INTERNATIONAL TEAMS’ greatest eras come along so sporadically, and that is what makes them so memorable. The Czech Republic, a nation formed after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, aren’t necessarily a major force in Europe, but in 2004 at the European Championships, they came into the tournament as dark horses with an all-star cast and heartbreakingly left Portugal as one of the greatest sides in the history of the tournament to have not gone all the way.
Czechoslovakia go a long way back in the sport’s history. The country narrowly missed out on winning the second-ever World Cup, losing to hosts Italy in 1934. They went again in 1962, this time losing to Brazil in Chile. The mid-1900s were a good period for Czech football and they even had their very own Ballon d’Or recipient in the form of Josef Masopust. It would, however, take another 14 years for their first major honour, which came in the form of Euro 76, where they got the better of West Germany in Yugoslavia, before making another final appearance 20 years later as the Czech Republic against a now-unified Germany.
Although it was brief, the Czech Republic side of 2004 relived the spirit of its predecessors. One of the finest attacking teams of the decade, they made the most of their strengths, and the individual talent amongst their roster was enough to overpower anyone. Coached by the iconic Karel Brückner, he didn’t carry much swagger on his CV but, by the time he left Portugal in July, he had the attention of the world on him.
For Brückner, a traditionally-composed figure, the job was to get the best out of his players. Placed in a group containing Germany, the Netherlands and Latvia, he had an uphill task but, in his usual way, he brushed away any fears of taking on the group of death.
The Czech’s greatest strength was their midfield, which was shrewdly organised by Brückner, a pedant of the 4-4-2. They swung between a flat midfield four and a diamond shape, largely due to the versatility and innate skill available in their squad. In the pivot stood Tomáš Galásek, a defensive lynchpin who was able to support the attacking talent in front of him. Although not as popular as many others in his team, he was fundamental to Brückner’s plans as he would hold his side together and help them function.
He was supported by an incredible triumvirate in front of him in the form of Tomáš Rosický, Karel Poborský and Pavel Nedvěd, who was arguably the best midfielder in the world at the time. The three need no real introduction, and their individual qualities made this team so effective. Rosický dictated matches with the deftness in his feet. A player of fortitude and commitment, he would give it his all whenever he stepped on the pitch.
Poborský shared similar traits. After an underwhelming stint at Manchester United in the 1990s, he revitalised his career and was a menacing sight down the wing. He was often switched with an equally imposing Vladimír Šmicer, who had his own moments in England, as Liverpool fans will tell you.
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The star of the team, however, was the effortlessly elegant Nedvěd. La Furia Ceca (The Czech Fury), as he was called in Italy, was a superstar in Serie A, first in the capital with Lazio, then with Juventus in Turin. Having won the Ballon d’Or in 2003, he arrived with huge expectations and his versatility made him the team’s fulcrum. Deployed on the left side, he would drift around the pitch, helping in defence when needed and supporting the attack with lung-busting runs. Losing in the final in 1996 was tough to take, so this was his last realistic shot at international glory.
The Czech Republic arrived at the tournament with all the confidence in the world. Brückner’s side sealed qualification in impeccable style, winning seven of their eight group games and drawing the other. They were put in the toughest possible group but were given an early advantage as they opened their campaign against lowly Latvia, where Brückner’s risk-taking and constant chopping and changing – a common theme of the tournament – was first discernible.
Kicking off in Aveiro, the Czech Republic went into half-time trailing by a goal after the Latvians scored right at the death of the first-half. Following that, there were a few inspired changes and several tactical tweaks that allowed the Czechs back into the game. Having started off with a 4-4-2 diamond in midfield, he made two significant changes.
The first saw the introduction of a striker, Marek Heinz, as right-back Zdeněk Grygera was sacrificed for a more offensive approach. The second, just a few minutes later, saw defensive midfielder Galásek go off for winger Šmicer – and it saw them stage a magnificent comeback. They started with a 4-4-2, temporarily switched to a flexible 4-3-3, and then took to the unorthodox 3-4-2-1, going all out in attack and scoring twice in the final 20 minutes of the match.
Milan Baroš, the man who started up top, scored first with a fine finish from inside the box after some incredible work down the right from Poborský, who fended off several challenges before delivering a troublesome cross. The second, and subsequent winner, came from substitute Heinz as he capitalised on a lapse in the Latvian back-line and drilled a shot into the top left.
A display that showed great intensity resulted in a win, which was crucial at the start of the tournament, but it was merely a preview of their aptitude, hunger, and Brückner’s persistence.
A 4-4-2 relies on its forwards, and the Czech Republic had two prodigious, albeit contrasting, talents up top. Nedvěd was the jewel of this side, the superstar and the man who made this team tick, but it could be argued that he wasn’t the most prominent figure. Not that it was his fault; he just had to make do with the towering Jan Koller – a six foot seven inch giant who was a commanding figure in opposition boxes.
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While he brought the strength to the team, his partner in attack gave the team its stealth. Liverpool hero Milan Baroš gave the Czechs a vital focal point as he frequently capitalised on Koller’s support and link-up. The two had their differences in styles but together they were a coach’s dream.
Following their late win against Latvia, the Czechs were up against the Dutch, who had drawn their opening encounter against Germany, meaning that a draw here would put Brückner’s side in a good position to qualify for the next round.
The manager made just one change to the side that narrowly overcame Latvia in the previous match as Martin Jiránek came in for René Bolf in the centre of the defence. The rest of the team stayed the same, but the Czechs still made the same mistakes, going down by two goals before the 20th minute as Wilfred Bouma and Ruud van Nistelrooy gave the Dutch a strong early advantage. If Dick Advocaat and his Netherlands side thought they had a walk in the park, they were wrong. Brückner’s tactical flexibility and confidence in making changes was evident once again, and he was quick to go all out and bring on the attacking onslaught.
They hit back instantly as Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s misplaced pass fell to Baroš who used his endless tenacity to charge forward and lay on a simple tap-in for Koller. This was just the beginning of the comeback. For the second game running, he took off Grygera – this time in the 25th minute – and brought on Šmicer, a winger. While this was a risk, it was one Brückner was unafraid to take, and that’s what made him so special.
It also meant that it was time for the obligatory, unconventional tactical change. Galásek went from defensive midfield into defence while Šmicer and left-back Marek Jankulovski pushed forward as wing-backs to make it a 3-5-2. Such a vast change came with 65 minutes still on the clock.
Just after the hour mark, still a goal behind, Brückner made another astonishing switch. Heinz, the forward who scored in the previous match, came on for Galásek as, on paper, the Czechs looked all over the place. They had two centre-backs, two players at wing-back, three forwards and four attacking midfielders. More than the scoreline itself, this was a test of the players’ versatility. Was it genius or suicide?
Twenty minutes is all it would take to provide the answer, as the frightening Koller-Baroš partnership was on hand again. Nedvěd’s cross from the left was chested down from Koller, taking advantage of his height, and the ball dropped straight to the path of Baroš, who struck a ferocious volley from the edge of the box straight into the top-right corner of Edwin van der Sar’s net. Most Czechs would have been happy with the result, but Brückner wasn’t one of them – he kept on encouraging his side to attack.
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Just two minutes from the end, with the assault still ongoing, the Czechs would win the match. Koller’s shot from outside the box was saved by Van der Sar, but the rebound would land straight into the path of an unmarked Poborský, who squared it to Šmicer for a simple tap-in. It was a sweet success for the Czechs.
The Dutch weren’t bad; their European counterparts were just too good. This was football’s method of blitzkrieg as this incredible Czech team were proving to be impossible to play against in attack. In one of the finest matches in modern Euros history, there was drama, entertainment, sensational goals and tactical dubiousness. More importantly for the Czech Republic, however, was the fact they had qualified from the group as winners, and that brought along wholesale changes to their team for the final group match against Germany.
With qualification sealed and his attacking unit showing their best form, Brückner made nine changes to the side as they faced a struggling Germany in Lisbon. Despite the alterations and the fact they were coming up against an underperforming team, the team’s blueprint didn’t change. They went a goal behind in the first half, only to reply just minutes later, and then, after a few effective substitutions and strategic tweaks, they would seal a late winner.
Heinz and Baroš cancelled out Michael Ballack’s opening goal as the Czech Republic showed their strength in depth to overcome the World Cup runners-up from two years earlier. The success meant they would come up against Denmark in the quarter-finals.
In this team of stars, the Czech back-line often flew under the radar. Sure, they made a few mistakes, but that couldn’t denounce their quality. They had one of the world’s most touted goalkeepers at the time, Petr Čech, who was on his way to Chelsea and frequently spared his team’s blushes in Portugal. In front of him stood the imposing Tomáš Ujfaluši, a player who made his name across Europe’s top leagues, and René Bolf, a local Czech hero.
But what made this defence so interesting was, in typical Brückner fashion, the attacking threat they carried, led by the two full-backs, Marek Jankulovski and Zdeněk Grygera. The two were essential to the team’s attacking play, adding to their options in the final third. Grygera was often sacrificed, but while he was on the pitch, he provided vivacious aid to his supporting winger. Jankulovski provided more stability, with his work-rate and passing proving crucial at both ends of the pitch.
In the match against Denmark, the defence, knowing any successful team needs to be solid, improved immediately. No risk, no drama – just reward. Although they missed Grygera through injury, this was the first time in the tournament that the team played like genuine contenders over 90 minutes. They won 3-0 in an inch-perfect display with a quick double from Baroš just after the hour mark – taking his tally for the tournament to five – and a goal from Koller early in the second half.
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The three goals were brilliant. Koller’s first came directly from a corner, using his imposing frame to rise above everyone and head it into the net. Baroš’ first was an exquisite dinked finish, while his second was a sweet hit into the top corner from the edge of the box. The Czech attack once again delivered, with Poborský this time pulling the strings in midfield. The defence did what they had to, and at this point, confidence was at its highest. Now, only the unfancied Greeks were in their way of a second continental final in eight years.
The semi-final against Greece in Porto was supposed to be straightforward. The Greeks were solid but uninspiring, while the Czechs were now considered genuine title challengers. Unfortunately for them, luck wasn’t on their side – and neither was their finishing.
Nedvěd, the man who had been at the heart of his team’s best moves in the group stages, picked up an injury and was forced off in the 40th minute. Meanwhile, just moments before that, Koller saw an effort deflected off the crossbar. Both Koller and Baroš wasted glorious chances in the second-half to take the lead, which meant the match would go to extra-time, with the disputed silver goal rule in place for the first time in an international tournament.
The rule meant the team that led at the end of the first-half of extra-time would be declared as the winners. It was meant to encourage open, attacking play, but was merely a means to end matches quicker for broadcasters. And as fate would have it, Greece’s Traianos Dellas would score off a corner past a helpless Čech in the final seconds of the first half of extra-time. It was impossible for the Czechs to reply, and Greece were on their way to the final against Portugal, where they would complete the greatest upset in Euros history.
The Czechs were out, but could it have been avoided? Nedvěd’s injury played a factor but Brückner’s unwillingness to make changes and switch his style – something that he received rave reviews from throughout the tournament – cost them dear. He made just one substitution, bringing on Šmicer for his injured captain, in the 105 minutes of football, which was strange considering he had utilised all his available substitutions in the four previous matches. That said, Greece’s success was built on defence and, with luck on their side, they deserved to progress against the tournament’s most feared attacking unit.
Despite their heartbreak, the Czechs walked away having won the adoration of a watching world, a testament to one of the most entertaining sides to have narrowly missed out on lifting the European Championships.