By any definition, Czech Republic are struggling in the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ preliminaries. With two matches to play, the Czechs are seven points off neighbours and group leaders Slovakia, and can no longer qualify directly for next year's global showdown.
In October, the team led by head coach and association president Ivan Hasek will go all out in search of second place and a back-door route to the finals via the play-offs. However, with both Slovenia and Northern Ireland are two points clear of the UEFA EURO 1996 runners-up, they face an uphill struggle.
Hasek sparks upturn
Yet since Hasek took the helm in early July, things have started to look up for the Czech team. Defender David Rozehnal has a simple explanation for the turnaround in fortune. "Like any coach, our new boss has a vision of what he wants from the players. He also places a lot of emphasis on us operating as a team and looking out for one another," the Hamburg star said in an exclusive FIFA.com interview.
Recent results suggest the new chief has the team moving in the right direction, as the Czechs are undefeated since Hasek took office. They beat the Belgians 3-1 in a mid-August friendly, before a commendable 2-2 draw away to leaders Slovakia, and a 7-0 thrashing of San Marino kept alive the their flickering hopes of second place in European Group 3.
These encouraging results not only lifted the gloom, but also prompted an improvement in the nation's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The Czechs made good four places in August and are now back in the top 20 at 18th.
I'm utterly convinced we can still book a ticket to the World Cup. If
we've stopped believing that, we shouldn't even be trying any more.
Rozehnal has a straightforward explanation for that too. "We know we're a good team and need be afraid of no-one. And to be frank, I don't often worry too much about our world ranking. If you play well and win, you automatically rise up the chart," the centre-half reasoned.
For all their travails in qualifying for the first FIFA World Cup on African soil, the Czechs still retain a chance of making the play-offs in November and claiming a berth at next year's tournament. For that to happen, they will need to beat Poland and the Northern Irish in their remaining qualifiers in October.
The main problem of late has been the difficulty of moulding a group of quality individuals into a coherent collective whole. It has been a recurring hitch whenever the Czechs have arrived to contest a major tournament, where - with the single exception of the EURO 13 years ago - they have never truly fulfilled their potential.
Talking to FIFA.com, Rozehnal offered an explanation for that too. "At a World Cup or EURO, it's often a question of form on the day. All the teams are good, and you can't afford even a moment of weakness. Our goal is to go a good, long way at a finals tournament, but for the time being, qualifying is all that matters."
Sverkos shares confidence
Just a few weeks back, Hasek announced a programme of rejuvenation and a fresh start for the national team. True to his word, he has blooded a crop of young, hungrier players since then, including Vaclav Sverkos. The Sochaux striker shares Rozehnal's positive vision of the future.
"I'm utterly convinced we can still book a ticket to the World Cup. If we've stopped believing that, we shouldn't even be trying any more," he exclusively told FIFA.com a few weeks ago.
However, the Czechs are no longer in control of their own destiny and require outside help for their qualification dream to become reality. In a classic twist of fate, it could be neighbours Slovakia who ride to their aid: if the group leaders beat Slovenia, and the Czechs defeat Northern Ireland at home, Hasek's team would go into the final matchday on 14 October in second place.
By contrast, a defeat to the Irish in front of the Prague crowd would snuff out the Czechs' hopes of South Africa once and for all. But Rozehnal, Sverkos and their team-mates, buoyed by their recent unbeaten run, have by no means given up yet.