I have lived in the Czech Republic since April of 2015. This is a matter of difficulty for some people, who still refer to it as Czechoslovakia. Imagine then, my dismay at the news earlier in 2016 that the Czech Republic can now be referred to in English by an official shortened name: Czechia. Many people are dubious of the reasoning behind the establishment of this official short name but many in business and tourism, along with the Czech Republic’s colourful President, Milos Zeman, are very much in favour of this change.
The Czech Republic are, at the time of writing, competing in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships. And in June, just after this tournament ends, the country will turn its attention from its national hockey team to its national football team as they compete in the UEFA Euro 2016 in France. They are in Group D along with Croatia, Turkey and Spain. It’s a far from easy group, but there are reasons for the Czechs to be hopeful. While few Czechs make their name abroad these days – goalkeeper Petr Čech is by far and away the most well-known player internationally – with the success of Sparta Prague in this year’s Europa League, Viktoria Plzěn’s turn in the Champions League (and their domination of the domestic league) they are likely to have a few players who can rise to the occasion.
So what does the name matter, you might be wondering? Well, Czechia, or the Czech Republic, or whatever you’re having yourself, has played at the Euros under a number of guises. Before the split came with Slovakia, Czechoslovakia took part in the first European championships in France in 1960, when they came third; they failed to qualify again until 1976 when they won, and played their final tournament as Czechoslovakia as defenders in 1980 when they came third.
In 1989, the Velvet Revolution put paid to the country’s communist regime. They then failed to qualify for the tournament in 1992. Then there was the so-called Velvet Divorce from Slovakia in 1993.
“And so it was that for the first time, in 1996, the Czech Republic ran out at a European tournament as a non-communist, independent nation that summer in England.”
And what a tournament they had. In the group stages, there was the electric match with Russia, which ended 3-3, even though the Czechs had at one point been two goals to the good. They went down 3-2 before a stoppage time goal from Vladimír Šmicer saw them go through to the knock-out stages. Šmicer is one of those players who straddled the name changes to the Czech team following the split of Czechoslovakia. He played once for Czechoslovakia before getting some eighty caps for the Czech Republic. In the Czech Republic, he was a dyed-in-the wool Slavia man, but also had a distinguished career with Liverpool, scoring in the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul.
Perhaps the other most notable players from that Euro 96 team, which after beating Portugal and France in the knockouts were beaten 2-1 by Germany in the final, were Patrik Berger, Pavel Nědved and Karel Poborský. The final was a kind of repeat of the 1976 final, when Czechoslovakia beat West Germany. As well as signalling the return of the Czechs to international football – even if they failed to qualify two years later for France ’98 – the tournament, and final victory, was the first major win for a reunified Germany. In that sense the finalists at Wembley were utterly appropriate: they represented a healing Europe still coming out of the end of the Cold War – two countries indeed who were central characters in that great battle of ideology which marked the second half of the twentieth century in Europe, and around the world.
The opening game for the Czechs was inauspicious, being beaten by Germany, only for them to then do a number on Italy, defeating them 2-1. Dusan Uhrin’s side then beat the Portuguese, in spite of their ‘sexy football.’ as Ruud Gullit put it, being no match for Patrik Berger’s famous lobbed goal. With the Russians leading the Czechs, it seemed Italy had secured passage to the knock-out stages until Šmicer got the equalizer and sent the Azzurri home.
The final at Wembley was perhaps not a classic, but a game that will reside long in the memories of fans of both nations. After a tense first half, the Czechs finally took the lead via Berger, who scored a penalty won on the edge of the box in the 59th minute. The Germans equalised within fifteen minutes from a set-piece of their own: a corner not far from the right hand of the Czech penalty area, floated in and finding the head of Oliver Bierhoff, who had come on as a substitute just a few minutes before. The game went to extra time, where for the first time, the golden goal would be used.
This rule, and its sister rule, the silver goal, were mercifully abolished in 2004. The further we get from it the more insane the rule seems. Put simply, the golden goal meant that the first team to score in extra time would win, regardless of how long there was left to play. Euro 1996 was the first time this rule was used by the tournament, and it proved the undoing of the Czechs. The goal was scored after Bierhoff’s shot in the 95th minute was parried poorly by the Czech goalkeeper, Petr Kouba, and bounced from the upright into the net. Poborský was given man of the match, but it was Bierhoff’s final.
The Czechs have managed to qualify for every European Championship since they began competing as an independent state in 1994. This year marks twenty years unbroken involvement in the tournament. They finished third in 2004, and reached the quarter-finals in the last tournament in 2012. While so far nothing has topped their debut performance in 1996, whether they’ll be known as the Czech Republic or Czechia in the English language press, they are a team to contend with this summer.
David Toms is a sport historian and author of ‘Soccer in Munster: A Social History, 1877-1937′ published by Cork University Press. Follow on Twitter: @daithitoms