Czech football giant Slavia Praha has been revitalized by Chinese investment. The club, known for its liberal tradition, and the mysterious Beijing company make strange bedfellows, Tim Gosling reports from Prague.
Slavia Praha, traditionally one of the twin powers that sits atop Czech football, completed a rise from the ashes in late May as it clinched its first league title in close to a decade. The rebound from the brink of bankruptcy exposes a lingering debate over the country's ongoing transition from communism, and its search for its place in a shifting world.
Slavia fans celebrated a 4-0 drubbing of Zbrojovka Brno to seal the Czech championship on May 27. Yet the Chinese cash powering the party presents something of a conundrum for a club whose identity is molded by its fall from grace under the communist regime that ruled Czechoslovakia for 45 years until 1989, to the advantage of bitter rival Sparta Praha.
While the bulk of the fan base has been won over, suspicion of the mysterious Chinese conglomerate that saved Slavia and powered the return persists in some quarters. An early plan to put the CEFC logo - complete with red communist star - on the Slavia shirt offered the investor an early lesson. Following fan protests, the famous red-and-white halved strip now simply features the company name.
"They are proud of their educated fan base and anti-communist stance," says Michal Petrak at the iSport.cz portal. "To be saved by communist money is hard for some."
Yet the ambiguity cuts both ways. The club is an odd purchase for one of China's largest corporations, which bills itself as an energy and banking conglomerate.
When CEFC bought a majority share in Slavia in late 2015, the club was less than a month away from a court hearing which could have seen it wound up. Wracked by thwarted ambition on the field, and dubious deals and tunneling (the Czech term for "asset stripping") off it, Slavia last won the Czech title in 2009.
But the club was just one of several assets CEFC bought in a frenzy in 2015. Travel companies, hotels and breweries were also snapped up as the company shelled out over 1 billion euros in a matter of weeks, according to estimates. The Chinese giant reported revenue of $42 billion that year, mostly driven by its energy assets.
That shopping spree is the high point thus far of an investment hunt led by controversial Czech President Milos Zeman. The hard drinking and outspoken head of state remains the most popular politician in the Czech Republic, despite criticism in liberal circles of his efforts to attract capital from Beijing with the help of local oligarchs and a blatant disregard for transparency.
The purchase of Slavia, whose history is steeped in Czech traditions for liberal and progressively patriotic values, puts that debate in a nutshell. Since Zeman was elected in 2013 he has led an assault on traditional Czech foreign policy, which established a focus on human rights during Vaclav Havel's time in Prague Castle.
The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Prague in 2016 provoked complaints that the Czech capital appeared to be rolling out the red carpet for an emperor. A meeting by the Czech culture minister with the Dalai Lama produced a nasty spat with the president. A letter of apology to Beijing, which was signed by several senior political figures, provoked cries of fury due to its groveling tone.
"I lost interest in Slavia in 2011 when it was taken over by disgraced former transport minister Ales Rebicek. I couldn't support a club with that mafiosi in charge," says Jiri Pehe, a political commentator and former advisor to Havel who was born into a Slavia family. "Then the Chinese bought it, and it's worse. Now the club is nothing but a propaganda tool."
What does CEFC get?
Jaroslav Tvrdik, another former minister with scandals on his CV, is now chairman of Slavia. A close advisor to Zeman, and also head of CEFC's Czech unit - which is viewed by the company as a European HQ - he enjoys outlining the grand ambition the Chinese owners have for the club. However, it's more difficult to pin down what's in it for CEFC.
The old adage says that if you want to make a small fortune in football then start out with a big one. Perhaps there's money to be made amongst Europe's elite clubs for a very smart investor, however, there's no pot of gold waiting at the end of the Czech football story.
One scout at Slavia, who asked not tro be named, says the Chinese investment largely means the club can hang on to its brightest prospects a little longer than it used to, and hunt for players in the German second division.
"I don't really understand what the Chinese are doing at Slavia," says Jan Machacek. The journalist and former member of dissident rock group The Plastic People of the Universe is another whose enthusiasm for the team has faded. "Maybe winning the league will give them a PR coup."
Quite where that success leads is unclear also. However, the biggest potential prize in the country is an 11 billion euro ($12.4 billion) national program to build new nuclear units, and China is very keen to win a contract. CEFC is also speculated to be eyeing refineries and banks.
The Chinese company has shown clearly that it is not keen to talk to the press; resurrecting a Czech institution like Slavia serves to introduce the company to the wider public.
One former press spokesman for Slavia reports the Chinese are delighted, according to his contacts inside the club. "For relatively little money they've got a great deal of good PR," he says.
Even the most ardent critic admits the Chinese have got it right with their approach to the fans. High profile supporters have been put in charge, with General Manager Martin Krob leading. Traditions are respected, say fans, and the Eden Stadium was recently bought back from unknown parties in the Caymen Islands.
Of the ultras that pack the Tribune Sever (North Stand) in the gritty industrial neighborhood of Vrsovice in the east of Prague, there is a small group that agitates against the "unknown Chinese investor probably linked to the communist government," says Ondrej Kreml, an editor at fan forum slavistickenoviny.cz. But he adds that he has never felt a closer link between fans and club.
A return to challenging for honors helps of course. The taunts of opposition fans, who have made calls to "Free Slavia!" from communist oppression, are easier to shrug off when you're top of the tree.