Last October Sparta Prague hosted Liberec in a Czech league game. The capital’s team had won nine successive games and looked capable of wrapping up the title by Christmas. The game against Liberec, however, did not go to plan.
Liberec thrashed Sparta 3-0 in an exhibition of supreme counterattacking football and one man stood out for the visitors: the right-back Theodor Gebre Selassie. Liberec’s third goal against Sparta was a beauty – the veteran Jiri Stajner backheeling the ball into the path of Gebre Selassie, who surged past his opponent, Manuel Pamic, with a beautiful piece of skill and then crossed for Michal Breznanik to score. “I just tried it and it all came off,” Gebre Selassie said. “If we had been losing 2-0, I wouldn’t have done that.”
After the goal a group of Sparta fans directed abuse at him. They later claimed the offensive noises were aimed at Breznanik, who had broken a metatarsal of the talented Sparta youngster Ladislav Krejci in a friendly, but the club was still punished by the authorities.
Yes, Gebre Selassie stands out in Czech football. He stands out because he is an exceptionally gifted right-back whose confidence is growing with every game. He stands out with his skill, his marauding runs forward and his pinpoint crosses. And, yes, he stands out because he is black. The abuse he suffered at Sparta was of the racist kind, the fans making monkey noises.
Gebre Selassie has always let his football do the talking and, when Michal Bilek, the national team manager, called him up for a friendly tournament in Japan in June 2011, he was a revelation. The 25-year-old has continued to improve and was part of a group of younger players who helped the Czechs reach Poland and Ukraine towards the end of the qualifying campaign.
And yet there are some supporters who claim he should not be in the team. “It is strange. I feel sorry about that. I was born in the Czech Republic, I have been living here all my life,” he says in perfect Czech. “I have only been to Ethiopia once, and I was about two years old then. There is a black man at the head of the most powerful country in the world and people are talking so much about me playing for the Czech Republic football team.”
He cannot quite believe the fuss his call-up has created.
There is hope, however, and Gebre Selassie points out that racist behaviour is slowly fading away as Czech society is moving on from its isolated past. There are fewer people who consider someone with a different colour a threat to their own culture. In other words, gone are the 1990s and 2000s, when the fans used to throw bananas at Kennedy Chihuri, a Zimbabwean midfielder playing for Viktoria Zizkov.
And, knowing that the attitude towards foreigners and people with a different skin colour is only likely to improve as time goes on, Gebre Selassie is relaxed about his own situation. “I am glad I am different. At least I am more visible. On the other hand, that is a disadvantage when I play badly,” he says, showing, all in a few sentences, his laid-back character, intelligence and mental strength.
And then there is the smile. Gebre Selassie smiles a lot. In fact, if you meet him you are pretty much guaranteed a flash of his broad and warm grin. His mother Jana, a teacher, says: “Theo has been surrounded with friends all his childhood. And his advantage is that he was born with a sunny character that helped him overcome any negative reaction. One of his teachers got it exactly right by saying: ‘Theo laughed his way through his school years.’”
Gebre Selassie’s father, Chamola, who is a doctor, is from Ethiopia. His story was a familiar one in the communist Czechoslovakia: a student or a worker came from a developing country, fell in love with a Czech girl at his new home and got married.
It was a similar tale for Marek Jankulovski, whose father Pando came to work in Czechoslovakia from Macedonia.
Neither of Gebre Selassie’s parents excelled at sport but they must have good genes because, they have two children who are outstanding. Their daughter Anna, almost five years younger than Theo, is a promising member of the Czech handball team. “I would try to fight with Theo when we were children, but I would always lose,” Anna says. “But maybe it is because our fights that I am so competitive now.”
Theodor is now an established international footballer. In August 2011 the Czech Republic lost 3-0 away to Norway and the veteran right-back Zdenek Pospech was part of an inept defence. That was probably when Bilek decided to give youth a chance and opt for Gebre Selassie instead of Pospech. Gebre Selassie made his debut for the national team in June 2011 and showed from the start that he was ready for international football. He easily overcame challenges from Pospech (Mainz) and Ondrej Kusnir (Sparta Prague), whose hopes for a place at the Euros were hit by injuries and a complete loss of form. “Theodor Gebre Selassie was a pleasant surprise. He has shown himself in a very positive light,” Bilek said after the player’s debut.
The defender has not looked back since. He was one of few players to emerge with any credit from the 2-0 defeat against Spain in October and is a shoo-in for a place in the starting XI at Euro 2012.
His development has astonished some of the coaches who had him in his early years. Indeed, at one point, when he was loaned from second division Jihlava to Velke Mezirici (in the fourth division), he contemplated quitting football and concentrating on his studies at university in Olomouc, where he was in his first year, studying civil protection.
“He struggled physically,” says his coach at Jihlava, Milan Boksa. “However, he showed he had a good football brain and would always join a forward move at the right time and track back again when it was needed.”
Only his mother, is unhappy that football won the battle against education. “I reproached him for not at least trying to combine sport and school,” she says. However, that needs a very strong will and in that I probably expected too much of him.”
Theodor may yet live up to his mother’s expectations. He said: “Now I am a bit older I have started thinking about [studying again]. I recognise that as a pro footballer I have quite a lot of time and I might enrol at a university again.”
Not for some time, though. This season he has focused all his energy in leading Liberec to their first league title since 2006. Next are the Euros and, if everything goes well, a move abroad.
Michal Petrak is a writer for Deník Sport.