Football's coming home, they say, and so are France. After a semi-final largely bereft of incident, let alone goals or guile, the Czech Republic advanced dramatically to Sunday's final at Wembley when their sweeper and captain, Miroslav Kadlec, dispatched the 12th kick of a penalty shoot- out beyond Bernard Lama.
Kadlec had emerged somewhat sheepishly from a huddle of red-shirted players after his goalkeeper, Petr Kouba, spoilt a sequence of 10 successful spot- kicks by keeping out Reynald Pedros' drive with his legs. His nerveless shot set off wild celebrations among the 500 Czech supporters and ensured a night of partying in Prague.
The standard of free-kicks at Euro 96 may have been dismal, but with the exception of Gary McAllister and Clarence Seedorf, the penalties have been sweetly struck and cunningly placed. Kadlec was not about to break ranks.
Yet the Czechs arrived in England as 66-1 outsiders, with only Scotland and Turkey below them in the betting. Now, having been Italy's assassins in the so-called group of death, and finished off Portugal and France, they are within one more giant-killing of emulating Denmark's unexpected triumph four years ago.
Amid all the talk of 1966 revisited, the fact that the Czechs have an anniversary of their own from which to draw inspiration was overlooked. In 1976, the former Czechoslovakia beat West Germany in the final, also on penalties. For the weary-looking French, who had harboured hopes of repeating their own success of 12 years ago, visiting Eric Cantona's theatre of dreams brought only a nightmare.
They could have few complaints. The match had brought two countries to a standstill, and all too often it seemed both teams were downing tools in solidarity. For whatever reason - tiredness, or tension, or perhaps a combination of the two - both sides appeared content with the soporific stalemate.
The Czechs had some excuse. Suspension deprived Dusan Uhrin of four first- choice players, who will all be available for the final, while a fifth, Patrik Berger, started on the bench after illness. France, who lost Didier Deschamps to a calf injury, switched Marcel Desailly out of defence to cover and initially used Youri Djorkaeff as an orthodox striker.
Although Aime Jacquet's men were more positive, and had more of the game territorially, that seldom equated with entertainment. Lama did not make a save until the 54th minute; Kouba was not properly tested until four minutes into extra time. Forty minutes had passed before a shot by Desailly stirred the crowd from their stupor. Only 20 seconds of the first half remained when France won the first corner. Indeed, for much of the opening period interest centred - by default - on the referee's performance.
Les Mottram was that rare species, a Scotsman involved in the later stages of a major tournament. Despite cautioning Lilian Thuram after what looked an accidental clash of heads with Vladimir Smicer, the Lanarkshire science teacher exuded a calm authority.
Smicer did not reappear after half time, which may have perturbed the lady he was due to marry in Prague tomorrow, but had the effect of bringing Berger into the fray. His first act was to ghost between Desailly and Thuram, a sign that at least one Czech was not playing for penalties. There followed a 10-minute spell of tit-for-tat efforts on target, out of keeping with what had gone before. No one came closer than Djorkaeff, whose drive smacked the crossbar in the 61st minute.
Following the departure of their lone striker, Radek Drulak, the Czechs massed behind the ball. Paradoxically, with Berger and Karel Poborsky running at France from deep positions, it hardly mattered, and they had the better of extra time until the final, tantalising moments.
With two minutes to play, Laurent Blanc poked wide from Djorkaeff's free- kick when unmarked five yards out. Almost immediately, Pedros fell under Martin Kotulek's challenge, but Mr Mottram was perfectly placed to make the correct decision. For poor Pedros, there was worse to come.
FRANCE (4-4-2): Lama (Paris St-Germain); Thuram (Monoco), Blanc (Barcelona), Roche (Paris St-Germain), Lizarazu (Bordeaux); Lamouchi (Auxerre), Zidane (Bordeaux), Desailly (Milan), Guerin (Paris St-Germain); Djorkaeff, Loko (both Paris St-Germain). Substitutes: Pedros (Nantes) for Lamouchi, 62; Angloma (Torino) for Thuram, 83.
CZECH REPUBLIC (1-2-4-2-1): Kouba (Sparta Prague); Kadlec (Kaiserslautern); Hornak (Sparta Prague), Rada (Sigma Olomouc); Nedved (Sparta Prague), Nemecek (Servette), Nemec (Schalke 04), Novotny (Slavia Prague); Poborsky, Smicer (both Slavia Prague); Drulak (Petra Drnovice). Substitutes: Berger (Borussia Dortmund) for Smicer, h-t; Kotulek (Sigma Olomouc) for Drulak, 70; Kubik (Petra Drnovice) for Nemec, 84.
Referee: L Mottram (Scotland).
Bookings: France: Thuram, Roche. Czech Republic: Nedved, Nemecek, Kubik.
Man of the match: Nedved. Attendance: 43,877.
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