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EURO 2020: Meet the Scotsman known as the father of Czech football

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By David Hutt
John Madden, known as the father of Czech football
John Madden, known as the father of Czech football   -   Copyright  Credit: British Embassy Prague
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As the Czech Republic faces Scotland in their first match of Euro 2020 on Monday it is a good time to remember the role Scots played in helping to mould Czech football in the early 20th century.

John Madden, a Scot who played most of his career for Glasgow side Celtic, is known as the “father of Czech football” for his three-decade stint as the manager of Slavia Prague, the country’s most famous team, as well as the coach of the national side.

Having made his name as a technical and dedicated professional in Glasgow, Madden arrived in Prague in February 1905 when the Czech lands were still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an order that was coming apart at the seams and would throw Europe into turmoil when Yugoslav separatists assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, prompting World War I.

Slavia Prague, named to honour the Slavic roots of the Czech people, was founded in 1892 by a literary and debating society principally as a cycling association.

It began competing in football matches four years later, the same year that crosstown rivals, Sparta Prague, were founded. Another Scot, John Dick, would be the coach that earned the team their enduring moniker: “Iron Sparta”.

Madden's revolutionary ideas

Meanwhile, under Madden, Slavia won several Charity Cups, a tournament created in the 1900s between teams in Bohemia, the most dominant of the three Czech lands. After World War I and the dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire in 1918, Czechoslovakia was founded as an independent republic.

The Central Czech League was created in 1925, with Madden’s Slavia winning the inaugural season. According to official data on Czech football, Madden coached Slavia for 169 competitive games, winning 134 Keith Baker, in Fathers of Football: Great Britons Who Took Football, notes that it is still a mystery what brought Madden to Prague, then aged 40 and recently retired. Perhaps he was convinced by a fellow player who had toured the city with English-side Tottenham Hotspur. It was common for British teams to tour Central Europe at the time.

In an interview with a Scottish newspaper in 2017, the historian Richard McBrearty, curator of the Scottish Football Museum, said that after retiring from football Madden had to choose between going back to becoming a shipyard riveter, his pre-football career, or finding coaching work overseas.

Yet Madden’s choice of Prague was not so much of a radical move. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, former British players were employed across continental Europe as coaches.

After all, competitive football in Britain had a head start of several decades on the rest of Europe, where new leagues and teams were only just being created in the 1900s, most still amateur.

Jimmy Hogan, an Englishman who had brought revolutionary football tactics to Scotland, was instrumental in the rise of the Central European game. Coaching in Austria in the 1910s - he was briefly interned in Vienna during World War I - he made his name in Hungary in the 1920s, coaching the amongst others MTK Budapest, which became one of Europe’s dominant teams.

The revolutionary Hungarian national team of the 1950s -- which beat England 6-3 in 1953 in the so-called “Match of the Century” -- later lionised Hogan as the father of their footballing history.

Yet through much of Central Europe, it was the Scots who were in the vanguard. Whereas the English had been playing the game for longer, the Scots were keener on adapting and reforming the sport, bringing new ideas from science.

The football journalist Jonathan Wilson, in his classic book Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, argued that the development of football in Central Europe was “fortunate” as it was “Scots who made the biggest impression, so ensuring that the focus of the game was on quick, short passing”.

Madden “brought to Czech football ideas about how a side should be coached and managed which were revolutionary for the time,” wrote Baker in Fathers of Football. Fitness was paramount. Smoking was banned. He was even the masseur for the players.

However, he also brought a flair to the game. Jim Craig, a former Scottish footballer, wrote in his memoir, A Lion Looks Back, that Madden was “the ball artist of his day with all the tricks”.

Although Madden is not believed to have learned fluent Czech, he played his own part in the rising nationalism of the era. Despite still being part of the Hapsburg empire, in 1911 Bohemia participated in a three-team European tournament, one of the continent’s first, with England and France.

Madden was chosen by Prague officials as the coach of the Bohemian side that famously won 2-1 against England, the recent Olympic champions.

It was also mostly Madden’s Slavia players fielded in the newly-formed Czechoslovakia national team, which beat their way to the final of the 1920 Olympic Games, then the biggest tournament in world football. It remains a source of debate whether Madden was the coach of the national team or not.

But Czechoslovakia grasped defeat from the jaws of victory after they walked off the pitch during the final match against Belgium, in protest over what they saw English referee John Lewis’ biased decisions. 2-0 down to Belgium at the time, the game was abandoned and the Czechoslovaks disqualified.

Madden married a local Czech, Frantiska Cechova, and spent the rest of his life in Prague, surviving through Nazi and Soviet occupation. Aged 82, he died in 1948, the same year Czechoslovakia fell to communism and was buried in the capital’s Olsany Cemetery, his headstone emblazoned with Slavia’s red, five-pointed star.

His coffin was carried by players dressed in Slavia kits. In 2017, the club renamed a stand in their then-called Eden Arena after Madden.

“It’s great to have John Madden Stand at Eden, which reminds us of his achievements and forces people to look up information about this great character,” said Jiri Hosek, deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Seznam Zprávy news site and a frequent commentator on Czech football.

“Madden’s story is much more known among Slavia fans than Dick’s contribution among Sparta supporters,” he added.

Czech connections

That may be the case, but Dick’s legacy is no less significant. After his retirement from the English game, in which he spent most of his playing career at then-named Woolwich Arsenal, the Scot also relocated to Prague, a few years after Madden.

Dick’s first coaching role in the Czech lands came in 1912 when he was hired as the manager of Deutscher Fußball-Club Prag (or DFC Prag for short), a team of German-speaking Jews founded in 1893. In 1919, following the First World War, he moved to coach Sparta, a job that he kept until 1931.

But his life was cut short. After returning to Britain for treatment for cancer, he died in 1932, aged 55.

Now almost a century on from Madden and Dick’s time in Prague - and after the turmoil of the four-decade communist era, when the government prioritised its “proletarian” team Dukla Prague - Slavia and Sparta have returned as the two dominant teams of the Czech domestic football league. Only three other teams have won it since the First Czech League was created in 1993.

Two starlets of the Czech national football team, Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal, are today coached by a Scot, David Moyes, at English-side West Ham United. Another rising talent, Alex Kral, is also tipped to join the Scot at West Ham next season.

Yet heading into the EURO 2020 competition the Czechs are no longer the surprise world-beaters they were in Madden’s day. After finishing runners-up in Euro 1996, they were ranked amongst the top ten international teams in the world in the early 2000s.

Now, they languish 40th place in FIFA’s World Rankings, behind even former Czechoslovak cousins Slovakia.

Perhaps Monday’s match against Scotland will mark their comeback.