Many Communist institutions have fallen into disrepair since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In sporting sphere, the downward descents that many former state-sponsored clubs have had to go through may have been less severe, but they have had to adapt nonetheless.
In the Czech Republic, one historic name is making a return in style.
Dukla Prague sank after the dissolution of Czechoslovkia and the name all but vanished from the annuals. For years it looked like they would be fondly remembered by fans of Half Man Half Biscuit, those old enough to have seen the likes of the great Josef Masopust and the statisticians amongst us. Football and modernity had sadly passed the giant of old behind.
But now Dukla are back and have anchored themselves within the top of the Gambrinus Liga and have upset their more illustrious neighbours a few times since their return to the summit of Czech football.
In the glory days of the sixties, seventies and eighties, Dukla stood toe-to-toe with the biggest names in continental football. The likes of Manchester United and Barcelona have failed to win at the monolithic Juliska stadium at some point or another, while the very best have had to conquer them. Stein’s Celtic and Lobanovsk’s Dynamo Kiev both had to navigate the tricky trip to Prague en-route to their own historic European glory; facing those famous red and yellow shirts back in the day was no easy task.
But the story of the club’s rise was due to politics. Like many in the Eastern bloc, Dukla owed their triumphs to their associations with the regime. Like Honved from Budapest and the CSKA’s of Moscow and Sofia they were the sporting arm of the military, in practise this meant that a player could complete military service by joining the ranks of Dukla. The club had the green light to cherry pick the best talent available and it was not uncommon to see Slavia, Bohemians or any other Czech club see their best player whisked away to the Dejvice district of Prague. But when communism faltered, so did the club. Privatisation, sponsorships and big business flooded into football allowing other clubs to prosper whilst Dukla invariably suffered. Investors looked elsewhere and soon the club with communist connotations was a relic of socialist rule.
Dukla entered freefall and what was left was eventually amalgamated with a side playing an hour away in Příbram. The old flame was rekindled through a series of rapid-fire rebrands as FC Dukla and Dukla Příbram saw the light of day, but as the twenty-first century approached a final name change saw Dukla removed completely. All ties to the past were cut.*
But out of those ashes a phoenix club was born. A second division championship in 2010/2011 came just five years after they finished thirteenth in Prague’s regional division – effectively the fifth tier of Czech football – to cap off a remarkable ascension through the ranks.
Playing an attack minded 4-3-3 formation, Dukla have wasted no time in upsetting the apple cart on their return to the Gambrinus Liga. Last season, their first in the top flight since 1993/1994, they lost their status as relegation candidates in no time at all as they shot up the table to finish a highly impressive sixth.
Like any over performing outfit Dukla found others snatching their best players from under their noses – a role reversal for times gone by. Influential names in Švejdík, Hanousek and Lietava saw their tenures at the Juliska end last summer and many thought their departures would see the club suffer from a very worrying case of second season syndrome. With the spine of their side gone, what could they do? Yet along came a motley cast of unwanted players and left-field signings. Highly touted names of the past such as Luboš Kalouda joined forces with a Spanish invasion spearheaded by Jose Romera and Néstor Albiach and Dukla picked up where they left off.
But while the personnel have changed, their basic philosophy has not. The newcomers slotted straight into their distinctive philosophy built upon those ideals showcased by Guardiola’s Barcelona and Mourinho’s Chelseaˡ.
The man masterminding Dukla’s revival from the dugout is Luboš Kozel. Kozel, a former Czech international and Slavia Prague favourite, has studied within both the Tottenham and Villarreal camps ˡ as he has worked his way up from the second division to knocking on the door of European competition. Like many of his players he will be in demand over the next few months; his name has been linked with Slavia on more than one occasions and he has been touted as a potential successor for Pavel Vrba at Viktoria Plzeň one day.
European football was tentatively within their grasp this past season. With Sigma Olomouc and Jablonec capitulating post-Christmas and Dukla prospering, a Europa League place was not out of the question. But Europe was not to be as results in the Czech Cup conspired against them and once again Dukla finished sixth, comfortably ahead of Slavia, Brno and Baník Ostrava.
Living in the shadows of Slavia, Sparta and Bohemians 1905 within the capital, Dukla are often overlooked. But the Gambrinus Liga’s smallest club probably wouldn’t have it any other way. In 1964 the sports journalist Ota Pavel wrote about Dukla’s trip to America in a book entitled ‘Dukla Amongst the Skyscrapers‘, a title that is a parable for the club’s position today.
*However 1.FK Příbram, as they are known today, still have red and yellow seating at their Na Litavce stadium even though they play in green and black.
By Chris Boothroyd
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona