Czech Republic – Making a mark in Europe

Almost alone among their former communist neighbours, Czech clubs have made some headway in the Champions League era. Sam Beckwith reports

These are strange days in the Czech Republic: European Union entry, which has been dangled on a string since 1989, finally seems imminent; the citizens of Prague and Brno are spoilt for choice when it comes to multiplex cinemas and out-of-town shopping centres; and even Viktoria Zizkov’s Jur­assic-era stadium is all-seater now.

Yet the country and its football teams occupy a strange halfway house between east and west. Wages, on and off the pitch, remain a fraction of those available over the border in western Europe and for many the years since the fall of communism have meant lower living standards and greater uncertainty. Amid the often bewildering chan­ges of the past 12 years, it’s amazing that Czech football has maintained such high standards.

After Euro 96, when most of the national team’s stars went abroad and western European clubs began to hoover up the country’s young talent, the de­cline of the domestic league seemed inevitable. And it’s true that many teams’ finances remain shaky, with most dependent on some form of corporate benevolence.

The collapse of once-wealthy Drnovice and the se­vere financial difficulties faced by Bohemians over the summer are chilling reminders of how tenuous life can be in the Gambrinus Liga. Ticket prices and crowds are both low, and television and sponsorship money is limited – no Czech TV company, for instance, picked up the rights to screen the second leg of Viktoria Ziz­kov’s UEFA Cup tie against Rangers.

But as Zizkov’s victory shows, Czech teams remain a force to be reckoned with in Europe. There were four of them in the UEFA Cup second round draw, a figure matched only by Germany and England, and ev­en that impressive record was something of a disappointment as Sparta and Slovan Lib­erec both came agonisingly close to qualifying for the Champions League.

Sparta only have themselves to blame for going down to Genk. An uncharacteristically weak performance in Belgium left them 2-0 down after the first leg. After conceding two early goals in Prague, Sparta fought back to win 4-2, going out on the away goals rule. The result was a major blow for a club that has come to regard Champions League football as its right and, sooner or later, it will probably cost coach Jozef Jara­binsky his job.

Last season’s surprise champions Liberec almost put Milan out of the tournament. Like Sparta, they lost limply, 1-0, in the away leg and conceded an early goal at home, but then dominated, scoring twice and com­ing unthinkably close to grabbing a winner.

Given that Zizkov only lost the title race to Liberec on the last day of the season, after losing a game that at least one Zizkov player is alleged to have helped throw, their win over Rangers should hardly be regarded as an upset. Slavia Prague, too, have looked impressive in the UEFA Cup, demolishing Belgium’s Excelsior Mouscron 7-3 on aggregate in the first round.

So, given Czech football’s limited resources, how has all this been achieved? Champions League money has certainly helped to cover costs. Regular participation in the UEFA jamboree has allowed Sparta to buy players from their domestic rivals, redistributing wealth throughout the league, though without cem­enting their dominance on the pitch. The failure of Sparta and Liberec to qualify for this year’s tournament may yet come back to haunt the Czech game.

Happily, the pool of players available to the domestic league has been steadily restocked at both ends of the age spectrum. A rigorous youth policy has clearly paid dividends. While ambitious young stars such as Milan Baros will continue to move abroad, there is no sign yet that the well is running dry – a view enforced when the Czechs won the European Under-21 championship in May.

At the same time, Czech teams have been boosted by the return of many of the Euro 96 stars, with Karel Poborsky’s move from Lazio to Sparta the most prominent example. The financial crisis in Italian football was undoubtedly a factor in Poborsky’s move, and Sparta are paying Poborsky a hefty £200,000 salary, but homesickness probably played a bigger role than money. The “golden generation” are reaching an age when they must decide whether they want to raise their children abroad or move back to the Czech Republic. Most are deciding there’s no place like home.

From WSC 190 December 2002. What was happening this month