Escape to Victory: Prisoners find football glory on the pitch


There's a football theme to this Letter from Prague. I'm neither a great fan nor an expert on the game, but a story popped up this week which caught my eye. It concerns a prison football team - the only prison team in the Czech Republic.

Straz pod Ralskem is a medium-security prison near the town of Ceska Lipa.

Medium-security meaning most people are in for theft and other less serious crimes. Last year the director of the prison was looking around for new ways to provide meaningful forms of recreation for the prison's inmates. He hit upon a rather novel idea: Why not form an amateur football team?

And so he did. The prison team, which goes by the English name "Prison", has a regular squad of eleven men. They train regularly - every afternoon for one hour - and play matches once a week. Their home ground is a pitch in a neighbouring village, and - being prisoners - they have to be escorted to both home and away matches by prison guards. And before you ask - not once has someone tried to escape.

Prison FC has been playing in their local amateur league for the past two seasons. The other teams are made up of policemen, or firemen, or local factory workers. And the thing is, they're doing pretty well - with just a few weeks to go before the end of the season, they're top of their league.

This would already be a great achievement in itself, except for one more thing. Not only are the prison team ahead on points, they also hold the league's disciplinary record. Last year they received just one yellow card. This year they look likely to win the fair play award for a second year running. As the prison's deputy director told me on the phone - his voice swelling with pride - "Prison FC is the most polite team" in the Ceska Lipa league.

He went on to explain that the football team was doing great things for discipline in the prison. Other prisoners are now keen to join the squad, but can only win the director's permission to leave the confines of the prison walls if their behaviour is good enough. And once on the field, players are barred from the team if they fight or use bad language towards either the referee or an opponent.

Not only that, said the deputy director, the team has also started getting coverage in the local media, something of an added bonus. Mind you, some of the prisoners are already used to seeing themselves in the paper. Albeit for other, less sporting reasons.