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

Comments (5)
Comment by t.j.vickerman 2009-10-15 12:30:47

A shame to see the Czechs in decline as they really were a wonderful side to watch in the first half of the decade. There were few better midfields than that of Jankukovski, Nedved, Galasek, Rosicky and Poborsky. They were, IMO, the outstanding side of Euro 2004 and would more than likely have put out Greece if it weren't for the injury to Nedved.

Still, does the qualification of Slovakia signal a significant shift of power in the former Czechoslovakia? The Slovaks don't seem (to this casual observer) much more than a fairly functional, workmanlike side and don't seem to have the flair of Czech sides down the years.

Comment by palko 2009-10-15 13:18:08

I like Rosicky as a player and I'm glad that he's playing again. Unfortunately, he made a few childish remarks about the Slovak team after the Czechs beat Poland. He said that if he had been healthy, Slovakia wouldn't have had a chance. Maybe he was right, but it showed a lack of sportsmanship.

I don't know if these results represent a shift in the Czech-Slovak soccer power structure. But Slovakia has at least 4 promising young players. Skrtel proved himself last year with Liverpool, but is struggling to do as well this year. Marek Hamsik is one of the top young players in Italy. Miro Stoch, is playing for FC Twente (on loan from Chelsea) and has been named "Man of the Match" three times this year and Vlado Weiss Jr. (Manchester City) provided Slovakia with a jolt of energy.

Finally, I don't know if the 1978 Czechoslovak team that won the European Champions had a better midfield than the 2004 Czech team, but it's interesting to note that 9 of the 11 starters on that team were Slovaks

Comment by Duncan Gardner 2009-10-15 15:37:33

Half empty stadium? More like three-quarters. On BBC NI's coverage our 2,167 fans were clearly louder.

Rosicky's absence doesn't explain a lethargic campaign- Czechia will always have a much stronger squad than Slovenia or NI at any given moment. Even the post-match lapdance scandal was hardly unique, both our guys and the Poles had to be disciplined for breaking curfew to go on the piss.

Anyway, come on Slovakia, and Slovenia in the play off.

Comment by Analogue Bubblebath 2009-10-15 22:17:41

I saw the majority of the second half of Czech Rep v Norn Iron after our game had ended. Don't know what the Czechs were like in the first 60 minutes, but during those final 30 they were pretty awful -- no drive and no real idea of what they were supposed to be doing.

They've fallen a long way in the last five years.

Comment by Duncan Gardner 2009-10-16 15:04:06

ABB- they were just as lethargic in the first hour. No doubt that the best two sides progressed from the group.

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