Czech Republic. The moment you hear these 2 words, you get the images of Prague and its clamouring medieval era streets and of course Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky, Vladimir Smicer, Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky, Milan Baros and who can forget the man, the myth, the legend: Antonin Panenka.
Once the mighty yet underdog nation of Czechoslovakia boasted some of the most technically astute players ever known to man. I will try to cover up how this small nation went against the odds and shocked the footballing giants, suffered political turmoil yet delivered at grandest stages of all.
Czechoslovakia as a footballing nation reached the finals of 2nd ever FIFA World Cup, losing to the host and eventual winners- Italy. They then again reached the world cup final in 1962, again suffering ignominy of losing at the grandest stage of all; the winner- Pele’s Brazil. But this didn’t stop them from progressing as a footballing nation. A widespread change at grassroot level and one of the first country to involve the use of Sports Science in the game, the country started churning out very good prospects which made the core of the National team for next decade. Spearheaded by the charismatic Antonin Panenka, Czechoslovakia’s team also relied on the rough principles of ‘Total Football’ which was used and mastered by the Dutch in this era, maximizing the use of their technically astute players. The highlight of this era will be the penalty which won the fringe nation their first ever International Trophy- The EUROS.
The country remained under a Communist rule after the end of World War II. The Communist Party integrated a centralized Sports structure in the country with deep links to Schools, Universities and sporting bodies thus inculcating a strong team ethic, which was evident in their National Team. With the advancement of technology, the government invested a good amount of money in upgrading the facilities at Grassroot level and promoting the use of Sports Science in the game.
A potential golden generation was on the rise in the 1980s with clubs like Sparta Prague, Slavia Prague, Bohemians 1905, FK Viktoria Plzen, FK Jablonec, FK Mlada Boleslav seeing a rise in the talent coming through the youth ranks. But the “Velvet Revolution” and the collapse of political order in 1989 brought an end to the various sporting schemes which helped the game thrive in the country. A funding gap was created due to this with influx of money decreasing over the years, which saw the outflux of talent from the country. By 2005, only 5 members of National Team were plying their trade in the country’s top tier league competition and rest of the members were making a name for themselves abroad.
Playing under the new nation of Czech Republic, the so-called exciting prospects took the world by storm in 1996. With the Bosman ruling and its potential game changing impact, a new market opened up for the Czech players to make a mark at club level and EUROS 1996 became a stage to show their talent to the world. The underdogs defied the odds and reached to the finals of the competition and were moments away from getting hands on the coveted trophy but an Oliver Bierhoff double (including a golden goal winner) shattered the dreams of this tiny new nation, losing the match by the score line of 2-1. But this tournament opened up the gates to European club football for many of it’s international players with the change in ruling of Non-European players allowed in squad in many countries after the Bosman ruling. Pavel Nedved joined The Laziali, spearheading the Czech football revolution for many years and making his mark at Lazio and then at Juventus. Karel Poborsky (and his famous “Poborsky Lob”) joined Manchester United, winning a Premier League medal in his 18-month stay at the club, then moving to Benfica, Lazio and finishing his career in Czech Republic. After losing Poborsky to their arch-rivals Manchester United, Liverpool turned their attention to Patrik Berger, who spent 7 glorious years at the Merseyside club, then moving further south and joining The Pompeys, Portsmouth and then Aston Villa before calling it quit on his career in England, moving back to his native country to see out his last few years of the career.
While the current crop of players made a name for themselves with their performances and winning their dream moves to the Elites, the next batch of youth was brimming on the chance to send shockwaves, in which they succeeded. The U21s of Czech Republic performed very well at U21 Euros, finishing runners up at 2000 edition which was held in Slovakia and winning the competition in 2002, hosted by Switzerland and brought the talent of iconic Petr Cech to the mainstream. Both the editions of competition saw the involvement of many players, who then went to have a good career including the likes of Petr Cech, Milan Baros, Zdenek Grygera, Marek Jankulovski, Jaroslav Drobny, David Rozehnal, Tomas Hubschman, Radoslav Kovac. (Tomas Rosicky was supposed to take part in 2000 edition but he had become a mainstay in senior team by the time qualification rounds for the tournament were over)
Carrying this momentum forward, Czech Republic again gave the European powerhouses a tough fight, reaching the semi-finals of 2004 EUROS, setting up a clash with another underdog team in Greece. Milan Baros’ performances almost took them to another European final but an injury time winner again destroyed the dreams of this tiny nation. An appearance at 2006 World Cup was another highlight for the country but by the turn of the decade, the Golden Generation was in its twilight years and the outflux of talent to neighbouring countries of Germany and Austria curtailed the development of many prospects.
But with ex-players getting into administration level jobs in the Czech Republic FA, things are turning around. Karel Poborsky himself is the Technical Director, looking after the development of players representing the country at youth levels and creating a good path for them to take the chance to represent Czech Republic at senior level when they are ready; by trying to emulate the same sporting schemes and atmosphere from which their Golden Generation benefitted.
A country which influenced German and Belgian Football Renaissance is itself going through the same phase and the signs are looking good till now. Exciting prospects like Adam Hlozek, Adam Karabec, Alex Kral, Michal Sadilek, Ondrej Lingr, Ondrej Sasinka, Christian Frydek, Filip Soucek, Dominik Plechaty, Zdenek Hucek, Vojtech Patrak, Matej Polidar have stepped up and made a mark for their hometown teams and for country at Youth Levels too, again attracting the attention of scouts from other parts of Europe.
The process is long but the signs are looking positive and who knows if some of these players finally break their jinx and bring glory for once powerhouse of football.