The Goddess has blessed Bergamo: rise of Atalanta BC

It is said that La Dea– the Goddess Atalanta herself lives in the mountains of Bergamo, looking after the town and providing her blessings to the town folks. Situated in the heart of Lombardy, Bergamo has a deep connection to the old Celtic tribes who first moved into the region. The Bergamo faithful still to this date carry that Celtic blood in them. An industrial town, Bergamo is the heart of the construction and infrastructure industry of Italy. The town derives it’s spirit from the Greek Goddess-Atalanta (which translates to ‘equality’ from Latin) who grew out to be an able hunter and runner- known through her tales of Calydonian boar hunt, Argonauts and their hunt for the Golden Fleece. 

The spirit of the Goddess resonated in the town. It is channelled perfectly by the football team situated at the heart of the city and every citizen. Named after the Goddess herself- Atalanta BC is at the lips of every football fanatic in recent times. Their playing style depicts the character of the Goddess herself- an able runner (given how Atalanta plays a high tempo football and cover every blade of grass on the pitch) out in the wild to hunt the mighty boars by the use of her will and wits (given how strategically the club is run in modern day and competes at top level with a lesser wage budget than many clubs in English Championship- the SECOND tier of English football pyramid). 

Rise of the Goddess to the top 

Atalanta BC was founded by high school students of the town in 1907. The ethos on which the football club was founded was to inculcate the importance of physical exercise in the youth- the ethos which club has followed throughout its existence. The club is known as the ‘factory’ among the followers of Calcio due to their work done in developing youth players through their famed youth system. Historically, the club struggled in the 2nd division of the Italian football pyramid throughout the 1920s and 1930s but they achieved a historic promotion to Serie A in 1937. They came crashing down to newly structured Serie B after just one season. But they built a core of players which came from the youth ranks and again achieved the promotion in 1940- this time winning Serie B. 1940s proved to be a great decade for an underdog team which even drew comparisons to Grande Torino– the famed Torino side which won laurels in 1940s.

By this time, Atalanta had become a regular in first division- achieving a club high position of 5th in Serie A during the 1947-48 season. The 1950s also saw the same upward rise but a false match fixing allegation saw the club get demoted to Serie B and a points deduction. But against all the odds, the team won the Serie B title- resonating the undying spirit of the Goddess and the town folks itself. This promotion was the start of yet another journey for this budding club. The highest point in this journey was winning the Coppa Italia title in 1963- defeating Torino with a score line of 3-1. This victory ensured the first and only title in the club’s history. The victors of 1963 again consisted of a core made up of players who came up from the youth ranks. From here, the club could not sustain this rise and it went in a downward spiral throughout the 1970s- becoming a yo-yo club, shuttling between Serie A and Serie B. Even in this period, the club didn’t stop investing and putting it’s trust on the youth. The lowest point in club’s history came at the start of 1980s when the club suffered the ignominy of relegation from Serie B- dropping to Serie C1 in 1981. Despite playing in lower divisions- the club churned out players who eventually became the core of the Azzuri– Italian National team which enjoyed the spoils of victory in 1982 FIFA World Cup.

his trust in youth did pay off when the club dug its way out from the depths of lower division and looming bankruptcy and reached back to the promise land- Serie A in 1984 where they again stayed for 3 seasons before suffering a relegation in 1987. A series of dismal performances in 2nd phase of 1986-87 season saw the club crashing down but a fairy tale run in Coppa Italia saw the club 180 minutes away from glory. Only one team stood in their way- Napoli led by the God himself, Diego Maradona. It was the battle of 2 Gods in Coppa Italia but the rejuvenated Napoli side spearheaded by D10S himself saw the club win a historic double- Serie A and Coppa Italia. With Napoli winning the Serie A and ensuring a place in European Cup (precursor to UEFA Champions League), a relegated Atalanta side became eligible to play in European Cup Winners Cup. This young team again made history, reaching the semi finals of the competition while playing in 2nd division, the highest position a team playing outside of top division has achieved in the history of all UEFA Competitions. Atalanta suffered a 4-2 defeat to Belgian side KV Mechelen who would go on to win the competition. The club immediately won the promotion to Serie A and a 6th place finish in the 1989-90 season saw the club reach UEFA Cup for first time in club’s history. Another fairy tale run in European competition followed in 1990-91 UEFA Cup where they reached Quarter Finals of the competition. They were eliminated by the eventual winners and their local rivals- Inter Milan.

The rise in fame of Italian football during 1990s saw Atalanta shift from their policy of inculcating youth players in senior team and they tried to go towards the path of glory- buying expensive stars which eventually backfired and saw the club suffer from various relegations and promotions during the 1990s and 2000s. The best moment during this tumultuous period was a local Filippo Inzhagi winning capocannoniere (Serie A’s top scorer award) during 1996-97 season and another cup final appearance in which they lost to Fiorentina, led by the mercurial Gabriel Batistuta. 

2000s also saw the same trend of yo-yoing between first and second division. Changing players and coaches without giving them ample chances saw the club incur a massive financial strain which eventually led to local entrepreneur and ex- Atalanta player Antonio Percassi take over the reigns of the club in 2010. 

Percassi hit a reset button- bringing the old ethos on which club was built upon and tried to mend the wrongs of the past. He believed in long-term stability and glory over short term gains. After winning the promotion to Serie A in 2011, the club worked towards building a stable foundation to work upon in the near future without compromising on the principles on which the club was carved out. Being a local, boyhood fan and ex-player, Peracassi understood what the club means for the people of Bergamo and what Bergamo as a town means for its people and the club. Peracassi started many welfare programs with the club, helping to mend the past bruises and re-building the relationship with the community and the Ultras- who are known throughout Italy for their notoriety.

It is known that whenever a new child takes birth in Bergamo, the club personally delivers a jersey for the newborn- taking ‘Teach them young, teach them right’ motto to another level. Like a phoenix, the club was rising from the ashes- reborn with a new ambition and purpose. This was just the beginning of another fairy tale. It wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of the fans, the president and the coach- Mister Gasperini. 

Gian Piero Gasperini: Manager Profile 

The 63-year old enjoyed a fairly successful playing career, coming from the youth ranks of his boyhood club-Juventus and playing with the likes of Paolo Rossi and Sergio Brio in the Primavera squad. He never made an appearance for Juventus but he played for Serie B sides- Reggiana and Palermo, with whom he reached the Coppa Italia final in 1979. A fairly successful career with Palermo saw him move to Pescara and play in Serie A from 1985 to 1990. After retiring in 1993 at the age of 35, Gian Piero pushed to become a coach.

One year later, he was at Juventus again, this time starting his career as a coach with the Bianconeri. He managed all possible age groups in the youth system of Juventus, right from U14 to the Primavera (U-20) squad. In 2003, he left Juventus to start his career as a manager- taking over a young Crotone squad which was playing in Serie C1. In his first season, Gasperini won the promotion to Serie B via play-offs. He stayed for 2 more years with the Crotone side- pushing above their weight in 2nd division.

In 2006, he joined Genoa who were also struggling in 2nd division, pushing hard to win a promotion. In his first season with the Rossoblu, Gasperini won the promotion with Genoa, thus foraying into Serie A as a manager. In 2008-09 season, Genoa combined shrewd signings with Gasperini’s penchant of pushing his players to perform above their capabilities which resulted in the club finishing 5th in the table, missing out on a potential Champions League qualification due to an inferior goal difference (Fiorentina hence qualified after finishing 4th). This was the club’s best ever finish in 19 years. Gasperini re-launched the careers of a certain Thiago Motta and Diego Milito, both of whom were then snapped up by Inter Milan and became core members of a treble winning squad. Gasperini’s achievement earned him rave reviews from even the elite managers and comparisons with the Great Zdenek Zeman were also there because of some similarities in their management styles, building tactical systems according to the best output of players present and playing a rather expansive, high tempo football focusing on overloads from wide areas. 

There were even murmurs that the Great Scot- Sir Alex Ferguson also looked at Gasperini as his replacement at Manchester United. His glorious time with Genoa eventually came to an end and Gasperini embarked on a new adventure- joining Inter Milan. But with lofty ambitions of the club and Gasperini’s rather patient and long-term stability thinking didn’t align After a series of bad results, he was relieved from his duties. 

Gasperini then took the reins of a struggling Palermo where he helped them provide some stability. Highlight of his short stint at the Sicilian side (this time as a manager) has to be consistent performances of their captain and legend- Fabrizio Miccoli giving great goal scoring returns which also earned him a callup to the National team, 9 years after his last call up and cap for the Azzuri

In 2013, Genoa again sought Gasperini’s services. His second stint at the club wasn’t as successful as the first stint but he brought a much-needed stability to the side which was struggling both on and off the pitch, providing them with an identity on the pitch. 

With Atalanta looking for a manager who can take them one step further after building a stable foundation in the last 5 years, they turned their eyes to Mister Gasperini in what was the beginning of a romantic story- full of ups and downs. 

Gasperini’s personnel was not merely turned into gold in an instance. Instead, the manager’s biggest feat was to create a consistent and successful game model imprinted upon the virgin goddess Atalanta’s virtues, the same virtues on which the football club was existing- the same virtues on which the entire town has survived. 

Fearlessness, a by-product of the wilderness the goddess was bred in. 

Speed, an essential quality of every one of her quests, such as when she challenged her suitors to a foot race, confident in being able to outrun each and every one of them.  

Survival instinct, manifested in the knack for hunting that Atalanta inherited from the bear that suckled her from birth, and that she later perfected after being found and nurtured by hunters. 

Atalanta: Tactical Analysis

“I posted a picture of a wolf pack in the changing room. There are wolves at the front, some in the middle and one at the back. The ones up front can set the pace in the beginning. The next wolves are the strongest, they are the ones who must protect everyone if they are attacked. The ones in the centre are always protected.

“Then there are another five strong ones further back to protect an attack from there. The last one is the boss and he ensures no one is left behind. He keeps everyone united and is always prepared to run everywhere; to protect the whole group. The message is that a leader doesn’t just stay up front; he takes care of the team and this is what I want from my players.” This is how Gasperini has managed this Atalanta side, not just tactical drills but also instilling that mentality in the players. “Defending makes you invincible, but if you want to win, you must attack.’- Gasperini once quoted the Art of War proverb to his team in one of the training sessions, which are said to be so intense that match days eventually just feel like a holiday. Gasperini doesn’t like players who don’t work hard, in his words- he is scared of those players; for the players need to struggle; from those struggles the victors are born. 

Tactically, Gasperini is known for using a fluid 3–4–3 formation and a spectacular high-risk hyper-offensive-minded possession-based system, which relies on the versatility of his midfielders and front line. His team’s playing style places more focus on scoring goals, off-the-ball movement and quick, short passes on the ground, and less focus on long balls and the defensive aspect of the game. As such, at times his trademark 3–4–3 system resembles a 3–4–1–2, 3–2–4–1, 3–5–2, or 3–4–2–1 formation, with energetic overlapping attacking wing-backs in lieu of wide midfielders, that provide width along the flanks and push up the pitch when going forward. They make a 3-2-3-2 shape during the build-up phase, building passing triangles and creating overloads in the required area of the pitch where numerical advantage is needed. He has also been known to use a 4–3–3 or 4–2–3–1 on occasion.

The 3-2-3-2 shape makes it easy for Atalanta to create space through rotational play. The players are close to one another, and know that their rotations are based on the shape of the diamond. Therefore, it gives structure to their rotations. Where Atalanta truly excel with these diamonds is when they are anchored by one of their three centre-backs, and it allows their attacking midfielder with an option to drift in the middle of the pitch and rotate into the diamonds to create a 5 v 4 in these areas. From this position as an attacking-midfielder, the player should always be available to sustain a forward phase of play by dropping into the diamond where needed.

When defending off the ball, his teams are also known for the use of heavy pressing, but also apply elements of fluid man-marking across the entire pitch and often switch to a 5–4–1 or 5-3-2 formation defensively. They try to outnumber their opponents at all times and win the ball as quickly as possible.

Gasperini favours using hard-working and highly physical two-way players in midfield rather than a deep-lying playmaker, but also quick, talented, technical, diminutive, slender, elusive, and creative players upfront, in order to implement his system effectively; he has also been known to use a larger and more physical centre-forward upfront on occasion, who is good in the air. 

While this kind of playing style has been successful for Gasperini at Genoa and now Atalanta, Gasperini has also attracted the criticisms of pundits if he can actually manage an established footballing giant with his current set-up (which he can but due patience is needed from the top authorities). 

Since the players always try to follow the ball, the defensive shape often gets disoriented and gaps are formed. These gaps are exploited by creative and intelligent players. They play a high block, with balls over the top of their relatively slow defenders causing them problems. Players need to stay at their concentration peak and the highest levels of mental and physical state throughout the whole match as one lapse can collapse their system. 

And that is where the club comes. Atalanta have roughly relied on the principles of ‘Moneyball’- finding undervalued players who statistically were at par with many established players but went under the radar and honing them under Gasperini’s management. Other than this smart recruitment where they scouted the central European countries and Scandinavia where teams usually followed the principles on which Gasperini set up his tactics, Atalanta and Gasperini also relied on the youth academy and a highly structured loaning system where they closely monitored the activity of players to either sell for a profit or integrate in first team. 

Despite selling many of their key players over the years, Atalanta have made a hefty profit and have spent in a sensible manner in which their running cost also hasn’t impacted their financial security and has kept them equally competitive.

Rise of the Goddess to the top (continued)

A poor start to his Atalanta reign almost saw him get relieved from duties but a series of crucial victories against AS Roma and SSC Napoli bought Gasperini some added time. But this added time was enough for his players to get accumulated to a change in system which eventually saw Atalanta finish 4th in the table, their highest ever finish since the 1947-48 season and qualification for UEFA Europa League, 26 years after they last played in Europe. The 2017-18 season saw Atalanta wreak havoc in Europe- getting 6/6 wins in Europe in the group stage which consisted of Lyon, Everton and Apollon Limassol. They took the fight to Borussia Dortmund in Round of 32 who were among the favourites to reach the final of the competition. A 7th place and semi final appearance in Coppa Italia capped off a successful season for the ambitious Atalanta side. 2018-19 also started very well and Gasperini took them to 3rd place in the table with a final appearance in Coppa Italia- losing to Lazio in the end. This was the best finish in the club’s history, making the club eligible to play in UEFA Champions League for the first time in club’s history. 

Despite losing some key players and utilising the newly revamped loan system to raise money- Gasperini’s side made many shrewd signings along the way who didn’t take a lot of time to get settled- raising money, keeping the investment and wage budget in check and not losing their competitive edge. The 2019-20 season also started in the same fashion- a juggernaut Atalanta side stomped the yard in Italy, scoring a lot (conceding a lot also)- very different from the stereotype of football in Italy being ‘defensive’. In Champions League, Atalanta was making their debut against Manchester City, Shaktar Donestk and a rejuvenated Dinamo Zagreb- then spearheaded by present day RB Leipzig talisman Dani Olmo, who really gave the Bergamo based side a lot of trouble in Atalanta’s debut match- which they lost 4-0. Not the start the Italian side expected. Next up was the trip to Manchester, another 4-0 drubbing and the dream of progressing from group stage was at the stage of shattering. 

But did I tell you that this team was blessed by the Goddess and possessed the wrath of the same? When everything looked against them, they fought back and did they conquer? Yes. They somehow qualified from the group stage by securing 2nd place with a massive victory against Dinamo Zagreb. San Siro was roaring (since Atalanta’s Gewiss Stadium didn’t meet UEFA’s expectations). Right at the stadium of their arch rivals, this young side was celebrating a massive victory in the Champions League. Next up was Valencia- then led by Marcelino.

Boy, did this Atalanta side dismantled the slight favourites in this tie at San Siro! A 4-0 drubbing saw a packed San Sir erupt in joy. The eruption in Bergamo was even more massive than the one witnessed in Milan. But it was February 2020. The Atalanta-Valencia match proved to be the ground zero for the spread of Covid-19 in Lombardy. The tears of joy soon turned into the tears of sorrow as Bergamo was badly hit by the virus.

The army was deployed on the streets of Bergamo, which a few days back were resonating with the sound of the club’s anthem, were now full of the sound of ambulance sirens- to help carry the ones who could not survive the scare and provide them a dignified burial. In this time of sorrow, the football club kept everyone together and stepped up when it mattered the most. A resounding 4-3 victory in Valencia in an empty Estadio Mestalla saw the debutants reach the quarter final before football was halted worldwide (just like various other activities). The club was at the pinnacle in it’s 113-year old history at the worst possible time, where they could not celebrate this achievement with the fans who stuck by them through thick and thin. 

For the hunters Gasperini trained and never ran away from a challenge. In soulless empty stadiums, they kept on playing amidst the scare of contracting the virus and the fatigue due to bio-bubble, away from their families. The 2020-21 season also started in similar fashion but this time every victory carried even more weight, for now they were truly playing to ease the pain of thousands in the town. Another 3rd place finish in a very tight competition ensured that the team embraced its divine inheritance to establish itself in Serie A’s Mount Olympus, guided by its very own King Midas, Giampiero Gasperini, able to turn every player passing through Bergamo into gold. From the youth to veterans from Europe’s deepest trenches. 

All thanks to the advancements in modern day science that viruses can be countered and defeated. Now, the faithfuls of Atalanta BC can see their beloved team play in Bergamo, under the shiny lights against the biggest teams. On Wednesday, the ‘wolfpack’ as Gasperini calls his squad will again go on a hunting trip- this time in the fabled land of Manchester, a decade after the first rumours about ‘Gasperson’ taking over the reins at Manchester United arose. For the Goddess and her cult of Ultras will be on the hunt of not a boar but a Devil. 

Atalanta BC is a model club for not only the ambitious underdogs but fallen giants, behemoths of the clubs who have lost their identity, who want to achieve the things in their fashion and opposite to that of the direction which modern football has gone. For Atalanta is one of the best examples of “Another football is possible”

“Siamo sempre insieme a te. Non ti lasceremo mai. Devi sempre solo vincere. Devi sempre solo vincere .Dai Dea. Non Mollare per gli ultra. Per gli ultra. Dai vinci per noi”.

“We are always with you. We will never leave. You simply always have to win. Come on Goddess. Don’t give up on Ultras. For the Ultras. Come on, win for US.”

Sensible Targets: Nikola Milenkovic

The Balkans are known to have some of the best hidden gems in the footballing world. The Croatias, The Serbias of our world have given us many footballing prodigies in the last 2 decades. One such prodigy found his way to Italy at a very young age, right under the noses of European Giants. Now, mature enough to make a big switch- we will take a look at La Viola’s Serbian Centre Back- Nikola Milenkovic and how he can be a good partner to Harry Maguire in the long run and provide healthy competition to current centre back pairing at the English club. 

 

(Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)

Background

Nikola Milenkovic was born in Belgrade in October 1997 and spent his entire youth career at Partizan Belgrade who are known to unearth many talented youngsters in the Balkans (one such player which Manchester United were seriously interested in was Filip Stevanovic, who eventually chose Manchester City). After spending some time on loan at Teleoptik, Milenkovic made his debut for Partizan in the Serbian SuperLeague in the 2015/16 season. He appeared four times, largely because of a four-game suspension following a red card. He still managed to score his first goal for the club that year. 

The following season, 2016/17, saw Milenkovic establish himself as first choice option at centre back as he made 32 appearances in the league, scoring twice, as Partizan completed a domestic double. At the end of the season, Fiorentina’s sporting director Pantaleo Corvino, famous for snapping up budding players in the Balkans, brought the defender to Firenze. Milenkovic had a good debut season in Italy with 16 appearances in Serie A. His performances also earned him a spot in Serbia’s World Cup squad where he played all of their three games at the heart of defence.

Playing Style 

Nikola Milenkovic has been one of only a few standout performers for Fiorentina this season. The Serbian is a right-footed defender, who stands at 6 ft 5 and was initially signed from Partizan Belgrade for £4.5m in 2017/18. The Serbian has played in over 3,000 minutes in each of his last two Serie A campaigns, highlighting his importance to the team. Fiorentina often rely on Nikola’s defensive ability. Milenkovic often lines up as the right centre-back and has also played as a right back in the past for La Viola and Partizan.  The Serbian ventures very less towards the left-hand side of the 18-yard box, fixed to the central area and the right-hand side wide space.

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s heat map for the season 2019-20

The heat map also implies that Milenkovic is comfortable advancing with the ball when Fiorentina are in possession, a confident user of the ball who can often be found looking for a progressive pass to break the lines of the opposition’s defensive structure.

Defensive Aspect

Milenkovic is kind of an old school, no-nonsense defender, combining the old school centre back principles with modern day approach; amalgam of the intelligent reading of the game and positioning with strength and superb aerial ability. His height and physical built helps him to dominate in the air, last season the Serbian won 77% of all aerial battles, a figure which positioned him in the 95th percentile of centre-backs in Serie A.

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s 2019-20 season breakup

This season also, he is averaging upwards of 80% in successful aerial duels, putting him in topmost percentile in this metric, not only in Serie A but in top 5 leagues of Europe. One aspect of Milenkovic’s impressive defensive game is his individual defending. He’s got a very good technique when defending on his own and for his age shows a great wealth of experience in terms of his decision making. Milenkovic possesses an innate sense of positioning with the ability to angle his body perfectly to cover passing options while also maintaining the balance needed to defend against the opposition attacking players.

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s 2020-21 season breakup

Ball Playing Ability

In modern day football, the ball playing and ball progression ability of centre backs is becoming a necessary trait in order to thrive at elite level since teams, rather than sitting deep and counter-attacking from flanks, now try to press/counter-press higher up the pitch and try to dominate the possession in half wing spaces. There has been a myth in the scouting circuit that Nikola isn’t very comfortable with ball playing and ball progression due to his “athletic built” (just like Harry Maguire). 

Here, we see an example of how Nikola Milenkovic is with the ball at his feet in the image taken from the game against Udinese below.

The opposition are well organised and their press has closed all forward passing lanes, leading to Fiorentina playing the ball back towards their own goal. As soon as Milenkovic receives the ball in this position his first thought is to drive forward at the opposition.

This movement of the central defender towards the opposition forces the opposition to move out of their positional slots to close Milenkovic down. This movement towards the ball opens a forward passing lane, allowing Nikola to progress the ball into the opposition’s half to the feet of Patrick Cutrone.

Another example of the Serbian’s confidence on the ball and vision to breaking opposition’s lines with his passes with the ball can be found against Sampdoria. I Bluerchiati, led by Mister Claudio “Dily Ding, Dily Dong” Ranieri, are known to deploy a low block with two banks of four spanning the width of the penalty area, and pressing the opposition’s centre backs through their strikers.

This movement creates an opportunity for Milenkovic to get a shot/pass off on goal, in this circumstance Patrick Cutrone reads the play like any good forward and is able to get on the end of the ball from Nikola.

Conclusion

In the above data driven and eye testing tactical analysis, we have seen that Nikola Milenkovic has all the traits to thrive at an elite level in modern day game, he has the physical build, the aggression of an ‘old school’ Centre Back, intelligence of a ‘modern day’ centre back and ability to play lots of games into the season (the Serbian has missed less than 10  matches in his entire career due to injury concerns till now). Given Manchester United’s defensive woes are more due to underlying structural issues which leave their centre backs without any good cover during transitions and the initial pairing of Harry Maguire-Victor Lindelof is also suspect at times: the Swede’s inability to impose himself on opposition’s attacking players sometimes add extra load on his English partner to do extra dirty work. A fast paced and aggressive centre back who can easily do the dirty work on and off the ball during transitions and also has the aggression and physical build to impose himself on the opposition is required to partner Harry Maguire in the long run. Nikola has all those traits and all the eye test and data analysis point out that he can be a good option to buy because of following factors: 

  • The Serbian’s contract with Fiorentina ends in 2022, with him being at a stage in his career where he wants to progress as a footballer at a bigger stage and contest for trophies- this may force Fiorentina to cash in on him during the summer window of 2021. A price between 20-40 million pounds will easily force Fiorentina to cash in on him. 
  • Manchester United do require a centre back but even before buying a Centre Back, they need to sort out the future of their back up Centre Backs first: Eric Bailly’s contract is ending in 2022 and Axel Tuanzebe needs regular playing time at his age too.  
  • Moreover, Manchester United need to buy a defensive minded versatile midfielder first who can play in multiple formations, complement the current midfield roster, try to take the load of creation from Bruno Fernandes and most important thing, don’t leave the centre backs exposed during transitions. With multiple loopholes in the squad and Manchester United’s inability to do the transfer business efficiently in comparison to their arch rivals (Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC), a cheaper alternative like Milenkovic may prove to be a bargain buy in longer run and also leave funds to strengthen the positions which require immediate and instant fix. 

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.