - competition in the Hanspaulska Liga, the famous Czech amateur football league. Thirty years ago when it began there were just eight teams in the league but it has grown incredibly since: today Hanspaulska Liga boasts an unbelievable 792 teams.

So, if you had any doubts, football is obviously a very popular game here.

The teams in the league are divided according to eight divisions based on talent and quality of play: there are 12 teams to a group that play each other all season on small pitches with small goals and 6 men to a side. There are regular substitutions; the games are refereed by players from higher divisions.

On the pitch now is a team I have come to see a team called GFC Regent B - which to me sounds almost like one of those secret Russian military cities. Regent B has not had a good season - they are in last place. They haven't won a single game all season but the players' love for the game obviously just won't die. Most of the players are in their thirties, and Regent's goalkeeper has more than a passing resemblance to Claudio Tafarel, the famous Brazilian goalkeeper who led Brazil to the World Cup in 1994. Something tells me thought, that that Regent's keeper will not shine quite as bright.

Now, you might think the Hanspaulska Liga is all just fun and games but you'll be surprised to know that the league served as a kind of symbol against the oppression of former Communist regime. When the league was founded in 1972 it was only four years after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed the Prague Spring and brought any hope for reform to a halt. Following the invasion the 1970s witnessed the so-called normalisation period which drove repression to new heights and pushed potential opponents of the regime underground: intellectuals, musicians, artists. Many of the critics of the regime, the dissidents of the day who were later active in the Charter 77 protest against the regime, had ties to the Hanspaulka district in Prague, the district that gave the football league its name. Many also played football in the early league, itself a kind of act of protest, as well as one of the few options for enjoyment in a period of drab and closely monitored existence...

When the chips are down you've got to believe - imagine 5 minutes from time, GFC Regent B got their goal. It was a magical moment, for a second the Czech Republic's World Cup woes were forgotten, as the Regent striker drove a scrappy volley into the back of net, which rippled in slow motion as the whole team elatedly chased after the goal scorer. Did I mention though - Bandidos scored six before Regent's moment of truth, outplaying them, beating them to a pulp. So, yes, it was another loss for the last place team. Ah, well, you can't have everything - for me it was still a beautiful game.