If you ask a Czech what the national sport is, odds are they’ll shrug their shoulders and tell you it’s a toss-up between ice hockey and soccer. When it comes to the former, the Czech Republic has plenty to boast about. Not only have they consistently placed near the top of every important international tournament, including winning the gold medal at the 1998 winter Olympics, they also have a remarkable number of superstars dominating North America’s National Hockey League. And while their soccer team isn’t quite as impressive, world-famous players like Pavel Nedvěd have kept World Cup hopes alive and fans riveted to their TV sets.
Most players who demonstrate excellence in either sport tend to head for larger markets and bigger paychecks, but that doesn’t stop Czechs from following both sports religiously, filling up hockey rinks and soccer stadiums every time play-off season arrives. Tickets are very affordable, and the possibility of seeing tomorrow’s stars play their hearts out today adds an element of excitement to the games that is often lacking in more established leagues.
Having settled in nicely at O2 Arena, HC Slavia Praha (O2 Arena, Ocelářská St. 2, Českomoravská) finally won its first championship in 2003. The team’s die-hard fans make going to any game a unique experience, but if you really want to see them go rabid with emotion, make sure to get a ticket when they play longtime rivals HC Sparta Praha.
HC Sparta Praha (Tipsport Arena, Za Elektrárnou 419, Holešovice, tel. 266 727 454) is Prague’s most popular hockey team. Well financed and well managed, they dominate during the regular season and are consistently a force to be reckoned with during the play-offs. Tickets are always available for home games, though you might want to think about reserving in advance when it comes to postseason play.
AC Sparta Praha (Toyota Arena, Milady Horákové 98, Holešovice, tel. 296 111 400) is without a doubt the most successful soccer team in the country and well-known for its rowdy and faithful followers. They won their 35th Czech championship in 2010 and continue to be a thorn in the side of larger, better-known teams during international tournaments. A trip to one of their matches will prove a memorable experience for even less serious fans of the game.
Playing in a modest stadium to fans who for the most part look like they cashed their pension checks on the way to the game, FK Viktoria Žižkov (Stadion FK Viktoria Žižkov, Seifertova třída, Žižkov, tel. 221 423 427) is the city’s underdog, to say the least. Nobody expects much from this team, especially since they were relegated in 2003 and nailed for match-fixing in 2004. Back in the first division, nobody considers them to be a challenge for the league title, but that doesn’t stop their loyal fans from coming out and enjoying the day.
Despite its devoted fans and ability to occasionally overcome unbeatable odds, SK Slavia Praha (Eden Arena, Vladivostocká 2, Vršovice, tel. 233 081 751) continues to place second in the division standings behind cross-town rivals Sparta Praha. They are certainly worth a shot should you happen to find yourself in tourist-free Prague 10.
Running April-October, Chuchle (Radotinská 69, Radotin) offers flat racing every Sunday starting at 2pm. The Czech Derby is held here in June, giving fans one last opportunity to enjoy a day at the track before shutting down till the end of August. Those interested in betting on the ponies should take note that bookmakers are not allowed at the track. Rather, a tote betting system is in place that pools all bets and shares the total among the winning tickets. There is also a very unpopular 5 percent betting tax added to all bets.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Prague & Budapest.