Czechs ready for history to repeat itself

Phil Shaw looks at the outsiders and the rewards they hope to win tomorrow
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The Independent Online
As if the success of the Czech Republic were not surprising enough, their imminent appearance in the Euro 96 final provoked the unprecedented spectacle yesterday of a Newcastle United player defending negative tactics.

Pavel Srnicek, who will play in goal against Germany at Wembley tomorrow if Petr Kouba's thigh injury does not heal, was unrepentant in the face of suggestions that they were unduly defensive during the semi-final with France. "Look," he said, "people can say what they want but they would all swap places with us, including England. They forget that we had four players suspended and another [Patrik Berger] not fit to start."

What that football utopian, Kevin Keegan, would make of his keeper's comments is open to conjecture. The Czechs are merely revelling in confounding experts and bookmakers alike. "They put us at the bottom because they didn't know us," Srnicek said. "They've changed their tune now."

He offered no pretence about their priorities. "We start by trying to keep a clean sheet, and build from there. We don't defend in separate blocks, but as a team, from the strikers back. People talk about the skill of [Karel] Poborsky and Berger, rightly so, but the big thing is that we play as a unit. We were very tired in extra time on Wednesday, but we helped each other through."

Srnicek is one of seven players based in the West. The final now becomes a shop window for those keen to follow. Pavel Nedved may be first, PSV Eindhoven having warned off Lazio by claiming the Sparta Prague midfielder has a "pre-contractual" agreement with them.

Coventry want Slavia's Radek Bejbl, another midfielder, while his club- mate Poborsky, a wide attacker with the wild-haired look of a refugee from a rock festival, is linked with Liverpool. Kouba, if fit to play, could clinch a pounds 1.5m move to Wolves.

Srnicek rejects the theory that a spate of defections might emasculate Czech football just as it is regaining respectability. Success abroad, he argued, stimulated interest at home by showing what its graduates could achieve.

A case in point is the elegant Berger. At 22, he has a German champions' medal with Borussia Dortmund, where Matthias Sammer is a colleague. "And there are more good young players coming through," Srnicek said. "We have several here with us."

His own role model was Ivo Viktor, "our Gordon Banks" and now assistant to coach Dusan Uhrin. "I remember his farewell game and I bought the book of his life story. Because of his inspiration, we've always had good keepers, even when the national team weren't doing well."

Srnicek watched on television when Viktor helped Czechoslovakia beat West Germany, then World Cup holders and featuring Berti Vogts in defence, in the 1976 final. "We talked about the coincidence before we arrived. Our ice hockey team were world champions then, like now. When we said history was going to repeat itself, people said we were going too far. Now we feel we can do it - we're very positive."