15 October 2009 ~ Bad luck, football politics, a tabloid scandal and a tight group all played their part, but for the main reason the Czech Republic didn't qualify for the 2010 World Cup you can go back to January 26, 2008. That was the day Tomas Rosicky picked up the seemingly innocuous knee injury that would rule him out of Euro 2008 and all but three World Cup qualifiers. Former Czech coach Karel Bruckner once described Rosicky as irreplaceable but had got by without the injury-prone playmaker before.
The Arsenal midfielder had been missing from the Czech team that won 3-0 in Germany, in their final Euro 2008 qualifier, but Bruckner had squeezed an in-form Marek Matejovsky and the versatile Jaroslav Plasil into a five-man midfield to make up for Rosicky's absence. With Matejovsky's form in decline, the national team – once a haven of midfield creativity – began to look rather workmanlike. It was a problem that Petr Rada, Bruckner's successor, never fully addressed. Under Rada, the World Cup qualification campaign started poorly and never really recovered. On a blustery September night in Belfast the Czechs were held to a 0-0 draw, then lost 2-1 the following month away to Poland, Group Three's early front-runners. Two wins and a draw in Slovenia followed but the campaign lurched into farce on April 1.
This began with a 2-1 loss at home to Slovakia and ended with six players – Matejovsky, Tomas Ujfalusi, Radoslav Kovac, Milan Baros, Martin Fenin and Vaclav Sverkos – photographed in the company of women widely alleged to be prostitutes. Bruckner had survived a remarkably similar scandal during Euro 2008 qualification but for Rada, with results going against him, it was the end. Pre-empting his punishment, Ujfalusi retired from international football while the other five all received indefinite national team bans. (Baros and Sverkos have since been recalled.)
With the Czech FA (CMFS) due to elect a new leadership in June and no qualifiers until September, the selection of a full-time coach was postponed and Frantisek Straka appointed on a rolling contract. Straka remained in charge for just one game – a friendly against Malta – before Ivan Hasek was elected CMFS chairman. An experienced coach himself, Hasek is now in charge of the national team on a temporary basis, juggling Czech football's two most important roles.
When qualifiers resumed, however, the Czechs could only draw 2-2 in Slovakia – a game they badly needed to win. Rosicky finally returned for a 7-0 thrashing of San Marino but by now the Czechs' fate was out of their hands. Saturday's creditable 2-0 win over Poland kept hopes of reaching South Africa theoretically alive, but only if San Marino took points off Slovenia and the Czechs won in the final round of matches.
Czech fans were under no illusions, knowing that last night's 0-0 draw with Northern Ireland, in a half-empty stadium, hardly mattered. Slovenia won 3-0 to take the play-off spot. Most Czechs, somewhat begrudgingly, will now cheer group winners Slovakia on in South Africa and wonder what might have been. Sam Beckwith