Last big chance for Czech old guard

Prague, May 21 :

A clutch of Czech stars are intent on proving that life begins at 30 when the World Cup gets underway next month.

For the best part of a decade, Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Vladimir Smicer have been household names in European football. But the Czech stalwarts have never played at the World Cup — until now. And despite their advancing years, they are determined to make a lasting impression in Germany.

“We are going to Germany to win. If not, it would not make any sense,” said Poborsky, 34, the most capped player in the history of Czech football with 112 appearances.

Poborsky, along with Nedved and Smicer, made a sensational impact on the international football scene at Euro 96 in England. The unfancied Czechs created the surprise of the tournament when they qualified for the final against Germany, only to be beaten 2-1 by a golden goal. Bolstered by fresh young talent such as Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech, Borussia Dortmund midfielder Tomas Rosicky and Aston Villa striker Milan Baros, the team again attracted praise during the Euro 2004 in Portugal.

Though some of the shine evaporated when the Czechs were beaten 1-0 after a lacklustre performance in the semi-finals against eventual winners, Greece.

Despite the bullish optimism of Poborsky, some Czech veterans have wondered whether the World Cup is a tournament too far.

Former international Zdenek Nehoda, a member of the Czechoslovakia team that won the European Championships in 1976 said he feared that the Czechs might suffer in the next few years for not clearing out the old guard sooner.

“It is clear that the next renewal of the generations risks resulting in a step back, we may even see ourselves denied a place in Euro 2008,” said Nehoda, who now earns a living as Nedved’s agent. Nehoda is also worried that the Czechs may be heading for a repeat of the 1982 debacle in Spain, when the team was bundled out in the first round.

“I hope that the current team will do better than us in 1982. Many unfavourable circumstances came together at that time, including injuries to many players,” Nehoda, capped 90 times for his country from 1971-1987, added.

This year as well, injuries have been a continued source of concern for Czech manager Karel Bruckner.

The list of current and recent injuries has included attackers Jan Koller, Vratislav Lokvenc and Milan Baros, midfield players Tomas Galasek and Vladimir Smicer and defenders Zdenek Grygera and Marek Jankulovski.

In Germany, the Czech’s have been drawn in what is judged to be a difficult group, comprising Italy, the United States and Ghana. According to another participant in the brief, but painful, 1982 campaign, striker Ladislav Vizek, the squad only consisted of players selected on form just before the finals.

“And that logically turned out badly,” said Vizek, the father in law of current international, ex-Liverpool and now Bordeaux midfielder, Smicer. “A major setback was then experienced by the national team which had largely to be reconstituted. It appears that a similar gap risks appearing with the departure of key members of the current team,” he said, adding that there is one big difference almost a quarter of a century later.

“At that time, the mainstays of the national team were replaced by players who only evolved through the local championship, without any notable international experience. Today, the baton will be taken by players who already are experienced with well known European clubs”, he underlined.