There’s a grainy video on YouTube that says it all. It starts with a clip of a TV broadcasting the unmistakable image of a suited UEFA official unfolding a slip of paper and showing the team’s name to the camera. You can’t read this on the video, though, as the phone camera starts shaking all over as a deafening raw breaks out.
There’s laughter, jumping and hugging as the camera turns around and we see the Slavia Prague players, in what must be a room at their training ground, watching the identity of their Europa League quarter-final opponents revealed. Some of the delirious players start chanting: “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”
They are the kind of celebrations you might expect to next see from the two teams who end up lifting Europe’s club trophies this year. Amid the fascination and excitement of seeing the biggest names in the world of football collide in the latter stages of European competition, it is easy to overlook that some teams have already made history just by getting this far. A Czech club can’t realistically go much further, after all. No side from the country has ever made the final of a European tournament. The proud footballing nation finds its teams effectively priced out of the latter stages of the Champions League.
Czech football expert Chris Boothroyd says Slavia’s dramatic victory over Sevilla in the Europa League last 16 was “possibly the greatest moment in Czech club football since the 1989 Velvet Revolution”. It has naturally rekindled memories of the club’s run to the semi-finals of the 1996 UEFA Cup, when a team featuring five of the squad of the Czech Euro 96 finalists – including Karel Poborský and Vladimir Šmicer – were knocked out by a Zinedine Zidane-inspired Bordeaux.
Big nights being broadcast around the world at some of Europe’s great stadiums are a far cry from where Slavia’s manager Jindřich Trpišovský found himself a few years ago. Preparing his team under a tree as their only dressing room was given to away sides, training in a local park (and having to send someone to scour the bushes for lost balls every day) and seeing an ankle injury treated with a frozen fish; that was the everyday reality of Trpišovský’s education in the Czech lower leagues.
The last two of those anecdotes came at Viktoria Žižkov, a club with a proud history that was in the second tier at the time but suffering major financial difficulties. Trpišovský told the MF DNES newspaper that the financial situation at Žižkov was so poor that his assistant would regularly take a couple of players out to lunch as they couldn’t afford a decent meal. Before then, as a youth coach at SC Xaverov – where the tree substituted a dressing room – he would work long shifts at restaurants to support himself.
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“It gave me a lot to know what it’s like to work hard to make money,” Trpišovský has said. He was inspired “by a dream I would once get to the top-flight as a coach, as I didn’t make it there as a player.” Needless to say, hard graft plays a big role in his approach to managing Slavia. “You can spend two hours a day on football or you can spend 15 hours on it, it’s all down to your approach.” He admits to watching around 30 football matches a week and conducts detailed analysis on every single opponent, even for friendly matches.
David Čermák, an MF DNES football reporter who has interviewed the Slavia coach several times, says: “Trpišovský’s perfectionism plays a huge role in the way Slavia have performed in Europe this season.” The desire to put a shift in clearly rubs off on his players, with Boothroyd stating Slavia are known for “fast and vertical football with quick transitions”. That has been particularly apparent in the Europa League, where they have been relishing the role of underdogs.
Trpišovský has been dubbed the “Czech Klopp”, despite him not warming to such a simple comparison, saying “it could work against me” if his fortunes sour and also insisting he acquired a habit of wearing a baseball cap on the sidelines before he knew of the current Liverpool manager.
Trpišovský admits to have followed Klopp’s philosophy closely since the German was in charge of Dortmund. In an interview with Czech website Aktuálně, he also expressed his admiration for Viktoria Plzeň coach Pavel Vrba for shattering the previous defensive mindset of Czech football around a decade ago.
Trpišovský’s personable nature is another reason he has been compared to Klopp, and he got headlines immediately upon arriving at Slavia by promising to get the club playing Total Football. Aleš Vávra, a sports editor at Aktuálně, says: “Trpišovský is friendly, amenable, humble, polite, clever and sometimes funny. He changed Slavia by getting rid of some expensive players who were not working for the team. He created a very strong collective, the players trust him a lot and Slavia look like a big happy family these days.”
Attacking full-backs and physical robustness are hallmarks of Slavia’s play. Miroslav Stoch, a former Chelsea player in his youth, is a potent attacking midfield weapon who loves to spearhead transitions by driving at defences while also providing a creative spark in build-up play. He was the only Slavia player to have scored more than ten goals after 27 matches of the league season, despite the team netting a whopping 69 times in total.
Stoch has a pleasing habit of scoring stunning long-range goals, including as a swerving drive from 35 yards in a 4-1 win over Příbram in October and a stupendous lob from inside his own half in a friendly against Shakhtar Donetsk in February 2018. Čermák says Trpišovský has helped Stoch to thrive by tweaking his play to “make him more combative than ever”. Vávra says he has been turned into a real team player for possibly the first time in his career, although Boothroyd points out that some of his long-range efforts can be wasteful.
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Tomáš Souček, who plays a deeper role in midfield with a licence to roam forward, is “the best player in the Czech league by some distance” according to Boothroyd. His all-round ability earned him plenty of attention at the 2017 European Under-21 Championship and the 24-year-old is in the midst of his highest-scoring season yet, with nine goals. Simon Deli, Ondřej Kúdela and Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui provide a trio of steely centre-backs to pick from, helping Slavia concede just three goals in their six Europa League group stage matches. That the club had picked up more yellow cards after the last 16 than any other team in the competition – 28 – shows their battling mentality.
Trpišovský has generally lined Slavia up in a 4-5-1 this season in Europe with Ibrahim Traoré and Souček positioned in front of the defence. He switched to a 3-6-1 for the second leg against Sevilla seemingly because of difficulty with the Andalusians’ high press in the 2-2 draw in Spain.
Few gave Slavia any hope of qualifying at the expense of the five-time Europa League winners yet somehow their never-say-die attitude prevailed over two ties that had everything – a whole host of spurned Sevilla chances in the first leg, a freak Slavia goal as the ball bounced off Alex Král’s shoulder and looped into the net from a corner, and a seven-goal after-extra-time thriller in the return leg. It culminated in Mick van Buren finishing a slick passing move in the 102nd-minute as Slavia snatched a 119th-minute winner as Traoré prodded the ball from a chaotic corner and a tired Simon Kjaer thrashed his way to a spectacularly hopeless goal-line clearance.
Trpišovský said after eliminating Sevilla that the chance to draw an English club “remained a dream” as “God knows when we would have a chance to face Chelsea or Arsenal again.” As delightful for the chance for Trpišovský and the Slavia players to rub shoulders with the European elite is, Slavia’s Europa League run this season is arguably not a freak event considering the pattern of sustained success from Czech clubs in the competition.
Slavia were the 11th Czech side to make the Europa League knockout stages in the past nine seasons. For comparison, 15 Dutch clubs have made the same stage in that period plus 14 teams from both France and Belgium, whereas four Scottish teams and one Croatian club have managed that.
Boothroyd explains that the Europa League offers greater prestige for Czech clubs than it may do for teams from Europe’s major leagues and is very important for budgeting purposes. He also points out that the overall strength-in-depth in Czech football is solid and the country’s top clubs have become wealthier in recent years thanks to Plzeň benefitting from accessing the riches of the Champions League group stage three times, Sparta Prague being backed by their energy mogul owner, Daniel Křetínský, and Slavia being under Chinese ownership since 2015.
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Energy company CEFC acquired control of the club in 2015 before Chinese investment company Sinobo took Slavia over last November. Boothroyd says Slavia fans are generally supportive of the recent owners, despite lingering suspicions that their interest is mainly a ploy to boost Chinese soft power in the Czech Republic. The Chinese era has been marked by shrewdness and professionalism rather than the kind of prodigality common among many rich football club owners seeking to make a statement.
Trpišovský was known largely for his resourcefulness with financially-limited Slovan Liberec when Slavia hired him in December 2017 following a disappointing Europa League group stage that saw them finish behind Astana in third. Slavia’s €15m net transfer spend since 2015 is big money by Czech standards but a drop in the ocean that is CEFC’s reported annual revenue of over $40bn or the €475m new owners Sinobo agreed to pay for a 64 percent stake in Chinese club Beijing Guoan in 2017.
Slavia have put value at the heart of their transfer policy. A local energy trader wrote to the club in 2015 suggesting a data-driven recruitment policy based on Moneyball – and they embraced the idea. While the club are tight-lipped on the details, they admit to having used the analytics to target Ngadeu-Ngadjui and sign him for €500,000 from Botoșani of Romania. Shortly after signing, he made his first international appearance for Cameroon, and after helping them win the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations and becoming captain of his country, he very nearly joined Fulham for €5m in January.
Slavia made the three most expensive signings in their history last summer, spending as much as €3.2m on Peter Olayinka from Gent, although Čermák points out that he and Alexandru Baluta, a €2.65m signing from Craiova, are yet to make a major impact. Boothroyd says Slavia have “made a big commitment to signing players that fit Trpišovský’s philosophy” and compared their strategy favourably to rivals Sparta Prague, whose transfer dealings have been extravagant but disjointed while they have gone through six managers in the past two-and-a-half years.
The club’s transfer spending under Chinese ownership is dwarfed by the €50m CEFC invested in getting the Eden Arena – now named the Sinobo Stadium after the current owners – back into the club’s hands and improving it. That has been a popular move with the fans.
With Slavia enjoying a seven-point lead over Plzeň after 27 matches of the Czech season, a fifth title since the fall of communism seems likely. Čermák says: “The main goal is to qualify for the Champions League group stage next season – that’s what everyone at Slavia wants. The club is very ambitious and with the money from the owners, it’s possible they can develop further.”
Jindřich Trpišovský will not need to find a tree to assemble his players under or send his physio rummaging through the freezer for the foreseeable future. His dream is now real – and so might be Slavia’s.
By Dan Billingham @D_Billingham