Czechs seek Wembley support

Phil Shaw finds the underdogs in buoyant mood for Sunday's final
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The Independent Online
The water is flowing

The trees are rustling

Just as beautifully, we beat the

Norwegians

Not even the famous Dutchmen

managed to win here

So we made it, we made it

The Czech Republic's song for Euro 96 may not be as infectious as "Football's Coming Home", but the last line of "We're Off to England!" summed up the mood of a delirious if disbelieving nation yesterday.

They made it - and in Prague, thousands celebrated an achievement which, like the lyric of "Vzhuru do Anglie!" in its translated form, defied rhyme or reason. Back at the Preston hotel that has been their home for three weeks, Dusan Uhrin's squad marked the occasion with the customary Czech beers and an appeal for English support in Sunday's final against Germany.

Petr Kouba, whose save from France's Reynald Pedros in the penalty shoot- out paved the way for Miroslav Kadlec to fire his team from Old Trafford to Wembley, said: "The English fans will be very down about going out the way they did. But I hope they'll back us against the Germans. We'll be playing not only for the Czech Republic but for England as well."

Uhrin, in another public-relations gesture, wished aloud that his side were facing England. "But one of the best teams in the tournament awaits us," he added. "I don't think they'll be any less strong than when they beat us at the start of the finals, even with a couple of suspensions."

Unlike Berti Vogts, and in contrast with his options before the goalless bore with France, the Czech coach can select from strength. All four players suspended on Wednesday are likely to return, along with Patrik Berger, one of a quintet of Czechs who play in Germany's Bundesliga, despite the midfielder's continuing to feel unwell.

Vladimir Smicer, whose last-gasp goal against Russia prolonged the Czechs' stay in the competition, returned to Prague yesterday for his wedding. Sporting four stitches from a clash of heads with Lilian Thuram, he is due back tonight - with his bride.

She will be welcomed at their new base at St Albans, a fact which typifies the relaxed atmosphere surrounding the squad; shades of the Danish camp prior to their triumph as rank outsiders four years ago. It is now clear, however, that several opponents have mistaken Uhrin's liberal regime for weakness.

Because of their new-nation status - the split with Slovakia was formalised on New Year's Day, 1993 - there was a glib tendency to bracket them with the likes of Azerbaijan, Macedonia, Belarus and Lithuania. In fact, despite being a relatively small country of 10.5 million people, the Czech Republic has a rich footballing tradition, which Kouba, Kadlec and the rest were already upholding before reaching Lancashire.

The former Czechoslovakia reached the final of the World Cup, European Championship and Olympic Games. The new republic were too strong, as the song gleefully points out, for Norway and the Netherlands in qualifying (although this time last year, they were in disarray after losing 1-0 to group makeweights Luxembourg). And Slavia Prague put out Italian opposition on their way to the Uefa Cup semi-finals this year.

Uhrin, a ruddy-faced 53-year-old who never played top-flight football, has proved a master of marshalling his resources and playing to the strengths of his players. While no one would claim the Czechs as one of the more attractive sides at Euro 96, they have shown themselves a tactically astute unit capable of turning deep defence into swift counter-attack.

Perhaps their defensive inclination stems from a national siege mentality; Czechoslo- vakia had more than its share of being invaded and occupied. The Westernisation that followed 1989's "Velvet Revolution" - which affected every aspect of Czech culture - is not hard to detect either, though, in the flamboyance of Berger and Karel Poborsky.

President Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright and Frank Zappa devotee who led the break with Communist orthodoxy, said in a message to the squad: "Somehow the word "congratulations" seems too weak. We all had our fingers crossed against France and we believe in you for the final. Mind you, I feared Karel Poborsky was going to try and chip his penalty like his winning goal against Portugal!"

Czechoslovakia were the last team to beat the Germans on penalties in a competitive fixture, winning the shoot-out 5-3 in the final of 20 years ago. What irony: after all the talk of 1966 revisited, we have a reprise of '76. With the Sex Pistols playing in London again, and the tube drivers and postmen on strike, we should have seen it coming. Whether the Czech Republic can complete the coincidence must still be doubtful. But they made it, they certainly made it.

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