Euro 2012: Czechs hope to defy outsider status

Quite a glorious past, for sure. The present Czech Republic? Not

so much.

With most of the big names gone, the Czechs can hardly be

counted among the favorites at the this year’s European

Championship. But the recent return to form of the national

football team, its major stars in great shape and several promising

newcomers should give the team a chance to pull off some surprises

in Poland and Ukraine.

Facing Greece, Poland and Russia in Group A in what many see as

the weakest group of the tournament, the Czechs hope to advance

from the first round for the first time since 2004 when they

reached the semifinals, and were eliminated by Greece.

Despite the changes in the squad, they still have players to

make a difference who are hungry to succeed: Chelsea goalkeeper

Petr Cech and Arsenal midfielder Tomas Rosicky.

”As far as a chance to advance, this is the best group for

us,” Cech said.

Since his international debut 10 years ago as a 19-year-old

rookie, Cech has become as dominant for the national team as he has

been for Chelsea since joining the English team in June 2004.

After his 89 international appearances, he said the time is

right for an international success.

”A success at the championship in summer would be great,” said

Cech, who helped Chelsea stop Lionel Messi and beat Barcelona in

the Champions League semifinals. ”I would be really grateful if I

could win a medal with the national team after all.”

Rosicky, the team’s captain and playmaker who won his long-term

battle with injuries and was rewarded for his impressive recent

form for Arsenal with a new contract, echoed that view.

”We may be considered the outsiders of the tournament, but why

not give it a try?” Rosicky said. ”They give us a low chance to

succeed but I’m one of those who will be fighting.”

What could also work in the Czech team’s favor is that it plays

all its three group stage matches in the Polish city of Wroclav,

only 280 kilometers (175 miles) from Prague.

”That could be an important issue,” Rosicky said. ”Our fans

can just come and go home after the match. They will certainly use

that opportunity.”

With the recently rejuvenated squad, the Czechs have improved to

maintain a record of reaching every European Championship since

Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in

1993.

Even before the split, the country finished third in 1980 and

became European champion in 1976. Twenty years later, and playing

as an independent nation, the Czech Republic stunned Italy,

Portugal and France on the road to the final.

The 1996 team known for its offensive play was carried by top

players such as Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Vladimir Smicer

and reached the second place in the FIFA rankings in 2006. But that

time is long gone.

With the three in international retirement and Rosicky injured,

the team produced a spectacular collapse in their final group stage

match at Euro 2008 against Turkey after blowing a two-goal lead and

conceding three goals in the final 15 minutes to miss out on the

quarterfinals and head home early for the second straight major

tournament.

But since taking over in 2009, Czech Republic coach Michal Bilek

has been rebuilding.

”We tested more than 50 players on the way,” Bilek said. ”And

that was one of the reasons why our result at the start of this

cycle weren’t good.”