The Uneasy Trade
Chinese investment in Slavia Prague is forcing fans to consider what really matters
“Český fotbal je pro fanoušky!” roars the Tribune Sever. The other stands of Slavia Praha’s Eden Arena join the call.
“Czech football is for the fans,” is an intriguing call from the ultras on the North Stand as Slavia take another step towards an 18th Czech/Czechoslovak title; their first since 2009. That week Hradec Králové – headed for relegation to the Fotbalová národní liga – are the victims, winding up on the end of a 4-0 drubbing driven by Chinese yuan.
However, this is not Czech nationalism rearing its head against a foreign owner. It’s a call of support for club chairman Jaroslav Tvrdík, who, after convincing the Chinese conglomerate China CEFC to save Slavia from potential oblivion 18 months previously, is now seeking to loosen the grip of the shadowy figures that have controlled Czech football for years.
What he hopes to put in their place is another question, but the crowd watching this dazed Goliath awaken to reclaim its place at the pinnacle of Czech football after a decade-long nightmare is willing to give the chairman, and the mysterious Asian investor he fronts, the benefit of the doubt. For now at least.
That’s evidence of just how much football supporters are willing trade for success. A month after the Hradec destruction, Slavia take the HET Liga title on May 27 with a similar score at home to Zbrojovka Brno.
Only the game is not played at Eden. The home stadium has been booked to host a concert by the German pop-industrialists Rammstein. The title homecoming is across town at Stadion Evžena Rošického which crowns Strahov hill.
It was to the same isolated hilltop stadium that the Czech Republic’s oldest club decamped in 2000, while the old Stadion Eden was torn down and a shiny new 20,000-seater built. Wrangling - some of it legal, some likely not - meant it was eight years before Slavia could return, only to find the club’s new home had disappeared into unknown hands.
As well as rejuvenating results, the Chinese owners have also managed the “miracle” – as a former Slavia press spokesman puts it – of tracking down the parties behind the Cayman Islands holding in which the stadium was believed to sit to buy it back.
Given the years of shenanigans under Czech, and briefly British, ownership since the fall of communism, it’s perhaps not so surprising that the majority of the fan base of this famously liberal and dissident club is prepared to give a chance to owners who “probably have links to the communist Chinese state” as Ondřej Kreml, an editor at fan forum slavistickenoviny.cz suggests.
Suspicion of Chinese investment is rife around the Czech Republic as a phalange of political and business leaders, led by the crudely outspoken and hard-drinking president Miloš Zeman, lust after cash from Beijing. Tvrdík, a disgraced former defence minister, has long been the head of state’s point man on China as well as a prominent Slavia fan.
National pride has been hurt during the hunt. The police and Chinese supporters are accused of using rough tactics to halt protesters waving Taiwanese flags as President Xi’s motorcade cruised down the Evropská artery towards Prague Castle for a state visit in March 2016. A grovelling letter was sent by the government to Beijing later the same year, after the culture minister met with the Dalai Lama. Zeman also spitefully withdrew the offer of a state decoration to the minister’s octogenarian uncle, a well-known holocaust academic.
“I still can’t believe Petr Kellner [the richest man in the Czech Republic] was handed the power to close down that main artery and bus in supporters for Xi,” said a lawyer who has worked on deals involving both Kellner – whose banking business is increasingly reliant on its Chinese unit – and CEFC.
The purchase of Slavia by CEFC in late 2015 was just one of a bevy of deals struck by the mysterious Chinese conglomerate in a spending spree that lasted a few weeks and set it back a reported €1bn or more. The collection of small companies purchased – including breweries, hotels and airlines – is at odds with CEFC’s profile as an energy and banking conglomerate, which in the past decade has ridden the oil market from obscurity to become China’s sixth largest private company.
Most suggest buying Slavia three weeks before the club was due to face a bankruptcy hearing was an opportunist move. Here was a Czech national icon in need of saving; a chance for CEFC to prove to the public it can be trusted. A potential PR coup. That, presumably is how Tvrdík managed to persuade the Chinese company to ride to the rescue of his beloved club.
There’s no little irony in the source of the cash powering Slavia’s revival. Although dissipated by the title, discomfort remains in some quarters that it is money from a communist state on the table.
While the feeling has faded over the last quarter-century, Slavia’s identity is moulded by the tough times the club endured under the Czechoslovak communist regime. The darlings of the “First Republic” – the interwar period commonly viewed as the apex of independent Czechoslovakia – bourgeois Slavia suffered as their bitter rival Sparta Praha, blessed by their working class image, prospered thanks to political ties.
Slavia’s original stadium sat on the edge of Letenské Sady, a large park overlooking the myriad spires that dot the historic centre of Prague and the Vltava river that winds its way northwards through the city. Edvard Beneš, a hero of the particular brand of passive Czech nationalism that flourished during the First Republic, who would lead the Czechoslovak government in exile from the UK during the Second World War, was a youth player at the club around the turn of the century, as Slavia settled into the neighbourhood and began building an arena. By 1921, Sparta had erected an early version of Stadion Letná directly across the road.
Now also used as the national stadium and known as the Generali Arena, Sparta’s home still sits opposite the park on Milady Horákové – the main drag that heads down the hill through the middle-class residential area of Letná. Beneš wouldn’t find his beloved Slavia there anymore, however.
Instead he would need to head to the gritty industrial neighbourhood of Vršovice to the south-east of the city to find Eden perched on a busy crossroads and facing a huge mall covered in adverts for its anchor tenant, a Tesco hypermarket. Slavia were turfed out of Letná in the early 1950s.
The reason for the eviction is now buried beneath anecdotes and horror stories. One favourite is that the Slavia stadium would have obscured the view for dignitaries saluting the parades of tanks and missiles that would trundle down Obránců míru – the street was renamed in 1990 to honour the executed First Republic heroine Milada Horáková – from a perch atop Sparta’s stadium.
The object of their gaze? A giant statue of Stalin leading a group of workers and soldiers that stood on a plinth on the other side of Letenské Sady. The cranium of the Soviet leader’s stone effigy still sits at the bottom of the Vltava after the statue was blown up in 1962, so the story goes. Stalin would presumably be full of conspiracy theories as to why the Chinese are helping Slavia best Sparta once again.
Suspicion is also rife on the other side of the equation.
“I lost interest in Slavia in 2011 when it was taken over by [the disgraced former transport minister] Aleš Řebíček. I couldn’t support a club with that Mafioso in charge,” said Jiří Pehe, a political commentator and advisor to former president Václav Havel, who was born into a Slavia family. “Then the Chinese bought it and it’s worse. Now the club is nothing but a propaganda tool.”
“Slavia are the first Czech club with such a strong owner. They’re the local version of Chelsea or Man City,” says Michal Petrák, an editor at isport.cz. “However, to be saved by communist money was hard for some. They’re proud of their educated fan base and anti-communist stance.”
There is a small but noisy group of ultras that has boycotted games and continues to protest against the Chinese ownership. However, in general there’s less concern amongst younger supporters, especially since the success has been so rapid.
Kreml says that despite initial worries, the title and careful stewardship of club tradition has won over many. An early hiccup that saw CEFC unveil a shirt featuring the company logo – replete with communist star – whipped up anger, but the offending symbol was quickly erased.
The Chinese owners, meanwhile, remain in the background. The voice of the new regime is that of Tvrdík and General Manager Martin Krob, former head of the supporters club. Notable names from the past, such as Vladimír Smičer, make regular appearances at club events.
The self-image of a bourgeois intellectual club, focused on integrity and style as much as winning, is reflected by wider public perception. Czech football fans and journalists such as Petrák refer to Slavia as a “Czech Arsenal,” noting a penchant for skilful attacking play and a common nickname: Věčně Druzí, or Forever Second.
It’s apposite, then, that Slavia’s lowest point in recent history involved Spurs.
ENIC Group – controlled by Daniel Levy and Joe Lewis, it holds 85.55% of the issued shares in Tottenham – bought around 97% of Slavia in the 1997. However, interest quickly faded and investment dried up, not least, says Slavia’s former press spokesman, because ENIC realised that in the event of both Spurs and Slavia qualifying for the Champions League, the London club would be blocked from competing due to the Czech club’s higher Uefa ranking. ENIC transferred a 61% stake in Slavia to local interests in 2006 and increased its shareholding in Spurs to a majority in 2007.
ENIC also struggled with the Machiavellian nature of Czech business. The locals, including those populating Eden’s stands, have years of experience with the corruption to be found wherever government and business intersect. Slavia’s problems over recent years are blamed largely on unrealistic ambition, the local tradition of “tunnelling” or asset stripping and fights between various groups over the club and its real estate.
ENIC eventually lost most of its remaining holding when the Slavia board approved a new share issue in 2008 to squeeze it out. The British representative on the board was reportedly detained at the airport on the way to the meeting.
A tangled web of shifting anonymous ownership then followed, while the club sank deeper into the financial mire. ENIC’s pursuit of CZK110 million (£3.8m) added to the troubles.
Results were also poor. Terrace frustrations boiled over in May 2011, when a Czech Cup game was halted as fans stormed the pitch and attacked the directors’ boxes. Slavia’s opponents Olomouc were handed a 3-0 win.
Threatened with losing their league licence for the 2011-12 season due to their debt, the club welcomed a takeover by Řebíček, who arrived promising a return to glory and launched a spending spree. However, the financing was never clear.
It was not a long honeymoon. Finances nosedived as the spending continued even as Slavia sank into the lower half of the league and attendances halved. A 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Sparta was followed by the appointment of František Straka – closely associated with their bitter rivals – as coach.
That turbocharged the anger. The son of Josef Bican – the ultimate Slavia hero – even demanded the club take down photos of his father, claiming the family wanted no more to do with it. By late 2015, the club was three weeks away from facing a winding up order in court.
It’s little wonder that fans were torn as CEFC arrived in September to buy close to 60% of the club from Řebíček. The local entrepreneur Jiří Šimáně teamed up with the Chinese to buy the remaining 40%, as well selling them a major stake in the budget airline operator Travel Service. On the one hand, the wearied support was understandably wary of another set of mysterious new owners, this time from Shanghai. On the other, it’s hard to be picky when you’re drowning. Two years on, the league title has handed the Chinese investors the benefit of the doubt.
Šimáně, who advocated a more cautious strategy, didn’t last long. By May 2016 he was pushed out of his chairman’s role by Tvrdík; in November he sold his stake to CEFC.
The league title also insulates the fan base against the jibes of opposing fans. Rivals have not been slow to take advantage of Slavia’s existential discomfort. Tibetan flags hang from blocks of flats across the road from Tribune Sever. Slovan Liberec brought a banner to Eden last season pleading for Slavia to be freed from its suffering under communist dictatorship.
Sparta will always remain the bitterest enemy. Players from the rival club have labelled Eden the new Chinese embassy on Instagram. Yet at ownership level, the two clubs have much in common.
Powered by the riches of Daniel Křetínský, Sparta have gone into overdrive to recruit players and keep up with their old rival, as well as upstart Viktoria Plzeň, which gate-crashed the upper echelons of Czech football during Slavia’s malaise. CEFC’s true identity as an energy and banking giant matches that of the Sparta owner and Křetínský’s business partners are closely linked to the Chinese company’s entry into Central European markets.
The 41-year-old Křetínský first bought into Sparta in 2004, as he was on the cusp of engineering a rapid rise via murky energy holding EPH. Under that guise, he continues to snap up old and polluting power generation assets across central Europe and other countries to the west – including the UK – in a bet that he will be paid to idle them as back up to renewables. EPH also controls the Slovakian section of the mainline gas pipeline bringing Russian supplies into the EU.
Křetínský is an alumnus of J&T Financial Group (JTFG) – one of several local investment powers that evolved in the wake of the Velvet Revolution and Velvet Divorce – whose founding partners helped start the ball rolling at EPH. Kellner sold his energy holdings in 2014, but still works closely with partners past and present in various ventures. CEFC bought a 9% stake in JTFG in 2015 and is awaiting regulatory approval from Slovakian and European watchdogs on a deal that will hand it 50%.
The rain slants in on an unseasonably chilly late April day at Slavia’s training complex just behind the Eden Arena. Tomáš Kocourka (not his real name) is hunched against the weather, hood up and glasses splattered with rain. He’s having a tough morning.
Krob has tasked the Slavia scout with finding ten Chinese youth players with the potential to join the club. The Under-15 tournament being played over the weekend features four Chinese teams and several from around central and eastern Europe including Slavia and Hajduk Split. Teams from West Ham and Malaga make up the numbers.
The handful of spectators belies the gravity of the event. Chinese and Czech dignitaries hosted the opening ceremony; the electronics giant Huawei has spent plenty to sponsor proceedings. This is high-level diplomacy acted out on a muddy field.
Kocourka sighs. He has the name of just one potential Chinese player. The teams from the east are poor, he laments. That said, the Czech players are no great shakes either. He points to a blonde boy knocking a ball about with teammates in between games.
“That’s the son of a former Slavia great,” he smiles. “He’s the son of god around here and is great with the ball, but he’s lazy and needs to work on his fitness.” Still, the boy is a mainstay in the Slavia youth team; such potential can’t be simply dismissed. Czech scouts fish in a small pond.
Players from football’s world powers are unlikely to be arriving at Slavia any time soon, despite the avalanche of yuan. Perhaps the odd player from the second tier of Germany’s Bundesliga may take a punt, and Kocourka also hopes eventually to tempt some younger players from Spain to join the club on loan, to add to the usual suspects from central Europe.
However, for the most part, the finances to the west are too challenging even for the newly minted Slavia to compete with, while Czech clubs, despite Prague’s massive tourist draw, face an image problem. “They think this is Czechoslovakia, somewhere close to Russia,” says the scout. However, he still says his job is now much easier since he can happily look at a much higher calibre of player.
Chinese purchases of clubs like Aston Villa and Atlético Madrid, and the associated investment plans, have added to worries in Beijing over capital outflow. At the end of last year, the Chinese authorities said they intended to clamp down on such acquisitions, accusing domestic companies of transferring assets overseas under the cover of foreign club acquisition. Yet the senior management at Slavia has told scouts and coaching staff that there is no limit to the investment available to revive Slavia, as long as it’s done right and from top to bottom.
Slavia broke its transfer record three times in 2015/16. That saw the club outlay a total of €11 million or so. CEFC’s riches allowed the club to “blow Sparta and Plzen out of the water,” in some deals, according to Petrák.
Jan Sýkora was one of the prize catches last summer, having been chased by the top three. Slavia eventually won the race at a reported cost of CZK23million (about €900,000). However, it was the salary Slavia put on the table that swayed the deal, according to insiders, who say the young midfielder was about to have his photo taken holding the Plzen shirt when the call from Prague came through.
The Sešívání - or Sewn Ones, a reference to their halved red-and-white shirts - are said to have put €20,000 per month on the table. Plzen chairman Adolf Šádek reportedly retorted: “I can do a lot of things to get a player to join the club, but I can’t compete with that!”
Kocourka says an average player contracted to a top division team outside the big three will be delighted with a salary of €4,000 per month. Slavia’s main striker, target man Milan Škoda, turned down large offers from Chinese clubs to sign a new contract worth €40,000. That is the level at which wages peak in the Czech pyramid, and CEFC was reported to be seeking to keep investment levels ambitious, but still at local levels, for summer 2017.
The regime announced last year that Moneyball would be the official recruitment model. “They insist they are using data analysis and looking for value,” says Petrák. Yet by the end of the season, analysts at the club were complaining they were being sidelined, with the coaching staff ignoring their targets.
A month later, war was declared.
Stung by their drop to third place in the league, and the re-emergence of the old enemy, Sparta spent June in all-out assault mode. Křetínský hired former Udinese and Panathinaikos coach Andrea Stramaccioni and broke the Czech transfer record with the CZK75 million (€2.9 million) acquisition of Tal Ben Haim Junior from Maccabi Tel Aviv.
The Israeli forward joined Austrian striker Marc Janko, Slovak goalkeeper Martin Dúbravka, Serb midfielder Vukadin Vukadinović, and Bosnian and Slovak defenders Eldar Ćivić and Lukáš Štetina in arriving at Letná. A €3 million deal for French defender Thomas Heurtaux from Udinese broke down in mid-July as he was sent on loan to Verona instead.
Slavia were not slow to respond. In trooped Danny, Halil Altıntop and Ruslan Rotan. Emmanuel Adebayor ducked out of a stint in Prague at the last minute.
On one level, CEFC’s arrival with its huge potential war chest has clearly sparked fiercer competition, and Sparta and Slavia rarely need much encouragement to embark on a bit of one-upmanship. But at the same time, Slavia evidently remain cautious about simply throwing money around.
The big name arrivals to Eden in June were all out of contract. The Chinese outlay at that point was estimated at around CZK40 million (GBP1.3 million), a quarter of the cash spent by Křetínský. Meanwhile, the sale of first choice goalkeeper Jiří Pavlenka to Werder Bremen left the Vršovice club with an estimated net gain of around CZK35 million (€1.35milion) from its business early in the close season.
It seems unlikely Slavia will remain in the black for long. The real trigger for the fevered buying is that thanks to changes in the qualification process, the Czech champions will very likely enter the Champions League at the group stage in 2018/19. That should earn the lucky club a bonus of at least €12 million.
That is serious cash for Czech clubs. While they face no limits on losses under local regulations - although they must be debt free at the start of the season to enter the league - Uefa financial rules apply to those playing in Europe. Even more so than in the major football markets, Europe separates the wheat from the chaff in the Czech Republic.
Participation in the Champions League provided a full 41% of overall revenue at Sparta in 2009, according to a study by Prague’s University of Economics. The sale of players brought in 31% of turnover. Contributions from sponsors was the third biggest stream. Gate income, revenue from domestic TV rights and all other income accounted for just 8%.
“If the club does not qualify for at least the preliminary stage in the European competitions, there is a shortfall in income of almost 50% (including a reduction in revenue from the trade of players),” the study reads. Sparta earned revenue of CZK326 million in 2009, leading to a loss of CZK152 million.
Slavia may be thinking on its feet. By handing short contracts to a bevy of experienced internationals (Danny is the youngest of the incoming trio at 33), the club gives itself a crack at the group stage bonanza. Should the lunge for the line fall flat, they will not be left struggling to honour a long list of heavy duty contracts like their rival.
Tady jsme doma!
Football rarely goes to script of course. Slavia spent the final weeks of the 2016/17 season trying to throw away the title, even after Sparta did them a huge favour by beating Viktoria Plzen to leave them two points clear with just four games to go. Business deals in the Czech capital are rarely much clearer.
Tvrdík appeared on the Eden pitch ahead of a chilly - and mind-numbingly dull - game close to the end of the season against Jablonec to milk the applause of a stadium in which CEFC had just bought full control. “Tady jsme doma!” (Here we are at home!) was the mantra pumped through the speaker system and plastered over the free booklets and posters that blew liberally around the concrete concourse.
“It’s understandable that they wanted to get the stadium,” says Jan Macháček, a Slavia fan, journalist for broadsheet Lidové Noviny, and member of the dissident rock group The Plastic People of the Universe, which achieved the peak of its fame in the 1970s. “That is very valuable real estate.”
However, no sooner was the acquisition sealed - many suggest the club would have been dealing with mobsters - than a fight broke out, illustrating to the Chinese the deep pitfalls and byzantine networks that lurk in many quarters of Czech business.
While the club now owns the stadium, it only leases the land from SK Slavia Praha, the wider sports club that runs a gamut of teams including ice hockey and basketball. German construction giant Hochtief also claims it has a lease on one of the plots next to Eden, however, and has a permit in place to build new flats.
CEFC says it also holds a lease on the land, and wants to spend €50million to extend and improve the stadium and training facilities, the construction contract going - in traditional style for Chinese projects overseas - to compatriot Beijing Municipal Road & Bridge Corporation. A battle in court with the Germans is in the offing.
Some things will never change it seems. So why is CEFC so keen to get involved in all these shenanigans in the first place?
CEFC will tell you it’s about tradition and respect.
“Slavia Prague, together with Škoda car and the animation figure Little Mole, are brand names representing the Czech national spirit,” the company said in a rare statement following the title win.
It’s definitely not about money, the company adds.
“Spending tens of millions of euros on saving a sports club was not for profit-making,” suggested Chairman Ye Jianming, but an effort to “save a Czech traditional brand, and to show its respect to Czech soccer and culture.”
Given the finances at even the top Czech clubs, the first part is clearly true. Křetínský is thought to have lost CZK800million in his first decade at Sparta.
“It’s a propaganda tool, or a way to establish funding in the Czech Republic,” spits Pehe. “If CEFC just turned up [to buy major assets] there would be a lot of suspicion. Investing in Slavia to win the league they prove themselves.”
Even the most ardent Slavia fan admits the Chinese company is clearly in it for the PR and the connections to the Czech government via Tvrdík. “The fans know CEFC is here to make itself look good and prove it can build a Czech business,” says Kreml.
The Czech business the Chinese would really like to build is in energy. For Beijing, nuclear is the biggest prize of all. Chinese suitors are part of a pack chasing a leading role in Czech plans to build €11 billion worth of new reactors in the coming decades. CEFC has no nuclear experience, but cynical voices in Czech banking circles claim the name of the company doesn’t matter: “If they’re Chinese then you’re only talking to one actor,” they insist.
Having powered its rapid rise at home via oil exploration, CEFC is also now busy trying to build a global fleet of refining assets. Within the region, it hopes to close the purchase of a Romanian plant soon. Should the purchase of J&T go through, it will control 24% of the Czech refining sector and will hope to expand its grip.
In short, the Chinese hope to tap into a model that is well tested amongst powerful business groups both east and west of Berlin - one pioneered by Roman Abramovich. "When I mention in Moscow that I own Sparta, the Russians immediately get friendlier," Patrik Tkáč, a former partner to Křetínský in both EPH and the Prague football club, once boasted.
Club insiders report that the Chinese are delighted with the results the Slavia purchase have delivered thus far. That satisfaction is mirrored in the stands, although the payoff is more transparent.
Expectations at the start of last season were for Slavia to at least put in some kind of challenge to Plzen and Sparta. The ambition slowly rose through the season as a title bid emerged. A regular competitive performance in the league and progression to the Champions League group stage is now the realistic ambition, according to fans such as Marek Pepež and František Čejka.
In other words, they want to be Celtic.
That vision may be not too far from the mark if a friendly at Eden in July is anything to go by. Despite dominating for long stretches, Brendan Rodgers’s Scottish champions left the Czech capital with a goalless draw from a match organised to celebrate the common icon Johnny Madden.
The Scotsman played in Celtic's first ever game back in May 1888. In 1905 he arrived in Prague to coach Slavia. Credited with sparking a revolution in Czech football, he quit two and a half decades later after taking the title without dropping a point because there was nothing more to achieve. He remained in Prague until his death in 1948, as the communists were elected.
The tie with Celtic was clearly another nod to tradition by the regime at Slavia. Tvrdík is also looking forwards, however, and his personal ambition appears to be on a grander scale than most of the fan base. He is now attempting to leverage both the Chinese cash and his role in the presidential office to take on the murky powers that control the wider world of Czech football.
“Tvrdík is now launching a war against the FA and Roman Berbr,” says Petrák.
A former member of the StB - the communist-era secret police - FA vice president Berbr has long been rumoured to control Czech football from the shadows. It’s hard to sift fact from rivalry, but fans of both Slavia and Sparta insist his close connection to the country’s referee’s association – his wife Dagmar Damková leads the Czech union and sits on Fifa’s and Uefa’s referee committees - has helped Viktoria Plzen transform the duopoly that has traditionally dominated the Czech game into a trio.
The Slavia chairman is operating swiftly, exploiting CEFC’s lust for PR. The Chinese became the sponsor of the national squad, and even the FA itself, soon after buying Slavia.
Tvrdík’s political connections are also handy, of course. Police raided the FA on May 3 as part of an investigation, as well as several other addresses, including the education and sports ministry. FA chairman Miroslav Pelta - closely associated with the opaque former ownership of Slavia - was arrested over the probe into corruption connected to the disbursement of CZK500million in EU funds. From his prison cell he announced his resignation two months later.
FK Jablonec, in which Pelta owns a stake, is also under scrutiny. The education minister has resigned and a long list of politicians, lobbyists and other figures have been caught up in the net. Meanwhile, the FA - which has long failed to tame corruption and match fixing within the Czech game - is split and failed in early June to agree on a new chairman.
The tussle is a serious threat to Czech football. The major beer brand Gambrinus was expected to return as the main sponsor of the top league next season, but has instead announced it will quit its long association due to the drama. Other major sponsors have also suggested they could pull out.
Meanwhile, Tvrdík’s ambition is not confined to football. The Slavia chairman is also head of CEFC’s new European headquarters, which was established in Prague in 2015. He has already faced down Shanghai in a dispute over a real estate development bought for CZK7.5bn last year. According to sources that worked on the deal, CEFC wanted the asset held by its Hong Kong unit; it went to CEFC Czech Republic.
A source close to Russian state nuclear agency Rosatom - which is also chasing Czech nuclear business - claims Tvrdík has gathered such power that he is upsetting the wider development of Czech-Chinese business relations. There are now complaints that he has over-ridden the Czech-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and is blocking other Chinese investors, the Russian rival says.
Yet while Tvrdík is riding high right now, he’s clearly playing a dangerous game in disturbing such established and massive power structures. Slavia fans wisely remain somewhat wary.
Getting what you want
“The title has made the fans happy,” says the former press spokesman, “but we don’t really know who owns us. There’s no plan B. What happens if the Chinese leave?”
Is CEFC in it for the long haul at Eden? It’s a question that’s impossible to answer given the company’s tight lips and the muddle of potential scenarios.
On the one hand, should it gather the energy and banking prizes it’s presumably after, the owners may tire of throwing cash at fickle football fans. At the same time, of course, its possible CEFC may be required to stay the course to help promote other Chinese interests. Beijing’s evident blessing regarding a private company’s rise in the Chinese energy sector is noted for its rarity.
On the other hand, could Tvrdík’s ambition sour relations if it runs on unhindered? Or maybe his usefulness is already at risk of nearing the end of its shelf life.
Zeman announced in March that he will run for a second term as president in elections in January 2018. However, the Slavia chairman’s mentor has seen support fall sharply in the wake of a political scandal earlier this year. The failing health of the 72-year-old may not even let him compete.
“There’s plenty of speculation that if Zeman does not get re-elected, Slavia could be in trouble,” says the former press spokesman.
“We have to look at geopolitics,” CEFC CEO Ye said in rare comments to the press late last year. “If one day the Czech Republic goes against China, we need to pull back our investments to rethink our strategies there.”
“That’s the question,” Kreml laughs uncomfortably when asked how long CEFC is likely to stick around. Krob is a smart man, who has spoken often of self-sufficiency for Slavia, he points out. “He’s aware the Chinese cash could disappear,” the editor smiles, “that may be the best hope for the longer term future of the club.”
How the general manager will be able to square such realism with the arms race now in play, or the PR lust of CEFC, remains to be seen.
Tvrdík’s track record is another element. The impulsive chairman’s flamboyant promises usually outweigh the results, note supporters.
His social media misadventures - he once revealed the team sheet hours ahead of a game as he tweeted from China forgetting about the time difference - regularly have fans cringing. However, the hope handed to the Eden faithful is such that they’ve even pushed his last highly-publicised stewardship of a national icon - a stint at the controls of ČSA came close to crashing the national airline - to the back of their minds.
However, posterity lurks there also. “I don’t know if this period is something Slavia will be proud of in the future, and I’m not sure Tvrdík really knows where he stands in the chess game,” says Pepez. “Maybe the Chinese are here as part of a longer term plan regarding Europe. Or maybe they’re just having fun?”