This Friday sees the much-awaited start of Euro 2016 in France. Twenty-four national teams will try and advance in the tournament and one, on July 10th, will be crowned European Champion. Tipped as possible favourites are the hosts but also Germany and the defending European champions Spain; that doesn’t mean there can’t be upsets - in the past, underdogs in the competition have also surprised.
The Czechs are nowhere near favourites at Euro 2016 but that, team captain Tomáš Rosický suggested, suits the team just fine. Fans will no doubt hope being regarded as the underdog works to the squad’s advantage: it’s not like smaller teams haven’t surprised at the tournament before. In 2004, the competition was unexpectedly won by Greece, in 1992 by Denmark, and in 1976, by former Czechoslovakia itself. In ’76, the game-winning goal came from Antonín Panenka – a cheeky chip which has since been emulated by everyone from Andrea Pirlo to Lionel Messi. To this day the penalty is named after the player who came up with it.
That was the only time the Czechs won the championship but they came close again 20 yearslater, against the odds reaching the final at Wembley Stadium against Germany. In 2004, the Czech Republic fielded a now legendary squad which included the likes of Pavel Nevěd, Jan Koller, Karel Poborský and Milan Baroš.
Many felt they would take it all the way, but the team was stunned by Greece in the semi-final.
This year, the Czechs – who have qualified for every European football championship in the country’s modern history – face tough competition: Turkey, Croatia, and Spain. Ahead of Monday’s opening match against the defending champions, goalkeeper Petr Čech put things in perspective:
“Well we are not the favourites in the game, they are one of the favourites to win the whole tournament, so we are just getting ready and we need to concentrate on what we are going to do in the game. Hopefully we will play to the [very] limits of our possibilities and have a chance to get something out of the game.”
The return of team captain Tomáš Rosický should provide a boost. At 35, his career dented by many past injuries, he nevertheless remains a key playmaker capable of shaking things up on the pitch. Asked about his return, Rosický admitted the circumstances had been far from ideal but made clear he had trained hard to be ready.
“Obviously this was a very difficult year for me because if you don’t play competitive football all year there are question marks. But I gave it a go. So while I didn’t play I tried to be as fit as possible for the tournament. As I told the guys, I trained fully for two months before meeting up with the squad. I knew everything was fine and that I just needed the games, which I got now in the friendlies. I feel fine and I hope it will stay that way.”
The Czechs’ chances? Monday will see the first test and certainly they have little to lose and should try their best. Ahead of Euro 2016, the British daily the Guardian described the Czechs as “fantastically organised and capable of punching well above their weight”. Soccer fans, as well as the players will no doubt be hoping that proves to be the case.
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