When football was like going to the opera. The book explores the old fandom

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Historian Martin Pelc’s book is unique in two respects. Above all, there is a minimum of serious academic study in sport, especially in Czech. It is not only true for football that journalists, athletes themselves or witnesses write about its past. Nothing against that, only one-sidedness is typical for such descriptions, which historians are more inclined to avoid. And secondly – Pelc deals very little with events on the pitch. It reverses the perspective and focuses on those who watch football and fall for it – the football fans of the First Republic and their world.

Focusing on the stands may sound easy; after all, researches on football fans, their rituals and sound expressions are now common. However, the historian’s opportunities to examine his subject – especially one so quickly – are quite limited. There is no comprehensive “football archive” in the Czech Republic, let alone one devoted to the topic of fans. Thus, Pelc practically “mined” data about First Republic football fans from several smaller archives, hundreds of period articles, memories, etc. At the same time, he is able to use non-written sources in a very inspiring way : photos of spectators (mainly from private collections), film footage, radio weather reports, etc. All this allows him to paint a multi-layered picture of football fandom in the First Republic, which is not only professionally accurate, but very easy to read. .

From silent audience to mass entertainment

At the end of the 19th century, football overshadowed the once popular rowing or cycling in Czech lands. Pelc eloquently shows that the demands placed on the audience at that time were completely different than those of the First Republic, let alone today. “The original ideal was to watch the match quietly and calmly, with an occasional round of applause or an isolated exclamation of ‘bravo,'” Pelc wrote. This “ideal of a silent audience” is said to have precedent in the opera audience. To a large extent, this is related to the fact that watching football in 1900 was still an elite event, where even Slavia of Prague invited representatives of the nobility or high dignitaries of the church. Already in the first decade of the 20th century, this model proved to be unsustainable not only economically, but also related to the changing interests of the upper class.

Football as culture

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So football became popular and became a business, which is also a basic requirement for the emergence of football fanatics, in which Pelc is primarily interested. It deals a lot with the social composition of the audience; the sport became popular, but the sectors in the stadium were divided according to the social key, which was marked according to the cost of the entrance fee. Seats were for a more mobile clientele, for example in Sparta after 1936, they made up only about a tenth. But the author also follows the “marginal” audience groups of the First Republic, for example, the gradual reporting of children and youth from the border area, where they originally had a regular access during matches. And last but not least, he was interested in the gender perspective: women’s soccer was seen as unattractive and ridiculous, and only about 10-15 percent of the spectators were women; however, a disproportionately larger number of women are among radio broadcast listeners or bettors.

Pelc vividly describes the visual and audio displays of fans at the time. It shows that, both compared to today and, for example, to the British audience of that time, Czech stadium visitors were visually more monotonous: a simple black or gray series of plain or lightly patterned suits prevailed here, of course, hats and ties. Dressing in club or jersey colors was seen as completely eccentric. Even a cap with a label (rather than a hat) is a sign of a lower social class.

Plastic picture

If we are to believe the contemporary reflections of the Austrian press, the Prague audience was “more polite than Vienna and calmer than Budapest”. Pelc thinks about these differences in “national character”, but at the same time he does not appreciate the Czech fans in any way; Understandably, cursing and cursing, throwing things on the playing field, etc. has always been common. It is worth noting that certain types of shouts are considered socially identifiable (like “Hey rup”, which has become the privilege of extreme left-wing fans ). Artificial sources of sound (megaphones, instruments) are not common, and some forms of expression of joy – such as throwing caps and coats in the air – seem funny today.

Karel Poláček often wrote about riots and fights in stadiums in his short stories. And Pelc also refutes the traditional idea that somewhere in the idealized past (before 1938 or even 1918) football audiences behaved in a disciplined manner. Insults to referees, players, or even riot police are common, though not serious. On the other hand, the author believes that fan conflicts that motivate the country in multinational Czechoslovakia are not very frequent: if it is, not so much between Czechs and Germans, but rather between Slovaks and Hungarians. However, it seems that more than national disputes, conflicts are only fueled by neighborhood (mainly rural) conflict or passions arising from the context of the given fight.

Pelc is not overwhelmed by data, but at the same time has an eye for detail if it is in the interest of the narrative line. When, for example, he remembers the collapse of the wooden tribune at the Slavia stadium (1934), in which more than a hundred people were injured, the person of the lone dead – the retired officer Paul Heller – is a good opportunity for to him to describe. the microworld of football fans. On the basis of the archives, he reconstructs the life of the deceased football fanatic in the smallest detail and tries to make up for the lack of fan memories of that time.

Another example is the rather curious case of a young worker from Bohumín who, due to lack of funds, walked to Slavia’s match in Přerov: “He could barely stand. At the station, it was found that he traveled 24 hours earlier, he had only CZK 6 with him for the entrance fee, and was eating fruits that had fallen by the side of the road. After he was released, he went straight to the playground,” gendarmes reported at the time.

Swept away by the magic of the moment

Football during the First Republic was undoubtedly a business, and Pelc eloquently describes how the commercialization of this sport was manifested in popular culture, consumption in stadiums and in the media. Investigating football viewing in the media is penetrating, with radio in particular participating in the development of mass football fandom and fundamentally contributing to the development of sports journalism. Pelc shows that today’s collective viewing of matches on big-screen screens has a certain precedent in the joint listening of radio broadcasts in restaurants or stadiums during the First Republic. Shared listening to reports gave football fans a completely new experience and, like a magnet, drew even previously disinterested groups of the population into action.

It is therefore not surprising that soon almost every political party or influential personality commented on football fandom. For the Communists, football represented a trap for the proletariat, diverting it from real social problems. For some Catholics, this is an unacceptable cult of the stars. For intellectuals, football represented a threat to the higher culture of the elites…

The great thing about Pelc’s exploration of the world of First Republic fandom is that it’s open to different readings. Experts will likely appreciate the methodological contribution, the acquisition of visual and acoustic resources. Ordinary football fans can easily find in him a very plastic image of themselves a few decades ago: perhaps in a suit and tie, but with the same fascinating fascination for their idols.

Martin Pelc – Na football!: Football spectatorship and fan culture in the Czech lands until 1939 (Nakladatelství Lidové noviny, 2022).

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