You can call them European Championship specialists: the Czechs have qualified for every continental tournament since independence (that’s six out of six attempts) and even done rather well there: runners-up in 1996, semi-finalists in 2004, quarter-finalists in 2012. Meanwhile, they’ve only played at the World Cup once (2006).
There’s just something about them – the way they seem to play with less pressure and enjoy themselves more than others – that usually makes them worth watching and even adopting as your second team. This time is no different, although their only stars are two veterans in their mid-thirties, Petr Cech and Tomas Rosicky.
How far can their feel-good factor take them?
The Czechs are lacking in true international quality across the lines and that is not something that can easily be made up for with team spirit, however great it is. They were one of the first teams to qualify for the tournament – topping a tough group with the Netherlands, Turkey and Iceland in the process – but, looking back on the campaign, it’s hard to tell how much of that can be credited to their good performances and how much was due to the problems of other teams (especially the Dutch).
The Euros will be a true test for this generation of players, most of whose names don’t ring many (if any) bells for an average European fan. Their first game in France will be against Spain, the reigning champions – and as far as rude awakenings go, this one could turn out to be brutal. Then they have Croatia, a team that also has far more individual class among their ranks than them.
It will take huge effort from everyone and more than a little luck to qualify for the knockout stage. Are they up for it?
What they’ve learned
Don’t rule yourselves out. Expectations weren’t very high at the start of the campaign, and the Czechs couldn’t even sell out the 19,416-seat Generali Arena in Prague for the opening game against the Netherlands, who were fresh from finishing third at the World Cup.
But they won 2-1, courtesy of a stoppage-time goal by Viktoria Plzen’s Vaclav Pilar. That changed everything: on the back of their newfound confidence, they connected three other wins and gave themselves a nifty little head start by the end of 2014.
If the Czech Republic manage to salvage anything from their Spain opener, it could give them a massive boost and they could turn out to be a surprise package once again.
Here to play
At their best, Pavel Vrba’s men play entertaining, attractive football with lots of fluidity between the lines, storming down the flanks, people joining attack and coming into the box from behind. There’s plenty of rotation and swapping positions. The players seem physically well-prepared and well-versed in covering for each other, winning balls as well as keeping possession, and patiently building up when given the chance. They may not be great technicians – Rosicky is really the only true exception here – but they are very far from being ball-shy.
Unlike most other underdogs, they are unlikely to be seen just sitting deep and waiting for their chance on the counter. That’s not what the manager Vrba likes or wants from them; you will see them taking initiative and producing an exciting brand of football – for neutrals, as well as for their own fans – despite all of their individual deficiencies.
At times they’ve looked clueless when attempting to break through well-organised defences that denied them space. They depend too much on Rosicky for creativity: when he’s not around (and that, of course, has often been the case), they tend to attack down the wings, but very much lack quality up front and their strikers accounted for just four out of their 19 qualifying goals.
At the other end, defending has occasionally been atrocious, with Premier League Golden Gloves winner Petr Cech having failed to keep a single clean sheet during the qualifiers – they conceded 14 goals in their 10 matches. The defenders are all very experienced, but not particularly good, while the team’s attacking style doesn’t make it any easier for them to deal with the inevitable counters.
All of this can make for some hurly-burly play, with lots of mistakes and risks that can sometimes appear unnecessary. A quality opponent should know how to make the most of them.
This could be one final demonstration of Rosicky’s extraordinary talent, his swansong before retiring internationally. Or a chance for one of the little-known players from the Czech league to make their names – perhaps midfielder Borek Dockal, who scored four goals in the qualifiers, or his Sparta Prague team-mate Ladislav Krejci, a 23-year-old winger.
But if you’re searching for this team’s key player, you shouldn’t look any further than Cech. It’s likely that he’ll have lots to do this summer in France, and the fact that he’s played regularly this season since transferring from Chelsea to Arsenal is music to his compatriots’ ears. Not that he wouldn’t be first choice even if he hadn’t played at his club, that is.
At 34, he’s still one of the best at the tournament in his position, and also the most-capped player in the team. While the bulk of the squad is based domestically, Cech last played for a Czech club 14 years ago and is their only proper star at the moment. Fans will be desperately hoping he can rise to the occasion – a good part of their plan is based on that.
Beloved and hugely respected in his homeland, Vrba is an excellent manager. If you are willing to look beyond the very elite, you’d even be tempted to call him a genius.
Vrba took a provincial side of also-rans in Viktoria Plzen and made them into champions, then a force to be reckoned with in Europe; he led them to Champions League qualification twice on a shoestring budget, and the Europa League knockout stage in three consecutive seasons. He’s done well with the national team so far since taking over in January 2014, but there could be much more to come from the five-time Czech Manager of the Year winner.