It is not a secret, nor do you need to be a dyed-in-the-wool follower of international football, to understand the muted emotions associated with the Czech Republic national team at present. Everyone knows the nation has had better times on the continental and world footballing stage, and it must be all too tempting to spend time reminiscing on the skilled idols and glories of the past rather than admire the fare on offer at present. However, the current generation has a huge chance to change all that over the next few days.
The Czechs meet Montenegro on 11 and 15 November in the winner-takes-all play-offs for a place at UEFA EURO 2012. Narodny Tym were eliminated at the group stage of the last continental finals in Austria and Switzerland four years ago, and missed out entirely on the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The side now coached by Michal Bilek have slipped to 47th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, but still enter the play-offs as favourites to book their place in Poland and Ukraine.
In the shadow of his idols
Tomas Pekhart rates as a future star of the new Czech generation. "Reaching the play-offs should be considered a success for our team, but we have to understand that the games against Montenegro won’t be easy," the 22-year-old, who plays his club football in the German Bundesliga for Nurnberg, exclusively told FIFA.com. "But obviously we'll do everything we can to be at the EURO next summer. Once we've managed to get there, anything’s possible. You never know what might happen at a tournament."
Viewed through Czech eyes, that comment is a lot more than a mere cliché or throwaway remark. Pekhart is only too happy to recall the team spearheaded by Pavel Nedved and Karel Poborsky which stormed to the final at EURO 1996, only to fall to a Golden Goal by Germany's Oliver Bierhoff.
"These players are our idols nowadays, and we're trying to follow in their footsteps, although it needs to be appreciated how difficult that is," declared the talented striker. There is certainly a sense in which the most recent zenith of Czech football also casts a long shadow over the players of today.
We'll do everything we can to be at the EURO next summer. Once we've managed to get there, anything’s possible.
Poised to take next step
Pekhart boasts all the attributes required to take up the baton passed on by the former heroes. The 6'4 beanpole was the youngest member of the Czech Republic squad which made it all the way to the final at the FIFA U–20 World Cup 2007 in Canada. He picked up further experience two years later at the next edition of the tournament in Egypt, and the man who wears the No9 shirt for Nurnberg now has six full international caps. In many ways, now is the perfect time for him to push on and showcase his ability on the European scene.
"I remember exactly how it was, sitting in front of the TV with my parents in our front room back in 1996, watching the EURO final. Now it could be me playing at the same tournament. Qualifying for the finals would be wonderful, and it’s my biggest goal," said Pekhart, combining youthful enthusiasm with a note of caution.
"I know my time will come, and my aim is to keep on improving with Nurnberg. The club offers me everything I need for that." The player currently has three goals in 11 league appearances for the side lying 15th in the German top flight, making him their joint-top scorer.
Stepping into the spotlight
In the national set-up supervised by Bilek, Pekhart is still a relatively new face. "We have Milan Baros up front in my position, and he's one of my role models. It's terrific because I can watch him and learn so much." As part of the squad, Pekhart also has the opportunity to play on the same team as Tomas Rosicky. "In my opinion, he's one of the greatest Czech players of all time. As a kid, my bedroom was covered in posters of him," said Pekhart.
The gifted starlet is champing at the bit and ready to serve his country, potentially in the play-off double-header against Montenegro, and as the figurehead for a new generation. "Whenever I'm brought on, I give it my best shot," he said, a promise made by a young man who could yet change the focus of conversation in Czech football from the past to the present and future.