Underdog Stories: Greece

2004 was THE year of the underdogs. May it be FC Porto defeating AS Monaco in the Champions League final, held in Gelsenkirchen- putting Jose Mourinho at the top of the world or minnows like Latvia qualifying for their first ever international tournament or 2 Nordic countries fighting for a place in the semi final of Euro. But the biggest of the upsets came in the same tournament- in the form of the undying spirit of their ancestors, the Greeks ‘spartan kicking’ the hosts Portugal in the finals of Euro 2004, right in front of Portuguese fans. From Nelly Furtado performing for a 55,000 strong audience in Porto to a 18 year old Wayne Rooney carrying the mighty English on his own, Euro 2004 was one of the most memorable tournaments of all time.

 

(Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty images)

This Euro campaign defied all odds. The juggernaut of Germans, the technical suave of Spain and the tactical jargon of Italy had to pack their bags right after Group Stage. The defending champions- France were humbled by the Greeks, blessed by the Gods of Olympus. Sweden and Denmark fought for a place in the semi-finals. No one even had Greece as their pick for even ‘dark horses’ and yet they went on to shock the entire continent and in turn the world with what was their just 3rd ever appearance at an international tournament. Even the hosts, Portugal were ranked outsiders but their all-round display and backing from the ‘12th man’ saw them overcome the mighty English and the firm believers of Totaal Voetbal- Netherlands to book a place in the final, right in their own backyard. Their opponents? Their Group A opponents Greece, who defeated them in the opener of the tournament.

Before this nerve-wracking final kick offs, we will take a look at how this odd defying tournament even came to fruition. Portugal won the bid to host The Euro in 1999, seeing off the competition from Spain and a joint bid from Austria and Hungary. This was the best possible opportunity for the Portuguese to showcase their talent on a big stage, the result of a massive investment made at Grassroot level in late 1980s and 1990s, not only on up and coming players but on up and coming coaches as well. Luis Figo was at the heart of this Portuguese team and also at the top of the world. This tournament also became the unveiling of a lanky teenager from Madeira who was tipped to even replicate the success of Luis Figo and even Eusebio. 

 

(Photo by Alain Gadoffre / Onze / Icon Sport via Getty Images)

The qualification path saw 50 teams fight to get one of those 16 places in the finals of the tournament. Greece shared the qualification group with Spain. This is the first time they shocked the footballing world when they topped their qualification group and sealed an automatic qualification spot, sending Spain to a playoff spot. In the other group, Czechia secured an automatic spot in the tournament with a near perfect qualification record and sent Netherlands into the playoffs. Iceland won plaudits when they held Germany to two 0-0 draws and were 1 point away from making history (which they eventually made 12 years later). Group 8 saw the closest fight in terms of qualification. Bulgaria against all odds topped their group and sealed a spot in Group stage, their 2nd ever qualification for Euro. Croatia and Belgium were tied on points but a superior goal difference saw the Croats advance to the play off stage and send Belgium home.

Perhaps, the biggest upset of the qualification stage and playoffs was Latvia exceeding expectations, overcoming the challenge of Poland to finish 2nd in their qualification group and then defeating Turkey 3-2 on aggregate in playoff rounds. Turkey went from a career high WC 2002 campaign to missing out on a Euro berth in just 2 years. Maris Verpakovskis’ 6 strikes in the qualification campaign sealed his place in the country’s football hall of fame which resulted in Latvia’s qualification for an international tournament. 

With the fate of 16 teams locked in, the real excitement of the main tournament was about to begin. More upsets were lined up. May it be Czechia’s perfect group stage record which sent Germany back home and Milan Baros exploding on the main stage, who was just whiskers away from missing the tournament due to a serious ankle injury suffered while playing for Liverpool FC. Or the ‘match-fixing’ allegations the Italians put on the Swedes and Danes which resulted in their elimination (quite ironic for Italian federation to lodge an official complaint of match fixing when the groundwork of the Calciopoli scandal was being laid at the same time back home- right behind their backs in their own organization). The last match of this group saw Sweden and Denmark face off each other and the fate of Italian qualification also laid on this result. A 2-2 draw between the Nordic countries could send the Italians back home and any other result meant that Italy will continue their journey. The odds of this result happening were the least. And what happened? A dramatic 2-2 draw which sent Sweden and Denmark into quarter finals and Italy was eliminated. But Greece was the shining light of this group stage even though their game play wasn’t as shiny as their results. Humbling Portugal and Spain in a space of 1 week isn’t just luck.

“Nobody thought before the tournament that we would win the trophy, the only thought we had was to be competitive in our games and make our people proud of our country,” explains Dimitris Papadopoulos, another member of the Euro 2004 squad and a former Burnley striker. This was a very good squad, full of very talented, gifted footballers. It was the best mix of players and a great manager in Otto Rehhagel who was renowned for his risk-free, winning approach and had already claimed three Bundesliga titles (one with Kaiserslautern which itself is considered one of the biggest upsets in German football history) before taking the Greece job. It was the Greek spirit married with German discipline. 

 

(Photo by Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty Images)

The Greeks then faced a mighty encounter in the quarterfinals when they met the defending champions France. It was an all-time squad of sorts that needed no introduction- boasting the likes of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Zinedine Zindane. Les Bleus weren’t at their best in the Group stage. They had to grasp their quarter final berth by scoring some late goals against England and Croatia. Also, there was some fragility in their armour. Marcel Desailly was past his peak. At 35, his performances weren’t up to the mark and their backups in Mikael Silvestre and William Gallas struggled without Desailly’s experience on the pitch.  

Despite the starpower and previous success in the group stage, France was held scoreless and fell 1-0 to the underdogs – who had a squad made up of players playing in Greece only with few players plying trade outside of Greece at club level. Greeks made a record of beating the hosts and defending champions for the first time in the history of Euro.  Greek football was not used to experiencing such success, either with its clubs or its national team. It was a big surprise, even to the Greek people that they reached the finals of Euro and now humbled some big footballing powerhouses and are now 90 minutes away from a historic final. Their opposition? The actual dark horse of every critic – Czechia. A brace from Milan Baros was more than enough to seal a place in semi finals and another historic final was beckoning for the Golden Generation of Czechia. 

 

(Photo by Henri Szwarc/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, on the other side, Portugal reached the semi-finals after eliminating the English on penalties and Netherlands also won against Sweden on penalties – their first ever victory on penalties in International Tournaments. 

The first semi-final was between the 2 superpowers – Portugal looking to win it’s first ever international trophy and it was at the best possible time- at their home, in their own backyard. That lanky teenager from Madeira who was tipped to be the best ever? He opened the scoring and a wonderful strike from the prince of stepovers – Maniche sent Portugal to a historic final and the dreams of conquering Euros was just 90 minutes away- that too in your own backyard. In the 2nd semi-final, the favourites to reach the final – Czechia had to lock horns with the Greeks. A barrage of attacks from the Czechs couldn’t breach the Greek defense, blessed by Gods and Goddesses of Olympus. They carried the wrath of Poseidon, the calm and intelligence of Athena, the will of Hercules, the lightning strike of Zeus and mean demeanor of Ares. And just like Zeus’ lightning, they struck a Silver Goal to seal a place in the final. Traianos Dellas’ strike was the first and last ever Silver Goal in football’s history. 

 

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

This finale was even more sweet for Portugal who could make history and even exact their revenge on the Greeks for their opening day defeat. But fate had other plans. A fully loaded Portuguese arsenal came all guns blazing on Greek defense but they kept their cool and relied on counter attacks and set pieces to trouble their opposition. Right at the hour mark, a corner kick was awarded to Greece and what happened 30 seconds later will be forever etched in the history of Greek football.  Angelos Charisteas struck a header, right through the Portuguese defence and gave a 1-0 lead to the minnows. Angelos’ header was like the arrow which took the life of Darius the Great at the Battle of Marathon, a strike which took down a strong Armada and resulted in the victory of unified Greece, not just Athens or Sparta or Thebes or Korinthia. 

 

(Photo by Olivier Prevosto / Onze / Icon Sport via Getty Images)

This was the same unified Greece, fighting a battle against the superpowers of football and with the blessing of its people and Gods, this war finally won on 4th July 2004. After 2 millenia, Greece was once again the center of the world. When the team came to collect the medals, it was as if the victors of the war had come to take what was left of the sweet victory at the Pantheon. Meanwhile at home, streets were filled with joy and emotion. The nation was again roaring, the Aegean was roaring. This roar was so loud that even the Hydra must have been afraid to come out. Such was the impact of this Greek team on the country who is home to one of the most passionate supporters in the world. Greece had the odds of 80 to 1 of reaching the final at the start of the tournament. Not only they defied these substantial odds, they defied every known statistic and probability known to mankind and conquered Europe- something their ancestorrs will always be proud of.

Had Herodotus been alive in this generation, this victory must have been his favourite among all of known Greek History. Who knows if he really is alive and narrating this piece of history to someone on this Earth?

 

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Underdog Stories: Denmark

While Euros 2020 (or 2021) may be hailed as a revolutionary step in the tournament’s history but it isn’t the first time such a ‘revolution’ has happened in Euros. A throwback to 1992 will put more light on some ‘revolutionary’ steps in Tournament’s history- from becoming the first ever international tournament to allow player names on the back of team jersey to introducing the back-pass rule in the game. The tournament was also the last Euros to award 2 points for a win and have 2 groups of 4 from which 4 teams advanced to semi-finals. And of course, who can forget Denmark’s victory in that Euros, a team which wasn’t even supposed to take part in the finals.

Denmark’s victory in Euros 1992 had all the ingredients of a unforgetful footballing fairytale. It is the story of a team who didn’t qualify for the finals- who went onto win the thing, beating the World Champions- West Germany (now unified Germany after the fall of Berlin Wall and Eastern Bloc), the French and European Champions- the Dutch; surely this would be a story that was woven into the tapestry of footballing folklore?

The Danish team had somewhat earned a reputation of playing ‘Beautiful football’ loosely based on the principles of ‘Totaal Voetbal’ or ‘Total Football’ but also using some hard core principles of English football- especially in defensive phase of the game. The Danes had a glorious 1980s- exceeding expectations by participating in World Cup, Euros and even Olympics- the highlight being a 3rd placed finish in 1984 Euros, held in France. The architect behind the resurgence of Danes was the German Sepp Piontek who led the team from 1979 to 1990. While Sepp looked at the attacking phase of the game, his assistant- Richard Moller Nielsen looked after the defensive aspect of their game. Both of them were different in terms of their coaching ideologies yet complemented each other very well. The cocksure team, including the likes of Michael Laudrup, Morten Olsen and Preben Elkjaer swaggered and scythed their way through the opposition. It was this attack first, defend second mentality that proved to be their downfall though at what would be the peak of this squad’s cycle. The ageing squad finished bottom of the group in the Euros 1988 then failed to qualify for World Cup Italia 90. It felt like the end of an era.

When Sepp Piontek decided to step down from his duties, the Danish FA wanted to appoint another foreign coach who could continue the way the Nordic nation played the game. First choice Horst Wohler was unable to free himself from a club contract. Eventually, Richard Moller got the nod of national team manager, a decision which wasn’t respected by the squad, the national media and the fans- because of his inexperience at a big stage, ability to manage the ego of big names and most important- his pragmatic approach to the game which was exactly opposite to what everyone wanted.


(Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images)

The latter was the biggest hurdle to win over the players, media and fans. But Richard stuck to his approach of coaching- emphasizing on team cohesion and more defense-oriented game rather than a free-flowing game of football. Richard had his reasons to emphasize on the team cohesion based game- majority of the regulars for senior team played together for a long time, right from youth levels at international stage to playing together at club level. The core of the team played together for the Copenhagen giants- Brondby IF. One more reason for Richard to adopt this approach was also the influence of ‘English game’ on their neighbours Sweden- Bob Houghton and Roy Hodgson’s work in Sweden completely revolutionized the Swedish game. Nielsen took inspiration from this hence went forward with this tactical approach. 


(The compact defensive structure of Danish National Team under Richard Moller Nielsen)

Their start to Euros 1992 qualification group was good- a 4-1 victory against another Nordic side- Faroe Islands but a lackadaisical display of football despite the score-line. This display started a war of words between Nielsen and the Laudrup brothers. A goalless draw against Northern Ireland and a home defeat to footballing powerhouse at that time- Yugoslavia resulted in a nationwide eruption. The Laudrup brothers decided to quit national football because of the entire change in tactical system which rendered their natural game useless. Calls for Nielsen’s sacking were ever increasing but with time, the remaining team eventually settled down and adapted to Nielsen’s setup- a good run of 5 consecutive victories in their qualification group including a historic win on the road against Yugoslavia but it was not enough. Yugolslavia finished first in the qualification group while Denmark missed out on finals of Euros 1992, finishing behind Yugolsavia at 2nd place. A summer break for the Danes was awaiting, a most probable sacking for Nielsen was on the cards. But then, an UN order changed the course of their footballing history. The war struck Balkans entered into a very ugly phase of the war and sanctions were imposed on Yugoslavia by the UN- which resulted in the Balkan country’s participation in upcoming Euros null and void just 12 days before the start of Euros. Their place was given to the Danes. Nielsen had a Herculian task of preparing the squad for Euros in comparison to the other participating nations who had a head start of months when it came to training. After trying his best to reconcile with Laudrup brothers- only Brian decided to return back from this hiatus- becoming the last person to be named in the 20-man squad for Euros. Even after getting a last-minute lifeline, there was still another problem for Nielsen. Regular football season wasn’t finished in Denmark because of which many clubs didn’t release the players who were to take part in the Euros. Initially, only 7 players reported for training camp. Only after all club football was concluded in Denmark, did the remaining players join the training camp. Kim Vilfort, the 29-year old midfielder and captain of Brondby IF, joined the training camp after the others joined on a later date because of personal reasons.His 7-year old daughter- Line Vilfort was getting treatment for Leukemia and a last-minute respite came in the form of her improving health and his daughter’s insistence to take part in the Euros which prompted Kim to join the training camp.

The team travelled to Sweden with almost zero expectations, everyone including the players weren’t expecting to even get out of the group stage which consisted of host nation-Sweden, France led by Eric Cantona and Jean Pierre-Papin and Gary Lineker’s England. Only one man believed in absolute victory- Nielsen himself. And he eventually was able to instill this mentality in his tightly knit squad also. A hard-fought goalless draw against England provided a good start to the Danes. The Danes went into the next match against Host nation with some confidence but a narrow 1-0 loss to the Swedes put Denmark on the verge of elimination. Their last match? Against one of competition’s favourite-France. Everyone counted Denmark out. Danes didn’t just need a victory against the star-studded French team but they also needed the other match’s result to go their way.  But against all odds, Denmark did the unthinkable. Not only they defeated France 2-1 but the result of other match also went their way which meant that 2 of tournament’s favourite- France and England were eliminated. Denmark achieved this victory without their midfield cog- Kim Vilfort who had to leave the national team to go back to Copenhagen in order to stay close to his daughter, whose health was again deteriorating. His replacement- Henrik Larsen pulled the strings from midfield against France- also ending up on the scoresheet and the winner came through Lars Elstrup- who came on for Brian Laudrup, late into the ending stages of the match. This particular substitution changed the outlook of Richard in front of the squad who now bought the picture potrayed by Nielsen, especially Brian Laudrup who despite being substituted in the crunch moments of the match for Elstrup, held no qualms about it. Finally, buying in the team ethic-based approach of his manager.  The Danes despite being out of shape still achieved the unthinkable, that too without any rigourous training. The manager rather treated his squad to regular leisure activities of Mini Golf and eating out at McDonalds. The Nordic countries took their place in the semi finals. Their counter parts? The defending Euro champions- the mighty Dutch and the World Champions- Germany, who knocked out the Scots and CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States)- comprised of the countries who were once part of now defunct Soviet Nation.

With Kim Nilfort again joining his team mates, the Danes took to the field in Gothenburg against the Netherlands- spearheaded by Marco Van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp. The Duo’s performances in last Euros brought the crown home for the first time in Oranje’s history. This time, they were out with the mission to defend their crown. But, they didn’t expect that Denmark will come all guns blazing on them, right from first minute. Henrik Larsen gave an early lead to the Danes. Their ultra-attacking approach in this fixture resulted in defensive vulnerability at the back but they had Peter Schmeichel to thank. He somehow kept the Dutch attack at bay but Dennis Bergkamp eventually struck gold at 23rd minute, equalizing the score. The Danish team then changed back to their more compact and defensive shape, welcoming a barrage of attacks from the Dutch. But, they counter-attacked whenever they got the opportunity. Just 8 minutes later, Denmark took the lead- again Henrik Larsen scored who then became the joint top scorer of the tournament. Denmark then used their pragmatic approach to see out the match. Peter Schmeichel, Kim Vilfort, Kim Christofte were having the game of their lives. But a fumble inside their own defensive half saw Frank Rijkaard to equalize the score. After dull extra time- given the fatigue got the better of both teams, the match went to penalties. The veteran Dutch keeper- Hans Van Breukelen tried his best to unsettle the underdogs but it all went in vain. The star striker- Marco Van Basten saw his penalty being saved by the ice giant- Peter Schmeichel. Peter mimicked the stance of their 1960 Olympic Silver medal winning Danish keeper- by sticking a chewing gum on the outer periphery of the goal post every time the opposition player came up to take the spot kick- trying to unsettle them. Van Basten eventually crumbled under this unsettling trick and his poor spot kick was saved by Schmeichel. Kim Christofte was charged with the final spot kick. A conversion meant that Denmark will go into the finals. Unfazed by Van Breukelen’s antics, he kept his cool and slotted home the winner. Denmark advanced to a historic final.

In other semi-final, Sweden gave the world champions a fight for their money but the Germans were able to defeat the hosts in a narrow 2-3 victory. The Danes faced the undaunting task of fighting the world champions. But what happened on 26th June, 1992 in Ullevi Stadion, Gothenburg will remain in the memories of not only the Danes but in the memories of every football romantic. Danes, who were the last to arrive to the party to which they were uninvited, were the ones to celebrate first.


Line ups for final of Euro 1992

Early waves of German attacks were repelled, Schmeichel turning shots away from Matthias Sammer and Jurgen Klinsmann. Temporary stands were being erected in Frankfurt ready for the victorious Die Mannschaft’s return to home soil. John Jensen though, had other ideas. Not known for his goal-scoring prowess, having previously struck the post earlier in the competition. Faxe as he was known to team mates arrived at the edge of the penalty area as Povlsen cut the ball back. He struck it first time and sent a bolt past Bodo Illgner to give Denmark the unlikeliest of leads after 18 minutes.

The Germans were shell shocked. Their confidence shattered. Meanwhile, Danes played with all their might in order to keep the Germans at bay who started to go all guns blazing in 2nd half. But at 78th minute, Kim Vilfort received the ball in German’s defensive end from a long goal kick of Peter Schmeichel. What he did after that will always be remembered by the Danes. A brilliant solo effort, which included wrong footing 2 German defenders and taking a shot from his weaker left foot- which ended up into the goal via the goal post. It was 2-0. A final nail in the coffin of German defense was delivered by the man who had decided to not go to Euros and stay back with his family, only for his little daughter’s insistence to play in the tournament. Denmark- European champions for the first time in their history and arguably the biggest underdog victory in history of the sport.

Half of the team was recalled from it’s vacation, half of the team had to cancel it and ended up pulling the biggest upset. And it wasn’t just luck. It was a team effort, not the effort of manager or certain individual players. It was a proper team performance. To many observers, they were essentially coming in to make up the numbers. Nobody expected Denmark to be able to compete. The tournament was won, one that the victorious team were not even part of 26 days earlier. The tournaments slogan was ‘Small is beautiful’, perhaps then aptly won by a nation of a mere 5 million people.


(Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images)

And this victory changed the course of Danish Football. Peter Schmeichel went on to win even more laurels with Manchester United, Henrik Larsen secured a big move to Arsenal. Brian Laudrup and Flemming Povlsen won domestic titles with AC Milan, Rangers and Borussia Dortmund respectively. While Michael Laudrup was not the part of this squad but his achievements at club level elevated the level of Danish football to new heights. Kim Vilfort’s performances at Euros attracted interest from major English, Italian and Spanish teams but he decided to stay with his beloved Brondby, whom he took to semi finals of UEFA Cup a year before and regular participation at European stage followed- thereby becoming a club legend and club’s record goal scorer in his 12 year stint with the Copenhagen club. He had to sadly see his daughter succumb to Leukemia just 6 weeks after his Man of the Match worthy performances in the final. As described by his former coach Morten Olsen, Kim had “an indomitable winning mentality” and he “always believed it could be done, no matter how bleak things looked.”  This attitude was surely never more apparent than in the midst of the triumph and trauma of his summer of 1992. This prompted him to become a vocal participant, raising awareness about Leukemia and Cancer and also taking ambassadorial for many organizations- raising awareness about Mental Health- which itself was a societal stigma at that time. Richard Moller Nielsen was finally able to woo the public and media who were against him. In 2014, Richard Moller Nielsen was posthumously entered into the Danish football hall of fame, after succumbing to a brain tumour earlier that year.

For Denmark, this wasn’t the last international tournament victory. The Danes went on to win the FIFA Confederations Cup in 1995 with majority of the core’e nucleus being the players who played together at Brondby IF-led by Kim Vilfort.  Kim retired from international football after the 1995 Confederations Cup victory and eventually hung his boots in 1998. Even after retirement, he stuck down to work for his childhood club, working with the youth teams as the head of scouting and recruitment, hoping to find the ‘next generation’ which can take the mantle from his generation and even do better than them. In the present day, his beloved team finally won the League after a 16 year wait and at the heart of this team was a 20 year old midfielder Jesper Lindstrom who was himself scouted by Kim many years ago.

When asked about the Euros victory, he always pointed out to the team spirit of that Danish side- “We had fantastic spirit. The team wanted to win and that’s a very good thing when you’re at the highest level. When we were under pressure against Germany, it was the spirit that helped us. We didn’t have the best players, but we had the best team.” 


(Photo by Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The generation of Richard Moller Nielsen has inspired the future generation of footballers in Denmark, who always look upto the cult heroes of 1992. What happened in Copenhagen a few days back was a testament to the spirit of Danish people, together no matter what the situation is and yesterday’s victory against Russsia against all odds put them into Knockout rounds of yet another Euros. And it was possible because of the team spirit and the backing of ‘the 12th man’, the fans. Telia Parken saw another chapter unfold. Even if Denmark doesn’t win their next match, their deeds in this Euros will be remembered forever.

god bedring, Christian


(Photo by Pool via REUTERS)

Football Around The World: Part 1- Czech Republic

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.