Chmel Blšany: Europe’s smallest club that once aimed for greatness

Chmel Blšany: Europe’s smallest club that once aimed for greatness

It was hard to tell what was more disconcerting – the abrupt sign warning that firearms were banned or the eerie emptiness that enveloped the ground. Although piercing sunshine blazed all around, an uneasy chill could be felt at the disrepair and neglect surrounding what must have been the main entrance. Ticket office windows were smashed, rusting roller shutters were clinging to their fittings for dear life, while the souvenir shop had clearly not been opened in some time.

Just finding the stadium had been a challenge. Stepping off the bus in the deserted main square, there wasn’t the slightest sign of life, let alone a sign to the home of the local team. Despite the glorious golden summer drenching the whitewashed church and cobbled pavement, not a soul breathed, nor a leaf stirred. A small cluster of plastic tables lay unoccupied outside the only bar in sight as a lone tractor grumbled and rumbled on down the hill, seemingly intent on leaving the sleepy vacuum behind.

After stumbling through the desolate lanes and vast, unkempt fields, a spindly floodlight almost sheepishly edged into view, as if it was embarrassed to give away the location, and eventually we were welcomed by the sad spectre of decay. Still not one person had crossed our path, so with nothing to stop us we slipped through the gate to be greeted by a rudimentary concrete terrace, and an immaculately maintained playing surface.

As we made our way round to the main stand, it was clear that renovation was not a term in common usage in these parts. The wooden floorboards and multi-coloured seats would have been charmingly delightful in their day, but the peeling paintwork and moss-ridden steps – rotating pitch sprinklers covered the first few rows, and it appeared nobody had thought, or bothered, to move them – gave a depressing air of inevitable decline.

And yet it was here, in a tiny village an hour or two from the Czech capital of Prague in the heart of the hops-growing countryside, that one of the most spectacularly bizarre experiments in football had come within a whisker of taking on Europe’s finest. This is a story of madness and brilliance, ambition and folly – but sadly, ultimately, tragedy.

Just before the turn of the century, a remarkable record was broken. When the local football club were promoted to the Gambrinus Liga, Blšany became the smallest European settlement to host a top flight team; officially the population of the hamlet itself was 389 in 2000, with nearby villages barely pushing the fan base into four figures. Through the incredible vision – or sheer lunacy, depending on your perspective – of local businessman and former Chmel Blšany goalkeeper František Chvalovský, a mind-boggling complex of seven training pitches, tennis courts, a rehabilitation centre and hotel was built to attract the world’s finest clubs to train during the summer, while the playing squad was invested in heavily as they shot up through the league system.

Incredibly, it worked. In 1998, they reached the promised land under Miroslav Beránek, and even flirted with Europe, coming within a whisker of taking on Paris Saint-Germain in the 2001 Intertoto Cup final. The previous year they had reached the same semi-final stage with a certain 18-year-old Petr Čech in goal, and those years would also see the likes of Jiří Němec, Daniel Kolar and Jan Šimák don the blue and yellow, as well as having five members of the Czech Republic’s victorious Under-21 European Championship squad play for the club at some stage.

A strong youth system helped the club prosper – Czech football regulations stipulate that all clubs from the fifth tier upwards must field a minimum of three separate age group youth teams – and it looked like the most improbable fairy tale was set to flourish into an even more improbable reality.

Fast forward to the present day and not only is there no top flight football at the club – there is no club at all. After failing to earn a license for the fifth tier last summer due to a severe lack of funds and a near-empty senior playing squad, the club that had once thrillingly gone toe-to-toe with the heavyweights of Czech football heartbreakingly folded and slipped almost unnoticed out of existence. A year before, as These Football Times visited the club to meet the then-president Radek Pospíšil, the signs were already there that hope was fading fast, even if the real seeds of doom had been sown long before.

After wandering around the pitch past the moulding substitutes’ bench – which still had a fading Gambrinus Liga sticker clinging onto the perspex, the last memory the top-flight glory days – and under the rickety wooden TV mast, the clubhouse came into view. A solid, varnished club crest was carved into the doorway, but still there was no sign of life, so unchecked we continued. Behind the main stand lies the modern accommodation complex, where Pospíšil cheerfully greeted us in the reception alongside an impressive collection of shirts hanging on display.

“Those are from all the teams that have visited us,” he explained, as his eyes wandered over to a large gaggle of kids noisily wolfing down spaghetti bolognese sitting behind us in the canteen. They were all on a residential training camp, but were just one group of countless more that used the facilities. The hotel – specifically geared towards football teams – could hold 60 people, including conference facilities and a sports injury spa centre, but felt so completely out of place alongside the crumbling stadium and charming but minute village.

As we walked through to the clubhouse, the atmosphere altered somewhat. A model of the entire complex lay broken in a display cabinet underneath a clutter of different objects that were clearly unwanted or unused, while rolls of carpet and artificial turf lay piled up in the next room. Pennants from the illustrious visitors that had flocked to the village hung around the room, with team photos of from Blšany’s days at the top table adorning what spaces were left on the walls.

Naturally, the motivation and resources for the ambitious project that lay around were intriguing. Six years ago, a failed investment from Horst Siegl – the all-time top goalscorer in the Czechoslovak/Czech League – couldn’t resurrect the fortunes of the hotel and complex as he rented the facilities from the owners. As his interest waned, he spent less and less time in the country and within two years he had abandoned the project.

The construction company that had originally built the complex still owned the premises, and while the operating profits generated from overseas teams training there during the summer used to go straight to the club, the arrangement didn’t last. Maintaining the facilities without recompense just wasn’t viable, and they soon decided they’d had enough.

They even offered the club the chance to rent it out for free after Siegl had departed, but there simply weren’t the financial resources or personnel available to do so. Grass on the pitches had grown ankle-high, the volleyball court was so overgrown with weeds and dirt that the lines had long since disappeared, and the buildings that housed the laundry and storage spaces were in serious disrepair.

The major beneficiary of the facilities was the youth system; in fact, they were dependent on the accommodation and pitches, but after the relegation from the top flight, there was a period when no youth teams were run at all. This required special dispensation from the Českomoravský Fotbalový Svaz (CMFS) to allow them to continue competing, which did little to endear Blšany to their league rivals.

Although youth football returned for the last four years of Blšany’s existence, the club as an entity continued to bleed players, staff and, crucially, money, until last summer they simply couldn’t carry on any longer. If the end was wretched, however, the beginning was decidedly more sociable.

The nearest reasonably-sized town is Žatec, home to some breweries of international renown, while Blšany itself is right in the heartland of the hops-growing country, with metres-high crops grown to help fuel the burgeoning Czech beer industry. Even the name of the club is taken directly from this heritage; ‘Chmel’ translates into hops. There is a Czech saying – nejlepší nápady v Česku vznikají v hospodách’ – that translates roughly as ‘the best ideas in the Czech Republic are made in pubs’. It is entirely appropriate, then, that Chmel Blšany was born over a pint or two.

For the best part of four decades from its inception, the club had been little more than a village side treading water in the lower reaches of the regional football system. Chmel Blšany was founded a few months after the conclusion of the Second World War when nine men, sitting around a table in U Kováře pub, decided that they needed a club to represent the village. After collecting 2,700 koruna (equivalent to about €3,000) between them, yellow shirts and blue shorts and socks were bought, with Otto Heinz as the first president.

Twenty years later, the most significant protagonist in the club’s history entered the story. Initially as a youth team goalkeeper, František Chvalovský would graduate to the first team squad and see the club gradually rise up from the eighth tier all the way to the I. Česká Národní Liga (The Czech National League) – one step below the top flight – before becoming a successful businessman, and eventually the club’s owner.

Chvalovský officially hung up his gloves in 1993 after a quarter of a century and set about cementing his position in Czech industry and football. While he was still playing, he was appointed chairman of the CMFS and oversaw a meteoric rise in performance of the national side, particularly after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993. From being ranked 34th by FIFA in 1994 to reaching fifth two years later as they stunned Europe by finishing runners-up to Germany at Euro 96, Chvalovský’s prowess as an administrator of the sport was seemingly beyond compare.

His business interests, meanwhile, produced a collective turnover of more than €100 million, and throughout the 1990s he remained the owner of Chmel Blšany as he backed the club’s ascent. “Of course, from the very beginning we were planning to try and spend at least one year in the top flight,” he told These Football Times. “We had no idea how costly an experience it would turn out to be. In the end, one year became eight years. Especially the years after the Bosman case, and after the collapse of my business group, were difficult, though.”

To put the figures in context, the entire club budget never edged above half a million euros in the National League, while even in the top flight it was under a million. Unsurprisingly, player transfers helped significantly in raising funds: Václav Drobný joined Strasbourg for €1 million weeks after winning the 2002 Under-21 Euros, Jan Šimák’s transfer to Hannover brought in €1.25 million and Čech earned the club €735,000 when he moved to Sparta Prague in 2001, as well another €500,000 sell-on fees upon his subsequent move to Rennes.

He didn’t go it alone, however. In 1982, Zdeněk Kovář joined the club as a player and would go on to become general secretary as the club reached the top flight, with Chvalovský crediting him as being one of his main visionary partners at the club. His contacts in the game helped recruit some big name players to assist in the upwards trajectory of the tiny villagers.

One player to come through at the club was Chvalovský’s son Aleš, also a goalkeeper. On the surface, accusations of nepotism seem reasonable, but to be fair to Chvalovský junior he was once a Liverpool trialist and a two-time Under-21 Euros finalist. While Aleš would go on to have a reasonable top-flight career at the club before seven years in Cyprus, inevitable grumblings about his father’s conflict of interest and various connections were a constant feature.

In 1995, František Chvalovský was kidnapped on the eve of a friendly at home to Norway and bound by steel wire to his throat, before being released the next day. Although the identities of the perpetrators have never been conclusively determined, Chvalovský firmly believes it was an act ordered by the infamous mafia boss František Mrázek who wanted to scare him into resigning from his high-profile position at the head of the CMFS. The fact that Chvalovský’s deputy, Jan Gottvald, was a friend of Mrázek’s, lends at least a slither of credence to the theory, but after the latter was shot dead in 2006 by a single bullet from an anonymous assassin, his direct involvement is unlikely to ever be proven.

A year later, Chmel Blšany appointed their most celebrated manager of the golden era: Miroslav Beránek. Despite leading a Patrik Berger and Vladimir Šmicer-inspired Slavia Prague to a mere second place finish the previous top-flight campaign, Beránek was fired, and subsequently joined Kladno. It was via Jan Musil, a goalkeeper at the latter club in the closing stages of his career, that Chvalovský was alerted to Beránek’s potential managerial skills, and a few months later, Chmel Blšany had their man.

Within two years the final promotion had been achieved, and the 4,000 capacity Městský Stadium was packed out as the likes of Prague institutions Sparta and Slavia rolled into town. Around this time, Chvalovský oversaw the construction of the ambitious sporting complex with the hotel and training pitches at a cost of €3.6 million to capitalise on the extra attention the club was receiving.

A whole host of European clubs such as Bayern Munich, Marseille and Everton amongst others came to spend summer training sessions, using the full medical facilities and peaceful countryside, as well as bringing in welcome revenue. Even when These Football Times visited two decades later, with the club long since relegated back down from the top flight, 27 different clubs had made use of the spectacular facilities that summer.

The reality was, however, that the very man who had dragged the club up from obscurity into the limelight was central to its downfall. Chvalovský was investigated in 2001 for credit fraud involving loans to his company from Komerční bank, and after a decade of torturous legal wrangling, he was sentenced to a decade in prison, while assets and property worth millions of koruna were seized by the state. The verdict was overturned on appeal by the Prague Supreme Court, but the truth was that his companies had been struggling since the end of the 1990s, and his club was slowly feeling the effects.

The inevitable route down the slippery slope into lower league oblivion began with relegation back to the second tier in 2006, and soon players began leaving. Attracting new talent became harder, and without the strength of financial backing that had been forthcoming previously, the club began needing to feed off scraps from the free agents that floated around just to make up their numbers.

Chvalovský himself now lives abroad and is reluctant to court publicity having retired from life in football following the demise of the club he first joined exactly half a century ago as a junior. His memories have not been completely soured, however, as he told These Football Times. “I’ve witnessed something no one has ever done on the Czech footballing scene and perhaps even in the whole world,” he said. “We began by ascending from the district championship [eighth tier] in 1973 and 20 years later, we earned our seventh [sic] promotion to the second division. I experienced all of those as an active player.”

Such an inexorable rise naturally drew increasingly suspicious glances the further they rose up the system, not to mention the obvious influence Chvalovský himself held in the corridors of power, but he maintains their fairy tale was rooted in a reality of honest hard work. “We’ve never just purchased the licence for a higher division; it was all about sporting success.”

Whatever one’s opinions about the nature of the unfathomable rise and fall of Blšany, it would take a heartless soul to not feel a tug on the heartstrings to see the sad decline of the club into nothing. Chvalovský became a controversial figure in the latter years of his association with the club – some say his brushes with the law turned away what few fans there were – but he maintains fond memories of his time there.

You might think that his personal highlight was the miraculous first foray into Europe, or welcoming Sparta Prague to the humble 4,000-capacity stadium, but you’d be wrong. “Just recently on a holiday, I was showing to my grandson a videotape of the games from spring 2004,” he reminisced. “After the first part of the season, Blšany were dead last with a poor two wins from 16 games, yet they managed to survive. Pretty much every spring game was a blast. Great memories.” Tragically, memories are all that now remain of the most dramatic village club.

By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint

With thanks to Tomáš Daníček for his invaluable assistance in setting up this feature. Find more of his great football coverage @TomDanicek

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