It's hard to ignore the hype before major tournaments such as the FIFA World Cup™ or the UEFA EURO. Reporters chivvy out every last detail about each of the hopeful nations. Should we so wish, we'll soon find out where the teams are staying, which set plays they've practised on the training ground, and the national camp's attitude towards wives and girlfriends. One of the more fascinating background titbits ahead of UEFA EURO 2012 relates to the Czech Republic, as the official party has opted to travel to the tournament by the unconventional means of the train.
“The draw was kind to us and handed us a base in the nearest venue [Wroclaw]. So we opted for the most comfortable method of travel, and we're going there in a luxury train," Czech boss Michal Bilek informed FIFA.com. The coach couldn't resist a smile as he reflected on the unusual opening gambit ahead of the continental showdown: “The players will have an entire train to themselves."
Group with no clear favourites
The EURO 96 finalists are actually following in the footsteps of the 1934 Czechoslovakia team, who themselves took the train to the FIFA World Cup in Italy. That generation came home with a silver medal, but the 38-year-old Bilek laughed off the notion of a similar triumph this time. “We're not among the favourites, not even among the dark horses. Every nation is aiming to do the best they can, and that goes for us too. But our primary goal is simply to survive the group stage."
Greece, Russia and co-hosts Poland provide the opposition in Group A. “It's very evenly-matched. In fact, the danger is that there are no runaway favourites, and that tends to raise fans’ expectations," Bilek mused, “but I don't think it's by any means the easiest group."
The last couple of decades have yielded meagre pickings from a Czech footballing point of view. The EURO 96 final and a semi-final appearance at EURO 2004 were high points, but those were exceptions rather than the rule. The East Europeans missed out on the FIFA World Cup in 1998, 2002 and 2010, and failed to survive the group stage at EURO 2000 and 2008.
Last chance for veterans
Bilek, who took the helm in October 2009, has overseen a renaissance in the team's fortunes: 26th spot in the May 2012 FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking is the Czechs’ best placing in two and a half years. “After we failed to qualify for the World Cup, a number of our experienced players retired," Bilek explained. “We've tested more than 50 new faces since then, so our results at the start weren't so good. But when it mattered, we came upon the right team and formation, and we started winning. The EURO is our chance to confirm we’re on the up."
However, the period immediately after the showdown in Poland and Ukraine could well be studded with another round of prominent retirements, as the likes of Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky and Milan Baros are into their 30s and may regard this summer as the appropriate time to bring down the curtain on distinguished international careers.
However, they could yet go out with a bang, as recent events on the European stage underlined the value of age and experience in the modern game. Oldies but goldies Cech, Frank Lampard (33), Didier Drogba (34) and Ashley Cole (31) were the men who anchored Chelsea’s maiden triumph in the UEFA Champions League.
Not that the Czechs are indulging in false hopes and dreams. Instead, the hope is that a combination of tournament experience and strong team spirit will enable the current generation to emulate not only the Czechoslovakia team of 1934, but rather the Danes in 1992 and Greeks in 2004, teams who triumphed against the odds in the European showpiece.
“We're not in any position to be contemplating the trophy," insisted Bilek, before concluding with a knowing look: “But anything can happen in football."