The whole of the Czech Republic are talking about Viktoria Plzen and the Champions League, Kuba Krzyzostaniak was on hand to witness that victory over FC Copenhagen.
Spending much of my life following the Polish Ekstraklasa, I’ve grown accustomed to watching Champions League and the Europa League (formerly UEFA Cup) from it’s earliest qualifying stages. While most fans spend the summer thinking of who they’d like to face in the group stage, I’m stuck looking up the champion of Armenia on Wikipedia or wondering if it’s worth the debt to fly to Azerbaijan for a second round qualifier against Inter Baku (would have been).
Usually the only sort of celebrations for advancement were watching Lech Poznan on a stream then jumping around with my brother and screaming at New Yorkers for the rest of the night. Fun admittedly, but I dreamed of seeing the dizzying thrill of advancement in person. Enter Viktoria Plzen in to my life.
I was ecstatic at the end of last season to be living in the Czech Republic, a league which actually produces teams who play in European competition quite regularly. After enduring the first few rounds of qualifying yet again, even better news. Plzen were to play their second leg play-off Champions League qualifier against FC Copenhagen in Prague. Perfection. A friend from the States was to be visiting who also coincidentally endures these tournaments from the beginning and we set our goal to see a Champions League match in person.
Tickets were an issue as it seems all of Plzen was making the short trip to Prague to support their team. We headed to the Synot Tip Arena a few hours before kick-off to try our luck with the most vile breed of people, scalpers. The area outside was packed with the festive Plzen fans, painting each others faces, drinking Gambrinus and singing song after song. We milled about trying our luck with no success. Finally, about 20 minutes to match time we got two tickets together. Bought at a considerable mark-up considering we had no idea what section we’d be in, we headed off for our gate like giddy school-children.
We arrived at our entrance a bit concerned to find one turnstile servicing two sections. There was a massive crush of people as those in the back had no idea why there was a hold-up in the front and were worried about missing kick-off. I had seen a problem like this remedied during a Poland-Estonia friendly where Polish fans simply ripped down adjacent gates and stormed in to the stadium. Here though, a line of riot police showed up and kept calm while we filed through at an excruciatingly slow pace.
We rushed to our section, about three minutes already gone in the match and came out in the all-standing Plzen Ultras section. I’ve sat in these sorts of sections before, but always with teams I was an ardent supporter of. I wasn’t worried about it being dangerous, but you can’t help but feel like you’ll be outed for being an ‘outsider’.
We stood in the back of the section and quickly joined in with the songs and chants which were quite simple I have to admit. Most were ones you can hear in many Central European leagues, just switch all the words to Viktoria Plzen, easy. At one point, a large, shirtless, man with a shaved head noticed we were speaking English, but seemed quite happy and kept giving us a thumbs-up. We belonged.
The match itself was a good one. Copenhagen scored first to draw the aggregate to 3:2 (in favor of Plzen) and we wondered whether we had ourselves a penalty shoot-out thriller emerging. Fortunately for the Plzen fans, goals from Bakos and Duris cemented the Czech sides place in the group stage of the Champions League.
We spent the end of the game jumping around, slapping high-fives and applauding the Plzen players on their lap of honour. Heading home on the tram I couldn’t have been happier with my first taste of Champions League qualification, though I’m still available for seeing the champions of the Faroe Islands next summer, away.