A Czechmate Opportunity Lost – The Story of Euro 2004
An interesting, even heart breaking aspect of any sport is that the winning side is not always the most-deserving of victory. Something like this happened during the 2004 European Championship. Czech Republic—though not generally an elite powerhouse force in the continent—did have a team then to take on anyone in the world. Debojyoti Chakraborty at Goalden Times takes readers through this astonishing journey and discusses how the team managed to reserve a space in footballing folklore.
Czech Republic and Slovakia were formed after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992. Czechoslovakia had a rich history in football. They narrowly missed out winning in the final of World Cup 1934—their debut venture in the tournament—losing to host Italy by 2-1 after extra time. Nevertheless, Oldřich Nejedlý won the Golden Shoe with five goals in the tournament. They again came agonizingly close to the crown in 1962—this time outplayed by Brazil in the final. An individual Czech player shone again as Josef Masopust won the Ballon d’Or for having an outstanding tournament. Maybe these setbacks did not allow Czechoslovakia to flourish as much as they would have liked in the footballing world. They had to wait another fourteen years for their first major honor— the European Championship of 1976. That also did not signal a turning point in their history and remained their only notable campaign till the dissolution of the nation. Czech Republic did, however, reach the final of the 1996 European Championship. In a tournament heavily criticized for teams adopting negative tactics—four of the seven knock out matches required shootouts to decide a winner, with only nine goals being scored—the Czech team themselves had an uneven journey. They managed to win only two games, and many believed that their progression in the tournament wasn’t due to a renaissance in Czech football, but due to the shortcomings of top European teams at the time. However, no such questions were raised over the quality of the Czech team in Euro 2004. It remains one of the best teams in the history of the tournament that didn’t eventually win it. There were reasons for both their magnificent performance and their eventual failure. In order to understand that, we need to know the team inside out.
A football team depends heavily on the person who spends (or, in ideal situation, should) his time in isolation—the goalkeeper. While the outfielders have the luxury of making an unnoticed mistake or two here and there, a goalkeeper’s every single interaction with the ball is put under the scanner. A goalkeeper can, quite literally, decide the fate of a match. The 2004 Czech team had, and still has, one of the best goalkeepers of this millennium—Petr Čech. A confident shot stopper, a brave decision maker, something that would leave a scar on his head and almost take his life later on – Čech gave manager Karel Brückner much-needed assurance at the back. The team could indulge in playing an expansive brand of football, knowing that Čech was there to save everyone’s back. That does not mean that the Czech team had a fragile defense. At the heart of it was Tomáš Ujfaluši—a no-nonsense, aggressive stopper who could double up as a right back. He would later go on to make headlines alongside Lionel Messi, but that’s a story for another day. His central defensive partnership with René Bolf was instrumental in Czech Republic’s success in 2004. At right back, Zdeněk Grygera was the preferred option, with an able back up in Martin Jiránek. Complementing them on the other flank was Marek Jankulovski—a true modern day full back who had already earned rave reviews for his displays in Serie A, where his spell at Udinese coincided with the club’s fabulous domestic run. Willing to burst forward with speed, comfortable at playing as a full back, wing back or even a left winger, Jankulovski often delivered deadly crosses from the left hand channel. His tenacity and work rate ensured that he was hardly caught off-guard up the pitch.
The midfield was a gold mine as well. At the base of it was deep lying playmaker Tomáš Galásek. His versatility gave Brückner an option to deploy him as an auxiliary defender and tweak his formation without bringing in any player from the bench. Galásek was also calm with the ball at his feet and often laid the foundation of an attack with his accurate passing. No wonder that he had a stellar career in the Eredivisie—most notably with Ajax. On the right side of midfield was Karel Poborský, a technically gifted winger. He caught the world’s imagination during Euro 1996, with this amazing Poborský lob. This was followed by a dream move to Manchester United, which failed to live up to expectation. However, Poborský more than held his own during a twelve year-long career at the international level. To complement him, in case Brückner wanted to have someone further up the field, Vladimír Šmicer would pitch in. An attacking midfielder, he reached the pinnacle of his club career when he scored in the 2005 UEFA Champions League victory over AC Milan, playing his last match for Liverpool. It was an incredible match, where Liverpool came back from 0-3 down to make it 3-3, and then won through penalties.
The centre of the field was controlled by the magnificent Tomáš Rosický. Had injury not played a critical part in his career, he would surely have gone on to greater achievements. He has been a stupendous midfield maestro for fifteen long years, with a couple of top clubs like Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal. A solid pass master, Rosický dictated the tempo of the game as if he had a remote control in his hand.
The midfield was made complete by the captain and true leader of the team—Pavel Nedvěd. One of the best footballers of his generation, Furia Ceca (“Czech Fury”) had made a name for himself in Euro 1996. By 2004, he was already a Juventus star having won the Champions League and Ballon d’Or in 2003. Preferring to play on the left side of the pitch, Nedvěd was a football lover’s dream. Comfortable with controlling the ball with either feet, he had the speed to go past the opposition full back and curl in with his left foot; he also possessed the technique to cut inside and shoot with his right foot. Besides, he could easily slot anywhere in the midfield. He had the work ethic, stamina, and defensive tenacity to play as a box-to-box midfielder, the vision and composure to dictate play as a central midfield play maker, and the urgency and eye for goal like an attacking midfielder or supporting striker. No matter which position he was playing, he would bamboozle opponents with his dribbling skills and find an assist for his teammates through his eagle-eyed passes. He also had a tremendous eye for goals—scored mostly from outside the box through powerful volleys or masterful set pieces. He really was a complete footballer.
Every team needs a focal point. (Unless you are looking at the Spanish team of Euro 2012 that was blessed with a plethora of options in the midfield and could afford to deploy a striker-less formation. Even then, Vicente del Bosque was somehow forced to field a false nine in the absence of any world class forward after Fernando Torres’ decline in form.) But there was no such headache for Brückner as he had a giant in the 6’7” tall Jan Koller. (Some put his height at half an inch more.) Referred to as the “human lighthouse”, Koller was much more than just his height. At the club level, he had an above-average spell with Borussia Dortmund. Having netted 55 times in 91 international appearances in a decade-long career, he still tops his country’s goal scoring chart. During Euro 2004, he was part of a lethal striking duo with Milan Baroš, his partner in crime. Acting as a perfect foil for the strong Koller, Baroš was quick on his feet, was known for his dribbles, and often capitalized on the knockdowns from his fellow striker. No wonder, then, that Baroš scored five goals in the tournament—winning the Golden Boot in the process.
Any team remains just a bunch of individuals without an astute coach at the helm. Brückner made a gradual progress to the top after guiding the U21 team to the final of 2000 UEFA European Under-21 Championship. He was the assistant manager of the national team at the 2000 edition of the Euro, and graduated to the top job a couple of years later. Sure, Brückner was fortunate to have the best of the golden generation at his disposal, but he made them realize their true potential by implementing a free flowing style of play. Not very rigid in his tactical approach, Brückner would often tweak his formations or players’ roles and responsibilities even while a match was underway. This flexibility confused his opponents and the Czech side went on an undefeated spree of 20 matches during the lead up to the Euro in March 2004. In the process, they won seven matches and drew the other one to top their qualifying group.
Not very rigid in his tactical approach, Brückner would often tweak his formations or players’ roles and responsibilities even while a match was underway. This flexibility confused his opponents and the Czech side went on an undefeated spree of 20 matches during the lead up to the Euro in March 2004.
The beauty of the team was that they were capable of playing in so many different ways. Fluidity of some technically gifted players meant they could be deployed in different positions and given diverse responsibilities. Their attacking display earned them great applause and they were widely regarded as the best team in the world at that time. But there was discipline too. An attacking midfield was also a hard working one—all the players dropped back while not in position, ensuring a midfield overload and quick recovery of the ball.
Brückner favored a 4-4-2 formation (sometimes a flat one, sometimes with a diamond or any other variation), with an understandable emphasis on Nedvěd getting the license to play in a free role. Modern day football lovers might relate to it as they are familiar with a certain Lionel Messi—the Barcelona version. However, Brückner was a shrewd task master who did not hesitate to change his plan during a match, sometimes even more than once. A stunning qualifying campaign, a squad with quite a few known faces in the top European leagues, and the current best footballer of the world as their captain—it all meant that the Czech team entered the Euro 2004 as one of the favourites. Even being drawn in the Group of Death, comprising European powerhouses Netherlands and Germany, did not deter their prospects to the pundits. The pressure was tremendous, and nerves got the better of them. They found themselves trailing 1-0 against the lowly Latvia in the opening match of Group D. Things did not change even after the break, and Brückner needed to do something to wake his players up from their slumber. First, he switched from his traditional 4-1-3-2 formation to 4-3-3 as he introduced striker Marek Heinz and slotted Galásek a bit deeper. The next switch was to an even more expansive lopsided 3-4-3, as Galásek was sacrificed for a more attacking Šmicer. His team responded. With two late goals—the winner coming from Heinz—they managed to prevent a loss in their group opener against the weakest side in the group, which could have effectively knocked them out.
But the Czech did not learn their lessons. They found themselves two goals behind in their next match against the Netherlands, barely 20 minutes into the game. This performance was a bit baffling as the Czech had looked like the team more likely to score at the start of the match. Halfway through the first half, Baroš set up Koller to score their first goal of the match. Then the unthinkable happened. At the 25th minute, still more than an hour to go and trailing by a single goal, Brückner made a tactical switch—Grygera was taken off, Galásek got pushed a bit deeper, and in came Šmicer to add a more attacking flair through the wing. 4-4-2 became 3-5-2. The match continued to be an exciting affair, with both teams coming close to, but ultimately failing to score. Arjen Robben was creating havoc in the makeshift Czech defensive unit, but somewhat surprisingly he was subbed off close to the hour mark. Feeling the urgency to come back, Brückner made his second substitution of the match. Galásek, booked already, was not risked and Heinz, the goal scorer from the first match, was brought in. Effectively, the Czechs were taking a gamble here, playing with four forwards! The tides changed shortly and the equalizer came at the 71st minute, when Koller returned the favour and Baroš blasted a half volley. Nedvěd was having a greater influence on the game by the minute, and it was a foul on him that saw John Heitinga sent off with quarter of an hour to go. Brückner immediately shored things up at the back by bringing in a defender, but kept on pressing for the winner. Their man advantage did count in the end, as Šmicer found the net two minutes from time. Another late winner from one of the substitutes, another comeback win, another tactical masterclass—this match is widely regarded as the match of the decade.
Šmicer found the net two minutes from time. Another late winner from one of the substitutes, another comeback win, another tactical masterclass—this match is widely regarded as the match of the decade.
Results elsewhere in the group meant that the Czech was through to the quarterfinal with a game to spare. Not only that, they were assured of their top spot too—a top spot in the Group of Death! Brückner took this opportunity to rest his key players, have a look at his squad, and make as many as nine changes to his starting 11 against the last group match against Germany. It seemed like an action replay of the earlier matches. The Czechs again conceded early in the match, Brückner again shuffled his pack around to get the equalizer, again a substitute—in this case, Baroš, who had started from the bench—grabbing the winner. Two time World Cup winners Germany were sent packing by the new poster boy of world football—Czech Republic—that too with an under par team.
True, Brückner had one of the best teams of Europe under him. Supreme technical ability and game awareness of his players made his life easy. They had the skillset and diversity to carry out each of his variations. However, the man from the sidelines needs to implement the right plan at the right time, and needs to strike a balance between alteration and disarray on the field. Brückner did just that.
At the knockout stage, Brückner’s team ticked all the boxes against Denmark in the quarter final. No drama, a perfect display of attacking football, a clean sheet and both of his strikers finding the net in a neat 3-0 win. Expectations were rising, and up next was the match against Greece—a match the Czechs were firm favourites to win. With Grygera back from injury, Brückner went with his preferred and settled first XI. But disaster struck just before halftime as Nedvěd suffered an injury. It was a crucial blow to lose the bandmaster of the team. The team no more had a leader on the field, and it showed in their performance. Greece had given more emphasis on their defense and it was no wonder that the match failed to produce a goal during regulation time.
Extra time began. It was the first time in an international football tournament that the silver goal system was applied. It meant that any team leading the game at the halftime break during the extra time period would be declared the winner. As luck would have it, Greece found a winner in the injury time of extra time’s first half. That “silver goal” made its place in Greek footballing history as they eventually went on to win the tournament. Astute defensive organization coupled with strong aerial prowess, Greece relied on their counter attacking tactics and laid out a template for many a team to follow in the future.
It was a heartbreak for the whole of Czech Republic. For a young nation, this had been a chance to showcase their strength in front of the whole world. Much more was at stake besides football. Their dreams were shattered. Loss of a maverick Nedvěd was dearly felt at the crucial juncture. It is difficult to say who was missed more—the playmaker or the leader! Even though Brückner was not afraid of tinkering with formations and personnel, it was a bit too much for him to replace a world class player like Nedvěd in the middle of a match.
Age was a factor in the squad—most of the midfield and Koller up front were into their 30s while the rest of the attacking players were in their early 20s. In an ideal scenario, Brückner would have wished for a couple of key players to be in the 25–28 age group—young enough to last the rigor of such a demanding tournament at the peak of their mental and physical prowess, mature enough to dictate the play when situation called for.
Maybe the occasion got the better of Brückner as well. How can you otherwise explain that he made only one substitution in the match, that too an enforced one—when his captain had to be replaced due to injury? Especially when his team was playing was playing its fifth match in a fifteen day spell after completing a long domestic season. Just for the record, Brückner was not averse to the idea of substitutions—he had utilized the full quota of three subs in all of his previous matches thus far in the tournament. Things definitely needed to be freshened up, especially when the match went into extra time. More baffling is the fact that Brückner did not call upon Heinz, who had bailed him out more than once during the tournament. No tweaking of the playing style or formation either—something for which he had been applauded throughout the competition. Maybe he was overwhelmed by the events, an impending final on the offering and the anxiety of losing his most influential player on the field. People generally overdo or go numb in such situations. Brückner succumbed to the later one.
What happened Next
The Czech team had shown glimpses of their potential a couple of years back when they narrowly missed out on their maiden World Cup qualification. A good showing in 2004 earned the team a record high #2 spot in the FIFA ranking. Brückner kept the team together, and in 2006, they made it to the World Cup—the first and till date the only one for Czech Republic. They were handed a pretty decent group consisting of fellow debutants Ghana, a very winnable opponent in USA, and, to wrap it up, Italy. Their campaign began in grand fashion with a dominant 3-0 win over USA. But red cards in their next two matches meant that the Czechs had to exit from the group stage. The 2008 edition of the European Championship came a little too late in the day for most the squad, who were so good four years back. Czech Republic were once again handed the humiliation of yet another group stage exit from an international tournament. Brückner stepped down following this disaster. The generation which promised so much faded away without winning any significant international glory.
As far as the players were concerned, quite a few of them had a great career to look back on and forward to. Čech moved to England immediately after Euro 2004 and had a stellar career with Chelsea, winning practically everything that could be won. Now at Arsenal, he is not done yet, and, at only 34, he could be looking at another half a decade of top class football. Ujfaluši had a steady career in the top flight of European football, while Bolf was content in playing in the comfort zone of his home soil. Grygera went on to establish himself as an honest and reliable defender—first at Ajax and then at Juventus. Jankulovski, however, stood out as he went from strength to strength in Italian club football, ending his career as a fan favorite with AC Milan after winning both Serie A and the UEFA Champions League. The midfielders had a satisfying, if not magnificent, end to their careers. Galásek won a few more club honors. Poborský finished as the all-time leader in appearances for the Czech national team (since then overtaken by Čech) and also got featured in numerous best XIs at the club level. Šmicer was already reaching the twilight of his career but still carried on for a few seasons with his beloved Slavia Prague. Rosický, to the frustration of everyone, carried on his rendezvous with injuries and is currently vying his trade at Sparta Prague. Nedvěd continued his stunning career with Juventus before calling it a day in 2009. Koller moved around in the later part of his career without much success. Baroš could not make it big amongst the elites of Europe but he found his mojo in the Turkish club Galatasaray. He is still an active player in the Czech top division.
UEFA official website
Featured Image – The Irish Times