Roma players score international solidarity in Czech Republic
23 September 2014, 10:46
Decn - Roma footballers in the Czech Republic had a hard time finding rivals until a select international squad stepped up to set an example.
Foreign diplomats including the Swedish ambassador travelled to the northern town of Decin, home to a large Roma community, for a weekend match against the Junior Roma team.
The small side of Roma amateurs has played and lost two games this season in a regional league, but it also earned nine points for three wins after three teams forfeited matches.
"The guys from those teams told us openly: 'You're gypsies, we're not playing against you'," Patrik Herak, a Junior Roma goalkeeper or defender, told AFP.
"It seems we are too black for them," he added.
An EU member of 10.5 million people, the Czech Republic has a Roma minority of 250,000-300,000 people, hit hard by poverty, unemployment and other social woes.
Many Czechs are hostile towards the community, some going so far as to pull their kids out of schools with Roma children.
"Racism is quite strong here," said Herak, commenting on the decisions of the Frantiskov, Rybniste and Bynovec teams to lose 3-0 by forfeit after declining to play Junior Roma.
The Czech Football Association (FACR) said in a statement it did "not find a racist context related to the unplayed games".
But Annika Jagander, Sweden's ambassador to Prague, didn't buy it and promptly set up a squad of diplomats hailing from a dozen countries to play the Roma footballers.
"Sport should contribute to tolerance and understanding," Jagander said before she ceremonially kicked-off play in Decin on Sunday.
She said she hoped the friendly match between Junior Roma and FC Embassies Prague would "help improve the situation." 'Extremely pleasant'
The match ended in a 5-5 draw and was viewed by around 200 enthusiastic fans, including 150 Roma.
The solidarity was "extremely pleasant not only for the footballers, but for all Roma in Decin," Junior Roma manager Pavel Horvath told AFP.
The three teams that forfeited games against the Roma team have explained their behaviour by accusing Junior Roma players of "acting in a vulgar and aggressive way".
"They have attacked rival players and the referee. Our guys were afraid of them," said Martin Klein, from the Frantiskov team.
Patrik Herak admits to being involved in a violent incident on the pitch three years ago.
"There was a foul on my brother, three guys were on top of him. I ran there to help him and dealt a few blows, including to the referee," he said.
"I got sent off and the game was suspended," added Herak, who has been playing football since age five.
Banned from the sport for three years, Herak feels he has made amends.
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"Believe me, I have learnt a lesson. Today I'm ashamed of myself. The referee was 70 years old," said Herak, who works as a dustman in Decin. No show, no guts
"There have definitely been some bad experiences, but to refuse to play, that's not positive at all," former Czech Republic striker Vladimir Smicer, who won fame with Liverpool, Lens and Bordeaux, told AFP.
Smicer was born in Vernerice, a village near Decin. The local team played against Junior Roma as scheduled and the game was not tarnished by a single incident.
Regional clubs at Junior Roma's level are due to meet soon to clarify their positions on playing the team.
"In agreement with Junior Roma, we want to offer the clubs who have lost to Junior Roma by forfeit the chance to replay their games," said Libor Simecek, the head of the Decin district football association.