The Czech Republic's advance to the quarter-finals has clearly come as a surprise to some commentators in this country, who were still referring to the fledgling nation as "plucky underdogs" and "rank outsiders" even after their fully deserved 2-1 win over Italy in their second Group C fixture.
Serious students of the European game, who have watched the top Czech players in action for clubs and country this season, will have been less surprised. The Czechs can call on a number of highly talented footballers, and one of the best is their 23-year-old midfielder Patrik Berger.
Berger, who helped Borussia Dortmund win the German title after moving from Slavia Prague a year ago, is a gifted playmaker who also packs a powerful shot - he scored six goals from midfield in the qualifying tournament.
Berger has yet to open his account in the finals, but he was responsible for one of the four Czech efforts which hit the woodwork during Wednesday's thrilling 3-3 draw against Russia. From a free-kick some 25 yards out, he hit a tremendous drive which Stanislav Cherchesov, in the Russian goal, saw at the last moment and pushed against the post.
Before the tournament, Frantisek Cernoch, a Czech football writer, said: "When he first made the transition from the under-21 squad to the national team, he made a lot of mistakes with the ball. But now you can see how he has more confidence, and does not break under pressure."
Portugal, the Czechs' opponents in Sunday's quarter-final, have a highly rated midfield, but Berger and his hard-working sidekick, Radek Bejbl, will surely give them a game to remember.
No 11: "Free Euro 96 T-shirt" screams the blurb on Coca-Cola cans. The catch is that you need 30 ring pulls from the 50p apiece cans, which makes the "free" T-shirt pounds 15.
Wedding bells may be silent
Vladimir Smicer, the Czech substitute who scored the dramatic last-minute equaliser in Wednesday's 3-3 draw against Russia which took his side into the quarter-finals at Italy's expense, has a problem.
If the Czechs go all the way to the final on 30 June, the Slavia Prague striker will have to cancel his wedding, which is scheduled for 28 June in the Czech capital. He is engaged to Pavlina Vizek, the daughter of Ladislav Vizek, a member of the Czechoslovak side which finished third at the 1980 European Championship in Italy.
"It looks like he does not want her," said Vizek, who was a commentator for Czech television at Wednesday's match at Anfield, where his eventual son-in-law became a Czech hero with his priceless strike.
Old rivals in another era
Croatia's quarter-final with Germany at Old Trafford on Sunday will not be the first international between the two countries. It will be their first meeting since Croatia gained independence in 1990, but they have faced each other before, albeit in unusual war-time circumstances.
Croatia played 19 international matches between 1990 and 1994, when the puppet fascist regime in the Balkan country was only allowed to arrange games against opponents approved by their masters in Nazi Germany. They faced the Germans three times: losing 5-1 in Vienna in 1941 and by the same score in Stuttgart the following year. In between, early in 1942, the Germans won 2-0 in Zagreb. A Croat victory, it would seem, is long overdue...
FOOTBALL: THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE
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