Both the present-day Czech Republic and the former
Czechoslovakia boast an impressive record at the European
championships, with a third-place finish in France back in 1960, a
famous overall triumph in 1976 in the former Yugoslavia, and
another third place four years later in Italy. Following the
political changes of the early 1990s, the Czech Republic finished
runners-up in 1996 in England, and made the semi-finals at UEFA
EURO 2004 in Portugal.
Coach Karel Bruckner and his men are aiming to build on that impressive track record when they travel to Austria and Switzerland this summer, although they will need to hit peak form to survive a group also featuring co-hosts Switzerland, 2002 FIFA World Cup™ third-place finishers Turkey, and EURO 2004 runners-up Portugal.
Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, veteran coach Bruckner discussed his side's group opponents, his key players, and the favourites to win the trophy.
FIFA.com: You took over the Czech Republic in 2002 and you've qualified for every major tournament since then. Is Karel Bruckner a guarantee of lasting success?
Karel Bruckner: I don't think so. The question's actually quite hard to answer. Qualifying every time certainly counts as a success, but there's a lot more to it than that. Success isn't always a question of getting through or being knocked out. Success isn't just about winning the European championship, or finishing in a good position at the EURO or a World Cup. A lot of work lies behind this kind of achievement, so it's not easy to answer your question. I don't feel I'm a guarantee of success. Football's much too complex for that.
Which of your tournaments as a coach was the most meaningful to you so far? Which one has made a lasting impression?
Memories fade over time. In general, it's the tournament you've just contested. That's the tournament where the memories are freshest and strongest. I've begun thinking back over previous tournaments, and the more time goes by, the fewer differences I discern between minor and major successes. It's also important to learn from your mistakes, that's part of football. Six or seven years with the national team speaks for itself. The most obvious sign of our success is that we've qualified for every EURO and World Cup.
Looking back over the past, what do you rate as your team's greatest triumph?
Once again, we're talking about success in tangible terms, in terms of trophies, so I'd like to refer back to my previous answers. You have to realise that sometimes things just don't work out, that's simply the way it is - in football, sport in general and life as a whole. I've had a few wonderful years in this sport, working with terrific people. There are definitely moments, not connected with qualifying and victories, which are more clearly defined for me. There are people I've worked with and spent a long, long time in conversation with.
Let's talk about the Czech national team. The former Czechoslovakia won the European crown in 1976. You also made the 1996 final and the semi-finals in 2004. You earlier finished third in Italy. Do you think your players simply know the right way to approach a tournament?
Our players know how to play football. Once again, we've started talking about success in terms of making the next round and the like. I think we know how to play football, we've proved it in qualifying, and we'll show it again at the tournament. My players have demonstrated their quality in other places too. We're a nation with a lot of sporting talent. Football is definitely an example of a team sport for which you need the right qualities. Our players are creative, inventive and technically strong. There are big differences between qualifying and the tournament itself. Qualifying is a long-term project where, at the end of the day, the quality and therefore the best teams win out. Tournaments are different. Somewhere between ten and 15 factors play a major role in making the difference between success and failure, even if your team is bursting with quality. We remain one of the top teams in Europe. I'm happy we're still where we are, and not just because the results are good, but also because of the way we play. But let me stress one thing: there are even better teams out there.
What are your targets at EURO 2008?
I can tell you that plain and simply. The primary goal is to survive the group phase.
Can you compare the team you led at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany with the squad you're currently preparing for the EURO?
We've made a few minor changes within the team. We've also slightly altered the way we play and implemented a few positional changes. We've become more flexible. We have more tactical alternatives and more positional options. It's more three-dimensional now.
You have many excellent players, but who do you regard as the most important?
It's fair to say we have players who are both excellent and important. Naturally, that includes Tomas Rosicky, Marek Jankulovski and keeper Petr Cech, but the other players aren't far off in terms of ability. We play a strongly team-oriented game and always take the particular match into account when we pick the team and the system. But I've forgotten to mention a fourth top player. It's Jan Koller, who's very valuable to us. I believe we can get more from him than his club did, although I'd rather not go into details. The squad now has more team spirit and unity than in the past.
Let's talk about your opponents. Have you been watching the Swiss, the Turks and the Portuguese?
I've mainly been following the fortunes of our first opponents, the Swiss. Things get mixed up otherwise. I prefer to take a very close look at our first opponents, and turn to the other teams after that. I'll watch our second and third opponents during the tournament. That's all you can do, because we still have a couple of games of our own and I have to get up to speed with the Swiss as well.
Could you nevertheless evaluate your group rivals for us?
The Swiss are playing in front of their home crowd, and we're their first opponents. We're well aware of what home advantage can do for a team. It'll be a major advantage for our opponents. There's no way we'll underestimate them, because we know all about their quality. We've had them watched a few times. There's no single outstanding personality in their ranks, but Switzerland are very forceful as a team, despite some poor results recently. The hosts are tough to play against because they keep it tight and they're very good defensively. I really don't need to discuss Portugal. The squad speaks for itself. The individual quality, and therefore the quality in the team, is really impressive. And I can safely say the same about our third opponents, who I absolutely don't regard as underdogs. Turkish football is close to a peak, the players are technically very strong and quick. They'll be very, very uncomfortable opponents. It's an interesting group - not easy, not difficult, and not a 'Group of Death'. We have strong opponents, and we're looking forward to measuring ourselves against them.
Who do you regard as favourites for the trophy?
I don't know if anyone's said this already, but the Germans give off an impression of strength, which they go out and prove over and over again. The Italians really understand tournament play. And then you have a number of teams who could spring a surprise, just like Greece at EURO 2004 in Portugal. I wouldn't be surprised myself if they did well again. The French are strong. Basically, most of the teams are capable of a top three finish.
Do you know what you'll be doing after the tournament?
I haven't a clue, and I'm not worried either, because I'm keeping my head clear. There's no place for these thoughts at the moment.