Strahov stadium
Strahov stadium is the largest stadium in the world.

Rethinking “Fortress Strahov’

What to do with Strahov stadium? If everything goes as planned, that question, first asked in the aftermath of the 1989 Revolution when the country began to evaluate its massive, ugly communist-style structures in light of a renewed aesthetic sensibility, has finally been answered.

Over the years, the Czech soccer association’s (CMFS) efforts to convince Prague city councilors to replace the crumbling stadium in Strahov, Prague 6, have met a stiff defense. However, with an assist from the Czech national team’s recent Euro 2004 soccer championships qualification and the ensuing nationwide jubilation, association officials have finally netted a goal.

Thanks to a hefty dose of Euro-fever, on Nov. 13, not long after the national team clinched its berth in the continent’s biggest sporting event – and spurred by the hopes of one day hosting its own Euro championship – the city approved a proposal to build a recreational and commercial megacomplex on the site where both Strahov and neighboring Evzen Rosicky stadiums stand. While the details are still being discussed, the initial plans are to build a state-of-the-art 52,000-seat national stadium on Evzen Rosicky Stadium-occupied land, and to convert the mammoth Strahov stadium complex into a commercial zone complete with hotels, restaurants and shops.

The proposal, engineered by soccer association president Jan Obst, stipulates that private investors will fund the new stadium’s 4.5 billion Kc ($167 million) price tag. The state will contribute about 1 billion Kc from an already established sports grant, as well all of the land.

Since the announcement, city and CMFS officials have been reluctant to reveal any additional details about the stadium’s financing or its eventual construction, saying nothing is certain until the preliminary agreement is signed later this year, according to CMFS spokesman Daniel Macho. Indeed, most of the talk surrounding the new stadium has centered on one issue: the Czech Republic’s chances of landing the European championship.

“We are thinking positively [about getting the tournament],” said a cautious but optimistic Jaroslav Vacek, CMFS vice president.

Other officials have an even more ambitious outlook. Prague city councilor Pavel Klega, the main contact between City Hall and CMFS, predicted that the new complex could be the first step toward an eventual Olympic bid.

But if the Czech Republic is serious about landing a major sporting event anytime soon, it’s going to need at least one more large 50,000-plus stadium and a couple of smaller 30,000-seaters, as well as some major infrastructure work to support the accompanying influx of fans and media, Klega said.

A giant problem

Sprawled along a former rock quarry behind Petrin hill – on the site literary historians have determined the luckless K. met his untimely death in Kafka’s novel The Trial – mammoth Strahov stadium looks more like an antiquated Roman facade than a center of Czech recreation.

Originally constructed by the country’s founders as a place to hold nationalistic rallies, in 1948 the communists expanded it to its current brobdignagian size. Occupying more than 6 hectares (15 acres) and with a capacity of 220,000, Strahov has been home to Czech Sokol competitions, communist Spartakiada exhibitions, Rolling Stones concerts and, currently, Sparta Praha soccer team’s training facilities. The compound is an enduring if not endearing testament to Czech history.

Every couple of years talks resurface about what to do with the aging giant, but architects soon find themselves overwhelmed by its sheer size and city engineers by its legacy of historical significance. Revitalization suggestions have ranged from the predictable, another stadium, to the practical, a supermarket and day-care center.

The closest the building came to a true renovation was in late 1998, when architecture firm AG Studio developed an ambitious plan to create a compound The Prague Post referred to at the time as “a leisure mecca for the 21st century.” But the plan eventually succumbed to numerous obstacles, among them the realization that the mammoth structure was just too big and would be too costly to raze.

A stadium for the people

Despite the ambitious goal of bringing international competitions to Prague, those close to the project maintain that the stadium’s ultimate purpose will be to provide Czechs with a much-needed venue for national events.

“Of course the new stadium won’t be constructed only for the World Football Championship,” city councilor Klega said.

“Its realization will be a socially favorable project that can boost an important area in the city center.”

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the whole project is the seeming lack of opposition. City councilors agree that approval was unanimous, and even the historical preservationists have been unusually quiet.

The reason for such seemingly universal approval, Macho suggests, is that because the project is still in its infancy, there is really nothing to oppose – yet.

-Ingrid Ludvikova contributed to this report.

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