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First division soccer kicks off

First division soccer kicks off

Posted: July 30, 1997

By Frantisek Bouc

Ä?After a banner season last year, the country's top-level soccer league, the First Division, kicks off another season on Friday, Aug. 1, with a match between Slavia Praha and FC Petra Drnovice.Ä? Soccer fever swelled the stands last season on the heels of the Czech national team's silver-medal-winning performance at Euro '96 in England. Last year's First Division games featured an average gate of 7,153 fans, the highest average attendance since 1974, when the figure was a whopping 7,750.Ä?Some league officials predict that turnout will drop this season, but they insist that First Division action will be as dramatic as it was last season, when Sparta Praha clinched the title only one round before the season's end, and the league's cellar dwellers fought until the last round to save their spots in the top-ranked league.Ä?Sparta is expected to dominate in the competition from the very beginning this season. The team's Slovak management declared in June that its goal for the upcoming season is to build a squad strong enough to succeed not only in the First Division at home, but also in the Champions League, the prestigious annual competition of elite European clubs.Ä?Slavia, the 1995-96 season First Division champion, suffered a tremendous exodus of players after Euro '96 and was unable defend its title last season. However, Frantisek Cipro, the club's head coach, told The Prague Post that the red-and-white squad, last season's runner-up, underwent "a good-quality preseason training camp" and that the team "is ready to fight for the title again."Ä?Sparta and Slavia are traditionally the hottest candidates to grab the title, but the north Bohemian squads of Jablonec and Liberec, along with Moravian FC Boby Brno and possibly FC Petra Drnovice, are expected to represent a strong opposition to the Prague teams.Ä?Jablonec finished third last season to record its best-ever ranking in the First Division, and the team earned a spot in this season's UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Cup, as did fourth-place Boby Brno.Ä?Jablonec clearly demonstrated its power by sweeping away Agdam Karabach of Azerbaijan, 5-0, in the first preliminary round of the UEFA Cup in Jablonec July 23. The north Bohemians take their five-goal advantage to Azerbaijan for the return leg on Wednesday July 30 and are expected to advance to the second preliminary round.Ä?Boby Brno suffered an unexpected 3-1 loss to Inkaras Kaunas of Lithuania in a match in Kaunas on July 23. The Moravians will struggle to make up the two-goal deficit in the home leg on July 30.Ä?Boby Brno faces more than just a point deficit at the season's beginning. Along with two other clubs, Sigma Olomouc and SK Hradec Kralove, the team has been fighting problems of another sort: stadium damage from the recent massive floods.Ä?Brno and Hradec Kralove fared the worst of the 16 First Division clubs. While the Hradec Kralove management says that the pitch will dry and the stadium dormitories will have been reconstructed by kickoff time, the field in Olomouc was in such a bad state that the team's first-round match against Teplice had to be postponed until the end of August.Ä?Sigma Olomouc was driven away from its home field by forces beyond its control, but league newcomer Dukla Praha has intentionally left its home stadium in Prague-Juliska for nearby Pribram.Ä?Due to controversies over renting the stadium from the military, and citing low attendance in Prague, Dukla moved in June after 49 years in the capital. The club's management expects strong support for the rejuvenated team, which returns to the First Division this season after three years away. Having suffered only three losses in 30 second-league matches last season, and having advanced to the Czech Cup final in June (which it lost to Slavia, 1-0), Dukla will be the dark horse to watch in the First Division this season.Ä?

By Frantisek Bouc

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