Pekhart, the gentle giant

The Czechs will be the surprise-package in the Final of Canada 2007, and even the players themselves seem dazed by their achievement. Almost impossibly relaxed, lanky forward Tomas Pekhart spoke to about the big game.

The youngest man in the squad, in many ways he is the perfect symbol of the Czech presence at this tournament. Firstly, because at 1.90m he is an immense figure in a team standing at an impressive average of 1.83m, but also because he is impeccably laidback. There may be a final to contest this Sunday, yet the 18-year-old is in the mood to cut loose and laugh, to the point that anyone would begin to wonder if the word 'pressure' can be translated into Czech.

It is true that media interest has been limited back home, given the emphasis put on the senior side, however Pekhart is the first to hail his side's feats. For him, their journey through to the showpiece game ranks close behind the senior team's appearance in the final of UEFA EURO '96. "I remember the 1996 final," he says. "I was seven-years-old and I watched it on television. Without doubt, that was the greatest achievement by a Czech side in an international tournament - and now we're second on that list!" The current U-20 squad do not have to look far for reminders of that epic summer either. "Our goalkeeping coach, Petr Kouba, played in that final," explains the Tottenham man. "He's told us all about it and his experience has been very enriching."

Kouba might even be feeling a little déjà vu, given that, once again, practically no one expected the Czechs to make it this far. They themselves seem a little bemused, but Pekhart is clear on what their secret has been: "We play as a team. There are no stars and we have no big names, unlike the Argentinians. Our success comes from our ability to play together."

The comparison is apposite, as the South Americans are now the only side standing between the Reprezentace and glory. They both know each other well too, which is perhaps why the Czechs are approaching the match with impressive calm. "We opened our tournament against them, so it's going to a be a bit special as games go," comments Pekhart. "They're the favourites and that's obvious, but we can upset them, just as we did when we took a point from the 0-0 draw in our first match." thanks
As true as that may be, the context will be completely different on Sunday. The competition is drawing to a close, confidence has grown in both camps and perhaps tiredness may even rear its head as a factor. "Of course we're tired," exclaims the No18. "This will be our seventh game and we've also played extra time twice. But this is a final, a historic encounter and the most important match in our careers. So don't worry: the energy is there and adrenaline will keep us on our feet!"

In round one against the Argentinians, the Czechs made no effort to conceal the tactics they planned to employ, so will they be playing their cards a little closer to their vests this time? "I'm not sure what tactics we're going to adopt. You'll have to ask the coach!" responds Pekhart, before injecting a little spice into the debate: "That said, our game-plan of defending then waiting to attack on the counter worked very well the first time, so who knows?"

What is certain is that the Eastern Europeans desperately hope to avoid another penalty shoot-out. They are the first team to have won twice from the spot in a FIFA U-20 World Cup, but their young striker feels their luck cannot last forever. "We've all said we don't want any more penalty shoot-outs. We've been lucky twice in a row and that can't happen a third time," he explains, with a smile that suggests the Czechs will deal with whatever fate throws their way.

Stress clearly does not seem to be an issue in the Czech camp, and that impression is doubly confirmed by a cursory glance at the players' haircuts around the training ground. "Before the tournament started, we told ourselves we'd shave our heads if we got to the Round of 16," says Pekhart. "It was Martin Ferrin's idea. As usual, he's been the clown in the team. He's always making jokes."

The jokes and the relaxed approach also serve to hold any homesickness at bay, which for a side composed of 18 and 19-year-olds must be a constant endeavour. "It's tough to be far from home for more than a month," admits Pekhart. "We do what we can to stay in touch, either through the internet or on the phone. Everyone's very excited back there and they're happy for us. When the tournament's over, I'll take a week off in the Czech Republic to show my family my gold medal." The youngster begins to chuckle again, then adds, a little unconvincingly for once: "I was joking about the gold medal."