Czechs look to the future
© AFP

For most of the year, Czech football fans had their heads in their hands in despair. Their team won a grand total of five of the 12 matches they played, two of those against Liechtenstein and Lithuania. The other games brought four defeats and three draws.

Yet if you were to run a straw poll now among the Narodny Tym fans, optimism would currently be running high. Coach Michal Bilek's men managed to pull the iron out of the fire with two play-off wins over Montenegro (2-0 and 1-0) in mid-November, meaning that the Czechs have qualified for UEFA EURO 2012 – a tournament they won back in 1976.

These good results at the end of the year in international terms have also had a positive effect on the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, with the Czechs making the most progress of any country in the top 50 in November, moving up 14 places to 33rd, the best ranking since May 2011 when they were 32nd.

'Done what we set out to'

Czech Republic are still a long way off reliving the glory days when, firstly in 1999 and then in 2005, they got as high as second in the Ranking. Since making it all the way through to the final of EURO 1996 where they lost to Germany, the eastern Europeans have had little in the way of success.

They failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cups™ in 1998, 2002 and 2010, and while they were present at the UEFA EURO 2000 and 2008, they had to pack their bags at the end of the group stage. Their best achievement in recent years came at EURO 2004 when they made the semi-finals, only to lose to eventual winners Greece.

It will come as no surprise therefore to learn that the Czechs are managing expectations ahead of next year's tournament. "We'll see what kind of draw we get and then work out what we want to achieve. We've got nothing to lose in Poland and Ukraine since we've done what we set out to do," said Chelsea's Petr Cech, voted FIFA World Goalkeeper of the Year in 2005, with regard to his country's fifth successful EURO qualifying campaign in a row.

"The tournament is still another six months away," added Czech captain Tomas Rosicky of Arsenal. "We'll have time to think about it more later on, but for the moment we're just pleased that we've earned our place among the top teams in Europe."

Last chance saloon
While plenty of Czechs ply their trade among the elite of European club football - including Cech, Rosicky, Milan Baros (Galatasaray) and Jaroslav Plasil (Bordeaux) - the national team have only sporadically shone on the international stage. All of which means that, for a number of the squad's older performers, EURO 2012 may be their last chance to achieve something significant for their country.

As Michal Kadlec said in an interview with FIFA.com last year: "None of us are getting any younger. I think that the problem we have is that the younger players weren't brought into the squad with any consistent plan in mind, and now it's tough to sort this out."

'You never know'
The new generation finally appears ready to make the next step however, and none more so than Nuremberg's Tomas Pekhart. "I can still see myself back in 1996 with my parents, sitting in front of the TV in the lounge watching the final of the EURO," said the 22-year-old in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com just a few days ago. "And now I will be playing at the same tournament, which is incredible. I know that my moment will come."

Competition for places means that Pekhart has yet to gain much experience in international terms. "Milan Baros – one of my heroes – plays the same position as me, which is great as it means that I can simply watch and learn." His time with the Czech squad has also enabled him to play alongside Rosicky, whom he describes as "the most technically-gifted player of all time. I had posters all over my bedroom walls of him when I was a kid."

This positive attitude will hopefully rub off on some of the veterans next summer as they face up to the dizzying challenge of taking on the likes of Germany, holders Spain and the Netherlands. But as the ever-optimistic Pekhart puts it: "You never know what might happen at a tournament!"