A mood of sober realisation, coupled with a determination to prove the doubters wrong, pervades Czech football at present. The national team’s hopes of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ ended in disappointment and, as was the case at South Africa 2010, the former giant-killers will have to watch from afar as the sport's elite compete in South America. The man who took charge of Czech Republic's final two qualifiers is convinced, however, that they can emerge from their troubles a much stronger team.
“The days when a side built around players such as Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky, Jan Koller and other world-class stars could compete with the best in the world are over,” said Josef Pesice in a frank interview with FIFA.com.
If there was ever any doubt that the Czechs needed to re-establish their themselves, their third-place finish behind Italy and Denmark in UEFA Group B – in which they picked up just 15 points from ten matches – has confirmed it once and for all. As 63-year-old Pesice put it: “At the moment, we’re not much better than average.”
The days when a side built around players such as Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky, Jan Koller and other world-class stars could compete with the best in the world are over.
The sense of transition was underscored by the Czech Football Association’s (FACR) decision to sever ties with head coach Michael Bilek in mid-September, with their hopes of qualifying for the World Cup all but over. Pesice took the reins on an interim basis and, although he guided the team to victories over Malta (4-1) and Bulgaria (1-0), there is still a huge amount of work to do.
“It’s not acceptable for a team that wants to take part in the World Cup to only win one home match out of five," he stated, referring to the 3-0 defeat to the Danes in Olmutz and the 2-1 reverse to Armenia in Prague. "We lost too many games in front of our own fans.
"But we have a good team and I think Czech Republic will qualify for the 2016 UEFA European Championship, where there will be 24 teams competing for the first time.”
Emerging duo deliver optimism
Two young strikers carry the promise of a return to happier times. Having impressed for Czech Republic at youth level, both managed to find the net during Brazil 2014 qualifying and both now ply their trade in the Bundesliga. The 24-year-old Tomas Pekhart of Nurnberg was an ever-present in the Czech side that finished runners-up to Argentina at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada 2007, while Eintracht Frankfurt’s Vaclav Kadlec, three years Pekhart’s junior, is the youngest-ever player ever to score for the full national team. Players of the calibre of Pekhart and Kadlec offer hope that the UEFA EURO 1996 finalists will be a force to be reckoned with once again.
“We have to improve our work at youth level in order to create the most profitable and personal conditions possible,” said Pesice. “It’s important for our players who were successful at U-21 level to have an easier route to the senior team.”
If they succeed in doing so, some good may yet come out of those failed qualifying campaigns, and that feeling of disillusionment could soon become one of elation.