Why sense of trepidation surrounds Rangers' latest visit to Prague

Both on and off the pitch, a sense of trepidation hangs in the air as Rangers prepare to travel to Prague this week.

Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara reacts furiously after being racially abused by Slavia Prague defender Ondrej Kudela during the Europa League last 16 match at Ibrox in March 2021. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

It is not a city which holds fond memories for the Ibrox club. On their four previous visits on European club competition business, Rangers lost three times and drew once as they were eliminated in all of those two-legged knockout ties.

Thursday night’s meeting with Sparta Prague at the Letna Stadium will be the first time Rangers have faced Czech opponents in group stage combat. After losing 2-0 at home to Lyon in their opening Europa League Group A fixture a fortnight ago, the pressure is on the Scottish champions to take at least a point in Prague to bolster their prospects of a top two finish and progress to the knockout phase of the tournament.

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Whatever the outcome of a clearly pivotal 90 minutes, however, the greatest source of anxiety surrounding the match is the hangover from Rangers’ last 16 Europa League clash with Sparta’s biggest rivals Slavia Prague last season.

John MacDonald (right) scores for Rangers in their Cup Winners' Cup tie against Dukla Prague in 1981 which the Ibrox side lost 4-2 on aggregate. (Photo by SNS Group)

Race row

The shocking racist abuse of Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara by Slavia defender Ondrej Kudela during the second leg at Ibrox, which saw UEFA impose their maximum 10-match suspension on the Czech international, forms an unwelcome but unavoidable backdrop to this week’s game.

Racist attitudes remain a blight on the footballing reputation of many eastern European countries, as evidenced yet again earlier this month when England players were targeted by Hungarian supporters during their World Cup qualifier in Budapest.

Sadly, Sparta Prague have one of the longest and most depressing charge sheets for similar conduct by their fans down the years.

A painful moment for Rangers in 2002 as Marcel Licka celebrates the goal which secured a shock UEFA Cup first round triumph for unfancied Czech side Viktoria Zizkov (Photo by SNS Group).

Back in 1995, AC Milan striker George Weah – now president of Liberia – was racially abused during a UEFA Cup tie at the Letna Stadium. Six years later, a then record fine of €35,000 was handed down to Sparta after Spartak Moscow’s Brazilian forward Robson da Silva was on the receiving end of racist chants.

In 2005, Sparta were ordered to close part of the Letna for a Champions League match against Arsenal because of racist chanting during their previous home game in the competition against Ajax.

An ongoing issue

Despite the club’s best efforts, it remains an intractable problem for Sparta which has reared its ugly head once again this season.

In July, they were sanctioned and fined by the Czech Football League for racist behaviour from a section of their fans towards Sigma Olomouc’s French defender Florent Poulolo.

A month later, Sparta were shamed again on the European stage when monkey chants were directed at Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni during the first leg of their Champions League third qualifying round tie at the Letna.

The game was stopped for three minutes as Tchouameni and his team-mates called out the racist conduct which was repeated after the full-time whistle.

Sparta identified some of those responsible for the abuse and have imposed indefinite bans on them. UEFA raised disciplinary proceedings against Sparta and initially ordered a full stadium closure for the next European match at the Letna – which is this week’s visit by Rangers.

There will now be spectators present, however, as UEFA have agreed with a proposal from Sparta to admit organised groups of children aged 6 to 14 into the game free of charge.

With a more benign atmosphere inside the ground, Rangers can focus on the pursuit of a maiden victory in Prague.

A wretched record

Their first trip to the city back in 1981 came under John Greig’s management and saw them humbled 3-0 by Dukla Prague in the first leg of a European Cup Winners’ Cup first round tie which they were unable to salvage at Ibrox where they won 2-1.

A decade later, with Walter Smith at the helm, came their only previous meeting with Sparta in the first round of the European Cup. Rangers lost 1-0 at the Letna Stadium and were eliminated from the tournament on the away goals rule after a 2-1 win in the second leg.

A similar fate befell Alex McLeish’s squad in 2002 when Rangers returned to Prague to face little known Viktoria Zizkov in a UEFA Cup first round tie. A 2-0 defeat was regarded as a humiliation, one which McLeish’s men could not recover from as their 3-1 win at Ibrox meant another exit on away goals.

The losing streak in Prague was finally arrested last season when Rangers secured a deserved and promising 1-1 draw against Slavia in the first leg of that Europa League last 16 tie. But it all turned sour in more ways than one for Steven Gerrard and his players as they lost 2-0 to a superior Slavia outfit in the return fixture at Ibrox which was disfigured by the racist abuse of Kamara.

Sparta, who finished 12 points behind Slavia in the Czech League last season, have never lost out in head-to-head meetings with Scottish opponents in Europe. As well as that 1991-92 European Cup success against Rangers, they defeated Airdrie in the Cup Winners’ Cup the following season and then knocked Hearts out of the UEFA Cup in 2006.

Last season, of course, Sparta completed a comprehensive double over Celtic in the group stage of the Europa League, winning 4-1 both at Parkhead and the Letna.

Like Rangers, they have had a mixed start to this season but did find their shooting boots at the weekend with a 5-2 win away to lowly Fastav Zlin on Saturday.

Having got off the mark in Group A with their goalless draw at Brondby on matchday one, Sparta have the incentive of opening up a four-point gap over Rangers with a victory on Thursday.

On a night when not only the action on the pitch will be under close scrutiny, that’s a scenario the Ibrox men will be highly motivated to avoid.

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