DECIN, Czech Republic – The Roma Decin football club is having its best season ever, winning six of 10 matches and climbing to fourth in the standings. But the team's mainly Gypsy players have found little to celebrate: They keep winning because their opponents don't turn up.
The succession of forfeits has stirred up painful feelings among Gypsies — also known as Roma — who have long suffered racism and discrimination in eastern Europe and continue to face huge hurdles in employment and education. Now, they claim, the stigma has extended to sports.
"I don't understand why clear racism is becoming part of the game," activist Radek Drahomir Horvath wrote in an open letter to President Milos Zeman. "I was not able to explain that to my daughter and son. Why do my children and I have to be confronted with such an unbelievable insult to our dignity?"
Five teams in the Czech Republic's lowest official football league have failed to show this season for matches against Roma Decin, preferring to take a forfeit loss and a fine of $70. The team had lost all four matches it actually played — until last week, when they got their first actual win in a penalty shootout with Dolni Habartice before the league broke for the winter.
The no-shows all deny that they sat out their matches because they dislike Roma. Rather, they say, it was a 2011 post-match brawl involving members of Roma Decin that caused them steer clear of the team.
"It has nothing to do with racism," said Rybniste's coach, Josef Kucera. "We had a bad experience with them and that's why we don't want to play them."
But Roma Decin coach Pavel Horvath calls that an excuse.
"I will not change my opinion, I cannot change my opinion. The clubs themselves know why they don't want to play us," he said after Sunday's match. "My opinion is it is because we're Roma."
Others appear to agree. In a gesture of support in September, diplomats from the embassies of Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, the United States and Britain formed a team to play in Decin, a town of 50,000 people with a large Gypsy population.
The diplomats' jerseys bore the message: "We show the red card to racism."
The Czech football federation says it's worried about the forfeited games but insists an investigation proved "it is not a racism-related problem." Federation spokesman Jaroslav Kolar said clubs complained about rowdiness among Roma Decin fans and "are afraid it might happen again." He added that Roma Decin agreed to boost security at home matches, and that he expected matches to be played as scheduled in spring.
The 2011 brawl between what was then named FC Decin and cross-town rival Loko Decin was real. Near the end of the game, a Roma player punched the referee after he was sent off for protesting the red card shown to his brother. That triggered a fist-fight among the two teams which continued in a locker room.
As the home team, FC Decin was fined 28,000 koruna ($1,260) but failed to pay, and the team was dissolved. Loko Decin was not fined. The Gypsy club was allowed to return to competition only this year, under its new name and with some original players.
Goalkeeper Patrik Herak, the team's undisputed leader, is one of them. He played a major role in the 2011 fight — and also in Sunday's victory. Herak saved four clear goal opportunities and a penalty kick, and even scored a goal in the shootout.
He admits he made a mistake in 2011 but said it's time to bury the past, noting that the five matches the Gypsy team has been able to play this year ended with no violence.
"They think we come to the pitch with an aim to fight," he said. "What we want is to show them we can play football."