This meant more than football. There was joy as the Czech Republic surprisingly beat the Netherlands 2-0 to reach the Euro 2020 quarter-finals but it arrived in a period of sadness for the country. Last Thursday, a tornado hit the southern part of Moravia, destroying seven villages, leaving five people dead and many more without homes.
After the victory against Frank de Boer’s team, the Czech players made a financial contribution for the people in Moravia and sent a message of support from the dressing room. “This victory is for you. We are thankful to the people who help there and we wish all the best to those affected,” the goalkeeper Tomas Koubek tweeted.
The midfielder Antonin Barak said: “After what happened, we wanted to send some positive feelings to people. Some fans could come to Budapest to support us and I was the happiest man to see my dad back in the stands. It meant a lot for me and I felt proud.”
The fact that the Czechs are among the eight teams left in the tournament may come as a surprise to many. They are 40th in Fifa’s rankings and needed what the coach, Jaroslav Silhavy, described as their best performance under him to win against the Netherlands.
He took over the team in 2018 and has turned them into one of the most difficult to beat on the continent, managing to defeat England in Euros qualifying and then progressing, quite comfortably, from a group also including Gareth Southgate’s team, Scotland and Croatia.
The Czechs now hope that this generation can achieve something similar to the 1996 team that made it to the European Championship final, or the 2004 team that reached the last four. On Saturday they play Denmark in Baku and Silhavy hopes that an approach similar to the one that worked wonders against the Netherlands will be successful.
“We played perfectly as a team,” he said. “I told that to my players: our opponents are clear favourites so we can’t do it another way other than to work hard for each other. The biggest reward for us is that even the Dutch fans applauded us after the game.”
Silhavy’s side, led by Tomas Soucek and Patrik Schick, who has four goals at the tournament, has made the fans dream again. This summer has an air of 1996 about it, when the stars were Pavel Nedved and Karel Poborsky among others, because that tournament was played in England and the final was at Wembley.
“That tournament was big for me, for players and for the fans,” Dusan Uhrin, the coach of that team, tells the Guardian. “It was an amazing achievement and maybe it hasn’t even been fully appreciated until now. After that, the national team wasn’t able to go that far.”
In 2004, the Czechs had strong-minded individuals – Nedved had been joined by players such as Tomas Rosicky, Petr Cech, Jan Koller and Milan Baros – but lost to the eventual winners Greece in the semi-final. The current team may not have the same star quality but they are able to take on the best thanks to organisation and hard work.
Silhavy learned from the best. He was an assistant to Karel Bruckner, the coach in 2004, and played under Uhrin at Cheb in the 80s. “‘Jarda’ knows how to get on with the players, he was my centre-back for seven years,” Uhrin says. “As a coach he is able to create a good atmosphere and he has that little bit of luck every good manager needs. The team spirit is a big advantage.”
Playing 4-2-3-1, the Czech Republic are as direct as possible and are helped by the fact that their leading players are in good form. The national team’s success is no coincidence: Slavia Prague have made it to the Europa League quarter-finals twice over the past three seasons, and that is another similarity to the 1996 team, who benefited from the same club reaching the Uefa Cup semi-final that year.
“Sparta had also played well in the Champions League; I coached them when we almost reached the final in 1992,” Uhrin says. “Then at the Euros we had a great team with players in their prime as well as a lot of young players with motivation.”
Those young talents – such as Nedved, Poborsky, Patrik Berger and Vladimir Smicer – went on to move abroad and become icons. “These boys created a backbone for the team, especially in the attack,” Uhrin says. “We were very dangerous, and Uefa’s technical committee, with Sir Alex Ferguson and Gérard Houllier, appreciated that.”
After the second golden generation, including Rosicky and Cech retired, there was a slump. The national team did not fare well and the clubs, trying to reach the Champions League, relied on foreign imports to a large extent. As late as 2018, Karel Jarolim, Silhavy’s predecessor, singled out Sparta for criticism, saying that one of their games “looked like a friendly for the Romanian national team”.
Since then Sparta have built the team around 18-year-old Adam Hlozek and Slavia’s high-pressing and physically demanding game under Jindrich Trpisovsky became a blueprint for the national team. “Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal both had great seasons in England, some players are in Italy and Schick plays well in the Bundesliga,” Uhrin says. “There is a lot of quality in that side.”
If they beat Denmark they will be back in London for the semi-finals. With the captain Vladimir Darida and the left-back Jan Boril available again on Saturday, Silhavy has an important decision to make: will he change the starting XI that gave him his biggest victory yet?