Revived in the 1990s, title-winners in 2019 and based at a modern, multi-purpose arena, Slavia Prague are one of the great names of pre-war European football.
On March 29 1896, Sparta and Slavia first played each other in a 0-0 draw at the King’s Meadow in front of 121 paying customers. Four days earlier, Slavia had first worn their red-and-white halved shirts, with the red five-pointed star badge, a symbol of Czech nationalism. Prague was ruled by Habsburg Vienna. Slavia was a Czech-language society of literature, sport and debate.
Up until the war, the duo monopolised the championship. They each won the Mitropa Cup, a forerunner of the European Cup, and provided the bulk of the Czechoslovak team that so nearly won the World Cup of 1934. The Czech captain was goalkeeper Frantisek Plánicka, who appeared nearly 1,000 times for Slavia over nearly two decades.
It all came to an end after the war. Slavia had won their 13th title in 1947, with legendary Pepi Bican leading the line, before the new Communist authorities came down hard on these university-educated intellectuals. The club were stripped of its name, its star players and the 1948 autumn title – still disputed to this day. Half the squad went to the newly formed army side, ATK, later renamed Dukla, the new force in the Czech game. Slavia also moved from the Letná to a new ground in Vršovice: Eden. Its famous main wooden stand was transported across town.
Slavia later got back their name and top-flight status, even gaining the better of Sparta in the Derby S fixture. Slavia players honoured the student demonstrations of 1989 with a pre-match show of support.
Czech-American Boris Korbel took over Slavia but had left by the time Karel Poborsky, Radek Bejbl and Vladimír Smicer led the club to the top of the league. As Frantisek Plánicka lay dying in bed, the club took their first title for 50 years on an emotional afternoon in May 1996. A month later, these players took the Czech team to the final of Euro 96.
Behind the scenes, though, chaos reigned, with changes of ownership and a prolonged battle to rebuild the rickety Eden. Eventually, after a number of ground shares, Slavia moved into the new Eden in 2008. With goals from Tomás Necid, Slavia won back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009.
An impressive win over Ajax saw Slavia make the Champions League group stage for the first time in 2008 when a 7-0 tonking by Arsenal was tempered by a narrow defeat in the subsequent UEFA Cup to Tottenham. Two more campaigns in the Europa League led to clashes with Ajax, Hamburg and Valencia before ownership and financial struggles meant an exodus of key players, and mediocre league finishes.
Goals from the consistently prolific Milan Škoda helped push Slavia back up the table, just pipping holders Viktoria Plzen to the title in 2017. Runners-up in 2018, Slavia took the title back in 2019, with stellar performances from player of the season, young midfielder Tomáš Souček. A rare run in the Europa League also showcased his talents, Slavia overcoming Sevilla 4-3 in extra-time that saw three goals and heart-stopping action. The Prague side then pushed eventual winners Chelsea close in the quarter-finals, the Slavia team taking a bowing to travelling fans after Petr Ševčík grabbing two goals in four minutes to bring an impossible result agonisingly close.
Brushing past Cluj in the 2019-20 Champions League play-off round, Slavia came up against Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Internazionale in a glamour group, Inter requiring a stoppage-time equaliser to prevent a historic win for the Czechs in Milan. Slavia succeeding in holding on to Souček and Ševčík might well prove to be a greater achievement, all the same.
Eden, aka the Eden Arena, aka the Sinobo Stadium, is a modern-day, multi-purpose venue light years away from the old ground with a wooden stand that stood here until as late as the 1990s.
Slavia had originally played at the Letná, moving to drab Vrsovice in south-east Prague in the 1950s. By the 1970s, and certainly after 1985 (no-smoking used to read ‘Remember Bradford!’), the need to modernise was paramount.
Slavia used the impersonal Strahov athletics stadium while funds were being raised to rebuild Eden, a long-running saga elongated by a five-year construction project that ended in 2008.
Backed by betting firm Synot Tip, whose sponsorship ended in 2012, the new arena features a four-star hotel, a drive-through hamburger chain and several commercial outlets. It was here that Bayern Munich beat Chelsea in the 2013 Super Cup, a late, late equalising goal from Javi Martínez taking the game to penalties.
With a capacity of 19,370, Eden has also hosted the Czech national team, concerts by Coldplay, Bruce Springsteen and Depeche Mode, and was used by Bohemians as their home ground for five seasons.
Four stands are named North (Severní), South (Jizní), East (Vychodní) and West (Západní). Press and VIPs are accommodated in the main West Stand, on U Slávie, home fans in the North end on Vladivostocká. Visitors are allocated three sections (119-121) in a corner of the South Stand, through gate 3.
To reach Eden, either take metro line A to Námestí Miru then tram 4, 22 or 24; or metro line C to IP Pavlova then tram 6, to the Slavia stop on main Vršovická.
The main ticket offices (Mon, Tue, thur 9am-noon, 1pm-5.30pm, Wed 1pm-7pm, Fri 9am-noon, 1pm-4pm and from 9am or noon on match days depending on kick-off time) are by Gates 2 and 4, at diagonal corners of the stadium. Ticket prices are set in two categories (Z1 and Z2), according to the opposition. The cheapest are Kč160 behind the goals, the dearest Kč420 in the main Tribuna Vychodní. There are also online sales via Ticket Portal.
On the same side of the stadium as the hotel, the club shop FANzone (Mon-Wed, Fri-Sun 10am-6pm, Thur 10am-7pm), hides rare treasures amid the red-and-white shirts and scarves for the North Stand. Ask the assistant, and he’ll show you historic artefacts such as a Slavia club membership card from 1890 (Kč11,000), a yearbook from 1927 or faded postcards of Pepi Bican in action.
Right by the Slavia tramstop, the Pivnice U Stadionu (Vršovická 69) has been there for donkey’s years, today serving Staropramen at Kč35 a pint and sporting Slavia paraphernalia around the tiny interior. On match days, everyone stands outside.
At the stadium, the café/restaurant Hotel Iris Eden displays archive Slavia shots and is also used as a pre- and post-match haunt, and on warmer days they put out a popular beer tent, with queues for sausages and Krušovice.
By the club shop, the first-floor Sport Bar Synot Tip offers both draught Gambrinus and Pilsner Urquell, a daily menu and all the betting action any punter could wish for. The walls display great moments from recent Slavia history, such as Vladimír Smicer smiling with trophy-winning in glee.
Many also head across the footbridge to the shopping centre, and the terrace of the Pizzeria Cantonata on the first floor, overlooking the crowds milling around the stadium across the road.