Oceans apart – AFK Atlantic Lázně Bohdaneč
With the winter break bringing a halt to domestic action for the next couple of months, the chance has arisen for a change of direction for The Czech Up, momentarily at least. Instead of quickly summarising domestic action or providing match reports from international fixtures a few new things will begin to crop up to alleviate the humdrum of waiting until February 2013. One such strand will be a series of pieces looking back at the rich history of Czech football from a variety of aspects. Punningly dubbed ‘A Czechered History’, the first is concerned with a little known club called AFK Atlantic Lázně Bohdaneč based in the outskirts of Pardubice.
Oceans apart: AFK Atlantic Lázně Bohdaneč
Like many other clubs whose prosperity waned, AFK Atlanic Lázně Bohdaneč no longer exist. While others have been reborn, AFK have been consigned to the history books.
The community of Bohdaneč, as it was originally known, can be traced back to 1343 when records document a confrontation involving the local priest, though undoubtedly the roots of the settlement will stretch further back than the fourteenth century. Through the centuries the town has been associated with trade and craft, though today the area is most commonly associated with spas and in 1980 the place was renamed Lázně Bohdaneč – Lázně being Czech for spa. So how does a town with a population of roughly 3,000, come to have a football team that for one season brushed shoulders with Sparta and Slavia to compete at the top table? Well, in a quirk that Czech football brings, that isn’t such an irregularity.
Football in the village began in 1918 as AFK Lázně Bohdaneč was born. As that entity the club primarily toiled around the provincial leagues without setting any pulses racing for a number of decades. Like their peers, they spent their years competing on a regional level befitting their status as a football team and a reflection of Lázně Bohdaneč’s size as settlement. However in a story that will be repeated many times in articles to come, one man changed the fortunes of an entire rural village. Today the nouveau rich throw their money around at high profile football clubs combing their vast personal wealth with an abundance of television income amongst additional revenue streams, but in post-dissolution Czech Republic the world was very different. It was one where a solitary individual could alter the landscape of football with a couple of cheques delivered on a regular basis and destroyed just as quickly. Simply investing or buying, however you like to dress it up, your way to the top is not a new phenomena. The story of AFK Atlantic Lázně Bohdaneč follows this path.
In the final months of 1991 a businessman by the name of Jiří Novák ploughed money into an amalgamation of Sokol Lázně Bohdaneč (as AFK had become in the post-World War II years) and Tesla Pardubice’s youth sides and subsequently mixed the local environment with metaphor to rename this outfit as AFK Atlantic Lázně Bohdaneč. ‘When I came into football’ he said two years ago, ‘I said we will turn the tide of football and that [Lázně Bohdaneč’s] strength will be like that of the Atlantic Ocean.’ A bold statement, but under Novák’s chairmanship the side rose through the divisions. In 1993 the team were playing in the Czech sixth tier, and at the culmination of the 1996/1997 season they achieved promotion to the Czech top flight, the Gambrinus Liga, and their remarkably ascent through the divisions had been confirmed. Though AFK Atlantic effectively purchased promotion up to Divize C, their record of three successive promotions is quite the achievement. Thus, just a few years into the Novák-era a small village club in the Pardubický kraj was shaping up to welcome the biggest names in the Czech Republic.
If there ever was a baptism of fire then AFK Atlantic’s first game in the domestic flight was it as they club and a few number of intrepid supporters headed down to Moravia where football is in the blood; the Stadion Za Lužánkami was the venue, Brno the hosts and 23,123 were in attendance. Atlantic succumbed 3-0: a sign of things to come. Their first points in the Gambrinus Liga came in week seven when they defeated Plzeň 2-1. Lázně Bohdaneč’s sole victory, and their last in the top flight, came four weeks later when they overcame Liberec 1-0 at the Novák financed Na Bašte. No other victories followed and come the finale of the 1997/1998 season Atlantic were twenty points adrift of the nearest team.
Given their top flight status Atlantic needed facilities to accommodate the countries best. Located diagonally of Kosinova in the town was Na Bašte, the club’s home turf. Rather picturesquely and fitting with the nautical theme of the club, the ground was located in the forefront of the Bohdanečský Rybnik, an area of wetland heavily associated with Ornithology. With a population of 3,000 the stadium was rather generously built to accommodate double that, relying on visiting fans and gravitas of the big Czech names to draw a crowd in from nearby Pardubic to add to the numbers. That plan failed. Novák’s money, while integral to their possession, failed to build a sustainable football club. The market simply was not there.
Attendance’s upwards of 4,000 greeted AFK Atlantic Lázně Bohdaneč’s first two games, though these were an anomaly rather than the norm. First to visit were Hradec Králové who were the designated ‘local rivals’ being situated some 22km away up Route 333. Hradec triumphed that day through a Pavel Černý penalty, though Votroci should have walked away with a comfortable victory as they squandered numerous chances.
Next up at Na Bašte were Sparta who had their iron-clad grip on domestic matters at that time; Zdeněk Svoboda and a brace by Horst Siegl sunk AFK that day. But those two fixtures aside, the clamour for tickets soon evaporated. Not even the arrival of Slavia at the tail end of the season caused a spike in demand; only the visit of Brno in February saw the gate rise above 3,000. But by that point the club were doomed and attendances had even slipped into triple figures.
It is no surprise that the club from small beginnings failed to acclimatise to their new surroundings. Novák’s money saw Lázně Bohdaneč surge upwards, but while they reached the footballing zenith for one solitary season, with hindsight we can perhaps state that the crest of the wave happened during the previous campaign. In 1996/1997 the cracks were showing, the rigours of the Gambrinus Liga broke the club.
After their swift ascensions through the regional divisions their promotion year of 1996/1997 nearly faltered. The autumn part of the season saw AFK Atlantic sweep to a comfortable second, within touching distance of leaders and eventual winners Dukla Praha. Yet in the New Year Atlantic faltered: Lázně Bohdaneč picked up twelve less points in the final fifteen games than they did in the first half of the campaign, they scored eleven fewer goals and in the spring table they finished a distant sixth.
AFK Atlantic Lázně Bohdaneč’s solitary appearance in the Gambrinus Liga is associated with their dire performance and swift relegation. Their vulnerabilities were exposed and they were quickly dispatched with a ruthless ease by their peers who condemned them to the II.Liga. The policy of Jiří Novák to continue to bankroll the club was flawed from the outset. Money may buy you players, it may buy facilities and eventually it can buy you success, but unless there is a bottomless pit of resources it will never really achieve sustainability, especially in a provincial community with a population of 3,000. Lázně Bohdaneč were a small club who Novák pushed beyond their means until he decided to wring his hands of them once he decided enough had been spent and the voyage had to end. While he may have been able to personally outspend his competitors as the side progressed through the regional divisions, competing with the financial might of the Prague sides and Moravian clubs like Brno would have been nigh on impossible for somebody who did not have oil profits or a big business consortium to rely upon.
With the demotion back to the II.Liga life became less profitable and the rewards that came so easy in the early years of Novák’s tenure soon evaporated, as did the future of the playing squad. While AFK Atlantic had an abysmal record in the Gambrinus Liga a handful of their squad would go on to make names of themselves on the national and continental stages, but once relegation occurred Marek Kulič, Marek Heinz and Jiří Kaufman all left. A squad woefully devoid of star talent lost some bright sparks in one fell swoop.
Lázně Bohdaneč laboured away in the II.Liga never threatening to get promoted nor relegated in what was a period of rare league stability as AFK Atlantic appeared to have found their natural home in the Czech football pyramid. Sadly though the tale does not end on a positive note: In 1999 Novák ordered his side off the field of play and that action cost the club 300,000 Kč as he took umbrage over refereeing decisions in a tie against Prostějov, then a year late he removed football from Lázně Bohdaneč as he merged the club with a side from Pardubice naming the newly created entity FK AS (Fotbal Klub Athletic Slovan) Pardubice. FK AS happily spent their days in the II.Liga until they sold their license and folded in 2006. As for Novák, he had long gone and had been flirting with other clubs in the Pardubice area, lowering his sights and expectations while the club he helped and the ground he built crumbled and AFK Atlantic Lázně Bohdaneč gradually sunk into memory, record books and footballing folklore.
Today the Stadion Na Bašte still stands. The pitch is overgrown, the terraces are barely recognisable, the stands dilapated and the paint clearly fading. Nature has is slowly reclaiming the ground that housed Gambrinus Liga football for one memorable season. The entrance remains though, it’s iconic ‘A’ gate a reminder to what once was and alongside the scoreboard standing tall and protruding out of the greenery and eroded paintwork. The bubble for AFK Atlantic Lázně Bohdaneč burst with promotion in 1997, but the name and landmarks live on; for now. It’s just a shame that their legacy will be as arguably the worst side ever to compete in the Gambrinus Liga and as a club who were cast adrift to wander the unforgiving and stormy open waters of professional football without the financial anchor provided to them for many prior years.