Wednesday, May 24, 2006

World Cup Spotlight: Czech Republic

Is it within the power of the "dissidents"--as a category of sub-citizen outside the power establishment--to have any influence at all on society and the social system? Can they actually change anything?
--The Power of the Powerless by Vaclav Havel

In late summer of 1996, Lynda and I journeyed to the Czech Republic so that she could teach English at a small school in Mlada Boleslav (located 50 km or so northwest of Prague) and I could read, write, and generally soak up the dreary atmosphere of this small, factory town primarily known as the home of the Skoda automobile plant. Although the town seemed picturesque upon arrival--with its old town square, castle, inexpensive local beer like Staropramen and Gambrinus, and a great little sausage stand near the supermarket--the reality of how damn depressing and dire the place could get became apparent even before the first chemically-enhanced snowflakes coated the already grimy streets, locking us within an industrial freeze that would last for months.

It certainly wasn't all bad: there were weekend excursions by unheated bus into Magic Prague where we would breakfast at our favorite restaurant, wander the maze of streets that spidered from Old Town Square and never failed to get us lost and amused, postcard moments upon Charles Bridge that seemed completely meaningful and facile simultaneously, and late dinner and beer within the warm seclusion of an Irish pub that made us homesick for an unattainable, non-existent state of mind (at least as far as I was concerned) and reluctant to return to the origin of our problem. But return to Boleslav we would, and back into the overheated panelak that increasingly became the outward manifestation of my prolonged unease.

Luckily, we had a small black & white television at our disposal, and when the books ran out (which was quick) and I wasn't scribbling in the numerous journals that I'd brought with me, physical proof that I really was trying to be a writer for the first time, I'd sit a few feet in front of the guttering screen and watch Sparta Praha.

I was a complete soccer novice at the time. Here in Portland, I grew up in the late-1970s being a fan of the original NASL Portland Timbers. But honestly, it was a fleeting love and by the time I hit my teens I rarely if ever thought of the sport (hell, way of life). But watching Iron Sparta play, it was like my true memory of how things ought to be returned. My memory of the intricacy of the game was hampered, though that didn't cripple my enjoyment or excitement of watching the furious play in any way. I was covertly falling in love with it all over again, even though it would be another six years (World Cup 2002) before I succumbed fully to the passion for good.

In 1996 the Czech national team had just come off a second place finish against the Germans, and the country was still rightfully proud of the team's accomplishment and return to world tournament glory after years of non-existence. Led by Pavel Nedved, (who would subsequently be picked up by every real fascist's favorite team, Lazio, and then more notably Juventus), Vladimir Smicer (FC Girondins de Bordeaux), Patrik Berger (Aston Villa), Pavel Kuka, Karel Poborsky (who holds the record for the Czech team in most appearances), and Lubos Kubik, I would frequently see replays on television of the squad returning home as if they had beaten Germany and every time I watched, I'd feel their need for a little respect, a little retribution.

The World Cup 2006 squad is aging and dealing with injuries, but their determination to struggle on never fails to move me. They also have arguably the world's best keeper at the moment, the appropriately monikered Petr Cech from Chelsea, striker Milan Baros (currently stuck with Aston Villa, though for how long . . . .), Marek Heinz (who plays in Turkey and scored two decisive goals for the team in Euro 2004), and Arsenal midfielder Tomas Rosicky to help Nedved and Smicer further the cause.

I admit my allegience for the team is completely personal, sentimental, and biased. I want them to win the whole damn thing and hope they will lose with grace. Despite their FIFA World Ranking at number two, I realize that there can be no hope for a team so acclimated to loss.

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