EURO 2020: Czechs on the rise after disastrous Euro 2016

PRAGUE — With the memory of last time’s early exit far behind, the Czech Republic is bringing a rebuilt team to this year’s European Championship.

The Czechs have qualified for the continental tournament for the seventh straight time, advanced to the top tier of the Nations League and started well in their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign with a 1-1 draw against top-ranked FIFA team Belgium.

The future didn’t look so bright five years ago.

The team finished last in its Euro 2016 group with only one point from a 2-2 draw with Croatia and losses to Spain and Turkey. And the worst was yet to come.

The team’s major stars, goalkeeper Petr Čech and midfielder Tomáš Rosický, were among several mainstay players who retired. The failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia inevitably followed and further deepened the crisis.

The last straw was a humiliating 5-1 loss to Russia in an international friendly in September 2018.

Urgent action was needed to turn things around and Jaroslav Šilhavý, who took over as coach, turned out to be the right choice. A former player, Šilhavý had been an assistant to coach Karel Bruckner from 2002-08 at a time when the Czechs were known for their free-flowing attacking soccer, helping the team reach the semifinals at Euro 2004.

Unlike Bruckner, Šilhavý doesn’t have the stars of the past like Rosický, Pavel Nedvěd or Karel Poborský, but he still has players who can make a difference. The core of his team is formed by former and current players from Slavia Prague, a team that just clinched its third straight Czech league title and has reached the quarterfinals of the Europa League twice in the last three years.

Two of them, midfielder Tomáš Souček and defender Vladimír Coufal — now teammates at West Ham in the Premier League — are key names on Silhavy’s squad along with another former Slavia midfielder, Alex Král from Spartak Moscow.

But two other Slavia players, normally regular starters on the national team will miss the tournament for different reasons.

Midfielder Lukáš Provod, who scored a goal to help Slavia Prague knock Leicester out of the Europa League at the King Power Stadium on Feb. 26 and scored another goal against Belgium on March 27, has a serious right knee injury.

Ondřej Kúdela, meanwhile, is appealing against a 10-match ban for racially abusing a Black opponent in a Europa League match.

The Czechs begin their Euro 2020 campaign on June 14 against Scotland in Glasgow. It was in the same city that Kúdela was found to have racially abused Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara on March 18.

Kúdela acknowledged swearing at Kamara but denied using racist language.

The Czechs will also face Croatia in Glasgow in Group D before playing England at Wembley Stadium in London. They beat the English 2-1 in October 2019, the first loss for England in European or World Cup qualifying in 10 years.

Another Czech player to watch will be Adam Hložek. The 18-year-old Sparta Prague forward became the youngest player to score a hat trick in the Czech league. In only 19 league games this season, Hložek scored 15 goals and added seven assists. In the last match of the season, Hložek scored four goals in the first half in a 6-1 rout of Brno before being substituted at halftime.

In 2016, then-Czech Republic coach Pavel Vrba didn’t take striker Patrik Schick to France because, at 20, he seemed to be too young and inexperienced. Šilhavý is unlikely to make the same mistake in the case of Hložek, who has drawn interest Liverpool, Leipzig, Dortmund and AC Milan.

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