Country appreciates quarter-final achievement
June 22 ~ It began with defeat and it ended with defeat, but over the course of 13 days much changed for the Czech Republic. Less than two weeks on from the barrage of criticism that met the 4-1 dismantling by Russia, last night's 1-0 loss to Portugal was greeted with a curious pride by both Czech fans and the media. Mlada fronta Dnes, one of the country's leading newspapers, headlined today's front page "Hosi, dekujeme" ("Thanks, lads") – a traditional end-of-game chant that was also ringing out at the final whistle in the Prague bowling alley where I ended up watching the game.
Writing in the same paper, journalist Filip Saiver captured the mood: "A squad of more or less under-rated footballers ended up among the top eight in Europe. The team gained strength and shape, and their ability to rise up out of the dirt won over the fans."
Other Czech papers shared Mlada fronta's sense of satisfaction. Blesk, the country's best-selling tabloid, found room among its usual offering of scantily clad models and celeb scandal for the headline: "Thanks! You fought like Czech lions!" Even Sport, one of the fiercest critics of coach Michal Bilek and his team during qualification and after the Russia defeat, was positive, commenting that "Bilek's team didn't end up among the medals but they didn't disappoint," under the headline "Czech heroes beheaded by Ronaldo".
Realistic expectations, lowered further by Tomas Rosicky's injury, were a major factor in this outpouring of pride. By getting out of their group and then losing in the last eight, the Czechs went pretty much as far as everyone expected. But the tournament also offered fans grounds for cautious optimism about the future of a national team that had looked like it was in terminal decline.
Many of the squad's lesser known names – many current or former Viktoria Plzen players – delivered on the vague promise they had shown before the tournament. In midfielder Petr Jiracek, Czech fans have found another gifted everyman, somewhat in the Karel Poborsky mould. The speedy Liberec wing-back, Theodor Gebre Selassie, also had a very good tournament. And winger Vaclav Pilar, still only 23, clearly has great potential.
Back home, 19-year-old Sparta Prague midfielder Ladislav Krejci is an exciting prospect who just missed out on the Euro 2012 squad and we may not have heard the last of his team-mate Vaclav Kadlec, the 20-year-old striker whose seemingly inevitable ascent to superstardom has been slowed by injury. Put it all together and the future does not look quite so grim anymore. Sam Beckwith