Czech Republic's last appearance at the FIFA U-17 World Cup - back in Japan in 1993 - saw them competing as the former Czechoslovakia. The national side reached the quarter-finals on that occasion and are looking to do the same with a win in Torreon in their final Group D match against Uzbekistan.
Following the disappointment of their first game, a crushing 3-0 defeat by USA, Czech hopes of qualifying for the round of 16 looked slim at best. The result cast doubt on the Czech Republic's attacking style, which produced a barrage of shots on goal to little effect in their first outing. However, they remained optimistic and went into their second game intent on assailing their opponents’ goal once again.
They won 1-0 and persuaded many that they have what it takes to advance past the group stages here in Mexico. The margin of victory may have been narrow, but for a team with such offensive instincts - hammering a total 36 shots in their first two matches - more emphatic wins may be just around the corner.
“Basically, we play football to entertain. We don’t care about tactical play or tight defence. Our aim is to celebrate football,” said coach Josef Csaplar, when quizzed on the ideology behind his squads' vibrant displays. “We want to put on a performance that gives everyone pleasure.That’s our style; that’s our theory. What makes me happiest is when we play an attacking game, when we push towards goal and shoot as much as possible. We call that playing proper football.”
His young charges seem to have absorbed the lesson. Certainly Csaplar’s talk of “celebration and entertainment” have made the transition from the training ground to Mexico’s pitches intact. “We committed some basic errors in our first game against USA and lost 3-0,” said the strategist. “That is the only thing I’m not happy with. But I thought we played well, and when we won our second match we got the equation just right. We want to carry on like this against Uzbekistan. If we win and qualify then we’ll think about going farther in this competition.”
Dream come true for Julis
Following the victory against New Zealand, the most delighted member of the Czech Republic squad was undoubtedly forward Lukas Julis, whose invaluable 28th-minute strike is certainly a candidate for goal of the tournament. “It was a big match. We wanted to win and get our tournament back on track,” said Julis, when speaking to FIFA.com after the match.
“The night before the game I dreamed I was going to score and the next morning I told all my team-mates. They just smiled! We were looking to score first and when the ball came to me I didn’t think twice. I just decided to shoot from far out and the ball flew into the far corner. It was unbelievable. I ran around like a madman. My dream had come true!”
That said, Julis did subsequently squander two clear chances to extend his side’s advantage, misses that could have proven extremely costly. “To be honest I thought I was going to die out there,” he said. “In the last few minutes I was terrified we’d concede a goal and miss out on a win. It would have really hurt if we’d drawn or lost after I missed those chances, but it all turned out well in the end thanks to the other Lukas!” he continued, pointing to the Czech’s goalkeeper Lukas Zima and grinning.
So, what was the imposing custodian himself thinking in the dying moments of the match? “Just about doing do my job, nothing else. I just wanted to protect my goal,” explained Zima. “The final exchanges didn’t worry me. I passed the test and that is what matters. After the game my team-mates were all slapping me on the back, as we were delighted with the win.”
The second half had indeed been a stern test for the Czechs. Initially tentative, their opponents New Zealand began to press forward and Zima was forced to make five key saves, two of which involved one-on-ones with Kiwi danger-men Tim Payne and Stephen Carmichael.
The 6'4" net-minder resembles Chelsea star Petr Cech and makes no secret of his admiration for the Czech senior national team's No1. “Getting to the same level as Petr would be amazing. I got to know him recently and we trained together back in the Czech Republic.”
The Czech youngsters had a tough opening account at the tournament, but the win against New Zealand may prove to be the turning point in their fortunes. Will they be able to keep the spirit of Czech football alive and go on to greater glories in Mexico?