Thursday, December 11, 2008

League Spotlight: Czech Republic / Gambrinus Liga

Time now for us to shine our League Spotlight on another country and today our subject is the Czech Republic.

Yes, the Czech Republic - birthplace of the Skoda motor car, Martina Navratilova and most importantly Jan Hammer. There's more to the country than that, though. The Czech's have a long history of football playing which occasionally bubbles up into some notable high points. As Czechoslovakia, they won the European Championship in 1976 and after the split from Slovakia they were runners-up in the 1996 equivalent.

But what about the clubs - what have they ever achieved and who are the big teams to follow at the present time? Join us as we give you all the key facts you need to know with the aid of our handy SPAOTP Czech List... (Oh go on then, groan if you must...)

Fact #1: Top flight Czech clubs play in the Gambrinus Liga. To be honest, we're not quite sure what Gambrinus is or what relevance it has to the Czech Republic, but at least it makes a change from being called 'Prymera Leega' or some other variation on the norm.

The Gambrinus Liga comprises of the best 16 clubs the country can muster and amongst them are a few names that are undeniably well known along with quite a lot that you won't have even heard of.

Fact #2: Currently top of the league are Slavia Prague, one of four clubs based in and around the capital.

Fact #3: Slavia are the reigning Gambrinus Liga champions and managed to reach the group stages of the Champions League last season too. Unfortunately for them, they were in the same group as Sevilla (who went on to win the group) and Arsenal (eventual group runners-up) who spanked them 7-0 at the Emirates Stadium. A good campaign while it lasted, then.

Think of any famous Czech players and the chances are they once played for Slavia. Karel Poborsky, Pavel Kuka, Patrik Berger... they've all been there - in fact one well-known player, Vladimir Smicer, has even gone back there. The former Liverpool midfielder started his career with The Sewns back in 1992 and returned to his first club at the tender age of 34 last year.

Having just passed the half-way mark in the 2008-09 league season, Slavia are already six points clear at the top of the table and have only lost one of their sixteen games so far. Immediately behind them in second place are the little known Mlada Boleslav, situated just north-east of the capital.

Fact #4: From 1919 and for a thirty year period, Mlada Boleslav were known as Aston Villa Mlada Boleslav. Extensive research on our part could not unearth the reason why - not even the official club website could throw any light on it. If anyone knows the answer, let us know through the usual channels, won't you?

Following on behind in third place at the moment are Banik Ostrava who, coincidentally, played Aston Villa in the 1990 UEFA Cup competition. They were beaten in the First Round that season and the same fate met them this season too, losing 2-1 on aggregate to Spartak Moscow. Banik won the Gambrinus Liga back in 2003-04 and though they've not come close before or since, you get the feeling they're not a team to be written off lightly.

Some ten points from the summit at present are Slavia's closest rivals, Sparta Prague. Sparta are regular participants in the Champions League and like Slavia can boast many a well-known name to have graced the national team. From Oldrich Nejedly (top scorer in the 1934 World Cup) through to Tomas Skuhravy and Tomas Repka, they've all pulled on the red shirts of Sparta - even the wonderfully named Petr Gabriel, who, no doubt, is still telling fans he won't be reuniting with Genesis as we speak.

Fact #5: Starting from 2001, Sparta have won the Gambrinus Liga in every odd-numbered year. Therefore if you're the gambling type, now might be a good time to impress your local bookie by betting on them to win at the Czech league title at the end of the current season.

Since the Gambrinus Liga started back in 1993, only four clubs have won the prestigious title and the only one of those we haven't covered so far are Slovan Liberec - currently fifth in the table. They were the first club from outside of Prague to win the league in 2002 and repeated the feat in 2006. Currently without a manager, Liberec have won only one game in their last six and are in danger of being caught by the league's middle order.

Of the remaining teams that may be familiar to you, Sigma Olomouc may ring a bell, especially if you're a Kilmarnock fan. Killie were beaten 2-0 in both legs of a UEFA Cup Preliminary Round tie back in 1998.

Fact #6: Olomouc is the city in the east of the Czech Republic where you'll find Saint Wenceslas cathedral, built in commemoration of the country's main patron saint and star of that well known Christmas carol "Ding Dong Merrily On High." (No not really, but you have to admit, these facts are starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel a bit…)

There's also Viktoria Zizkov - currently languishing one place off the bottom of the league table - who knocked Rangers out of the UEFA Cup First Round back in 2002. Their glory was short-lived, however, as they were relegated in 2004 and though they returned to the top flight again in 2007, it seems they may be about to head back out again based on this season's form. Three wins from a possible sixteen does not a successful outlook make in our book…

Player-wise, all clubs in the Gambrinus Liga rely heavily on home-grown talent but often contain a few token foreigners. Most of these come unsurprisingly from Slovakia but look down the squad lists and you'll see a scattering of individuals from places as diverse as Brazil and various parts of Africa.

As for European competition, only Slavia Prague have achieved anything of note this season. They, together with Sparta, were knocked out of the 2008/09 Champions League Third Qualifying Round by Fiorentina and Panathinaikos respectively. As a result of that, they both entered the UEFA Cup instead and here Sparta lost out again (this time to Dinamo Zagreb) but Slavia won their tie against Vaslui of Romania to enter the Group Stage.

By this time, Banik Ostrava had also been eliminated (2-1 on aggregate to Spartak Moscow) leaving Sparta Prague as the only remaining Czech representative in the UEFA Cup. Unfortunately even they look to be approaching the end of their European campaign - placed in Group F, they've already been beaten 1-0 by Aston Villa (yes, them again) and 2-0 by Hamburg. With one game remaining - away to Ajax - their only point thus far has come from a goalless draw away to Zilina of Slovakia and they lie bottom of the table.

And there we must leave the Gambrinus Liga and all its teams. The Winter break has now arrived and the next time they kick a ball will be on February 21st 2009. There the competition will hot up again and who knows - maybe another new name will emerge to shake up the Slavia/Sparta stranglehold. It's about as likely as a Czech team reaching the latter stages of the Champions League, but with the national team seemingly the main focus of this country, perhaps that's not important. The Czechs know how to churn out a decent player or two, and that for now will do just fine.


sp3ktor said...

Gambrinus sounds like a Edward Lear adjective...

... "The turkey cast his gambrinous eye over the runcible congregation"

Chris O said...

I know! Good, innit?!? Gotta love the Czechs... :)

Duffman said...

Edward Lear eh?

The General said...

Gambrinus is a Czech beer produced by the Pilsner Urquell company. Pilsner owns the naming rights as a sponsor, and they chose to name it after the very popular beer Gambrinus. Typically Czech.

Chris O said...

Good knowledge, General! Typically Czech indeed... :)


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