Competition begins tonight and absence of Spain and Holland makes it open

icon youth16 June ~ The European Under-21 Championship kicks off in the Czech Republic on June 17, the first time the country has held a major football tournament. This comes exactly a month after the end of the ice hockey World Championship, in which the Czech Republic exceeded expectations and reached the semi-finals.

To achieve the same thing or better in June would be a fine achievement for one of the tournament’s outsiders – but just to hold the competition is a triumph for a country whose domestic football has been beset in recent years by bribery and corruption scandals. And in the absence of Spain and Holland – winners between them of four of the last five tournaments – the competition is pleasantly open.

The Czechs share Group A with Germany, competition favourites, and fellow outsiders Serbia and Denmark. Home advantage will be the key if the Czechs are to advance to the semi-final stage. They kick off against Denmark at Slavia Prague’s Eden Arena in the Prague neighbourhood of Vrsovice, an up-and-coming artistic district, home also to the supporter-run Bohemians 1905.

The Eden Arena itself opened in 2008 after a long delay, and recently hosted a Euro 2016 qualifier between the Czech Republic and Latvia. The attendance that day was a disappointing 13,722, in a stadium with a capacity of nearly 21,000. Tournament organisers will be hoping for more support this month and happily, at the time of writing, all but a handful of games are already sold out.

As for the home team, English fans may already be familiar with Matej Vydra, on loan at Watford from Udinese, and Tomas Kalas, on loan at Middlesbrough from Chelsea. However, manager Jakub Dovalil’s plans have been thrown into disarray by Watford’s desire for Vydra to miss the tournament and rest before the start of the new Premier League season.

Sparta Prague’s Vaclav Kadlec, who is the only player in the squad to have scored more than one goal at under-21 level, is joined up-front instead by Jiri Skalak, a player with a poor scoring record at a number of modest teams. Nuremberg’s Ondrej Petrak and Sparta’s Ladislav Krejci are worth keeping an eye on, the latter having already made a number of appearances for the main national squad. If he plays, Lukas Masopust could shine for the Czechs, but the new Jablonec signing could be a victim of his manager’s innate conservatism.

Qualification from Group B will be contested between England, Italy, and Portugal, with Sweden likely to make up the numbers. The games will be played in Olomouc (Andruv Stadion, capacity 12,500) and Uherske Hradiste (Stadion Miroslava Valenty, capacity 8,000), both in the eastern region of Moravia. The two clubs based at these grounds, Sigma Olomouc and 1. FC Slovacko respectively, have both in recent years been involved in bribery and match-fixing scandals that have undermined the integrity of Czech football. The problem of corruption appears to go deeper and wider than just two of the country’s minor teams: even champions Viktoria Plzen were implicated in allegations of bribing referees in 2012.

These controversies and others point directly to a deep-rooted culture of corruption in Czech football. In general, the country – considered one of the most Western-leaning of the post-communist states and, from 2004, a member of the EU – has struggled to overcome such problems throughout society. The Czech football authorities will be hoping that the successful hosting of a major football competition will help to show the country and its game in a better light. Charles Robinson

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