Category Archives: Czech Republic

Dukla Praha: A story between war, politics and the Ballon d’Or

In order to tell the story of Dukla Prague, it is not necessary to start too far away. We aren’t, as with the foundation of many football teams, in a bar or on a bench – like Juventus – but in the middle of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. Slovenské Narodne povstanie – or more simply SNP – was the Slovak National Uprising which began on August 29th 1944 in Banská Bystrica. It was here that the Slovaks rebelled suddenly and decisively against the Germans. The city soon became the centre of the anti-Nazi resistance movement; a political and military uprising.

At the same time the Red Army, which was pooled from 16,000 Czechoslovak soldiers, were approaching simultaneously from the north and east. Radio Moscow, through the legendary voice of the announcer Yuri Levitan – who began his broadcasts with: “Attention! Moscow is speaking” – informed the people of a Soviet army advancement. The Czechoslovak government, which at the time was in London, headed by President Beneš was aware of preparations for the insurrection and fully approved of them. The prerequisite for the success was to ensure that the Red Army could unite with the insurgents, to do so it was necessary for the Russian army to ake possession of the Dukla Pass, a strategic spot on the border between Poland and Slovakia.

The attack was met with a tough Nazi resistance and the Dukla-Prešov operation proved to be one of the bloodiest on the Eastern Front – in the two-month battle, 21,000 Soviet’s were killed along with nearly 2,000 Czech. It took more than fifty days to drive out the men of the Third Reich from Slovakia.

Emerging from this epic chapter in the history of European liberation is the name of a Czech football team that was formerly sponsored by the army – even today their name exists as a glorious reminder of the past; that name is Dukla Prague.

Dukla Prague were initially known as ATK – Armádní Tělocvičný Klub -, the abbreviation of Czech Army Gymnastics Club. To speed up, or rather, encourage, an ascent to the pinnacle of Czech football a special rule was introduced where every player who had performed military service would be automatically entered into the ranks of Dukla, even if he was under contract with another club. The entrance to the club in the top division was anything but orthodox and the club had the green light to pick the best players in the nation. As described by Radovan Jelínek, author of several books including The First World Atlas of Football:

“Normally, each team would have to qualify to play in first division. It was not the case of Dukla Prague. In the late ’40s, the best Czechs clubs were ‘instructed’ to give the club at least one of their players. Today [this] would be something unacceptable. This was the beginning of the history of Dukla. Once it had all the best players from other clubs, for example, seven players coming from Slavia or five from Bohemians, [the team] dominated Czechoslovakian football. ”

If we speak about Dukla, the thought runs fast to Josef Masopust, the world-beater who led the yellow and red for thirteen long years, from 1953 to 1966. A son of a miner from Most, the young Josef had, in 1949, signed a professional contract with Vodotechna Teplice when he was just eighteen. He resembled Jozsef Bozsik; key player of Honvéd and the great Hungarian side. Masopust was a midfielder with a great deal of pace to his play. Arguably his best quality was his ability to use both feet beautifully to orchestrate perfect passes for his teammates and produce assists for the forwards. In his honour the term “Masopust-slalom” was coined to indicate a series of rapid dribbles in short spaces that baffled and bewildered opponents. With technique, strength and an exceptional vision for the game, Josef was a real indefatigable presence in the centre of the field.

The midfielder won the Ballon d‘Or in 1962, the same year he reached, and scored in, the final of the World Cup in Chile for Czechoslovakia. ‘Pepik‘, as fans affectionately called him, won the prestigious trophy defeating Eusébio and Karl-Heinz Schnellinger into second and third place respectively. “Masopust was a midfielder with such a technique to give the impression of been born in Brazil, not in Europe. A player such as Platini, Beckenbauer, comparable today to Xavi. Especially a man of great intelligence off the court”. Signed Edson Arantes do Nascimento, of course, is more famously known as Pelé. Masopust and the great Brazilian met in the final of 1962.

But back to the team. The first major success was in 1952 when the club won the Czechoslovakian Cup. In early 1953 the team was renamed UDA – Ústřední Dům Armády, Home Army-, and immediately won the first of many national titles – at the end the total will be eleven national championships – with only one defeat in their thirteen games. In 1956 they assumed their current name, in honour of the Slovak village which saw the first outbreak of revolt against Nazi brutality.

The change to Dukla came two years of perceived failure: in 58/59 Inter Bratislava were crowned champions while Dukla finished second and the following year Hradec Kralove won their first and only league title after an exciting struggle, which saw the black and whites win by two points from Inter Bratislava and Dukla Prague. Two years without a league win was too many for the team’s hierarchy. Thankfully, as a response, Dukla swept away their rivals led by the forward quintet of Brumovský-Vacenovský-Borovička-Kučera-Jelínek, guided of course by Masopust.

In the 60/61 season the difference between goals scored and conceded was a phenomenal: +43. In this year they also dominated the Czechoslovakian Cup. The next season proved to be even greater – 88 goals for, and 30 conceded in just 25 matches. Dukla was the absolute master of Czechoslovakia. Following on from the two dominating seasons the league became more balanced, but the eleven managed by Jaroslav Vejvoda still looked from above down on their opposition.

The title victory of 1960 coincides with the inauguration of the stadium Na Julisce on July 10. For the occasion there was a friendly organized against Wiener Sport-Club, an Austrian team based in Wien. For the record, Dukla won 2-1. At the Olympic Games in Tokyo in ’64, Dukla provided three players to the national team: Brumovský, Geleta and Knesl. The three returned home with the silver medal around their necks.

When in 1965 the goalkeeper Pavel Kouba moved to Sparta Prague, his place was taken by Ivo Viktor who became the foundation of Dukla’s defence. In 15 seasons he played 316 games and was nominated five times, a record still unbeaten to this day, for Czechoslovakian player of the year as well as Goalkeeper of the Year in 1969 and 1976. His achievements in goal gave him a ranking of 24th in the goalkeeper of the century list compiled by the International Institute of Football History and Statistics. He also represented the National team, making his debut in 1966 against Brazil in a football pantheon, the Maracana stadium. The only person in Dukla’s Hall of Fame who achieved more was the untouchable Masopust.
Taking up the thread of the national wins, the other victories came in 65/66 – with their second Czechoslovak Cup -, in 76/77, 78/79 and finally in the 1981-82 season, ending with another doblete and fifth Československý pohár. During this period Dukla’s dominance in the Czech half of Czechoslovakia was unquestionable. At this time the final was competed by one Czech side and one Slovak, Dukla reached ten finals, becoming the most frequent finalist in the nation’s history. Also on the playing field, Masopust’s career was ending and the transformation began into a player/coach and then finally into management fulltime. In 1969 he led Crossing Molenbeek to promotion into the Belgian first division, but even if his name was Masopust and he was the most known athlete in the country, his relationship with the regime was particularly tense. He was only allowed to play abroad at the end of his career and at 37, he formally became a professional. Understandably, the regime was anxious not to create a dangerous precedent with Masopust and potentially lose other players in the future who could have been tempted to move abroad, lured by more substantial salaries.

At the European level, Dukla debuted in 57/58, directly qualifying for the knockout stages of the European Cup. The continental experience was a short one and the team was eliminated by the Busby Babes of Manchester United. Unfortunately, the edition of that year’s tournament is remembered for the crash of Munich where eight players of Manchester United players died. The second attempt at the top European competition came in 1966-67 edition where Dukla reached the semi-finals, beating teams such as Anderlecht and Ajax, only to be defeated by the eventual winners, Celtic lead by the legendary coach Jock Stein.

Perhaps their greatest trip in Europe came about in the UEFA Cup tournament of 78/79. Dukla began by eliminating Lanerossi Vicenza – who were missing Paolo Rossi -, before going on to defeat Everton in the second round. The apotheosis came in the third round against Stuttgart. Losing the first-leg 4-1, the return game at Dukla’s Na Julisce will be forever marked as one of the best international games for the club: The match ends 4-0 and progression to the quarter-finals was unlikely assured. (I wonder if the newspapers of the time praised the achievements of those eleven heroes, perhaps alluding to the Dukla Pass battle against the Germans!). But the road to Europe that year ended in front of another Germanic outfit, Hertha Berlin.

In the 1985-86 season the club reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, yielding only to those who went on to win the title; the Ukrainians of Dynamo Kiev who were under the guidance Oleh Blokhin, the “Ukraine Arrow”, Oleksandr Zavarov and managed by Soviet guru Valery Lobanovs’kyj.

Returning back within national borders, the last three titles are linked to the figure of Zdeněk Nehoda. Nehoda, a forward who scored 124 goals in 290 games with Dukla, also won Euro 1976 with Czechoslovakia, as well as Czech player of the year for two successive years in the late 1970’s. The final piece of silverware in Dukla’s trophy cabinet came in the midst of the Velvet Revolution led by the politician-playwright Vaclav Havel. Within the next three years the Communist regime had ended and Czechoslovakia dissolved into two separate states.

Then the sunset. Sudden, but not unexpected. The image of Dukla as the club of the Communist Army did not allow the club to raise the necessary funds and the side eventually became a shadow of their former selves and slipped down to the third tier of Czech football. Only two years on from their demotion to the CFL – Cesky fotbol liga – an entrepreneur, Bohumil Ďuričko, decided to intervene and restore the ancient, famous club to greatness: after purchasing Příbram FC – based eighty miles southwest of Prague -, he merged the two teams and so FC Dukla Příbram was born.

Separately, an amateur team called Dukla Dejvice continued to play at Na Julisce in the regional Prague championships, taking the old colours of Dukla. In 2001, Dukla Dejvice joined forces with the youth teams of Dukla Prague who then broke away from Příbram in 2006 and joined the second division, acquiring the relevant license from Jakubčovice. Returning to professional football in the Czech Republic for the first time in almost a decade, Dukla Prague were reborn

After five years in the second division the side claimed promotion to the Czech top flight as champions. Their return to the Gambrinus Liga took place last season where they finished a surprising, and deserved, sixth place.

The roots of Dukla Prague as an army club have made them very unpopular in the minds of the average fan. Despite their numerous accolades their average attendance was continuously very low. For example: during the triumphant 1965/1966 season, the stands saw an average of 9,000 people per game while Sparta and Slavia had about 12-13,000 visitors. Even during the season of 81/82 only 1,500 spectators thronged the vast terraces of the Prague 6 stadium confirming little sympathy and affiliation for a team representing the sporting heart of the regime. Even today they are still considered the fourth team in the capital after Slavia, Sparta and Bohemians 1905. Some even place Viktoria Žižkov above Dukla when it comes to ranking popularity in the modern day. Dukla is a club that is by and large, generally ignored by the inhabitants of the Czech capital.

The fame of Dukla however has expanded past the boundaries of the rectangular football field. The name of Dukla appears on the cover of a book, Dukla mezi mrakodrapy – Dukla between skyscrapers – by author Ota Pavel who recounted the summer games of 1961 to 1964 in New York, part of the International Soccer League. The competition gathered some of the best European teams at the time – Red Star, Rapid Wien, AS Monaco, Espanyol et al – and during Dukla’s glory years it is no surprise they were invited. From literature and to music the song “All I want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague away kit” by the English band Half Man Half Biscuit climbed the charts and remains a cult classic. The Times has also named the jersey of Dukla amongst the top fifty most beautiful shirts in the history of football.

But let’s not forget that Dukla can boast about having seen the only two Czech Ballon d’Or winners, and arguably the two greatest Czech players ever, turn out in their famous colours.
Besides Masopust, back in 1991 a boy with blonde hair graced midfield. Pavel Nedvěd was sold after just one year later to Sparta and was to be destined to become the ‘Czech Fury’ under the shadow of the Mole Antonelliana.

In the historical overview of Czechoslovakian football, Dukla looks like a shooting star that burnt for a short time, yet dazzled the football scene in the country. And yet, like every falling star, Dukla has also left behind an illuminating legacy that is visible to all. A trail that brings back memories of good and bad: the glory of the triumphs tainted with the history of the Communist regime. As such, there is a stain on a beautiful shirt, one that is very difficult to wash.

But the overriding image of the club, in a playing sense, is the statue in honour of Josef Masopust recently unveiled for his eightieth birthday in the park near Na Julisce. Sculpted with an elegant pose, the ball slightly in front of the left foot and left-leg arched ready to produce a glorious pass to split the opposition defence in two, head held high and proud.

Weekend Watch: Season openers and city derbies

 

 

 

 

Hajduk Split vs RNK Split, Croatian Prva HNL, Sunday 29th July 2012, 20:00.

Derbies are often intense affairs; however such fixtures in the Balkans often become a battle of pride and honour like no other. This is hardly one of the fiercest intercity rivalries in central and eastern European football however with the Croatian season still very much in its early infancy an early incentive exists to gain the local ‘bragging rights’. These are two sides that are extremely close in terms of quality, with a mere 4 points and two places separating the teams last season.

Hajduk may well have faltered in their opening game against Inter Zaprešić, and consequently toiled to a defeat against Skonto Riga in Europa League, however the prospect of a victory against RNK Split is likely to raise spirits. Across the city, RNK managed to get off to a winning start thanks to a 2-0 victory over, expected strugglers, HNK Rijeka – which included a debut goal for new signing Aljoša Vojnović. Recent form is likely to prove redundant however as the players begin to find their feet in the new season, expect a tight match.

 

 

 

 

Debrecen vs Győri ETO, Hungarian NB 1, Saturday 28th July 2012, 18:00.

It’s often difficult to gauge just where teams are up to in their pre season preparations, as the first game of the season trundles along. New signings are still getting used to their altered surroundings, while the more recognisable faces are still getting to grips with the rigours of the new season. One thing that seems certain however it that at least one of these sides will be there, or there abouts, at the head of the table come the season’s end.

Debrecen’s title victory last term was achieved with devastating force and it’s down to the rest of the league to ensure that such a procession does not occur again. One of the sides who could potentially dislodge the hard worn crown of Debrecen are their opening day opponents Győri, who impressed last season with a 3rd placed finish. Club licensing issues may have prevented the club from entering European competition this season however such a distraction may well improve domestic performances in the short term.

Much will depend upon the attacking prowess of Adamo Coulibaly, whose goals helped sway the title in Debrecen’s direction, and how the Győri defence, who were a little suspect at times last season, deal with his intimidating frame. The home side remain firm favourites; however this is a hazardous fixture to start the season with.

 

 

 

 

Dukla Praha vs Sparta Praha, Czech Gambrinus liga, Saturday 28th July 2012, 17:00.

For any club locating in Praha it is difficult to step away from the shadow of the Czech Republic’s most successful side, Spartak. For Dukla, however, it is a simply incredible situation that has seen them rise from the regional based championships to the nation’s highest league in the space of 5 years.

Dukla’s promotion to the Gambrinus liga last season was expected to be something of a struggle however a string of fine performances resulted in the club exceeding expectations by finishing in 6th place. Their city rivals suffered the disappointment of a second consecutive runner’s up spot, behind Slovan Liberec, which will no doubt serve to spur the club on to reach the pinnacle of Czech football come the end of this coming season.

For the home side, they will no longer be regarded as an unknown force as their escapades last season will have alerted the nation to their strengths and weaknesses – which Sparta will no doubt look to prey on. Dukla’s 1-1 draw in this same fixture last season will inspire confidence of a repeat performances, however Sparta continue to go into the majority of domestic fixtures as clear favourites.

The fate of SK Prostějov

When people think of some of the oldest clubs in the Czech Republic, they will inevitabely say Sparta Prague or Slavia Prague. Not many, or almost no one would say SK Prostějov, which was established in 1904, making it one of the oldest clubs outside of Prague and in the Czech Republic.

A club with such a long history deserves better than what has happened over the past few years. A mixture of politics, money, and personal ambitions has caused football in Prostějov to become a confusing mess, which demonstrates the problem with modern football. The fast track to success took precedence over tradition, and sadly not many people in the city have cared. Except for a group of SK Prostějov supporters who have tried to keep the tradition of the club alive in difficult circumstances. Some of them supporting the same club their grandfathers supported.

It was in 1936 and 1937 that the club played in the old Czechoslovakian first division, finishing only behind Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague. During these two years, they also made a foray into European football. In 1936, they entered the Mitropa Cup where they defeated Admira Vienna 6-3 on aggregate, before going out in the next round 3-0 on aggregate to Hungarian side Ujpest. The following year, they again entered the Mitropa Cup, but lost 6-5 on aggregate to Grasshoppers Zurich. These years would be the most successful for the club, in terms of the first division and European play. Over the next few decades the club would bounce around from the 2nd to the 4th divisions. Despite this, they were a focal point of the city, and something the people took pride in. A club with a history in playing in the old Czechoslovakian first division, and playing in a pre-cursor to modern day European football competitions should have a better fate than what has happened to it recently.

During the 1990’s, it wasn’t uncommon to see crowds of 2000, or over 3000 for the more important games. The change of the century lead a slow, but steady decline of SK Prostějov. Attendance would slip to around 1000. This lack of revenue meant the club struggled for money. The season of 2002-03 would be the last in 2nd division for the immediate future. The final game saw a crowd or 2800. From here on in the club struggled on and off the field, eventually dropping down to the 5th tier. Despite the drop in attendance, some sections of the crowd continued to go to the games. SK supporter groups really began to become better organized in the 1980’s. It was during this decade that they were known as ‘skala’, which is means rock in Czech. A symbol of the terraces where they stood in the stadion. In the 1990’s they took the name of Ultras, but were also known as Prostějovaci or Sklani.

After the 2006-07 season, the club decided to drop the men’s team and focus on the youth. Like many things today, money is what makes the ball go round. With the decline of the men’s side, the main SK stadium began to crumble. Grass over took the terraces, the wooden benches began to fall apart, and the state of the ground reflected what had happened to football in the city.Prostějov, a city of 50,000, was faced with having no ‘major’ football club. The biggest men’s side at the start of the 2007-08 season was Haná Prostějov who played in the 8th tier of football in the county.

This is where TK Plus comes into play. They are a sports marketing agency, who has propped up various clubs in the city over the past few years from hockey, tennis, baskeball, volleyball and football. SK were looking for a new sponsor to pump some revenue into the club.

It was also during this time that SK Prostějov reformed the men’s side during the 2010/11 season in the Okres Prostějov IV třida, which is effectively the 10th and bottom tier of football in the country. They rolled over their competition and were promoted to the III třída. A member of the SK Prostějov ultras, who has followed the side for over 20 years said they wouldn’t support FK Prostějov at all. Instead, he and others have travelled around the district watching SK Prostějov play in village after village in front of 30-100 people. The sad thing is that there wasn’t a place for SK to play in the city over the past few years, and they were forced to play in the surrounding villages of Mostkovice and Kostelec na Hané. It felt like they were very much the unwanted brother in the organization. After the initial season of SK Prostějov, rumours began to spread about a significant change in the organization.

SK were looking to buy the 4th tier license from Vítkovice, who were relegated from the 3rd tier the year before and were struggling with finances. During the off-season conflicting reports kept coming in about the possible purchase. No one really knew what was going on. It wasn’t until a few weeks before the season was supposed to begin that SK bought the license from Vítkovice. To do this, they had to rename the 4th tier club to FK Prostějov, even though they were still SK Prostějov. The whole thing was a gray area, and what it meant was that FK Prostějov didn’t exist a week before the season began, and all of a sudden they were parachuted into Divize E. They bought their way in, as simple as that. Even though FK and SK are the same club, the latter has no history other than money.

All this was possible from the money put into the club from their main sponsor, TK Plus. A long time supporter of SK Prostějov told me that FK had the backing of TK Plus, and from the city council. He isn’t very optimistic about the future of the club, as he told me „in the summer, SK and FK will merge, because FK needs the youth clubs from SK. I think it is over for SK Prostějov which was established in 1904, and it could be the end of a long tradition.“ The SK Prostějov team should be playing in the Okresní Přebor next season, which is the 8th tier of football, while the current FK side will be playing in the MSFL (3rd tier).

He and a few others who are the only ones continuing to support and fight for the football tradition in this city. It may be a losing battle, but it is great to see people who still value tradition over money and the quick fix. It has been reported that both clubs will use the name SK next year, with the side in the Okresní Přebor being the reserves. Will this merger of the names bring back the fans who didn’t wan to support FK?

Eastern violence sparks further social debate at Euro 2012

Collective disobedience by eastern European fans against the local authorities in both Poland and Ukraine will serve to permanently tarnish the tournament as a whole. There remains a distinct disregard for the well being of those who hope to ensure that the European Championships are not tainted by the actions of those in the stands. This is, however, a truly complex situation which suffers from the inherent conflict which exists between eastern European fans and security forces in football grounds.

Russia, for example, regularly finds itself immersed within violence and tension between fans and policing authorities. A sense of injustice exists in the mindset of many fans who feel as though they are dealt with in a particularly heavy handed manner. This, in turn, helps to provoke a reaction of a rather extreme magnitude. One look at the severity of fines that Russian clubs receive on a weekly basis during the course of a season, as a consequence of their fan’s actions, and the struggle that presently exists begins to become ever clearer

The balancing act that needs to exist, in order to ensure the safety of each individual within a stadium at any given time, is one that sits all too precariously – and more often than not falls on the side of chaos. The tribalism that is rife across the east is one that remains deeply entrenched in the fabric of each football club. Each team represents a political and social ideology and to separate the sporting institution from its fan base is a painfully difficult process. Generations of fans have been brought up to believe in the just cause of their side, and as such have developed the desire to spit bile and hatred to those whom they perceive as being the enemy.

The manner in which Russian fans reacted to the stewards, in the wake of their nation’s match against the Czech Republic, is quite simply unsurprising. It has since come to light that the mass brawl that ensued came as a result of the ‘heavy handed’ measures taken by the stewards in dealing with rowdy Russian fans. This led to the abandonment of civility and the introduction of fists. In the build up to the tournament much of the continent’s eyes were on the supporters of the co-hosts who, as has been widely reported, suffer from a certain degree of hooliganism. However it would appear as though the potential actions of visiting fans were forgotten in earnest.

Accompanied by allegations of racial abuse, towards the Dutch squad during an open training session, the European Championships have suffered from a particularly difficult start, with the tournament still rooted firmly in its infancy. With hundreds of thousands of fans still yet to fill the Polish and Ukrainian stands it would appear as though these early signs could well point toward a difficult few weeks for UEFA, in particular.

With the bidding for the Euro 2020 tournament beginning to take shape it will be interesting to see whether the governing body will wish to see the competition placed in the arms of a ‘safe’ pair of hands. This would point to the Celtic bid – made up of Wales, Scotland and Ireland – being placed in pole position, ahead of the more unstable environments of Turkey and Georgia and Azerbaijan. However as representation continues to remain a key facet of potential host nations, the Celtic bid could potentially suffer from the French tournament of 2016.

It is certain that crowd trouble is not merely an issue isolated solely to Eastern Europe however, and this is a point that does not appear to have been stressed enough. There can be no nation who can claim to have struck a perfect balance whereby conflicts between fans and security forces are nonexistent. As such the establishment of a successful ‘one size fits all’ model of policing football matches has yet to be formulated, and is unlikely to ever come to light. In such a situation one size certainly doesn’t fit all, and so the regional discrepancies of each individual issue must be taken into account in order for the eradication of violence at football grounds to become a reality.

Eastern Europe will likely bear the brunt of the western tabloid storm; however the tournament will hopefully provide more positives than negatives over the coming weeks. Much attention will now be placed upon how fans behave in and around the host cities, however hopefully they will not all be solely focussed upon both Poland and Ukraine alone.

The ‘Eastie Boys: Czech Republic

Goalkeepers

Petr Čech (Chelsea) – In great form for Chelsea throughout the season and especially in the Champions League. Crucial to Czech hopes

Jaroslav Drobný (Hamburg) – Likely to be Čech’s understudy. A reliable one, if a bit unspectacular. Not had the best of seasons in Germany.

Jan Laštůvka (Dnipro) – Shaky against Scotland at Hampden in his only international appearance so far. Unlikely to add to it this summer.

Defenders

Theo Gebre Selassie (Liberec) – The one to watch in the Czech back line. One of the most complete fullbacks you’re likely to see this summer.

Roman Hubník (Hertha Berlin) – Relegated to the bench for the national team in conjunction with relegation with Hertha means it’s been a rough few weeks for the centre back.

Michal Kadlec (Bayer Leverkusen) – Penalty specialist and defensive lynchpin. Likely to be moved to centre-back for the Euro’s.

David Limberský (Viktoria Plzeň) – Another attack minded fullback. Has been gifted a starting berth due to Kadlec’s repositioning and Pudil’s omission. Has a fearsome left foot.

František Rajtoral (Viktoria Plzeň) – Only recently been given a call up, but alongside Gebre Selassie the stand out right back the Czechs have. Impressed many in the Champions League for Plzeň.

Tomáš Sivok (Besiktas) – Great in the air the Besiktas man will be a danger at set-pieces. First choice centre back alongside Kadlec.

Marek Suchý (Spartak Moscow) – Expected to marshal the Czech defence for years to come, but for now making do with a substitute role.

Midfielders

Vladimír Darida (Viktoria Plzeň) –Late addition to the national team which caps off a remarkable six months for Darida. An energetic box-to-box player Plzeň love to have.

Tomáš Hübschman (Shaktar Donetsk) – Has won the most titles by a Czech national on foreign soil. Likely to anchor the midfield allowing others the freedom to attack.

Petr Jiráček (Wolfsburg) – Earned his move to the Bundesliga after fine performances for Plzeň in the autumn. Tireless midfielder who can play practically anywhere.

Daniel Kolář (Viktoria Plzeň) – Picked over Jiří Štajner to be the understudy to Rosický. Capable attacking midfielder, but sometimes can lose focus.

Milan Petržela (Viktoria Plzeň) – A quick and direct winger who will probably be used off the bench to provide ammo for others in the air.

Václav Pilař (Viktoria Plzeň) – Little magic, the Czech Messi, whatever you want to call him the Wolfsburg bound man has it all and then some. Can easily tear defences a part.

Jaroslav Plašil (Bordeaux) – Might be a little unheralded alongside Rosický, but he is an equally talented playmaker. Enjoying life in Bordeaux and understated for the national team.

Jan Rezek (Famagusta) – The man who broke Scottish hearts in Glasgow with that, erm, fall. Used out wide, but likes to cut inside.

Tomáš Rosický (Arsenal) – Often injury plagued, generally erratic, but when on form there aren’t many better players. Slight concern about his calf heading in to the Euro’s though…

Forwards

Milan Baroš (Galatasaray) – Will want to go out in the best possible way. Still first choice even though goals have started to dry up. May be sacrificed if needs be however.

David Lafata (Jablonec) – Twenty five league goals this season in the Czech Rep. Deadly penalty area striker but chances likely to be limited.

Tomáš Necid (CSKA Moscow) – Just returning after a horrific knee injury. Not back at his best, but will trouble defences with his ability and offers a good ‘Plan B’ for the side.

Tomáš Pekhart (Nurnberg) – Produced a good season for Nurnberg but yet to replicate that form for the national team. Good all purpose striker.

Euro 2012 Tactical Previews: Czech Republic

As part of its build-up to the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, Slavic Football Union is running a series of tactical previews on the eastern European sides taking part in the tournament. In this addition, we take a look at the Czech Republic…

Only Petr Cech and Jarslav Plasil remain from the Czech side that last experienced football at the European Championships – a painful late late defeat at the hands of Turkey in 2008. Although that tournament was now four years ago, the loss of senior squad members Zdenek Grygera, Tomas Ujfalusi, David Rozehnal, Marek Jankulovski, Tomas Galasek, Jan Koller and David Jarolim represents a chasm of quality and wherewithal that has needed replacing. A disastrous 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign only acted to highlight the scale of the task at hand, but the Czech’s grew into qualifying for 2012 and were worthy and comprehensive victors over Montenegro in November’s play-off.

Coach

Michal Bilek has experienced a rough ride since his appointment in 2009. Whilst he would attribute the use of more than fifty players and various tactical systems to the transitional state of the squad, it took until the second half of the qualifying campaign for him to fully identify a successful modus operandi.

Despite being a successful player who won 35 caps (32 for Czechslovakia and 3 for the Czech Republic) for his country, Bilek’s appointment as national coach was met with widespread scepticism. A thin coaching CV, which featured seven jobs in eight years, was largely undistinguished, and he was accused of being overly conservative due to him having generally experienced posting with smaller, less equipped teams. Many also suspected that his close friendship with Ivan Hasek, the then chairman of the Czech Football Association (FAČR), as being the primary reason for his appointment.

A 3-0 friendly defeat against Norway back in August was described as the one of the worst performances since the formation of the national side in 1994 and Bilek had to withstand many people demanding that he resign. Things have improved since, but with his contract due to expire after the tournament, long-term prospects remain in the balance.

Tactics

The current side undoubtedly lack the same individual quality of the sides of 1996, 2004 and 2008, but they have ripened at a good time, finding cohesion and spirit as the qualifying campaign came to a close. Bilek started qualifying with a 4-4-2, but it was perhaps the resilience of the Czech’s performance against world champions Spain with a 4-2-3-1 that persuaded him to shift to the latter for the remainder of the campaign – the Czechs eventually losing that game 2-1, having led for 40 minutes.

The back four is likely to be made up of forward-minded full-backs Theodor Gebre Selassie and Michal Kadlec, with experienced pair Tomas Sivok and Roman Hubnik in the centre. Tomáš Hübschman is a capable screen in front of the backline, who can also sweep across behind Gebre Selassie’s forward forays. Alongside him, Petr Jiráček is a busy and proactive presence, who will often look to support play in the final third. In front of them is Tomas Rosicky, undoubtedly the team’s most important component. Bilek gives his star man the licence to roam, whether it be dropping to receive possession, pushing up to support the front man, or drifting wide for combinations. His form will be vital to the team’s chances.

Out wide, Bilek tends to opt for the tenacious Jan Rezek, who is at home on either wing, but less conservative than Jaroslav Plasil on the right. Rezek’s tasks tend to involve determined harrying of defenders when out of possession and direct, powerfully running with it. His doggedness should not, however, be mistaken for a player compensating for a lack of finesse.

Plasil is a measured head, whose versatility means he could also play at the back of the midfield if required. He will tuck in against better opponents, leaving Rezek to support the lone striker. That figure is likely to be Milan Baroš who, despite his excellent record of 40 goals in 87 caps for his country, has struggled for form in the last year and appears to be pace by the day. However, with Tomáš Necid only recently back from a long-term injury and Tomáš Pekhart yet to convince, the Galatasaray striker is still probable to get the nod.

Options elsewhere include the compact Václav Pilař, who can play anywhere across the attacking midfield line, but is most likely to be found cutting in off the left side onto his stronger right foot. Pilař’s teammates at Viktoria Plzeň, Daniel Kolář and Milan Petržela also offer feasible alternatives in midfield. In defence, Bilek has the option of David Limbersky at left back, should he choose to move Michal Kadlec into the centre in place of the often cumbersome Hubnik.

Weekend Watch: title deciders and relegation dog fights

Slovan Liberec vs Viktoria Plzeň, Czech Gambrinus liga, Saturday 12th May, 16:30.

This is the weekend’s big game across the enter region of eastern Europe. Allow us to set the scene – this is the final game of the season, where the league leaders, Liberec, take on the team in second, Plzeň. The game is sure to be a battle of nerve as both sides must win in order to lift the coveted trophy – as the league is decided on their head to head record, as opposed to goal difference. A draw would force the league to enter a historic ‘golden match’ where both sides would have to again face off in a final. Liberec are painfully close to clinching their third league title – and first since 2006 – but will there be one final twist?

NK Karlovac vs HNK Rijeka, Croatian 1.HNL, Saturday 12th May, 18:00.

Relegation dog fights can be as tense and nerve racking as the opposite end of the table where teams are battling for the league title. The fate of Rijeka rests largely upon this result. Karlovec may have already been forced to accept that relegation is a certainty this season however for the visitors on Saturday, there remains a glimmer of hope that they can remain in the Croatian top flight for another year. Rijeka’s narrow lead over Inter Zaprešic, which is only by goal difference, means that a victory is a necessity should they hope to have a chance of avoiding relegation. The problem lies in the fact that Rijeka have gone some 6 games without victory and look absolutely bereft of any attacking confidence – so you would assume that a narrow victory would be their only means of gaining the 3 points.

Gomel vs BATE Borisov, Belarusian Vysheyshaya Liga, Saturday 12th May, 15:00

The season may still be young in the Belarusian top flight however this fixture remains certain to be a clash of two of the nation’s title contenders. Both sides have made particularly impressive starts to the campaign, with BATE having lost only 1 in 8 games while their opponents have dropped a mere 4 points. BATE may remain the favourites to again lift the league title come the season’s end – thanks to their successive victories over the past couple of seasons – however it finally looks as though Gomel will be able to build upon their 3rd placed finish last year and mount a challenge. Gomel will need to find a solution to their goalscoring issues – as they’ve yet to look entirely convincing in front of goal – especially against a side as defensively solid as BATE. However their home advantage should provide for some added spice to the fixture.

*Thanks to Chris for the heads up about Liberec vs Plzen being decided on head to head, as opposed to goal difference.