The name Golden City crops up in a variety of contexts, from ancient Greece, via the Inca Empire, through to the mythical lost city of Atlantis. In a more modern setting, the description is generally applied to the glittering metropolis of Prague in the Czech Republic.
The origins of the name are supported by a number of legends, some more credible than others. The most probable of them holds that, even as early as the year 1200, the city boasted more than 40 churches with gold-tipped church spires. Viewed from a nearby peak, the impression would have been of a shimmering sea of gold. And in footballing terms, the city is equally well endowed, being the home of the nation's most successful club, Sparta Prague.
Birth of an institution
The story starts in November 1893, when a group of young men led and organised by the brothers Vaclav, Bohumil and Rudolf Rudl resolved to found a sports club of their own. The first official meeting took place just a month later, and shortly afterwards the group settled on the official colours for Athletic Club (AC) Sparta. Blue symbolised Europe, red reflected the city's royal heritage, and yellow was the second traditional colour of Prague.
Despite this, the players wore black and then black-and-white striped shirts in the club’s embryonic years, but that all changed in the early 20th century when the president paid a visit to London. He was so taken with Arsenal's artillery red shirts, he introduced the colour at his own club, a custom which has lasted to this day.
Throughout the season, the focus is always on the derby. The media report nothing else for weeks beforehand. The players are totally focused...
There was no organised league competition in the early years, so the teams in Prague and the surrounding districts contested the so-called Charity Cup instead. Sparta won the trophy twice in 1906 and 1916, and also collected a championship organised by the Czech Football Association (CSF) in 1912.
The teams from the capital unsurprisingly dominated the scene at the time, and Sparta developed a healthy rivalry with the men from across town, Slavia Prague. Slavia were founded a year earlier than Sparta in 1892 and were very much a club for middle-class intellectuals, with Sparta rooted in the labouring and working people of the city.
“Throughout the season, the focus is always on the derby. The media report nothing else for weeks beforehand. The players are totally focused on the match and the atmosphere is truly impressive," recalled former Sparta player Horst Siegel. “In the weeks leading up to the match, you sense the tension mounting in both camps. The determination to win on Sparta’s part is much greater than Slavia," confirmed Pavel Horvarth, who would end up playing for both clubs.
The making of a legend
Sparta's ascent into the European elite began as early as the 1920s. In the years between 1919 and 1925, they were defeated just once in 58 matches, and the nickname Zelezna Sparta (Iron Sparta) was born.
In the 1930s and 40s, Sparta remained one of the leading teams in the country, although both Slavia and Dukla Prague consistently put up stiff opposition in the domestic championship, finally introduced in 1925. It is fair to say that Sparta and Slavia comfortably dominated football in the former Czechoslovakia through to the end of the Second World War.
Up until 1967, Sparta’s championship titles ran into double figures, along with a host of triumphs in the domestic and Mitropa cups. That record of success caused the club to grow into one of the nation’s best-known and most loved.
But as the proverb says, what goes up must come down. The 1970s rate as the most difficult period in the club's history. Sparta were even relegated from the top flight for the first and only time in 1975, although they were promoted back up at the first attempt.
The club were unable to recapture past glories for a spell after returning to the country's elite, but the men of iron finally recovered their swagger and poise with a domestic double in 1984. The likes of Stanislav Griga, Jan Berger and Jozef Chovanec, who is currently club president, made the 1980s a golden era. Up until Czechoslovakia's so-called Velvet Divorce, Sparta claimed the title every year, with just two exceptions in 1986 and 1992.
Over the years, the club also made a name for itself on the European stage with regular appearances in the European Cup and its successor, the UEFA Champions League. In 1991/92, Sparta even made the final group stage of just eight clubs and defeated mighty Barcelona at home, a result which rates as the greatest in their history.
The separation into Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1992 brought no change on the domestic stage, as Sparta dominated proceedings in the Czech league, claiming 11 titles between 1994 and 2010, and numerous cup triumphs.
The club is particularly proud of the long list of former players who went on to represent their country, including greats such as Vaclav Masek, Michal Hornak, Pavel Nedved, Jan Koller, Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky, and many more. These and countless others have gone on to great and illustrious careers, and there seems no reason to fear an end to the conveyor belt of talent emerging from the famous club in the years to come.
The Generali Arena has provided a worthy setting for almost 100 years of the club’s history. Opened in 1917 as the Letna Stadium, the ground underwent frequent programmes of rebuilding, renovation and modernisation. The Arena currently has a capacity of 21,000.