Czech champions in 2013, Viktoria Plzen lost out to Sparta Prague in both league and cup in 2014, the league by a country mile and the cup on penalties. Plzen picked themselves up to snatch back the league title in 2015.
Viktoria are a recent phenomenon. Their two titles in the three seasons surpasses the achievements of Slovan Liberec, the previous provincial challengers to Slavia and Sparta Prague.
Coached by Pavel Vrba and led by veteran attacking midfielder Pavel Horváth, ‘Viktorka’ won their first league crown in their centenary year of 2011, when Horváth was named the club’s Player of the Century.
Honourable mentions were given to Petr Cech and Pavel Nedved, who both played at Skoda Plzen, as Viktoria were then known, early on in the careers, Plzen-born Cech from the age of seven.
Yet Viktoria did little before 2011. Formed in August 1911 by a local railway official, Viktoria spent their first two decades taking on other local sides in West Bohemia.
The club went professional in 1929 and performed creditably in the top flight through the 1930s, when Czech football was at its height. Viktoria achieved a third-place finish in 1933, behind Sparta and Slavia Prague, their teams providing almost all the 22-man squad that made the 1934 World Cup Final.
A new stadium, today’s Doosan Arena, was built in 1955, though the post-war period was otherwise unremarkable. Forced to undergo five name changes before becoming Skoda Plzen in 1965, the club yo-yo’d between top and second flights, the goals of local hero Stanislav Strunc and a Czech Cup win in 1971 the only highlights.
Gaining back their old name in 1993, Viktoria fared slightly better in the independent Czech league dominated by clubs from Prague, but were still on forced to sell on Cech and Nedved.
Viktoria’s gradual rise to recent glory was instigated by the 2008 arrival of coach Pavel Vrba from MSK Zilina, Slovak champions the year before, and a financial crisis at Sparta, who offloaded a number of players to Plzen. Crucially, this included former Czech international Pavel Horváth.
Winning the Czech Cup in 2010, Viktoria went one better in 2011 by pipping Sparta to the league crown. With goals from Daniel Kolár, Jan Rezek and Marek Bakos, Plzen simply outscored their opponents, and stood atop the table for every round from the third week on.
Horváth, Kolár, Bakos and company then surprised many in Europe, gaining third place in a Champions League group that also contained Barcelona and Milan, and only losing to Schalke 04 in the Europa League in 2012. Napoli, Atlético Madrid and Académica Coimbra were all put to the sword in the same competition a season later.
For the successful league campaign of 2012-13, it was a lean goals-against tally that kept Viktoria ahead of Sparta and Liberec. Slovak keeper Matus Kozácik, Plzen-born back David Limbersky and Slovak international centre-back Marián Cisovsky provided defensive experience, midfield dynamism generated by a seemingly ageless Horváth.
For the Champions League qualifiers, few outside Plzen expected Viktoria to get past stalwart European warriors Maribor. A late goal from Michal Duris edged the tie, pitting Plzen against Manchester City and Bayern Munich in the group stage. Surprisingly beating Shakhtar Donetsk in the subsequent Europa League, Viktoria then fell to Lyon in the round of 16.
Club management must have been looking forward to another payday when drawn against Maccabi Tel-Aviv in the third qualifying round of the Champions League in 2015-16, particularly after Plzen won 2-1 in Israel. Two late goals from Eran Zahavi silenced the Doosan Arena in the second leg, leaving Viktoria to concentrate on another battle with Sparta Prague in the domestic league.
Refashioned from the original Struncovy Sady ground and renamed in 2011, the 11,700-capacity Doosan Arena is officially ready for European action. The smallest stadium to host Champions League group matches in 2013-14, the Doosan Arena attracted Plzen’s first average five-figure crowd during the successful league campaign of 2012-13.
Viktoria have been based here since 1955, when the Struncovy Sady hosted a Spartakiad sports festival for West Bohemia. Before then, Viktoria first played local-league games at a field at Královské námestí, today’s námestí Míru on the city’s southern outskirts, before moving to Lucní ulica and the Stadion Viktoria in 1930. There, just over the river from today’s Doosan Arena, the great pre-war Czech stars of the day all played, as well as Mitropa Cup opponents Juventus. Viktoria was destroyed by an American bomber and a subsequent fire in 1945.
Originally holding 35,000, Struncovy Sady hosted a couple of minor internationals but suffered severe damage during the terrible floods of 2002. Plans were mooted to build a new ground in Bory, south-west of town, but the club went ahead reconstructing Struncovy Sady – despite its unsuitability for European games.
Work went on through 2011, with Viktoria hosting their European campaign in Prague. In February 2012, Schalke were the first foreign visitors to the revamped stadium.
For European games, away sides are generally allocated no more than 600 tickets, the entrance clearly marked at the far end of the main stand, Hlavní Tribuna. Home fans gather behind each goal, North (Sever) and South (Jih), sections marked 1-5 and 12-15 respectively. Facing the main stand is the Tribuna Vychod, or East Stand.
The stadium is an easy, shortish walk from both town and station, on the other side of main road Tyrsova. Bus No.28 stops at Na Rychtarce on Tyrsova, but doesn’t go through town.
For domestic league fixtures, the standard price for a seat in either stand is 150Kc, 120Kc in the corners. There are ticket offices behind either stand. Few fixtures are complete sell-outs.
The modest Oficiální Fanshop Viktoria Plzen behind the main stand sells branded beer glasses and bottle openers, as well as copies of Pavel Horváth’s book ‘Muj Príbeh Nekonci’ – ‘My Story Does Not End’.
The only bar at the ground is the Retro Grill above the main entrance, offering sausages and Gambrinus beer.
Behind the East Stand (Tribuna Vychod), hidden in greenery, is the charming 1.CLTK Plzen Tennis Club, ‘established 1893’, with a photo of turn-of-the-century locals in boater hats, long skirts and trousers. Somehow this bucolic little spot with its wooden terrace survived 40 years of Communism.
Just off the main road of Tyrsova, Groll is a classic Czech tavern and restaurant, offering Lotr beer brewed in-house according to traditional methods. Named after Josef Groll who created Pilsner in 1842, it screens TV football and provides standard Czech pub dishes.