It is so long since England last played a competitive match on Czech soil that the city in which they played – Bratislava – is no longer a part of the Czech Republic, but instead the capital of Slovakia, the country that split apart from the old Czechoslovakia after the fall of the Berlin Wall. England lost that match, a European Championship qualifier in October 1975, to a Czechoslovakia team that would go on to win Euro 76 the following summer in the most dramatic of fashion. That victory remains the high-point of Czechoslovakian/Czech football, but there have been many other significant achievements.
Czech Football: A Brief History
Czech football, like the rest of Czech society, experienced a tumultuous 20th century, undergoing many changes, including its name. Bohemia, the predecessor of Czechoslovakia and the modern Czech Republic, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 1900s. As a result, it participated in the enormous boom in the popularity of football in central and eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century and was even allowed to form its own national football team.
Bohemia’s first ever international game was against Hungary in Budapest in 1906, which ended in a 1-1 draw. The Hungarians were regular opponents in the next two years until the Bohemian national side was dissolved amid the growing nationalist tensions in the decade leading up to World War One. The Czechs’ final game in their first incarnation as a football team ended in a 4-0 loss to England, after which the team was officially disbanded. So, for all the justifiable fears surrounding the arrival of England fans in Prague this weekend for a Euro 2020 qualifier, what happens after the game is unlikely to be as disastrous for the Czechs as their first ever match against England proved to be.
The Formation of Czechoslovakia
One of the biggest casualties of World War One was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As it fell apart, many of its constituent parts became independent nations. One of the most prominent was Czechoslovakia, which was formed from the territories of the Czech and the Slovakian peoples. Many Slovaks initially insisted on using the hyphenated version of the country’s name – Czecho-Slovakia – but such was the dominance of the Czech people and their politicians in the new nation that the hyphen was soon largely abandoned.
A Czechoslovakia national team was soon formed and its first major competition, at a time before the introduction of the World Cup or the European Championship, was the 1920 Olympics. In an early indication of what would prove to be the enduring quality of Czechoslovakian football, the team reached the final. Unfortunately, they did not complete the final, leaving the pitch before the end of the first half, when they were 2-0 down to Belgium, apparently in protest at what they regarded as unfair officiating by the English referee, John Lewis. As a result, they did not receive their silver medals. Even more importantly, the match established a pattern for the Czechoslovakia team, which would go on to come second in even bigger and more prestigious football tournaments.
Twice World Cup Runners-Up
In the 1934 World Cup finals in Italy, which were being held in Europe for the first time after Uruguay had triumphed on home soil in 1930, Czechoslovakia were among the strongest teams. Their star player was one of their inside forwards (in today’s terminology, an attacking midfielder or number ten), Oldřich Nejedlý, a stalwart for Sparta Prague, who even then were the dominant team in Czechoslovakia. Nejedlý ended up as the top scorer at the tournament, with five goals, as Czechoslovakia swept past Romania, Switzerland and Germany (the tournament had a straight knockout format, with no group phase) to reach the final against the hosts, Italy.
Unfortunately, although Czechoslovakia took the lead late on when their other star player, Antonín Puč, scored the opening goal in the 71st minute, the Italians equalised ten minutes later to take the match into extra time. Eventually, Italy won 2-1 and Czechoslovakia were again runners-up on the global stage, although this time the team did at least get to collect their runners-up medals.
Czechoslovakia reached the quarter-final at the 1938 World Cup finals in France, where they lost to the first great Brazilian team of Leonidas, the famous ‘Black Pearl’, who was the first great star of the Seleção and proved it by finishing as the top scorer in France with seven goals. After World War Two, Czechoslovakia qualified for the 1954 and 1958 World Cup tournaments, but on both occasions, they failed to qualify from their first-round groups, which by then were a key feature of World Cup finals tournaments.
So it was not until 1962, in Chile, that Czechoslovakia really reasserted itself again on the global stage, when it again reached the World Cup final, only to lose 4-2 to the truly great Brazilian team of Garrincha and Vava (Pele having been injured early in the tournament). However, there was at least some minor consolation for its star player, the great midfielder Josef Masopust, who later that year won the European Footballer of the Year award in recognition of the fact he had led his country to the World Cup final. That achievement made them, in effect, the best team in Europe.
1976 and All That
Less than 15 years later, Czechoslovakia would be officially the best team in Europe when they won the 1976 European Championship. As mentioned at the start, they defeated England in the qualifiers, but what followed was even more impressive, as they beat what were then the two ‘Super Teams’ of Europe to lift the trophy.
First, they defeated the great Netherlands side of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens et al in the semi-final, winning 3-2 in extra time, although Neeskens had been sent off by then to reduce the Dutch to ten men. Even more impressive was their victory in the final in Belgrade (Yugoslavia having hosted the semi-finals and the final only, rather than a full tournament), when they defeated the reigning world champions, West Germany, on penalties after drawing 2-2 in extra time.
Euro 76 was the first major international tournament to be decided by a penalty shootout and that is perhaps why the scorer of the winning penalty has become part of football folklore. That was Antonin Panenka, whose cheeky chip over Sepp Maier clinched the title for Czechoslovakia. Even more incredibly, to this day Panenka remains the only player in football history whose name is synonymous with a particular move on a football pitch (even the famous ‘Cruyff turn’ is never just referred to as ‘the Cruyff’).
The Greatest Game Ever Played?
After the collapse of the old Communist Bloc in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, Czechoslovakia split into two nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with the Czech Republic becoming fully independent at the start of 1993. Although the fledgeling nation did well to reach the final of Euro 96 in England, where they lost to a golden goal winner (a goal in extra time that immediately stopped the game dead) by Olivier Bierhoff, it would be another decade before the Czech Republic’s golden generation truly came of age, at Euro 2004 in Portugal.
That sublime Czech team, which included Pavel Nedvěd (who would follow in the footsteps of Masopust as another Czech European Footballer of the Year), Tomáš Rosický (whose injuries prevented him from ever fulfilling his undoubted potential at Arsenal) and a very young Petr Čech, really should have won Euro 2004. Instead, they lost to the eventual winners, Greece, in the semi-final. Their only consolation, and it should be considered as such, is to have won arguably the greatest game of football ever played and certainly the greatest game of football played at a modern-day (post-1970) international tournament.
That game was the first-round clash with Holland, who would also go on to reach the semi-finals, before losing to the hosts, Portugal. The fact that a first-round match was contested by two teams that would go on to make the last four gives some idea of the quality of the match. In reality, however, the Czech Republic’s 3-2 win, which was secured by Vladimír Šmicer’s 88th-minute winner after the Czechs had come back from going 2-0 down early on, virtually defied description, such were its thrills, spills and skills. Perhaps only the great Alan Hansen, who was watching the match for the BBC, came close when he said that he had never seen such a great game of football because for once both teams were hell-bent on all-out attack.
The Czech Republic Today
There has been little or nothing for Czech Republic fans to cheer since that great team of the noughties aged and finally retired. Its last active member, Petr Čech, finally retired last summer. That was proven again when they meekly succumbed 5-0 to England at Wembley in the first Euro 2020 qualifying match earlier this year.
Nevertheless, if the England fans should pipe up with their tiresome and inaccurate ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ chant (England may have won a World Cup on its own, but it certainly didn’t win the two World Wars single-handed), the Czech fans can quite reasonably respond with a chant of their own. Singing ‘One European Championship, Twice World Cup Runners-Up and Once European Championship Runners-Up’ would remind their rivals that their team has historically been far more consistently successful at the highest level than England.