From Nedved & Poborsky to a 35-year-old Rosicky – the Czech golden generation is long gone

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Only 12 years ago, the nation reached its second European Championship semi-final - this time around, with a side packed with veterans, they will do well to reach the last 16


Twenty years ago, Czech Republic exploded onto the international scene at Euro 96. A vibrant young side, boasting the likes of Karel Poborsky, Vladimir Smicer, Patrik Berger and Pavel Nedved thrilled in England as they reached the final, where they only came unstuck due to a golden goal from Oliver Bierhoff.

Although they have qualified for France, they are a pale shadow of that side and have failed to build on that great heritage. They travel to Euro 2016 with the hope of springing a surprise rather than the expectation of excelling, while their only truly recognised names are Arsenal duo Petr Cech, the national team's all-time most capped player, and Tomas Rosicky, a player who at 35 is widely considered to be past his best.

Of course, there was always a strong footballing tradition in the country, which competed as Czechoslovakia before formal independence arrived in 1993. Prague-born Antonin Panenka represented the unified nation when he so memorably clipped a penalty past legendary Germany goalkeeper Sepp Maier to win the competition in 1976 with a moment of terrific imagination.

Soon the Czechs will find themselves once again in a state of transition. The squad selected by head coach Pavel Vrba has 11 players over the age of 30, with four of them 34 or older. Cech, Rosicky and Jaroslav Plasil all boast 100 caps. 

This group is about as strong as it gets for Vrba’s men, who have been spared injuries to any of their biggest names. And given their record in qualifying, they could well be confident of pulling off an upset or two.

The Czechs topped an awkward group, finishing ahead of Turkey and Iceland as Netherlands so unexpectedly crashed out of the competition, consigned embarrassingly to fourth.

While they managed to score 19 times in 10 group matches, there are ongoing questions over their defensive capabilities. Only Kazakhstan and Latvia, the two bottom sides in their pool, conceded more goals than the 14 of Vrba’s men, who are best suited to playing in a counter-attacking style – a fact that befits their underdog status in a group that contains Spain, Croatia and Turkey.

The former Viktoria Plzen boss is a coach who “pays attention to every little detail”, according to midfielder Daniel Kolar. This is, however, his first appearance at a major tournament, and to that end he has enlisted the help of Karel Bruckner. 

The 76-year-old led his country to the semi-finals in 2004 with a squad that included Cech, Rosicky and Plasil – a trio who are still involved more than a decade later. His list of achievements also boasts three successive tournament qualifications in that era, which is arguably the heyday of football in the young nation.

But in drafting in Bruckner, there is a danger that the Czechs are further allowing their thrall on the past to keep hold of them. Success with this unit can only be fleeting; if they are to truly regain their glory days of old, a new generation must come good.

In the short term, though, qualification for the knockout stages would have to be seen as a genuine success, so far has the Czech star fallen.