Czech Republic makes World Cup debut

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src=' ' class='caption'> For a team making its World Cup debut, the Czech Republic sure has a lot of big-time history behind it.

updated: February 25, 2007 11:40 IST
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For a team making its World Cup debut, the Czech Republic sure has a lot of big-time history behind it. Czechoslovakia reached the World Cup final twice - losing to Italy in 1934 and Brazil in 1962. It won the European Championship in 1976. The Czechs will be hoping to build on that brilliant past in Germany against Group E opponents Italy, the United States and Ghana, but don't expect Czech Republic coach Karel Bruckner to be relying on the team's past successes. ''Soccer is only about the presence and the future,'' Bruckner said. ''There's no place for nostalgia, the game is running fast forward.'' The Czechs will face the Americans in their opening World Cup match on June 12 before playing Ghana on June 17 and Italy on June 22. And Bruckner knows a spot in the second round isn't going to be easy to get. ''There's no outsider in the group,'' Bruckner said. ''All the (four) teams are strong and good enough to advance. But it's the same in all other groups.'' Of the three opponents, Bruckner said he has paid most of his attention to the United States, which he considers ''an ambitious opponent, full of confidence.'' ''They're athletes, very well physically prepared players,'' Bruckner said. Italy and Ghana won't be easy opponents either. ''To speak about the quality of Italy is redundant, especially at the World Cup,'' Bruckner said about 1934, '38 and '82 champions. ''And when it comes to African teams, everyone has to be cautious.'' Bruckner may not like looking back but he still can be proud of his achievements since he took over from Josef Chovanec after the Czech Republic failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup finals. The Czechs are 33-8-6 under Bruckner, but the numbers don't tell the whole story. When Bruckner took command, the team was mired in infighting and morale was low. That was soon forgotten as he began building his team, which for many became the most exiting Czech side ever. ''The team spirit is fantastic,'' said Juventus midfielder Pavel Nedved, who came out of international retirement to help the team qualify in the playoffs. Bruckner changed the team's defensive style into an attacking approach that was highly appreciated by fans, and results soon followed. At the 2004 European Championship, the Czechs won accolades for their flee-flowing, attacking soccer which combined with ball skills and effective tactics led to their stunning victories over Germany and the Netherlands. Their performance was widely considered the best of all in the tournament and helped them reach semifinals. The team did struggle in the qualifying campaign due to frequent injuries of key players, and Bruckner still has injury worries ahead of the June 9-July 9 tournament. Jan Koller, the team's all-time leading scorer, was still injured after tearing ligaments in his left knee during a Bundesliga match in September. His absence would be a severe blow for Bruckner, who considers the tall Borussia Dortmund striker irreplaceable. Koller has 40 goals from 66 games and scored nine goals in the Czech Republic's qualifying campaign in eight games. If he plays in Germany, he would likely team up with fleet-footed Milan Baros of Aston Villa, forming the most potent striking force in decades for the Czechs, who scored an impressive 37 goals in the qualifying stage. Baros scored 26 times in 46 international appearances and five goals in the qualification. He was also battling an Achilles tendon injury for part of the season. Midfield is centered around Nedved, whose retirement after Euro 2004 was caused by a recurring knee injury but whose condition was now healthy, Bruckner said. The 33-year-old Nedved is one of three veterans who were part of the Czech squad that staged an upset 10 years ago, reaching the final at Euro 96. Former Lazio and Manchester United player Karel Poborsky and Vladimir Smicer of Bordeaux are the other two in Bruckner's midfield, though the latter was nursing a long-term knee injury ahead of the World Cup. If there's any weak point, it is the defense. The back line looked porous in some games, prompting Bruckner's criticism. The defense's center is anchored by Tomas Ujfalusi of Fiorentina, who plays alongside David Rozehnal of Paris Saint-Germain. The goal is protected by Petr Cech, who has lived up to expectations to be the country's biggest talent since the legendary Ivo Viktor. Clinching his second straight English Premier League title with Chelsea, Cech became one of the best goalkeepers in the world at the age of 23. The veterans will be helped by youngsters like Monaco's Jaroslav Plasil and Nuremberg's Jan Polak, as well forward Jiri Stajner of Hannover. (AP)