In four weeks’ time, the Czech Republic will face holders Spain in their opening game at football’s 2016 European Championship in France. The Czechs reached the final in the competition in 1996 and the semi-finals eight years later. But what chances will Pavel Vrba’s team – notably short on star names – have this time out? I put those questions to journalist Michal Petrák from the daily Sport. But our conversation first took in the Czech domestic league – and specifically why attendances are so low.
“I think there are many aspects in this. I think we aren’t so obsessed with football like people in some other countries, like Italy, Spain, England or Germany.
“I think the level of stadia is poor, although it has improved magnificently in the last 10 or 20 years.
“The level of football isn’t especially high, although it has improved too, in recent years.
“I must mention corruption, or the perception of corruption. I think the level of corruption or the number of bribed referees has lowered.
“Maybe the way they are corrupt has changed – it’s more power than money, now.
“But people perceive football as corrupt, so I think they don’t care as much as they would if they perceived football as a clean sport.”
Is it demotivating for you as a sports journalist, as a football journalist, if you sense that a game has been bought?
“Of course. Don’t forget that above all I’m a football fan. It hurts me that the game I love is corrupt or is held hostage by a few individuals who follow their own personal interests.
“That hurts me. It makes me sad. And of course it frustrates me as a journalist.”
Am I right in thinking that your newspaper Sport campaigns to some degree against corruption in Czech football?
“Yes. We are trying to. You know, it’s very difficult to obtain proof.
“This goes hand in hand with the level of finances in the media, because I think there isn’t any media outlet that has the financial strength to perform real investigative journalism.
“We normal journalists find it difficult to obtain proof of wrongdoing without the help of, I don’t know, private detectives or I don’t know who.
“The structure that grows through Czech football is very strong and very well organised.
“It’s based on former and current referees. They are like an army – very difficult to penetrate.
“It’s very difficult to break that structure when the clubs or the people who work in football don’t want it themselves – because they see some benefit for themselves in this state of things.
“Otherwise they wouldn’t vote for those former referees to become regional heads of the football association and so on.”
Frankly as a lifelong fan of football I find watching the Czech league a bit difficult as the standard is so low. Is it hard for you to motivate yourself to go to a game between, I don’t know, Příbram and Slovácko – one of the really average games that might take place any weekend?
“No. I love football. That’s the answer. Yes, the standard is low. The overall standard isn’t anything to write home about.
“But I think it has improved in the last four or five years. Teams have at least started to play offensive football. They want to score goals and beat their opponents instead of just not losing.
“And you can find stories in the games anyway, like recently the drunken referees in Příbram [laughs]. On one hand it was hilarious, on the other it was tragic, how that can happen in top level football.”
If we could talk about Czech international football, in recent decades the Czechs got to the final of Euro 1996 and the semi-finals of Euro 2004…
“Which they should have won.”
They were robbed by the Greeks, right?
I know they overlapped a little bit, but which of those teams was better, from your perspective?
“I think it’s hard to compare – there were eight years between the teams.
“But still I think the 2004 team was the best Czech or Czechoslovak national team that I saw live.
“Simply because in 1996 their success was in large part an accident: Poborský’s goal against Portugal. Their draw against France, where I think Djorkaeff hit the crossbar.
“It was all a series of events that led to the final, but I don’t think in the way they played the Czechs contributed to the series of events as much as we like to think.
“In 2004, however, we played the best football in the tournament. I think the game against the Netherlands in the group stage [which the Czechs won 3:2] is unforgettable.
“I remember watching it myself and even when we were 2:0 down I was convinced that we wouldn’t lose, because of the way we played.
“I think the generation that peaked in 2004 were the players who started in 1996, like Nedvěd and Poborský. They were unknowns who peaked in 2004.
“So that is my logical answer to which of the teams is better. In 2004 they were at their peak, while in 1996 they were at the beginning.”
A couple of the young players from 2004, Rosický and Čech, will be finished after Euro 2016 – and that will also signal the end of an era.
“Yes, sadly. Because I don’t think the players that are coming after them have the necessary quality to achieve their level, the level of their teams.
“I think for many years in youth football we didn’t really have any plan in developing young players, so there’s a big gap.
“It has started to improve only recently, so there will be a gap in quality.
“Despite what I said, I think Czech teams can be successful. But they will have to find some other ways to beat their opponents than individual quality.
“Individually they aren’t any good. They have to play as a team, tactically and in a disciplined way.”
What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the likely Czech squad for Euro 2016?
“It’s probably what I just mentioned. They are very well organised.
“When I compare them to the teams they are going to meet in the group stage – Turkey, Croatia, Spain – all of them have better football players in terms of individual quality. But [the Czechs’] strength is in playing as a unit.”
I was surprised to read that in 19 games under Vrba they have conceded in every single game, even with Petr Čech in goal for most of those games.
“Yes, because Vrba likes to play offensive football. It was the case in [his former club Viktoria] Plzeň and it is the same with the national team.
“At least one can watch the national team with pleasure. You somehow feel that they run on the pitch and want to beat their opponents, be it 4:3 or 3:2.
“Under [previous coach] Michal Bílek the team lacked a face. They were somehow like amoebas, without any form or shape.
“Their strength was that they defended as a unit. But then they went forward without any idea how to do it. They played very instinctively.
“Now you can say they know what to do on the pitch and they want to beat their opponents.”
Often at European Championship or at World Cups some players emerge who had not been well known previously. Are there any Czech players who you think may make that kind of impact?
“It depends on how you define ‘not known’. I would say Vladimír Darida can have a good tournament. But I wouldn’t say he is not known: He has played very well for Hertha Berlin.
“Or Pavel Kadeřábek: He has played very well for Hoffenheim. He isn’t an international star, but I think he can have a good tournament.”
How well do you think the Czechs can do in France?
“I think with the new format with six groups and the four best third-placed teams advancing that they will advance into the round of 16.
“But it’s very difficult to say what can happen afterwards.
“I think they will lose against Spain but then I can’t say what the result will be against Croatia and Turkey.
“I think they might finish second or third. Or fourth [laughs]. But it’s difficult to predict what will happen afterwards.”
Purely out of my own personal interest, who do you think will is going to win the tournament?
“My secret choice is France. Because I think they’ve created an incredible group of young, dynamic players.
“The only condition is that they don’t strike or have a revolution against the coach or anyone else, which is pretty French.
“And in case they do, I think Spain.”
Snowboarder Ester Ledecká wins surprise gold in Olympic super-G
My father, the RAF hero who defected from Czechoslovakia in a daring triple-hijack
Czech Republic seen becoming net EU contributor by 2025
Czech PM and president reassert EU and NATO membership commitment
Jágr: Czechs among favourites for ice hockey gold in Pyeongchang