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Czecho(Slovakia): The best football team never to win the World Cup?

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Football crazy, football mad. Now it might be drunken speculation, but could the national football teams representing the countries comprising the Czech lands have won the World Cup either since the Jules Remy Trophy was cast and competed from 1930 to 1970, or the FIFA World Cup Trophy from 1974? Their record isn’t as bad as you might think.

That said, the proposition might be considered total fantasy by some. To those outside the Czech Republic or Slovakia, known more for their prowess in ice hockey than football – Czechoslovakia could be considered to have punched above their weight internationally on the footballing stage against the best teams on the  planet.

Besides The Netherlands and Portugal, they have to be viewed as amongst the best sides never to have won the World Cup. Some might argue differently saying the Dutch team, who appeared in two straight finals (1974 and 1978) as well the final in 2010, are rightly contenders for the title.

But the facts are plain. As a nation with Czech and Slovak players, the territory has appeared in two World Cup finals: in 1934 against the Italians in Rome and in 1962 in Latin America. The latter was against the mighty Brazilians in Santiago, Chile, where they took an early 1-0 lead against a squad with a young Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pelé) – before losing 1-3.

Subsequently, Josef Masopust, who as a midfielder lead the Czechoslovak team and was playing for Dukla Prague at the time, won the Ballon d’Or that same year for his performance in the final where he scored that opening goal. Capped 63 times, he scored ten goals for his country, and in 2004 was named as one of the top 125 greatest living footballers.

The sporting track record is far from shabby when also considering that the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the territories that formed Czechoslovakia as a nation state in 1918, have a combined population today of around 15 million. Add to that they never had the advantage of playing a World Cup in their own backyard.        

The national sport in this part of the world is not football but ice hockey, which since the play-off rounds of the International Ice Hockey World Championships were introduced in 1992 the Czech Republic has competed in seven finals (winning six gold medals).

And, for the record only Canada, Sweden and Russia have appeared in more ice hockey finals than the Czech Republic. Slovakia has appeared in three finals bagging one gold and two silver medals.

Birth of football in the Czech lands

The national football team of Czechoslovakia, which was controlled by the Czechoslovakia Football Association from 1920 to 1992, played its first international game at the 1920 Summer Olympic Games in Antwerp, opening with a 7-0 win over Yugoslavia. The Slovak Football Association was founded on 4 November 1938.

This all came in the years after a team representing Bohemia, then under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had competed between April 1903 and June 1908. That latter date was when Bohemia lost 4-0 at home to England.

At the Olympics in Antwerp, progress of the independent Czechoslovakia team was pretty impressive before the wheels came off at the end of the tournament in spectacular style. It was their very first international competition.

After seeing off Yugoslavia with great aplomb, they then beat Norway 4-0 in the quarter-finals and France 4-1 in the semis. However, in the final against Belgium on 2 September, the Czechoslovak players left the field at 2-0 down after 40 minutes in protest with English referee John Lewis. For this they were disqualified and not given a medal.

From the “cradle of football”

The influence of the “cradle of football” – England – could be said to have played a hand in the growth of the beautiful game in Czech lands – both before and after Czechoslovakia was dissolved. And, there are a few examples to evidence this.

Take AC Sparta Prague, established in 1893 and the most successful Czech  football team who have been champions of the Czechoslovak First League / Czech First League 33 times since 1925 and won the Czech Cup fifteen times since 1963. Currently, they are one of only two teams with rivals Slavia Prague in the domestic league that supplies players to the national side.

Sparta Prague’s “Golden Age”

In the summer of 1912, a Scot and former Arsenal FC stalwart, Johnny Dick, the North London club’s first player to play 250 games, hopped over to Czechoslovakia to coach and develop a Prague-based side Deutscher FC. This was at least a decade before a football league in Czechoslovakia was established during the mid-twenties.

Subsequently when Czechoslovakia came into existence in 1919, he took up the reins at AC Sparta, turning them into a team to be feared that earned them the nickname “Iron Sparta” during their golden age of the 1920s and 1930s. They won an unofficial European Championship in 1921.

Dick, who had started his playing career at Airdrieonians and ended it at   Woolwich Arsenal (“The Gunners”), became known for being one of the early pioneers of football in the Czech part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One might even amusingly say he was siding with the “Hun”.

Although in their early days Sparta Prague played in a tricolour of blue (symbolising Europe), red (symbol of the royal city) and yellow, it was after the then club president Dr. Petřík visited England in 1906 where he saw Arsenal play with their red jerseys. He decided to bring one set back to Prague, implanting a bit of the Arsenal DNA.

Though he didn’t realise it at that time, Petřík was setting up one of the club’s greatest traditions. Together with the red jerseys, Sparta players wear white shorts and black socks.

After two triumphs in 1927 and 1935 in two Central European Cup titles, which enjoyed the same level of recognition as that of today’s Champions League, a third came in 1964. And, in between and just after World War II in 1946, a Sparta Prague team toured Great Britain opening with a 2-2 draw against Arsenal.

It is said that to this day, the fans still recall the names of the players of that period with some admiration – Červený, Hojer, Káďa, Kolenatý, Perner and Peyer. On the goalkeeping front Vlasta Burian, an actor dubbed Král komiků (King of Comedians) and well known for his many movie roles before and during World War II, played for Sparta Prague from 1916 to 1926.

A few years later, some no less famous names appeared, such as Burgr, Čtyřoký, Hajný, Hochman, Šíma, Silný, Košťálek and in particular Oldřich Nejedlý, the top scorer at the 1934 World Cup with five goals.

And four years after that, seven Sparta players were part of the national team at the World Cup in Italy. Then in 1962, Kvašňák and Tichý played alongside Nejedlý and Masopust in Chile.

Fast forward to 1990 in Italy, where the national team got as far as the quarter finals, the team’s play was mainly created by Bílek, Chovanec, Hašek and other Sparta players, such as Tomáš Skuhravý, a star subsequently in Italy’s Serie A league with Genoa.

Along usually with Slavia Prague, Sparta has always been a base for the national team. Their players have contributed to the greatest achievements of the Czechoslovak and Czech national teams.

The modern era

Moving into the 2000’s that culminated in bagging the bronze medal in the UEFA Euro 2004 championships in Portugal, Sparta players left an unmistakable mark on the national team successes.

Take Zdeněk Grygera, Tomáš Hübschman, Jaromír Blažek, Karel Poborský and academy products Petr Čech, Tomáš Rosický as well as Pavel Nedvěd and Jan Koller, who helped Czech football to become recognised as being amongst the elite in Europe.

Poborský, the second most capped national player after Čech, was one of a number of the Czech squad at UEFA Euro 1996 who left the Czech Republic to play in another country after the tournament, signing in July 1996 for Manchester United.

But for David Beckham’s rising ascendancy on the pitch at Old Trafford, Poborský would have managed more than the one-and-a-half seasons he had at Old Trafford before leaving for Benfica. Nevertheless, he did collect a Premier League title winner’s medal for the 1996-97 season and helped them reach the Champions League semi-finals.

Czech players In English top flight

Other top Czech players – there is Čech, who holds a record 124 caps for his country in goal, has played in England for Chelsea and currently Arsenal; Rosický with 105 caps who has plied his trade for Borussia Dortmund before joining Arsenal; Milan Baroš and Vladimír Šmicer – both for Liverpool FC.

Baroš, who started his career at FC Banik Ostrava, was part of the Liverpool team that won the UEFA Champions League in 2005 and was pivotal in their victory against AC Milan. Liverpool legend Stephen Gerrard described Baroš as having the best left foot he had ever seen in the game.

In addition to winning the Golden Boot as top scorer of the Euro 2004 tournament, where his nation reached the semi-finals, Baroš’ 41 goals for the Czech Republic is second behind only Koller with 55 goals.

Hot new Czech football talent is emerging like 18-year old Adam Hložek, who has already played almost sixty times for Sparta Prague’s first team. He has attracted interest from the big European clubs and been invited for trials at Arsenal and Bayern Munich.

Then there is Tomáš Souček, ex-Slavia Prague and Czech national team defensive midfielder, now at West Ham FC, who has recently knocked in a few goals (8 in 22 appearances) in for the London club. In August 2020, he was awarded the Czech Golden Ball.

To think that Slovakia was playing something of a second fiddle in the footballing stakes to the Czech Republic post Czechoslovakia splitting due the difference in respective populations (two-thirds on Czech side) would be off the mark.

Indeed, as a part of Czechoslovakia (from 1918-1939 and 1945-1993), Slovak footballers achieved a series of very successful campaigns with the Czechoslovakia national team.

For instance, 16 of the 22 players on the Czechoslovak squad playing in the final tournament of UEFA Euro 1976 in Yugoslavia were Slovak. And, in both the semi-final against the Netherlands and the final match against West Germany, nine of the thirteen players fielded were Slovak.

A reunited Czecho(slovak) team?

One might well ask if a reunited Czech and Slovak football team could perform even better than they do now and in the past? The current FIFA rankings have Slovakia in 38th place and the Czech Republic in 45th. Clearly this is down on their rankings of former times when the Czech Republic was in the top 10.

Some posit that even if the two nation’s football teams merged like a “GB Team”, the chances of reviving former glories would be slim because of the strength of Germany, France and Brazil. It might push them up to 20th in the world but not much higher.

Others like the Sparta Prague fan Martin Macourek, formerly of Czech Trade (UK), contends: “It really depends, but it could be possible to see an improvement. However, taking a GB Team comprising say Scottish, Welsh and English players… the Scots might not exhibit the same passion as they would playing for their own country and the thistle emblem.”  

Then again a small nation like Croatia reached the last World Cup final against France, which shows what is possible for a nation of just four million. So perhaps not such a far fetched proposition.

By Roger Aitken

A freelance financial journalist based in London and a former Financial Times staff writer covering stock exchanges, transaction services and trading technology, Roger has written for a number of publications, including The GuardianThe Independent and worked as a Forbes contributor for 5 years.

Headed by Kafkadesk's chief-editor Jules Eisenchteter, our Prague office gathers over half a dozen reporters, editors and contributors, as well as our social media team. It covers everything Czech and Slovak-related, and oversees operations from our other Central European desks in Warsaw and Budapest.

1 comment on “Czecho(Slovakia): The best football team never to win the World Cup?

  1. Jiri Hajek

    Surprisingly well researched article. Worth mentioning are as well semifinals of Euro in 1960, 1980 and 2004, which together with 2 World Cup finals and victory against Germany in Euro final 1976 and loss against the same rival in Euro 1996 is resulting in 7 participations in top 4 teams in Euro or World Cup.
    Most of Dutch football success happened in the last 50 years and Portugal teams have been exceptional in the last 20 years, but in historical records are these 3 countries right behind European heavy weights like Germany, Italy, France and Spain.

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