Almost by definition, the story of any fan-owned club is going to be one of faded memories best viewed through sepia lenses, with an added touch of financial misdemeanours thrown in, often by past itinerant owners who rejoiced more in the money they could make from the club, more concerned with 20 pieces of silver than silverware or relative success on the pitch. There’s hardly ever a ‘good’ reason for fans to feel committed to taking over a club. It’s an action driven by necessity and the undimmed devotion to an institution that has seared its way into the souls of the people who gather to watch its trials and tribulations out there on the green sward. The story of Czech football club Bohemians is no different, except perhaps that on top of mismanagement there’s an unhealthy dollop of confusion and a less than clear legal position just to add a little extra spice to the plot.
Let’s pause for a minute just to get things clear before we move forwards though. The thing about confusion is that it makes stories hard to get a hold on, unless you establish a few facts right from the get go. So, when I talk of Bohemians, just for the record, I’m referring to the club founded in 1905 and originally known as AFK Vršovice.
This is the same club that travelled to Australia in the 1920s, to be lauded as representatives the Bohemia area of their homeland – hence the change of name – who then returned to Europe with two kangaroos as a gift from their hosts. The animals were passed on to the Prague Zoo, but the club retained the likeness of the marsupials for their club badge and nickname.
Bohemians have played in the Czech top division for most of its existence and went through several name changes throughout its existence, particularly during the early post-communist years. They won the league in the 1982-83 season and then reached the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup, not long after their most famous player, Antonín Panenka – he of the celebrated and oft-misnamed clipped penalty – left to join Austria Vienna. This is the same club whose financial meltdown in 2005, precisely one hundred years after their formation, gave rise to two other clubs in Prague having claim to the names ‘Bohemians’. The way this happened, the repercussions and the resurrection of this self-same club is what this story is all about. So, if you think you’ve got all that straight, here we go.
AFK Vršovice were a moderately successful club, plying their trade in the top league between 1925 and 1935. Fluctuations up and down beyond that period were becoming quite the norm, but at the end of hostilities in the Second World War, the Czech homelands fell under the control of the Russians and their imposed communist government. As was the case with so many clubs in Eastern Europe at the time, the club was then renamed and repositioned in the Socialist structure a number of times, including a period of five years between 1948 and 1953 when their identity was masked behind no less than five name changes. In 1948, they became Sokol Vršovice Bohemians. The following year, this was changed to Sokol Železničaři Bohemians Praha, and then Sokol Železničaři Praha, twelve months later. In 1951, it was again changed to Sokol ČKD Stalingrad Praha, staying as that for two years before becoming Spartak Praha Stalingrad, which then stayed in place for almost a decade.
Despite all of these name changes, there was no hiding place, and the club seemed to fit ill with what the authorities were looking for in a sports club. The regime’s requirement for its sports clubs to produce greater glory for the collective mode of society and the regime itself, was not served by a club that had iconoclast tendencies. It was a situation perhaps not helped by the anti-establishment stand of the cub’s fans; a tradition that ironically now sees the current fanbase tending towards left-leaning political stances similar to German club St Pauli.
Revenge for such cavalier approaches, was exacted when the club were found guilty of financial mismanagement in 1987; a misdemeanour widely repeated throughout the league, but Bohemians were singled out for punishment. A couple of decades later, genuine mismanagement would almost prove fatal to the club, until the fans stepped in to rescue it. If all that seems straightforward enough, the tale gets a little less clear from here.
In 1993, under the name of Bohemians Praha the club broke away from the TJ Bohemians Praha franchise, becoming a freestanding entity. The club functioned normally for a while, but in the early years of the new century problems began to arise, with concerns over finances and governance to the fore.
Although to many traditionalists, and especially to the people of Vršovice, where it was formed, their club will always be the ‘real’ Bohemians, the identity took a bit of a shock in their centenary year. As mentioned financial problems were a semi-regular recurring theme at the club, and another one broke during the 2004-05 season. The problems were exacerbated by rumours that the then owner, Michal Vejsada, had been using club finances for his own devices, syphoning off money for other enterprises. Whilst there is no proof, or indeed evidence or formal accusationof this that I can find, fans of the club had little doubt. Part way through the 2004-05 season, with the club in the Czech second division, things eventually came to a head. Bohemians were declared bankrupt and the Czech football authorities banned them from completing the second half of their fixtures, also expunging their results to date, automatically sending them down to the third echelon.
It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, as the saying goes though, and TJ Bohemians Praha, the former franchise owner of the club, saw an opportunity. A deal was struck with Karel Kapr, owner of another Prague based club, F. C. Střížkov Praha 9 – a small club plying in the third tier of the league – to lease the name ’Bohemains’ with the apparent aspiration of ‘mopping up’ all of the original Bohemians’ support for the venture. F. C. Střížkov Praha 9’s name was changed to ‘Bohemians Praha’ and they even adopted the Kangaroo badge and the club’s green and white striped shirts. TJ Bohemians, keen to make the new venture a success then supported the club financially helping it to rise through the league reaching the top division in 2008.
The ruse concocted by TJ and Kapr seemed to be paying out. Only a resurrection of the original club could scupper the plans but, with the original Bohemians out on the mat like some sponge drained of all its life force, that seemed unlikely in the extreme. The plotters had however reckoned without the resilience and dedication of the ‘original’ Bohemians’ fans. Simply relabelling another club and introducing a ‘stolen’ badge and shirt was never going to be enough to persuade fans to transfer allegiance. It was a plan that could only have been thought up by people who had little appreciation of the mindset of football fans. Franchising has always been seen as an alien concept to football fans, and long should that remain the case. Echoes of Wimbledon and MK Dons come to mind a little here.
Out of the ashes of the defunct entity, a new – phoenix – club was formed, calling itself ‘Bohemians 1905’ recognising the year of formation of the original club. Persuasive argument even managed to secure access for the new club to play its games back at its old base, the Ďolíček stadium – the place that the club had called home since 1932. Fans contributed heavily to pay off a large portion of the club’s debt and, freed from the clutches of Mr Vejsada, a leaner, but much healthier club arose from the ashes.
It was an achievement greatly assisted by the fans of St. Pauli in Germany and Dublin’s own Bohemians club, Bohemian fellowship to the fore. So, there were now two clubs using almost the same name. The Czech authorities took a reasonable view of the matter though, and allowed Bohemians 1905 to retain the license of the old club. As well as morally, Bohemians 1905 were now also officially, the ‘real’ club, the genuine article, not that the move solved anything radically. The two versions of Bohemians, the original and the imposters continued to play under their respective names. Some time down the road, that situation would lead to an inevitable confirmation. Before that though, just to make things more complicated, the third club entered the arena.
Now bereft of his source of alleged illicit income, former owner Vejsada created a new club, which he christened Bohemians Praha a.s. His assertion being that this was the real successor to the original club, the twisted rationale being that as the owner of the defunct original organisation he, and only he, had the right to launch any new reformed club. Few rallied to his support though and although the club survived as a legal entity, it was excluded from the Czech league structure half-a-dozen or so years ago.
Before that though, there was time for a bizarre scenario to occur as a result of Jan Morávek moving from Bohemians 1905 to Schalke 04 in Germany. The fee was reported to be around £3million, but when the deal was completed, all three of the clubs bearing the name ‘Bohemians’ – that is, Bohemians 1905, Kapr’s Bohemians Praha, and Vejsada’s Bohemians Praha a.s all claimed the transfer fee as rightly theirs. Needless to say, the fan-financed Bohemians 1905 were unwilling to bend the knee on the claims.
Things began to look a little clearer in September 2012. With Bohemians Praha a.s. out of the picture, the Czech FA, led by Miroslav Pelta, declared that as of 2013, Bohemians Praha should not use that name any more and instead should return to their pre-2005 name of FC Střížkov, thus ending possibly the most blatant piece of football club piracy imaginable, being akin to some sort of sporting grave robbery. Sadly, that wasn’t the end of the issue. By the end of the year, Kapr’s club had appealed the decision.
At this stage though Kapr’s whole edifice was falling apart though. In 2010, after refusing to play a fixture against Bohemians 1905 – the inevitable confrontation as referred to above – and accusing another club of bribery, apparently without offering anything to substantiate the accusation, the Czech FA deducted 20 points from the club and levied a fine. The points deduction ensured a relegation that was already on the cards anyway. At the end of the season, it transpired that relegation would have followed, with or without the points deduction.
The association then refused the club a license to play as it had refused to pay the fine. It meant demotion from the national league structure, back into the Bohemian regional programme. Conversely though, the following season Kapr’s club won that league and returned to the second tier of the national game. There then followed a series of demotions through legal sanctions and promotions as Kapr and the authorities battled on through legal decisions and appeals. Finally, accepting defeat in the battle to retain the club name, Kapr conceded he had lost. He disbanded the men’s team at the club, transferring all the players to other clubs, and continued only with a women’s and junior teams.
After all the issues of financial strife and rescue by their fans, fighting off doppelgangers and imposters, Bohemians 1905 are now back playing the top tier of Czech football with their identity secure. Twelve years after the traumas on 2005, things may be settling down. But what now for a club whose debt to its fans is measured in far more than mere financial terms?
Antonín Panenka is now president of Bohemians 1905, with the 69-year-old master of the twelve yard spot kick serving as an emblem of the club’s history. Out on the terraces, where many of the fans who found the money to bale out the club stand, there’s still that rebelliousness spirit that both displeased the Communist authorities and confounded the scurrilous devices of Karel Kapr and Michal Vejsada. Today it manifests itself in left-wing chants and banners, and a tendency to smoke ‘non-traditional’ types of cigarettes that give off a sweet smell, not to be confused with the sweet smell of success enjoyed by a fan base who saved their football club.
In researching this article, I’ve found a few Euro-ground-hopping sites promoting a visit to the Ďolíček stadium, not because the football is particularly exhilarating – in fact, some say quite the reverse – but as a sort of pilgrimage to demonstrate support for a group of fans who refused to be seduced by a wolf in their club’s clothing, instead choosing to use their own money to thwart such an enterprise. They didn’t do it to save a football club. They did it to save their football club – the one and only true Bohemians club in the Czech Republic.
(This All Blue Dave article was originally produced for ‘The Football Pink magazine).