1.FC Brno 4-2 Sparta Prague, Gambrinus Liga (25.11.2007), Městský fotbalový stadion Srbská, Brno (Attendance: 4,855)
After the up-and-down years of the mid-to-late 1990s when forays into the top four were as common as seasons spent treading water, the new millennium ushered in a period of stability for Brno. Unfortunately for the south Moravian faithful, Brno became a constant in the bottom half of the league, finishing an average of eleventh across six rather drab seasons.
To make things worse, the club had swapped Lužánky for the smaller Městský fotbalový stadion Srbská in 2001, a decision made out of necessity, but one that is yet to be fully accepted. It felt like as soon as Brno left their crumbling, old, spiritual home that the magic departed too.
Things reached their nadir in 2004 when the club lost six of their last eight games, finished 14th and stayed up by the skin of their teeth, surviving thanks to the ineptitude of others rather than of their own volition.
But things took a sharp turn for the better when Jozef Mazura, part of the 1977-78 title-winning side, was appointed the manager in 2005. At the time, Brno were winless and bottom. Mazura immediately made Brno tougher to beat, masterminded a couple of high-profile victories and guided the club away from yet another relegation battle to the relatively lofty heights of 12th. He even got them to the semi-finals of the Czech Cup too.
The following season, Mazura’s work paid off as Brno finished fifth – their highest league position in seven long years. Though, that fifth could, quite easily, have been seventh, as Brno ended the campaign level on points with Baník Ostrava and Viktoria Plzeň. Baník had the better attack of the three, Plzeň the better defence. But as the primary tie-breaker was head-to-head records, Brno triumphed and pipped the two in the final table.
That fifth-placed finish had its consequences. Ondřej Mazuch, then a promising 18-year-old, impressed many and wound up swapping south Moravia for Tuscany with less than a year on from making his senior debut. The £2.75m transfer fee that Brno received from Fiorentina for his services was a club record at the time. That year also brought a young Mario Holek into the spotlight, though the midfielder-come-defender would stay at Srbska for another few months.
If the 2006-07 season helped bring Mazuch and Holek to the attention of European clubs, then the prospect of facing sides from Europe drew people away from Srbska. The team’s leading goalscorer, Luděk Zelenka, departed for cup runners-up Jablonec, jumping at the chance to return to north Bohemia, not to mention the prospect of playing in the UEFA Cup qualifying rounds. The move worked, sort of. On debut, Zelenka scored twice in a 4-3 defeat to Austria Vienna, but the forward wouldn’t find the back of the net again for the Strelnice club. However, that double against Austrian opposition evidently lingered long in the memory as he was snapped up the following transfer window by the now-defunct FC Karnten.
All in all, Brno entered 2007-08 with modest expectations. Not only had there been some high-profile player departures, the coaching team had changed as well. Mazura left the club in the summer of 2007, replaced by Petr Uličný, who had previously managed the side between 1994 and 1996. Mid-table was expected to be the reality again, not a potential push towards the upper echelons and with it, a shot at entry into the UEFA Cup.
Ten games in and those predictions for Brno were spot on. The south Moravians were seventh and closer to the relegation zone than they were Slavia Prague. Červenobílí, five points clear, were threatening to run away with the league: Their nearest challengers, to the surprise of many, were Teplice, the north Bohemians were enjoying a fantastic run of form, inspired by the prodigal Martin Fenin. Baník sat third and Sparta, making a complete mess of their title defence, were a distant fourth.
A month later and Sparta had emerged from their slumber. The Letná side, under the guidance of Michal Bílek, had responded to losing a characteristically ill-tempered ‘S’ derby by thrashing Kladno, Most and Bohemians. Across the city, Slavia had stuttered a little, picking up five points out of nine during the same period. With the gap between Slavia and Sparta, now in second, cut to four points – and Teplice level with Sparta- the title race was back on.
During Sparta’s mini-renaissance, Brno had continued with their modest run of results. The south Moravians had seen off two sides camped in the lower half of the Gambrinus Liga (České Budějovice and Bohemians), and had lost to Baník Ostrava away at the Bazaly
At almost the halfway stage of the season, Brno were a classic middling side. They were capable of beating those below them but unable to better their superiors. Thirteen games in and they had yet to win against a top-half outfit, losing to Slavia, Baník and Viktoria Plzeň and drawing with Zlín, Teplice and Sigma Olomouc. The only club in the top eight that they had not faced yet were in-form Sparta Prague.
There were positives. Central midfielder Mario Holek continued to impress and court envious glances from around Europe. So too did young winger Luboš Kalouda, who had started the season inconsistently, but had recently found his feet, netting in Brno’s back-to-back victories against České Budějovice and Bohemians.
And so, the fourteenth round of games saw Sparta head down the D1 to Brno. The game, scheduled for the Sunday night television slot, gained extra significance when, on Friday evening, Slavia drew with Sigma Olomouc. A win for the defending champions at Srbska would cut the Vršovice side’s lead to just two points.
Sparta entered the game as favourites. Besides their strong domestic form in recent weeks, Sparta had history on their side: The last time they had lost to Brno in the league was in October 1997, some ten years prior.
Brno manager Petr Uličný, back at the club for his second spell in charge, made one change from his side’s last game, the 2-1 defeat away at Baník. In came Martin Švejnoha for Petr Pavlík, a straight swap in the heart of the defence. Uličný’s counterpart, Michal Bílek, made two changes himself: Miroslav Matušovič got the nod wide left over a fit-again Martin Zeman and, surprisingly, Miroslav Slepička was favoured up front instead of an in-form Libor Došek. A crunch game with Spartak Moscow in the UEFA Cup was, perhaps, the reason for Došek’s demotion to the bench – though Slepička would certainly make his mark in this tie.
Starting XI: Martin Lejsal; Martin Kuncl, Martin Švejnoha, Jan Trousil, Patrik Siegl; Luboš Kalouda, Karel Večeřa (←19′), Mario Holek, Tomáš Polách, Marek Střeštík (←84′); Aleš Besta (←90′)
Substitutes: Tomáš Bureš; Tomáš Došek (→19′), Martin Hanák, Lukáš Kubáň (→90′), Petr Pavlík (→84′), Roman Smutný, René Wagner
Starting XI: Tomáš Grigar; Zdeněk Pospěch, Tomáš Řepka, Michal Kadlec, David Limberský; Karol Kisel, Jiří Kladrubský (←77′), Pavel Horváth, Miroslav Matušovič (←62′); Miroslav Slepička, Marek Kulič (←46′)
Substitutes: Tomáš Poštulka; Libor Došek (→46′), Jan Krob, Miloš Brezinský, Jan Rezek (→77′), Ludovic Sylvestre, Martin Zeman (→62′)
The First Half
The visitors started the game in an imperious manner, with Pavel Horváth immediately dictating things from the middle of the park by constantly finding space between the lines to get on the ball and spread the play. Unsurprisingly, it was the midfielder’s trademark left foot that created the tie’s first major chance, when, in the 4th minute, his corner was met by Zdeněk Pospěch, who saw his near-post header smartly saved by Martin Lejsal, Brno’s goalkeeper.
But then came a warning sign, courtesy of the host’s mop-haired winger, Luboš Kalouda. Kalouda was down on the team sheet as a right-winger, though here he popped up on the opposite flank, drifted into the inside left channel and let loose with a speculative effort that sailed well over Tomáš Grigar’s crossbar. The shot, while ill-judged and a little rash, should have put Sparta’s back four on notice….but they failed to heed the warning.
Shortly after, Kalouda, now on the right, repeated the same move. He picked the ball up, jinked inside and, this time, floated over a pinpoint cross that found Aleš Besta inside a crowded penalty area. Besta, with his back to goal, bundled the ball out to the left and into the path of an onrushing Marek Střeštík, who fired straight down the throat of Grigar.
Two chances – one half, one full – with Kalouda as the architect for both them. And the game was less than ten minutes old.
Almost immediately, though, Sparta responded. A quick counter-attack saw Marek Kulič drag Brno’s defence out of position with a darting diagonal run, and his perfectly weighted pass found Karol Kisel bursting through with acres of space to spare. The Slovak international took a touch to control, cut inside, left a sliding Patrik Siegl to his own devices and then swept the ball into the far corner. It was simple, clinical and effective; the type of move that is so often telegraphed but nigh on impossible to stop. Sparta, the favourites, were ahead.
However, with the lead, came the game’s first flashpoint. On eighteen minutes, Jan Trousil and Miroslav Slepička tangled over a loose ball and wrestled each other to the floor. The grappling contest, more village fête than Pay-Per-View in its quality was comical and innocent enough that referee Pavel Franěk gesticulated at them both to get up and get back on with it. But as Franěk turned his back to follow the play, Trousil kicked out at Slepička. It should have been a straight red, yet with Franěk’s attention elsewhere it went unpunished. Seconds later, Besta jumped straight through Kadlec, leaving the soon-to-be Bayer Leverkusen player in a heap on the floor. This time, Franěk had spotted the foul and booked the Brno forward, but the damage – and precedent – was set.
With the game breaking down, the metronomic Horváth’s influence reduced. This enabled Brno’s numerical advantage in midfield to reap dividends as Tomáš Došek (who replaced an injured Karel Večeřa early on), Tomáš Polách and Mario Holek began to take control. Importantly, with Slepička and Kulič unwilling to track back, it forced one of Sparta’s wingers to tuck inside and get embroiled in the midfield battle.
With his teammates successfully disrupting Sparta’s play through conflict, Kalouda – sometimes with the aid of Holek – looked to create. Just after the half-hour mark, he got his just reward when David Limberský tried to pick out a teammate in the congested centre. Kalouda, quick as a cat, read the situation perfectly. He intercepted the pass, attacked the inside right channel, driving Sparta’s defence back, and let fly from the edge of the area. It was the exact same move as the one right at the beginning of the game, only this time, Kalouda’s left-footed shot was on target. Despite getting a hand to it, Grigar could only divert the ball into the back of the net. Brno were level.
As the game headed towards halftime, the tie continued to devolve into a bitty slugfest. Periods of respite were rare, but when they did appear, they were at the behest of the usual suspects: Kalouda, Horváth and Holek.
This was a coming-of-age game for Kalouda, but for Holek, his impressive performance in the heart of the Brno midfield sealed his status as one of the country’s brightest prospects. After graduating from the club’s youth system, the central midfielder made his senior debut at eighteen, against Slovan Liberec in April 2005. From then on, Holek was a first-team regular come rain or shine. And here, on a cold Sunday evening in south Moravia, he was shining. Horváth and midfielder partner Jiří Kladrubský, despite their best efforts, could not contain him and his ability to break between the lines, bridging the divide between defence and attack. And anytime Sparta tried to launch an attack, Holek was there breaking play up.
Brno may have lined up with three in central midfield, but at times, it felt like Holek was the one doing all the work.
The Second Half
When play resumed, the game continued in its sluggish manner. Although Brno had the midfield superiority, they were unable to use that to their advantage. In their 4-5-1, they had no genuine midfield creator, aside from Kalouda. But he was positioned out wide and Sparta, despite losing the battle in the centre, were successful in keeping Kalouda and his counterpart on the opposite flank, Střeštík, away from the ball.
Towards the hour mark, Sparta opted to show a little bit of adventure and were immediately made to pay. As the visitors attempted to move the ball quickly out of the back, a poor first touch from Kladrubský at the edge of the centre circle gave Mario Holek the invitation he needed to turn defence into attack. Brno’s number five nipped in, stole the ball and within an instant, he was driving forwards and shrugging off increasingly desperate challenges. As he reached Sparta’s penalty area, he played the simple ball to a simple square ball to Tomáš Došek. In just a seconds, Holek had won the ball and pushed his team within striking distance of goal. With his work done, Holek pulled up and watched as Došek calmly shifted the ball to his right, into the path of Kalouda, who took a touch before unleashing an unstoppable rocket into the top corner. It was a fantastic counter-attacking goal and one that highlighted the quality of Holek and Kalouda.
Everybody, substitutes included, rushed over to celebrate with Kalouda. Holek, meanwhile, calmly jogged along to join the fun.
The goal ignited the game. In the five minutes following Kalouda’s second, Miroslav Slepička, Libor Došek and Jiří Kladrubský all saw yellow as Sparta, collectively, lost their heads. Overrun in key areas and a goal down, the visitors resorted to fouling their opponents and a dreadful spell for the champions ended when Tomáš Došek put the result beyond doubt. To add insult to injury, the goal came from Sparta’s madness: Kladrubský needlessly committed a petty foul and from the ensuing set piece, Došek bundled the ball in.
That spell, between the 60th and 69th minute, contained it all: Two goals of contrasting quality, a flurry of bookings and the odd moment of genuine, head-turning class. And, for the home fans, things almost get even better.
Brno’s two main protagonists thus far, Holek and Kalouda, could not have been more dissimilar. While Holek had gone about his business quietly, Kalouda had been the one whose individual brilliance had captured the attention of those watching in the stands and at home. He was the dagger, driven straight into the heart of Sparta.
Like Holek, Kalouda had come through Brno’s youth system. More a playmaker positioned out wide than a natural winger, Kalouda was given the tag of being the second coming of Pavel Nedvěd, partly thanks to an outstanding showing at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup earlier that summer. As a key part of the Czech side that reached the tournament finals, Kalouda ended with three goals, including a trademark strike from the edge of the box against a Spanish team that featured the likes of Juan Mata and Gerard Pique.
Albeit nowhere near the finished article, Kalouda was turning heads and even Juventus were wooed by the comparisons to Nedvěd: the Turin club was just one of many that tried to sign the mercurial playmaker in January 2008. It may have sounded hyperbolic at the time to compare him to an all-time Czech great, but there were plenty of similarities between Kalouda and Nedvěd when it came to their play and positioning, especially on the basis of this one game.
In the 72nd minute, Kalouda once again performed his pièce de résistance. Given space out wide, he once again cut in from the flank, bypassed a now forlorn-looking David Limberský and drove at Kadlec and his centre-back partner, Tomáš Řepka. Whereas before he had opted to go for individual glory, this time he decided to share the wealth and played a defence-splitting pass, giving Aleš Besta a golden chance to make it four.
Besta’s shot narrowly flew wide of the mark; Kalouda missing out on an assist that his drive deserved by a matter of inches. But as play restarted with a long hoof upfield, the television replays showed that Grigar had managed to get the faintest of touches to the ball, diverting it just past the post.
As the clock counted down, the tensions within the Sparta team threatened to boil over once more. Bílek threw caution to the wind and replaced Kladrubský, who was walking a disciplinary tightrope, with the versatile, attack-minded midfielder Jan Rezek. The switch effectively left Pavel Horváth to contend with Brno’s midfield three alone. However, with an overloaded attack and Horváth dropping deep and assuming a quarterback role, Sparta began to dominate proceedings.
With Horváth’s passing accuracy, combined with the odd foray forward from either Kadlec or Řepka to provide support, the visitors pegged Brno back into their own half. Cynical fouls were still committed the moment that the hosts looked to break, but these indiscretions were now born from a tactical necessity to regroup rather than a desire to kick lumps out of the opposition, though for Slepička the two approaches were one and the same.
Unsurprisingly, in a match that had already seen a flurry of bookings, a dismissal was not too far away.
After playing their best football in chasing the game, Sparta deservedly cut the deficit with five minutes left to play. The totemic Libor Došek, a second-half substitute, unsurprisingly rose highest to win a long, speculative punt into the Brno box, outmuscling goalkeeper Martin Lejsal in the process. Došek’s header fell to Sparta’s captain, Zdeněk Pospěch, who, by this point, was pushing so far up the pitch he was effectively playing on the right of a front six, rather than on the right of a back four. The right-back cut the ball back across the six-yard box to Miroslav Slepička, who had the simplest of tap-ins to make it 3-2. The comeback was on.
But any notion that the visitors could grab an equaliser at the death vanished when Lejsal, attempting to time-waste in the most blatant way possible, was pushed over by Slepička, right in front of the referee. The forward was shown a straight red there and then, the fitting end to his bull in a china shop style performance. Fittingly, he is now making a name for himself in the world of mixed martial arts.
Even with the scoreboard reading 90+ minutes and the home fans baying for the full-time whistle to be blown, there was still time for the hosts to reaffirm their two-goal superiority and remind their illustrious counterparts that they, for a night, were in charge. Brno’s fourth, scored by Tomáš Polách, was the perfect conclusion to a game that nobody expected the south Moravians to win. It was completely unexpected.
The midfielder won possession and ambled towards the opposition penalty area completely unchallenged. Polách was not trying to score a goal, nor was he really looking to create one: Instead, he shifted the ball out towards the corner, where substitute Lukáš Kubáň was waiting.
Upon releasing the ball, Polách pulled up and immediately began massaging his calf – he had given everything and that meander downfield had been too much. Kubáň, however, did not get the memo about playing safe and wasting valuable time. Nor did he notice that his teammate was in some discomfort. Instead of doing the sensible thing and heading to the corner flag, he squared the ball back to befuddled Polách.
Now surrounded and unable to move, Polách weighed up his options and pretended to shoot. Nobody flinched, nobody moved. He pretended again, to the same result. He swung his right leg again, only this time he made contact with the ball and put it in the top corner. The scoreboard now read Brno 4-2 Sparta Prague and there was hardly any time left to play.
That strike would be Polách’s final contribution to the game as the midfielder was subsequently stretchered off, temporarily making it an even contest again. But seconds after the game restarted, the final whistle went. Brno left the field in celebration while Sparta’s players trudged off, their title defence seemingly in tatters.
Bizarrely, the defeat was not the deathblow for Sparta’s league campaign that it should have been. The Letná club responded well and actually ended up leading the division into the final few weeks of the season, only to implode in spectacular fashion.
In their final four games, Sparta picked up just one point out of a possible twelve and sacked Michal Bílek along the way. The defining moment of their capitulation came when Brno came to Prague and with the game just two minutes old, Tomáš Řepka was dismissed for throwing a football at Aleš Besta. Besta went down theatrically, but it was a brainless move from the centre-back to leave his side at a disadvantage for practically all of the game. Brno won 2-0 and put the final nail in Sparta’s coffin.
Slavia, meanwhile, held their nerve and picked up seven points, overturning a four-point deficit, to claim their first league title in eleven years.
Brno ended 2007-08 in fourth, their highest finish in the league since the turn of the millennia, and with 55 points, one more than their previous best set back in 1995. The 4-2 win over Sparta set everything in motion for Brno who would win ten of their next sixteen, knocking off Slavia, Teplice and Sigma Olomouc along the way. Though as would be Brno’s luck, fourth would not be good enough for a place in Europe. That honour went to Baník Ostrava, who had finished ahead of Brno in the goal difference thanks to their superior head-to-head record and so claimed the sole UEFA Cup slot reserved for the league. Football can be cruel some times.
This game, however, also marked the beginning of the end. Already a wanted man, Mario Holek was snapped up by the Ukrainian side in January. Luboš Kalouda’s performance put Europe’s biggest clubs on alert, and he too departed not long afterwards, eventually joining CSKA Moscow, despite firm interest from both Juventus and Newcastle United.
The pair went for big fees (Holek for £1.75m, Kalouda for £3.5m) but that money was not properly reinvested back into the squad and the following season, amidst player squabbles and further managerial upheaval, Brno fell away and ended up a disappointing 11th. Two years later, the club would suffer the indignity of relegation and swapped marquee fixtures on prime time television for more mundane games against the likes of Čáslav, Táborsko and, depressingly, Sparta’s reserves.
As for Holek and Kalouda, their careers never really hit the heights expected of them once they moved east. Holek began life in Ukraine well, becoming something of a first-team regular under first Oleh Protasov and then Volodymyr Bezsonov. But when Juande Ramos arrived in 2010, he quickly fell out of favour and spent two years treading water before returning to the Czech Republic on a free transfer.
Kalouda, on the other hand, never even got going. Injury woes struck, limiting his CSKA career to just five games over the course of four years. Between stints out on the sidelines, he was sent out on loan. His travels took him to Sparta Prague, Russian second division side Volgar-Gazprom and Ukrainian strugglers Oleksandria. Strangest of all, though, he popped up in Ireland for a trial with Limerick in 2012 – a sad fall from grace for somebody who had shined in a youth World Cup five years earlier.
Form and fitness returned upon his permanent homecoming as he enjoyed good spells at both Dukla Prague and Slovácko where he reinvented himself as an understated number ten. But in Uherské Hradiště, he suffered a long-term injury and aged just thirty, he called it a day.
This is not to say that if Brno had kept hold of Holek and Kalouda – or even tried to keep hold of Ondřej Mazuch for another year – things may have worked out different for all involved. But as seems to be the case with the club, the high of this fixture was followed shortly afterwards by the lowest of lows: assets were sold and relegation followed.
Header picture: Dalibor Levíček