Sunday, 15 April 2012

Viktoria Žižkov: Keep the Faith and Hrr na ně

It's funny to observe how a fan of more than one club alteres their expectations of those teams. With Arsenal it's mostly about winning, and, if possible, winning through harmony. With Žižkov, however, I don't really care about the style through which the result comes, or even if the result comes at all. From the start of the season I've thought that the most important thing was, if not to save ourselves from relegation, then at least to enjoy the season in the top flight. Bring the games to the visibly better opposition, stay clear from humiliating results, and there would be nothing else that a beer or two couldn't fix. But the mind of a football fan is a bit more fickle than that.

Even with taking into account that this was a rebuilt squad before the start of the season, it was really hard not to think it was atrociously managed. There didn't seem to be any kind of a game plan, any real shape to the side and any idea from where the goals could come from than a false hope for strength and the mysterious football luck. When you don't even have that, you could at least think that when you shut the shop, the opponent will try so hard that a chance for you could eventually come up and you could take it. However, there was no belief in that either. When you watched Žižkov in autumn, the gaps in their defence were so big that the players themselves were just waiting for the goal to be either somehow saved by Vaclík or simply conceded. Repetitive 0-1 losses were infuriatingly brought down by players and the staff to the simple "lack of luck". Scoreline may suggest that but everyone knew that most of the times Žižkov were lucky to be only a goal down at the end of the games. Nothing was good enough.

Martin Pulpit probably should have gone much earlier than in the winter break. With 14 games to go and a big gap between the 14th and the 16th place where we lied, it seemed to be too late for any kind of a revival. Even more so when the talisman of the team, Tomáš Vaclík, left for Sparta for a fee from which only a mere £140 000 came for Žižkov, and Roman Nádvorník was appointed as the new man at the helm. To be honest, I didn't know a single thing about him than that he seemed to be an unconvincing coach who had two spells at Vlašim, which he got to two successive 7th places (which could be counted as a success), and an underwhelming one at Příbram, from where he was sacked in the mid-season after a spell of five consecutive defeats. Sixteen players left in the winter, fourteen came in and it all looked pretty much done and dusted in February. Whether all of this was down to poor management of the club as a whole, I'm nowhere near entitled to say. Most of the transfers though do seem to be last-gasp wheeler-dealer deals that could and could not work out, than a result of a thorough scouting and meticulous thinking. However, all of this seems to work now somehow. So, what exactly has been the key for a revelation in the Žižkov side?

It would be too easy to put it down to a rediscovery of belief after the 0-0 draw at Teplice, which now seems to be a turning point of the season, as well as a good amount of luck, especially in the 4-2 win over Jablonec, a seemingly crazy game which could have really gone either way. These are certainly relevant features, but it's almost impossible to overlook how much better the side has functioned in the recent weeks. The 4-1-4-1 formation has been there from the start of the season, but just now the players seem to be comfortable with it, and not only that - the most important thing is that they look as if they knew what they're about to do on the pitch. They can pull out successive passes, they are dangerous upfront even against sides like Plzeň and their defence is much sounder and tighter, even though it's still susceptible as you would expect from a side that's battling relegation. But most importantly, Žižkov now don't look lost in midfield. Pressing is key, and the distance between the lines, good physical preparation and a lack of lapses in concentration contributes to good results. They're certainly not flawless but if similar performances continue, there's no reason why Nádvorník, who really has to be given credit for the team's revival, shouldn't be the manager even if Žižkov are relegated.

But are they really going to be? Since the 0-0 draw at Teplice, Žižkov really kicked on and battled out more points in their last 5 games than in the previous 20. Eight out of five may not seem a staggering number but in the relegation battle it's gold. With this kind of form and a hopeful run-in in which Žižkov face a Liberec side against which they have nothing to lose, a very-much struggling Slovácko and a decider with Baník at Bazaly away from home; and home ties against České Budějovice and Hradec Králové, who both have now nothing to play for, Žižkov have a very good platform to save their season.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

František Chvalovský’s Era Extraña

by @franzgoumet

In 1996, he reached his very top. Never before has he been surrounded by so much praise and, indeed, he probably won’t ever be again. UEFA Euro 96 final took place almost 15 years ago and František Chvalovský, by then the Czech FA chairman, or, more precisely put, a man who had the whole Czech football in his pocket, was sitting and watching the event from his box at Wembley. The Czech national team played Germany in the final that went to extra-time in which Oliver Bierhoff netted his second of the game. Germany won 2-1, leaving the Czech captain Miroslav Kadlec and other players weeping on the ground. Some of the Czech players moved to bigger clubs, some ended their careers shortly after the tournament – none of them, though, experienced such a downfall as their 'Big Papa'.

Chvalovský’s story of making it to the top more or less copies the ones of other enterpreneurs that made in the Czech post-communist era of the 90s. It may sound strange for someone unfamiliar with the Central/Eastern-European conditions but what helped him on his way to become the most powerful person in the Czech football was the fact that he was lucky enough to live in a previously communist state. Chvalovský used to work in a meat company, collecting contacts he would after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 use to establish his own empire. He wasn’t the only one to do that – a lot of smugglers and little criminals, more commonly came to great power during early 1990s. Perhaps the best known, František Mrázek (nicknamed by media as ‘The Godfather‘), had contacts to a lot of influential people and politicians – including the hapless prime minister Stanislav Gross – and successfully controlled a lot of industrial companies only to be found dead later, shot by a still unknown killer. Chvalovský maybe didn’t have PM’s phone number but he certainly was the ‘Mrázek of Czech football‘.

Apart from the business activities, he also played as a goalkeeper for Blšany – a small village near Prague – and a club his father helped to establish. Not much is known about his playing career, mostly due to the fact that during that time Blšany only participated in divisional football. This was to be changed – he has become the chairman of the club and then took his team to promotions and even got them to the first division where they stayed for almost a decade. As his influence was rising, he was elected the head of the FA in 1991 and nothing could stop him from then on. His ten-year tenure (1991–2001) is infamous for setting the roots to everything bad that still disintegrates Czech football – bribery, blackmailing and even kidnapping club officials who happened to have other opinions or were simply too powerful. Chvalovský isn’t the only one responsible – far from that – but he’s perceived as the man during whose reign such methods started to appear, simply because he was the one who introduced them; methods that others would later bring to near-perfection.

Now, how do you stop someone who seems to have all power at their helm? It appears that sometimes all you have to do is to let them slowly destroy themselves and that’s essentially what happened to Chvalovský – first of all, running a professional club based in a village of 1,000 people simply isn’t financially viable on a long-term basis. Secondly, no matter how much he was the Special One, the others tried to plot against him – the same people who still more or less run Czech football now (or certainly ran in post-Chvalovský era in the 00s). And finally, Chvalovský may have possesed a lot of money but eventually struggled to finance all his activities – and that’s what really brought him to the ground. Chvalovský took out big loans from banks which he wasn’t able to pay back and so in 2001 he was arrested at Prague airport and spent several months in jail. He was released after paying the bail but the process went on for 10 years during which he rarely, if ever, made any contacts with the Czech media. In June 2011 (almost exactly 15 years after the Wembley final) the court sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

Horst Siegl playing for Blšany

The circle of the story has finally closed – the ageing boss will probably go to prison and his football offspring Blšany had to cope with a tough situation too. With the exception of their first season in the top flight they constantly struggled to avoid relegation; in the end finally losing the fight in 2005/06 season (coincidentally, also the year when Blšany celebrated their 60th anniversary) and finished at the very bottom of the table. The decrease continued later and soon the club found itself in third division. Now the times – in terms of league position – are even worse than that.

There is now strong will to get the club back to a more reasonable level but as the locals probably know, the gold days are over. This doesn’t stop them from at least dreaming about the Chvalovský’s days when they welcomed the likes of Sparta Prague (this is probably the reason why on their official internet site they call František Chvalovský in a familiar way and attachedly keep quiet about the dark side of his personality, should there ever have been a bright one).

It’s a shame that the club where Petr Čech made his first professional appearences (he was transferred to Sparta Prague in 2001 – part of the fee is said to have been used to cover Chvalovský’s bail) could not keep its position. But, in the end, try to imagine Crawley Town reaching Premier League football in ten years – who gets the money clearly gets immense power but you can’t buy everything for them, can you? At the end of the day, this story was never going to be a fairytale and Chvalovský has hardly ever come close to being called Santa Claus. There is only one thing they can’t take away from him, though – he’ll always have his Wembley.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Recharge, rethink, rebuild.

When the final whistle went, I was filled with this perverse relief. The fact that I didn't have to watch a single one more second of that atrocious display the Czechs put on yesterday was the best thing that happened that night. I said to myself - this is a side that no more than four years ago beat Germans on their own turf 3-0 and produced some wonderful football even when packed with pretty much average or decent players, at best. And now the level and quality of the German national team is illustrious and certainly unattainable for the Czechs. I switched to Sport 1 and it was horrendously clear to me just how far away in terms of everything our western neighbours were - playing with flair, oozing with creativity and making it all look so easy.

Compared with this German side, it is even more obvious just how big downfall has the Czech national team gone through. Since the last EURO in 2008 it is now fourth coach in charge of the team - with three of them (Rada, Straka and Bílek) being very much incompetent for the job. But just now it is blatantly clear to everyone that the national team really needs a strong figure at the helm; someone who can bring the very much needed stability and progression that was there during Karel Brückner's 7-year-long reign.

I know it's a bit unrealistic to ask for the same kind of quality of play that was there when the golden generation of players like Nedvěd, Poborský and Rosický was among the favourites to win the 2004 EURO. But is it so much to ask to see some kind of organisation, system and team spirit? We were beaten yesterday by a very much average side that has shown these very attributes and it made all the difference.

That ludicrous display last night was virtually all about manager's failures - Bílek was unable to occupy players at their right positions, to bring the best out of them or to bring in even the best of them. The only team positive, I thought, was the pressing right at the start but this faded as the game went on. Individually only Rosický impressed with a couple of great through-balls. The captain was available for one-twos possibly anywhere on the pitch and was really keen and determined, just as he should have been.

The others, well... We shouldn't really dwell on lack of technical abilities but what I thought was impossible for many to overcome was their first touch. As Norwegians pressed very hard and kept their shape well when the ball was at our back four it was important tofind the space between the lines quickly and/or counter-attack simply and rapidly. This was never to come. But this wasn't meant to be solely the players' fault. As many of them were played out of their position and the 4-2-2-2 system dysfunctioned, their positioning was flawed and they were unable to create any decent pattern on the pitch. The (set-piece) defending was horrible as well and it's even more worrying when you realize that this should have been the most important part of the preparation before the Scotland game.

So, where does this leave the Czechs now? It's worth pointing out that this was still just a friendly but I simply haven't seen a worse display from the Czechs in my life. The long-term results were only leading to this - a couple of uninspiring wins, an embarassing loss at home to Lithuania in qualification and apart from a very decent display in Spain it was all very, very unconvincing from Bílek, to say the least. There are at least three obvious better candidates for the job - and that's Vrba, Dovalil and Hřebík. All of them systematic and meticulous managers with positive approach to football and all of them very good long-term options for the national team. With great achievements from the U19 and U21 it's now high time to rethink and rebuild the squad and its mentality and implement youth and courage. This is exactly what brought Germany where it is today. Just maybe we should follow their example again - just as in economics, politics and ecology - to stay competitive.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

We support our local team

If I take away the time when I was a little kid, I don't think I ever really was a sports patriotist. The one who, once in four years, suddenly goes crazy for someone who throws a stick a couple of metres further than the others. Not that I wouldn't support the Czechs in any way, it's just that in some cases I can't seem to think of any reason why should I bother for something I never bothered for before only because my country is involved, if you get me. I never cared for javelin, I never really cared for the Olympics and I never understood why it would have been such a big thing for the Czech Republic to have an Olympic winner in javelin. Or speed skating. Or cycle-ball. I mean, it's a bit like the scene from the Ali G Show:

Borat: "Which country is the number one in the world?"
Woman: "I think, right now the US."
Borat: "Don't you think maybe Kazakhstan is the number one?"
Woman: "No."
Borat: "But we have a man with the biggest amount of fingers. He has eight fingers. Do you have it?"
Woman: "Does he have the right to vote? The freedom to speak?"
Borat: "Weeell.. Not so much. But we have the biggest goat in the world. Oh no. Hungary has number one. But US has number five. Are we number one country now?"

And, as the hockey World Cup kicked off on Friday, everyone is becoming a fan all of a sudden. To be fair, I understand that as it's partly an annual tradition and also a bit més que un world cup for all sorts of reasons, mostly political ones from the past. Yet if everyone seems to be enjoying hockey and enjoying what it means to be a fan so much, why can't they just pick a team they would support throughout the year?

I can't say I won't go to the pub with my mates to have a few beers and be glad for the Czechs if they win a game of hockey - but I don't really care. I haven't watched more than 5 games a season since I was ten and, in the end, I'd swap the entire O2 Arena for a bloody Carling Cup in a second if I could.

Which brings us to the Czech FA Cup quarterfinals. The cup itself is more or less a bit of an appendix in the Czech football. No Gambrinus liga team takes it seriously enough until the point they realize they don't have to fear relegation and/or the cup is the only chance of getting to Europe. The sad truth is that although there's a slight amount of tradition in the cup, the attendances at the 1st division grounds and the media coverage are nowhere near Western Europe.

That is not to say, however, that there is no proverbial magic of the cup. Sure, there's absence of the going-to-Wembley, as going-to-Strahov-to-play-in-front-of-three-thousand is not particularly a challenging feat. The lack of epic battles (like the Liverpool-Everton replays in 1991 or others) is evident - I, at least, don't recall one. But the magic of a small team eliminating a giant remains. It's mostly there only for the locals as no-one except the experts remembers the great run of Baník Ratíškovice, for example, the then 2nd division club from a small village of 4,000 near Hodonín who were runners-up in 2000 after defeating Drnovice, Blšany, Plzeň, back then all Gambrinus liga teams.

My local side, Hanácká Slavia Kroměříž, have also enjoyed tremendous success in the cup this season. The team, now lying on the 5th place of the MSFL (Moravian part of the 3rd division) haven't been impressive in the Pohár in past years, having been knocked out already in the first rounds most of the times, but this season they got off to an unprecedented run - and certainly their best in the history. It has to be said that HS were blessed with significant amount of luck for opponents - compared with Ratíškovice they had Nový Jičín, Otrokovice and Vrchovina (all lower than 3rd division) and Slavičín (the bottom team of the 3rd division) before they played Zbrojovka, who are in deep relegation troubles. The cup games are never easy against any opposition but you have to say that the draw was very favourable to Hanácká.

Slavia amazingly won the first game 2-1 away at Srbská so all what was needed for the return leg in Kroměříž was a draw and even a 1-0 defeat would be enough for them to get in the semifinal. The turnout at the stadium was great - I've never seen so many people at the gate - and the official number says there were 2500 people in a stadium for 1528. Both is a bit of a surprise as the stands didn't even look that packed and that is even before you imagine that according to the officials, who ran out of tickets after 2500, there were even 500 more. The stadium of Hanácká is very fan-friendly and comfortable and the facilities in general are on a great level compared to other 3rd division clubs. I'm told that the club recognizes its position very well and will be looking to get promoted back in the 2nd division in years to come.

Zbrojovka certainly had a dilemma of what team to field in the second leg - they couldn't afford to play a whole different XI as it would effectively be their B-team which lies on the 11th place in the MSFL - but they still couldn't really afford to play their strongest line-up either as it would have tired them right before the relegation scrap in Hradec. The outcome was a mixed line-up of the core of their team along with some fresh young pair of legs; the rest of their regular starters was left on the bench to come on when needed.

And they were needed. In the opening minutes, though, it looked like that wouldn't have to be the case, based on the drive Zbrojovka had. The team worked hard, created a few chances, there were a couple of decent crosses in the box from the corners and they even hit the woodwork. But this was more or less everything Brno produced in the whole game, apart from a dangerous header in the first half which Vogl saved brilliantly. After that the game was very much a battle in the midfield with not too many chances created, and it was hard to see more than five consecutive passes throughout the game.

Slavia held on very well, pressed hard in the packed midfield and held the ball impressively - I though Janča especially had a fantastic game upfront, linking up well and calmly distributing the ball - and Brno had it very hard to pass accurately. They brought on Dostálek in the 61th minute but neither he was any successful. Down the flanks Zbrojovka were innocuous, the quality of their delivery in the box was dire and as the time went on, Slavia had more and more chances to seal the game with a counter-attack. Which they did in the 85th minute and it was game over - 1-0 for Hanácká Slavia, 3-1 on aggregate and Zbrojovka fans were left furious, and rightly enough.

Now, I know it might be pretentious to be buzzing with excitement for the reasons I explained above. I've only been to one game apart from the cup this season as many of the fixtures collided with Arsenal games or I couldn't go, or, let's face it, I just wasn't really up for it. I used to go there quite a few times every season, especially with my grandpa when he was in the town, and I always check the scores whenever I can. But still, I can't describe myself as a disciplined fan.

But then, there you go. You live in a small town where's hardly a place you can go to and have fun - the same can't be said about Uherské Hradiště, though, a complete opposite of Kroměříž in this respect. Here the bands mostly suck, the club (yes, there's only one club) sucks, the pubs suck or they are turned into sports bars or gaming houses. The football's mediocre, at best. Yes, you have great parks, no-one's going to steal your wallet and the drugging culture is very low but ultimately, the things I miss here are the things that matter to me and most of the young people and until it gets sorted there will always be this provincial atmosphere.

There's so much talk about what could be done about this all, and I'd be delighted if things turned to better and even to have my share on it, if it's any possible. Right now though, you have to do with what you have and try to take the most of it. Hence my excitement about the Hanácká Slavia.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Arsenal-Barcelona & Sparta-Liverpool: The games of the season

Ooh to be a Gooner these days. The last league defeat to Manchester United two months ago seems a very long time and since then Arsenal put on some great performances as they beat Chelsea, outplayed City, scraped out a very important 2-1 victory against Everton, got to the Carling Cup final and are still very much in all the four competitions. There were some familiar arsenalesque stumbles on the way including the horror-show at the St. James' Park but in a grand scheme of things it seems like we really are in the best position since the 2007/08 season.

And then there was this small matter of the Barcelona game.

I have to say I wasn't really frightened about the tie at all, knowing that Barcelona could pull out their best performances whenever they had to. I almost take took for certain that they'd go through and in the worst scenario I wouldn't even take 5-0 as so much of a humiliation. But somehow, I was still really nervous and excited.

And we beat them. And not just that, as a first team in this season we beat them in style.

It wasn't just this, though, what made yesterday's 2-1 win the best football experience for me, like, ever. It was that it came as a cream on the crop, not a one-off like that 2-1 at the Stamford Bridge a couple of years ago. We've performed so well for some time already that it really does seem like there's a turnaround from 'a side who are playing some great football at times and can beat anyone on their day' to a side that's very much turning to be one of the best out there. A mature, confident, brave side with the most technically gifted players in England. There's still a lot of work to do defensively, as well as that we are very lucky not to be struck by injuries, there's the issue of complacency and others. But we're getting there and it's nights like these that make it fantastic to be an Arsenal fan.

There's another massive game coming up as well though. Today in the Europa League, Sparta will face Liverpool in what is probably going to be the biggest game for Czech club football in the last couple of seasons. Even in the underwhelming Czech football environment there's a big sense of anticipation about the game and a lot of questions to be answered. How big a support from the fans are Sparta going to receive after the club hiked up the prices of the tickets in such a ludicrous manner? Are Sparta physically ready after the winter preparation? Are the Czech champions still able to trouble the best in Europe?

The background at Sparta suggests that the team is not really in their prime at the moment. The Prague club are about to play their first competitive game in nearly three months, the last one being a 1-1 draw against CSKA - imagine that Arsenal's last game before the home tie against Barcelona would be the 3-1 win against Partizan in the early December. As well as that, Sparta have just sold their two best players (Kucka to Genoa and Wilfried to Vitesse Arnhem) and the results of their winter preparation games were pretty bad, having won only one game in seven.

Speaking of winter preparation, Sparta are also coming into the game on the back of a recent scandal involving some of the Sparta players who were withdrawn from the national team due to injuries. All of them then featured in their mates' dresses in a game against Zenit, having been captured by the club's photographers on the official website. Hilariously stupid and embarrasing from Sparta, and it just shows what a lack of class is there from the supposedly biggest and most proffesional team in the Czech Republic.

With all this in mind, I think this tie is only Liverpool's to lose. It will also depend on whether, after the long winter break, Sparta will present themselves as a side with fresh legs or a side with a lack of proper match fitness. They'll have to put pressure on Liverpool from the very start and if they can maintain that work ratio throughout the game and take their chances when they come, then who knows.

However, Liverpool's form has improved considerably under Kenny Dalglish and with Europa League as their only chance of winning silverware this season, I expect Liverpool to be fully focused and prepared for this one. Their next game is only the home tie next Thursday and I doubt that Dalglish would not want to take advantage of resting his players before going to Upton Park on Sunday.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The future of the Czech league: Reduce, expand or merge?

A lengthy three-month winter break means a very boring period for any football fan and it's no different in the Czech Republic where, during the time, there's not really much happening beyond a couple of meaningless games, occasional 5-a-side cups or a traditional New Year's Eve Derby between the former Sparta and Slavia players. Most of the talk during the winter is then dedicated to foreign leagues, looking back to the glory days or "the glory days" of the Czech clubs and anything that can be even barely considered as a transfer rumour. And, of course, to the ways of improving the Gambrinus liga.

The latter mentioned has been debated for years but now there seems to be a slightly higher intensity of the discussion. There are more reasons to that but as it stands at the moment, it mostly goes down to the sad fact that the improvement of the league within the last five years has been doubtful, if any.

Tomáš Rosický at the start of his career in 2000

At the start of the last decade Sparta were the leading force of the Czech club football; regularly getting into the group stages of the Champions League, they were bringing points to the Czech club coefficient and money to other Czech teams when buying their best players. The Gambrinus liga wasn't so weakened as it would have seemed though. Other teams have done remarkably well at times - Liberec's run in the UEFA Cup in 2001/2002 was definitely the most magical but Slavia or Žižkov have also produced some fine moments.

Over the last five years though, Sparta have been losing their sheer dominance in Gambrinus liga. As the club could not get into the group stages of the Champions League, the board had to cut down their budget and start to look out for players elsewhere. This had two various effects on Gambrinus liga as a whole. The title race has become as open as ever over the period - Sparta have won just two of the last five campaigns - but the quality has undoubtedly gone down, as the only Czech side to take part in Champions League group stages were Slavia in 2007/2008 after eliminating Žilina and Ajax in the preliminary rounds. The 'Bayern effect' of Sparta - a dominant team in the league performing well in Europe - has considerably faded, as well as its benefits - the points into the coefficient. It's also the growing power of scouting that lures players at a very young age abroad, which leads to the lack of quality youth emerging throughout the league.

All this has been on the table for some time already, but it was the direct encounter between Žilina and Sparta for a Champions League spot in August - which Žilina won 3-0 on aggregate - that clinched the public view of a decline within the Czech club football. Combined with the fact that the Czech national team didn't make it to the World Cup finals (and Slovakia did, from the same group), it seemed like the last straw.

Sparta Praha's doomsgame against Žilina

However, to say that the Slovakian football is in a much better position is a bold statement. The problems in Slovakia are worrying to the same, if not greater extent. It's so easy to start dwelling on the negatives as there are plenty of them - from poor attendances in the stands to the amount of debts within clubs. On the other hand though, the way how the state of things in both Czech and Slovakian club football could be bettered to the benefit of everyone involved, seems to be just too obvious to overlook.

Should a merge of top 10 Czech and 6 Slovakian sides into a joint league be introduced, it would bring great profit to the teams - a bigger market with better sponsors, more spectators at the grounds (as there would be new quality opponents instead of the, well, old and boring ones) as well as renewed derbies between Sparta and Slovan, or Baník and Trnava. That the level of the club football in the countries would rise is almost certain.

As far as UEFA and the Czech and Slovakian association are concerned, it's a more complex one. This plan would serve magnificently to Platini's aim of lifting the prestige of the smaller teams and leagues. The UEFA chief himself has declared an admiration to the project, having said that "what the politicians split, the football could reunite." FIFA and UEFA apparently do seem to have sort of a Messiah complex when it comes to these kinds of issues (which was captured brilliantly just a month ago in Zürich when choosing the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups). However, the whole thing is trapped a bit, as UEFA regulations themselves don't enable such proposal, so the further talks of the 'federal league' are very much in doubt.

Honestly though, the CZ&SK league would be fantastic. It's something all fans would appreciate and with the right, positive approach and PR from the executives it could all get a lot more interesting. A fresh start, maybe, if we are to get optimistic. Take Austrian Bundesliga - its quality could be at least on par with the current Czech league, but not the Austrian approach to the football - from players, fans, media. The average attendances are around 8,500 (OK, it's got a lot to do with the quality of the stadia, but then look at Eden), the players are not always the most technically gifted but there's willingness and effort, something which is missing badly in the Czech Republic.

The empty stands at the Strahov Stadium

It's not that the CZ&SK league would become the new Premier League. It never will. There's no denying that the CZ&SK would still be a 'transition league' for players but in a longer term it could at least hold back young players from going abroad (and clubs selling them) immediately as any offer comes up. It could bring a couple of hundreds/thousands people more to the stands and the projects for further developments to the stadia could kick on. This all is just my personal fantasy and dreams, but ones surely not too wide off the mark. What's certain, though, is that we have to wait until the final decision from UEFA.

Apart from all that, other proposals to change the format of the league have also been discussed. We can certainly leave aside the possibilities of establishing a league cup or expanding the number of the teams in the league to 20. The ideas behind these two options are not mad - both are trying to bring more games to the Czech football, when clearly there are not too many of them. Sparta played their last two European cup games in 2010 after the Gambrinus liga had already fallen asleep in its winter break.

The league cup could feature some Slovakian teams, with 20 teams in the league there would be greater room for youngsters to get some playing time. However, while in theory this all sounds reasonable, I'm really curious about who would still be there to see a game between the likes of Příbram and Vlašim (with all due respect). To introduce a league cup, never mind the Slovakian teams, when there's sadly but clearly no one interested in the Czech cup itself, it sounds like a joke for the Czech fans.

Dušan Svoboda, the chief of the Gamrinus league assembly

The reduction of the teams in the Gambrinus liga from 16 to 10 is the only serious prospect left. There's not much to argue about on paper. 36 games instead of today's 30, more attractive, if not new opponents, and, presumably, better attendances; we could also see a rise in the quality level of the second and the third tier.

In fact though, I'm not convinced that the reduction would help the Czech club football. Even if I take aside my personal feeling about the lack of ambition in the decision, there are a couple of points to be made. If we look at the attendances in Hungary or Slovakia, they certainly weren't higher after the reduction in 2001 and 2000, respectively. We can see a decrease in Slovakia at all the clubs apart from the top 4. This downgrade in attendances was permanent with the one-off exception in 2005/2006 when Trnava won the league and the average number of people in the stands of Antonín Malatínský Stadium at that time was 9,219, which then hyped the whole number in Slovakia. In Hungary, the reduction to 12 clubs lasted only 4 years before turning back to the 16-team system. The reduction would also mean very hard times for the 6 teams being relegated to the second league. As well as a massive downgrade in their attendances, it would cut them off from the vital amounts of the sponsor money.

It looks that the CZ&SK league is the only long-term option which could lead the Czech and Slovakian football to something better. It's not perfect - the clubs would have to travel more and less of them would make it to Europe. My views on it are maybe too optimistic, but what else we've got? We can preserve the situation as it is, we can introduce two senseless options, or we could reduce the number of the teams in the league, which wouldn't effectively make it better - it would only make it less boring. The CZ&SK league, though, is something what makes your stomach tickle inside. Even more so, after you see Slovan and Sparta play each other in front of 9,500.

An excellent view on the possible CZ&SK league merge by Play Waved On at IBWM as well as Britski Belasi's bits and pieces about the topic are really worth a read as well.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

"Smash 'em at Anfield": Sparta v LFC - An Interview with Mark Smith

Well, at least there's still someone left to support, you might say, after Arsenal got beaten by having drawn Barcelona in Zürich last week. However, Sparta Praha still don't really look favourable to go through to the later stages of Europa Cup either. I know Liverpool are as solid in their recent performances as Arsenal's defence in past few years but, you know, it's Liverpool. Anyway, a great draw for the fans who will surely appreciate one of EPL's top sides playing at Letná. I talked to Mark Smith of Play Waved On about Sparta's chances and many more.

TMO: Mark, as you’re a Liverpool and Slavia fan, it‘s really not hard to predict who you will going to support throughout this tie, is it? The draw must have been a dream come true for you.

Mark: It was a fantastic draw for me as a Liverpool fan! I was hoping the two sides might get drawn together in the group stages, but was disappointed. So to have Liverpool drawn against Sparta Prague in the knockout stages is a wonderful draw.

Although to be fair, I don’t feel much hatred for Sparta Prague. Its true I follow Slavia since moving to Prague but I have been to watch Sparta few times in Europe and have been impressed with a few of their players.

How seriously is the Europa Cup being taken by Liverpool? Can we expect the strongest line-up to play in the tie?

I believe Liverpool and Roy Hodgson will take this competition very seriously, the majority of fans will also expect the team to go as far as possible. It might not be the glamour of the Champions League but winning matches breeds confidence, whatever competition it is.

The domestic games in between the Sparta Prague matches are Wigan and West Ham – not the toughest fixtures, so I would hope and expect that Roy play Liverpool’s strongest team and makes sure that Sparta are given some respect.

How is the draw perceived among the Liverpool fans? Do they consider Sparta as any real threat for them?

The Liverpool fans would expect to beat Sparta quite easily; having the home leg second is also a big advantage. The game in Prague could be tricky, but whatever the result is in Prague the LFC fans would expect to smash them at Anfield.

European nights at Anfield are very special and can be intimidating for visiting players, so it could depend on how the Sparta players prepare for the game in England, if they turn up with the autograph books they could be in trouble.

I think the fans are very happy with the draw, a long weekend in Prague is always a nice trip, regardless of the football!

Where do you see Sparta in terms of quality, had they been playing in an English division?

I have been impressed with the quality of Sparta, in comparison to the rest of the Czech top flight. But I would put them at the level of mid to lower Championship teams in England, alongside the likes of Sheffied United, Derby County, Reading, Coventry etc.

They might be able to surprise teams in one off cup games (beating Palermo at home) but are also prone to lapses in concentration and inconsistency (drawing with Lausanne Sports 3-3 at home and knocked out of the Czech Cup by Banik Sokolov).

Liverpool haven’t been doing quite as well recently as they have always had in the past. Nobody in Prague would have seriously thought about overcoming Liverpool a couple of years ago. Now it doesn’t feel that impossible, even though it’s hardly likely that Sparta could go through. What sort of weaknesses in the LFC squad will Sparta have to exploit in order to get to the round of 16?

Its been well documented about the recent troubles at Anfield, results have been poor and the lack of investment in the playing squad has been found out. Liverpool is very much going through a transitional period right now.

The weaknesses would be at full back for Liverpool, Konchesky is having a torrid time against every right sided player he comes across, also Glen Johnson is not the most accomplished defender as his strengths are going forward.

The lack of pace is also very evident in the current team; if Sparta can attack Liverpool at pace they can cause a lot trouble. BUT, if Liverpool are given time on the ball in midfield and Torres is given decent service it could be a long 180 minutes for Sparta.

The two key players for Sparta are Juraj Kucka and Bony Wilifred, if Sparta Prague manages to keep hold of these players during the January transfer window then who knows?

Which Sparta player in particular will Liverpool have to be aware of?

As mentioned, I think Kucka and Wilifred are big players for Sparta. Kucka’s energy and ability to dictate play from midfield will play a big part in how Sparta copes. The only problem is that Kucka will be facing the likes of Gerrard, Meireles, Lucas and Joe Cole. A massive step up in class for him and Sparta’s players.

I am also a bit worried that Vaclav Kadlec could catch out our defence, Carragher has never been blessed with pace and Kadlec is very lively and could prove a handful.

Would any Sparta player make the squad at Liverpool (or the other way round? :)?

Which Sparta player could make it in Liverpools squad? Ha, well, that’s a tough one. Kucka and Kadlec would be my two picks; both would make the Liverpool bench at this moment in time. But I would be very excited if Liverpool could sign Kadlec as he is definitely a player who will have a massive future.

I would expect the majority of the Liverpool side to make it into Sparta’s, imagine Torres at Sparta? Ha, crazy thoughts! Although there are a few players who might struggle to make Sparta’s first team!

And finally, what kind of a result do you expect from both ties?

I would expect to Liverpool to win both legs, 1-2 and 3-0. The first leg in Prague will be tough, Sparta have been performing well at home in Europe, beating Palermo and getting a decent point with CSKA Moscow.

Even a 1-1 draw in the first leg would be an OK result for Liverpool, a victory in Prague might leave Liverpool complacent for the Anfield game. Overall, it should be comfortable for Liverpool though.

You can visit Mark's great Play Waved On or follow him on Twitter @play_waved_on.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Vintage Czechs #1: The Mighty Comeback

It might be pretty obvious to start this column with the most famous Czech performance in recent years, but there you go. The game between Netherlands and Czech Republic at the EURO 2004 group stages (!) maybe wasn't one of a great importance - both teams, having won their first encounters against Germany and Latvia, respectively, could still easily qualify in the later stages of the competition. But the game still has to go down as the most magical one for the Czechs since 1994, when the former federal Czechoslovakian team split.

The reason why I am bringing up the game now is primarily because it was named the greatest moment in the Czech sport in the last ten years by Lidové noviny just a week ago. Nevermind the competition of this year's three Olympic gold medals of Martina Sáblíková, ice-hockey world cup winners, the game was top, and most deservedly so. It's still thrilling to read about the match in which not only the "golden generation"* of players like Nedvěd, the then holder of the 2003 Ballon d'Or, Poborský, Šmicer, Koller and so many more, performed so well, but also showed such determination and skill to turn the game around from 2-0 down to 3-2 up AND produced such stunning goals. (*The term "golden generation" hasn't been established yet but it's likely to be introduced as the Czech national team is really not doing so well recently and the prospects for another few years aren't really looking up either).

Vladimír Šmicer celebrating his winning goal

Honestly, it's hard to add much more to what Michael Cox of the ever-brilliant Zonal Marking has already written about his own favourite team of the last decade and the game itself. This really was a team you could be proud of to support. There was passion, will, pace, technical quality, and the tactical mastermind of Karel Brückner in his brighter days. A year with a great Czech side, and the Invincibles on top of that (normally I would go the other way round, but whatever), what more you could ask for?

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Tomáš Rosický On His Way Out From Arsenal?

There's been much talk in the Czech press about Tomáš Rosický, the Czech captain and Arsenal's number 7, constantly not being included in the starting eleven of his club, and, therefore, on the way out to Villa or back to Germany where he used to play for Borussia Dortmund until 2006. This might seem fairly reasonable on the first sight - Rosický is in his prime years, captaining his country, where he's by far the best player, and he's hardly performed below par this season when called upon. Yet Rosický now fails to become an integral part of the starting eleven like he used to be in the 2007/08 season. MF Dnes give their own explanation to the reason:

Arshavin, Fabregas, Nasri or Wilshere are selfish on the pitch. They're younger as well, so they're more perspective. Maybe that's why they play more.

Well, as you can see, the first explanation to the rumours regarding Rosický is, sadly, blatantly simple and speaks for itself: most of the Czech sports journalists have never been quite the brightest ones you'll ever see. The same applies to most of the commentators and pundits - the level of writing about football in Czech Republic, at least in the mainstream press, is mostly nowhere near worth talking about. Take an average piece about Premier League - and it's probably worse than reading anything from Stan Collymore. It's dull, amateurish and it's not more intellectually challenging than babbling of a twelve-year-old kid in the comments. It's tiring, really. Almost like this.

While it's true that Rosický hasn't played as much as he might deserve, given his undeniable talent, desire, workrate and experience, there are more reasons for that. Firstly it's down to the fact that he's only been available after his long-term injury and subsequent and inevitable niggles for a couple of months (note: Wenger has always said that it takes a player almost the same length of his previous injury to fully recover). Rosický, having come back after a year and a half at the beginning of the last season, has played 33 games out of possible 53 in 2009/10, so it's almost baffling, due to his injury record, that he hasn't been injured since the start of this season. He's still hardly reliable not to concede an injury though, so I'm suggesting Wenger is not rushing him back too much, granted, as he has plenty of other options to choose from as Arsenal haven't been struck by too many injuries on his position. As it's Arsenal, though, this can change within a week, so I wouldn't worry too much about Rosický not starting in every game at the moment.