The Czechs may not be a regular fixture at major tournaments, but each time they earn themselves a place they tend to be viewed as outsiders for the title. That is hardly surprising given the considerable list of great names to have sported the nation's colours, not to mention some outstanding results down through the years. Once again, the Czechs will start out as a potential surprise package as they aim for glory at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007.
The Czechs carried the same tag at the UEFA European U-19 Championship, where they booked their ticket for the global event. Spain began that competition as prohibitive favourites for the crown, but many observers backed Miroslav Soukup's charges to cause an upset. The coach himself always maintained qualification for Canada 2007 was the priority however, and his team met that goal by reaching the semi-finals. Four goals were shipped during their opening match against Belgium, yet the true strength of the side is the solid defence built around Marek Suchy, while Martin Fenin, Kamil Vacek and Marek Strestik provide the attacking flair.
Knocked out by tournament revelations Scotland, Czech Republic missed out on the chance to contest a dream final against hot favourites Spain. Their achievements in reaching the last four were not in vain though, as it assured them a place at Canada 2007.
They hardly had an easy draw either, needing to qualify from a tough Group A that also featured hosts Poland, eventual semi-finalists Austria, and Belgium. Miroslav Soukup's team were widely-tipped to go through, but they showed signs of letting those expectations get to them as they went down 4-2 to the Belgians in a highly-entertaining opening game. That defeat left them with their backs to the wall going in to the Austria match, but they came back strongly with a 3-1 triumph, before seeing off the Poles 2-0 to seal a berth in the final quartet. A 1-0 defeat to Scotland at that stage eliminated the Reprezentace from contention, but they had met their minimum target and could begin making preparations for Canada.
Miroslav Soukup took over the reins on the eve of the UEFA European U-19 Championship, and made it his first priority to scour the lower leagues both at home and in Germany for young Czech talent. His career in coaching began at Tatran Prachatice, with whom he won a third-division title in 2002/03, and his success there led to two seasons as assistant coach for top-flight Czech outfit 1.FC Brno.
Soukup may have secured the Czech Republic's passage to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007, but his work cannot be totally dissociated from that of his predecessor, Jaroslav Horak. Right-hand man during the qualification campaign for the U-19 Euro, Soukup made the eventual step-up when Horak decided not to extend his contract. He celebrated his promotion by winning a friendly tournament with Poland and England in March 2006, which proved to be an excellent stepping-stone to the real thing as he steered his charges to the semi-finals on Polish soil four months later.
Marek Strestik more than proved his worth at the UEFA European U-19 Championship, where he shouldered the creative duties in an essentially defensive team. Brimming with talent, he is an attacking midfielder from the old school, involved in every move going forward. He possesses a goal-scoring touch of his own too, as he showed with three strikes during his side's three group games in Poland. His proficiency in dead-ball situations is sure to strike fear into the opposition.