The Czech national soccer team will face Spain, one of Europe’s most exciting teams, in a qualifying match for the 1998 World Cup in Prague’s Letna Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 9. It will be the Czech team’s first match in this city since its astonishing silver-medal performance at Euro ’96 last summer.
The upcoming match is already sold out, and the enthusiastic support of the 20,000 Czech spectators is expected to be the Czech team’s secret weapon in its showdown with Spain.
The Czechs made an impressive start in qualification competition by thumping Malta 6-0 on Sept. 18 in Teplice. But Spain is the toughest opponent in their six-team group. Yugoslavia and the Czech Republic are also considered contenders, while Slovakia, Malta and the Faeroe Islands have been deemed the group’s weakest teams.
The teams that finish first and second in the group’s final standings will advance to the 1998 World Cup in France.
Czech Coach Dusan Uhrin admitted that “the upcoming match against Spain will be one of [our] most difficult,” but cautioned that Czech victory would not ensure further success. “All [qualification] matches have the same importance – regardless of whom you face,” he said.
Czech teams have suffered humiliating losses to weaker opponents in the past after having defeated top-notch competitors.
Uhrin said that the enthusiasm his team showed in the game against Malta convinced him of his players’ determination lately.
During the Euro ’96 qualification, Letna Stadium was a fortress for the Czech team. Its victories over Holland and Norway paved the way for the final round of competition.
Czech midfielder Pavel Hapal, who plays professionally with Spain’s CD Tenerife, noted that the Spanish players know an electric atmosphere awaits them at Letna.
Uhrin said he will use Hapal, who will miss the match due to a serious leg fracture, as a “priceless source of information about Spanish players.” Two other Czechs who play professionally in Spain – goalie Petr Kouba and midfielder Radek Bejbl – will compete for the Czech side in the upcoming match.
Only seven of the players on the Czech side compete in the Czech First Division.
In preparation for its previous match against Malta, the Czech coach allowed players who had been chosen from clubs abroad to join the team late. This time, however, Uhrin was uncompromising. He insisted that all players attend the Czech training camp from the outset.
“A key to success in the [upcoming] match lies in good teamwork, so we have to act as a real team from the beginning,” Uhrin said, denying that individual performances could be the decisive factor.
While the inclusion of midfielders Patrik Berger of FC Liverpool and Manchester United’s Karel Poborsky was expected, the nomination of three players from Sparta Praha – defenders Tomas Repka and Michal Hornak and midfielder Martin Frydek – surprised many; Sparta has been hovering near the bottom of Czech First Division standings this season, and currently has one of the worst defensive units in the league.
Repka is returning to the national team after a one-year absence. Though he was the cornerstone of the Czech team’s defense in Euro ’96 qualification play, he missed the finals due to a two-game suspension meted out by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).
Repka was punished for a foul committed against a Spanish opponent in the quarterfinal game of the European Junior Championships – a qualification match for the 1996 Olympics. The Spanish player, Raul, scored two goals later in the game and, in doing so, ended the Czechs’ dream of Olympic glory.
Repka and Raul will likely face each other at the upcoming encounter, but Coach Uhrin said he is not afraid that history will repeat itself.
“I’m not superstitious at all. Only Repka’s conditioning will decide whether he will play or not,” Uhrin said. “But it seems to me that my Spanish counterpart [Coach Javier] Clemente does believe in the evil eye. I think he intends to use Raul in Prague regardless.”