Alarm over antisemitic chanting by fans of the Czech Republic’s most famous football club has inspired a groundbreaking exhibition showing the sport’s historical Jewish ties in an effort to prevent it becoming a neo-Nazi breeding ground.
The issue comes sharply into focus on November 4 when Sparta Prague host their city rival Slavia in an encounter laden with tension, hostility and provocative taunts – most controversially “Jude Slavia”, a sneer issued by Sparta followers to associate their traditional foes with supposed Jewish links.
The chant dates from 1923 when Slavia were compensated for the costs of postponing a friendly match against West Ham under an agreement with a Jewish-owned insurance firm. It has endured despite protests from Jewish leaders and appeals from Sparta officials, who have previously been fined by Uefa, European football’s governing body, over racist chanting by fans. And it has done nothing to banish the reputation, gained in the 1990s by a section of Sparta’s fans, for far-right sympathies.
In 2007 the club’s then captain Pavel Horváth was fined for giving a fascist salute in response to fans who appeared to be chanting “Sieg Heil”, although he claimed he had not intended the gesture and fans said they were chanting “Siegl Heil” in reference to the manager, Horst Siegl.
Now Pavel Štingl, an award-winning Czech documentary maker, is challenging the trend in Football: A Century of Fouls, examining the sport’s relationship with fascism when the country was under Nazi occupation. The exhibition aims to counter prejudice by recalling the involvement of Jewish players, coaches and administrators in Czech football’s development. It will feature images of Sparta and Slavia players giving Nazi salutes before a wartime derby match.
Štingl, who also spearheads a project to open the Czech Republic’s first publicly-funded Holocaust memorial, says he has been spurred on by the failure of the government and football authorities to tackle the problem – all the more urgent, he says, given Prague’s history as a city from where an estimated 50,000 Jews were transported to Nazi death camps.
Some officials have questioned whether the chant betrays real antisemitism, attributing it instead to rival football fans’ traditional hostility. A Czech interior ministry spokesman said it was not motivated by “hatred towards a group of people for their alleged or actual race, ethnic group, nationality or political beliefs” and that the answer lay with the football association.
However, Tomáš Kraus, secretary of the federation of Jewish organisations, said talks with the Czech FA had led nowhere. “We had a meeting with the association two years ago but we had the impression it was not a priority,” he said.
Štingl, 58, whose Jewish mother lost 36 relatives in the Holocaust, said some hardcore Sparta fans posted antisemitic and neo-Nazi messages on social media, and called for an urgent debate. “Is this an issue of football stadiums only or does it say something about the world we live in?” he asked.
“We need to ask if it is just the football fans being manipulative with the Nazi rituals or if there is a threat that these slogans could become part of a power struggle.
“This issue is not being resolved by particular clubs or cities where the matches are taking place, nor by the ministries or football association. Our aim is to create a discussion, to name things and then create an environment for prevention.”
The chants have continued even after Sparta last year signed a Jewish Israeli player, Tal Ben Haim. Although he is not believed to have been targeted for abuse, there have been other signs of far-right sympathies. A banner at a recent home match read “Je Suis Chemnitz”, referring to anti-immigrant protests in the German city of Chemnitz following the murder of a local man. A flag at a match during the 2015 European migrant crisis read in English: “Stop Islam.”
There have also been complaints over a perceived failure to tackle racist abuse of black players among a vocal minority.
The controversy has embarrassed Sparta, a club better known in Britain for producing players such as Karel Poborský and Tomáš Rosický who starred in the English premier league with Manchester United and Arsenal.
“This is such an important issue for us,” says Ondřej Kasík, Sparta’s communications manager, who says many fans do not associate the chant with the Holocaust. “It’s an unacceptable chant and we’re trying to explain to the fans that it has a really bad connection to what happened in world war two. Stopping it is one of my personal goals but I’m not pretending it will be easy. No Sparta fans are attacking the Jews or have any kind of campaign against Jews. It’s almost an abstraction for them because it has no connection with anything outside the stadium.”