Czechs shoulder the blame
© AFP

Anyone would think Czech Republic hero Tomas Oklestek would have been on top of the world after firing home the decisive penalty which put his team into the last eight but, in fact, he walked off the pitch a deeply worried young man.

Oklestek was the toast of the nation as he kept his cool to bring the ten-man Czechs a 4-3 shoot-out victory against Japan in Victoria and he was certainly incredibly popular with his team-mates. He was far too popular in all truth because they jumped on top of him so hard that the Brno midfielder has injured his shoulder and is doubtful for their quarter-final meeting against Spain in Edmonton on Saturday.

"It's just one of those things," he said. "I could have told the coach I got injured during the game but I was honest with him and said what happened." And was Czech Republic boss Miroslav Soukup furious with his players for causing such an unfortunate injury? Surprisingly, not in the least... and he will not even warn them not to do it again.

"I am never too worried one of my players is injured because I have eight other guys waiting for a chance to play," he told FIFA.com. "At least Tomas can have the satisfaction of knowing that his name will now be known right around the country in history and I am merely happy that we are in the last eight teams in the world.

"Japan showed why they finished top of their group in the first half and the game didn't develop very well for us. There wasn't an awful lot of hope when we were 2-0 down with only around 15 minutes left but I have to congratulate my players for the way they fought back," said Soukup. "We know Spain well from the European Championship last year, even though we never came up against them there. When we met them in a friendly in March they outplayed us and won fairly easily 3-1 but I want this match to be different of course. We want to stay in Canada for as long as we can."

Natural-born leader
Soukup is assisted on the field by Czech Republic skipper Jan Simunek and the natural-born leader is not the shy type, preferring to get involved with his colleagues in a vocal and visible way. "I like to help get the team motivated before the game and I think that's my main job as captain," he told FIFA.com. "Even during the warm-up and exercises I am always talking to the guys, getting them ready, but especially in the dressing room. I am constantly walking around them, telling the team: 'Let's go boys, we must not be afraid and we have to work hard' and things like that."

Perhaps significantly, the Sparta Prague defender was absent when the Czechs lost that friendly in Spain but he said: "From what I heard that was the hardest opponent we have ever played. We cannot be scared of them, even if we did lose. The one good thing we can say is that at least we know a little bit about them. We had a good team meeting today and our coach went over all the technical things we need to know for the Spain match.

"The Japan game finished late and we are a little bit tired after arriving from Victoria but we will rest a lot before final training. Against Japan I was exhausted even after 90 minutes because we played with one man short after Jakub Mares was sent off. I was under a lot of pressure trying to defend but of course it was very satisfying because we won," the 20-year-old said.

"This is a very high standard of football and there are so many quality teams playing here... I have been impressed by the tournament. It's the dream of all us to get past Spain and win the whole thing. We don't want to end it here in Edmonton, we want to carry on."

Stormy encounter
The last time the Czechs were in this city was for a friendly against host nation Canada just prior to the tournament but the match was abandoned after 53 minutes due to thunder and lightning and officials called a halt on safety grounds. "It was very hard for us because we had just arrived from the US," Simunek recalls. "We were very tired and we had to play on the second day after we arrived but, with the terrible weather, it just wasn't possible."

The decision to halt the contest was firmly backed by Soukup, who added: "I have never seen such a thing in my whole lifetime as a player or coach but they did the right thing to stop the game and I understand why they did it."

They say lightning does not strike twice. That will be a belief which Oklestek will back to the hilt after his freak injury following the Japan success. If he does get to play and score a goal again, expect him to be running away from his team-mates instead of towards them.