After becoming an independent state on 1st January 1993 following the Velvet Revolution and subsequent break up of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic have become a relatively successful team on the football pitch. They have only actually been competing as an independent nation since 1994, yet in that time, they have qualified for European Championship at every attempt.
Their most notable campaign was their first when when they finished runners-up at Euro 96 which was held in England – their first major tournament as an independent country. The Czechs also reached the semi-finals of Euro 2004 in Portugal with Milan Baroš picking up the Golden Boot award.
Having qualified from Group A which contained the Netherlands, Turkey and Iceland in first-place, the Czech fans should be optimistic about their upcoming campaign in France.
With that, we decided to take time out with Czech football writer Tomáš Daníček to assess his nations chances at the finals and Czech football in general with a short Q&A style interview.
It seems that the Czech Republic have been handed a really tough group alongside holders Spain, Turkey and Croatia. After a solid qualifying campaign to reach the finals in France, is it realistic to think they can qualify for the next round?
There’s no good reason to think we can’t make it out of the group. We proved to be a more than capable opponent to Spain in the Euro 2012 qualifiers (away from home in particular), and that was with a worse coach in charge at a time when the Spanish stars were still very much peaking.
As for the other teams, I can’t pinpoint a favourite to clinch that second spot (if we consider Spain as group winners). Croatia arguably have the greatest quality, but they changed the head coach at the end of the campaign, which may or may not help them. And Turkey… well, there’s nothing we don’t know about them and vice versa. We beat them in front of their fans, they returned the favour when our Euro berth was all but sealed. I think we have an upper hand here, plus we still have the motivation to repay that 2008 Euro collapse where we lost 3-2 in the last group game to get knocked out of the tournament, but really – who knows?
What kind of tactics do you expect the team to employ during the finals? Does Pavel Vrba like to mix his tactics up or stick to a familiar style of play?
He’s not the most flexible man, in fact, he’s not too much into tactics to begin with. His football is about commitment and a high level of energy flowing through the squad; for instance, Tomáš Rosický has put in the best defensive performances of his national team career under Vrba’s tutelage, being particularly impressive in that famous opening win against the Netherlands.
That said, while Bílek’s regime was marked by tactical cluelessness and negativity, this one is a notch or two above in both respects. We still won’t dictate the tempo, but we won’t hide from attacking responsibility either. You could say our qualifying campaign was about grinding our way to France, as six of our seven victories were of the thinnest margin, but some of our direct football was still electrifying and some triumphs outright memorable.
As for the formation, it’s usually a pretty typical 4-2-3-1, with one box-to-box midfielder in that double pivot (Vladimír Darida) and an unorthodox attacking midfielder. If Rosický isn’t fit, which is a pretty safe bet these days, someone rather cheeky and direct will be deployed there – Josef Šural, or Jiří Skalák possibly. Also, expect the right winger – Bořek Dočkal – to play centrally, rather close to the penalty area, almost like a shadow striker, getting into nice shooting positions to test the opposing goalkeeper.
Speaking of Rosický, what’s his position within the national team set-up now, should he travel to France, and if so, in which role?
This is a very delicate matter, splitting the camp of Czech fans into two halves. Some would rather not pin their hopes on the 35-year-old injury prone star, since that was one thing that sort of let us down at the previous Euros, some would put his mercurial talent above everything else and start him no matter what, at all cost.
Rosický is by all means still a difference-maker, or at least his leadership was absolutely key in those first three important wins against the Netherlands, Turkey and Iceland during the qualifiers. He spots and executes passes like no-one else on the team does, drives the play the way no-one else does, and can contribute with the occasional sliding tackle to inspire everyone around, too.
That said, you simply cannot rely on him anymore. He’s not the most consistent playmaker anyway, he never was (his ever inventive mind will always lead to some unnecessary turnovers), and his fitness will hardly be at an adequate level – as he hasn’t started a league game since March 2015 and was only able to play for the U-21 team as recently as on April 8th.
Hence, if he is taken to the Euros can he make an impact as a substitute to break down a side that’s leading? Absolutely. But a starter? Hardly.
If not Rosický then, who will be the key players for the Czech Republic in the summer?
Bořek Dočkal always has a wonder goal in him; he scored four times throughout the campaign and especially his strikes against the Netherlands and Turkey early on were massive. He can be a bit frustrating on the ball, but his shot is a great asset. On the other wing, Ladislav Krejčí (reportedly a Newcastle United target not long ago) is a much criticized and technically limited player, since his first – and, well, any other – touch can be shocking at times, but his work rate and defensive contribution can prove to be incredibly vital at this tournament.
Given Dočkal’s constant drifting inside, Pavel Kadeřábek – Hoffenheim’s right back – enjoys a great deal of freedom down his side and he can certainly make the most of it. Very muscular, with fantastic stamina and a great cross, his offensive support is something to look out for, most definitely.
Vladimír Darida has been an unsung hero of this team, and arguably even Hertha, challenging for the Champions League spot in the Bundesliga also due to his excellent performances. Although he may look rather average on the day, his determination and commitment are infectious and glue the midfield together. A tidy player indeed.
Lastly, Petr Čech, of course. His case is a bit peculiar, though, because while he tends to be immense in the qualifiers, he’s also known as a bit of a bottler on the biggest international scene. He arguably might have done a bit more on that fatal corner in the extra time of the 2004 Euro semifinals, his howler cost us in that infamous loss to Turkey in 2008, and another howler of his may have cost us in 2012, too. There, luckily, we managed to overcome Greece nonetheless. Let’s see, if this Euros finally turns out to be his tournament. We will most certainly need him to be at his very best.
Are there any potential star players coming through the youth ranks that we should know about?
I am not sure, to be totally honest. Most of the promising guys born in 1991-93 have already earned their transfers out of the Czech league – let it be Kadeřábek, Skalák (Brighton) or Pavelka (Turkey). Some of our energetic forwards, however, should be begging for a better gig. Josef Šural (Sparta Prague) can do some serious damage below the striker with his unpredictable runs and Václav Kadlec (Midtjylland), another capable dribbler, could be a real ace if he makes it out of the treatment room in time (which is a big doubt at this stage, sadly).
What is the public opinion during the run-up to the finals – a recently friendly defeat to Scotland couldn’t have taken too well by the fans?
I don’t think many of us are really bothered. The list of absences, after all, was quite extensive, stretching from one end of the pitch to the other one, from Čech through midfielders Rosický, Plašil and Pavelka all the way to the starting striker David Lafata. On the other hand, the coach praised Matěj Vydra after the Sweden game (a lone scorer) and that kind of a powerful winger-cum-striker could really come in handy in France. So yeah, I wouldst say we doubt the team any more we doubted its chances after the draw – the expectations are still rather moderate, but the overall feeling about the team’s quality and chemistry is definitely better than it was in 2012, when everyone was busy bashing Bílek for literally every move. Vrba is generally popular and as the head coach obviously does a lot.
The recent golden generation that featured players such as Pavel Nedvěd, Karel Poborský and Patrik Berger were a superb team – can you see a day when the Czechs will be able to put out another team like it?
Nope. I believe that that generation, and even the Berger-less side from the 2004 Euros, comes along once in a lifetime and I don’t expect to be so lucky to witness something similar ever again. As you can see on this team, the highest profile players are already in their mid-30s – Rosický, Čech and Plašil. The latter, moreover, is not particularly rated by Czech fans after continuously being misused within the national team, even though he boasts some great pedigree over in France. Meanwhile, Darida and Kadeřábek have potential to make waves in the best leagues, but that’s about it.
I am not saying this side is bad, because it isn’t. As a collective, they are strong and versatile. Nedvěd himself said rather boldly he sees some similarities with the silver-winning 1996 team, one of them being the supposed lack of great players, and he has a point. This doesn’t have to be our weakness.
What is the state of domestic football nowadays?
I would say it’s getting better. A Czech fan is usually very cautious when it comes to rating the domestic league, but some terrible refereeing apart, there are positive signs. As it seems now, we are set to lose a Czech Hamburger SV of sorts, big top tier mainstay in Baník Ostrava (much likely to be playing in the Second Division for the first time since 1967), but on the other hand, clubs like Zbrojovka Brno and Dukla Prague have recently undergone a kind of a revival, so you could call it even.
Of course, a big story over here is that of Viktoria Plzeň. There will be more dominant champions in Europe – Paris Saint-Germain, Ferencváros, possibly Trenčín in Slovakia – but the form of Plzeň is nothing short of spectacular nonetheless. As of April 11th, they have won an incredible 13 straight league games and their goalkeeper (not long ago a career no. 2) has just conceded after 581 minutes. Since mid-August, they’ve taken 57 points out of a possible 60.
It seems that the Czech League is usually fought out between Viktoria Plzeň and traditional powerhouses Sparta Prague – are there others that can challenge their dominance?
Indeed, last time these two clubs didn’t constitute the top three was six years ago when Jablonec pushed Sparta pretty hard and Viktoria finished fifth. Since then, it’s been a familiar story year in, year out, but I’m positive a change is on the cards. Not exactly some wholesome power shift, but some other clubs should be growing more and more capable.
Liberec, the surprising champions of 2012, have assembled a talented crop of foreigners, Mladá Boleslav boast a healthy mix of youth and experience, and Slavia Prague, back-to-back champions in 2008 and 2009, have all the potential in the world to pursue the title; the best stadium in the country, some great youngsters and finally a good coach, what remains is to figure out the mess that is their club board. People with shady backgrounds come in, then typically leave sooner rather than late, and the only decent ones resign – like the Slavia Chairman Jiří Šimáně who left at the beginning of April. The club is now owned by a Chinese company, so it will be intriguing to see what their money brings in the future.
A huge thanks goes out to Tomáš Daníček for agreeing to the interview and answering in such depth. If you are a fan of Czech football please be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out the website he writes for.