The opening match of a tricky looking Group E gets underway this afternoon in Gelsenkirchen, as Euro 2004 semi-finalists the Czech Republic take on a USA side ranked fifth in the world by FIFA.
The impressive Veltins Arena, home to Bundesliga club Schalke 04, has been open since 2001 and is one of the most impressive stadiums on show at the World Cup Finals.
It is the first finals appearance for the Czechs since the Czech/Slovak split in January 1993, and this will therefore be the first meeting between the two nations at a major tournament. The USA will be hoping to live up to their lofty FIFA ranking and emulate the quarter-final performance of the 2002 team, while the Czech Republic will be looking to build on an impressive Euro 2004 and continue the rich Czech tradition at the World Cup Finals. Pre 1993, before the Czech/Slovak split, the former Czechoslovakia could boast two runners-up positions in 1934 and 1962.
Most neutral observers were seduced by the Czech Republic’s dazzling attacking football during their memorable run to the semi-finals of Euro 2004. Entering the tournament as third favourites for their group, let alone the tournament as a whole, they surprised and entertained in equal measure. The 2006 model is based on continuity from that squad, something that can be construed as positive or negative.
Injuries permitting, the Czech starting XI is likely to feature as many as ten players who featured in their semi-final defeat two years ago in Portugal. Four of these key players are well into their thirties – Jan Koller (33), Karel Poborsky (34), Tomas Galasek (33) and Pavel Nedved (33). Nedved, at his peak a truly world-class midfielder with stamina, intelligence and skill in abundance, retired from international football following Euro 2004 but has since reversed that decision in spite of indifferent club form for Juventus and numerous injuries. Koller is also short of match fitness, with a cruciate ligament injury keeping him out for most of last season. He has, however, proved his wellbeing with a series of goals in the Czechs’ warm-up games. Poborsky, meanwhile, has been playing in the Czech second division – hardly the perfect preparation for the World Cup Finals.
This over-reliance on these aging but experienced stars has been the focus of much debate in the Czech media. All of the aforementioned players are respected and loved in the Czech Republic, but the fact that potential replacements have limited experience, especially of a major tournament, means that optimism has been tempered somewhat. The coach, 66 year-old Karel Bruckner, seems unconcerned and is explicit in his praise of the returning Nedved in particular.
“I understood the decision Pavel made after Euro 2004 but am happy that he has returned to us in time for the World Cup,” he said in the aftermath of Nedved’s announcement of his return.
“He may not have the pace and stamina he possessed ten years ago but not many players have won the Ballon D’Or and his experience will be crucial to us.”
Poborsky has also brushed aside claims that his season with second-division side Ceske Budejovice has jeopardised his World Cup preparations.
“I’m not worried about it at all,” revealed the most capped Czech player of all time.
“At 34 I’m fully aware of how I need to prepare for a major tournament and what is required of me. If anything my season in division two can be seen as a positive thing as it has enabled me to focus solely on the World Cup and prepare for it accordingly.”
For all the debate about the aging players, the Czech Republic have three genuine stars in their twenties that will be important figures for them as well. In Chelsea’s Petr Cech they arguably have the world’s best goalkeeper. Striker Milan Baros was a star of Euro 2004, winning the golden boot along the way, and despite his form for both Liverpool and Aston Villa disappointing since then he is always motivated when playing for his country. His pace and composure in front of goal has led to an extremely healthy return of 28 goals in 49 appearances at international level, which would be the envy of almost any striker in the world. Arsenal-bound midfielder Tomas Rosicky has spent the last six seasons in Germany at Borussia Dortmund. He is nicknamed ‘Little Mozart’ by his coach, and his creativity and goal scoring threat from midfield have made him irreplaceable Bruckner’s eyes. Seven goals in the qualifying campaign are proof of this.
The only doubt for the Czechs is Baros, who nevertheless expects to be fit after picking up a foot injury last week. Marek Heinz of Turkish club Galatasaray is the likely replacement should Baros not be risked. The Czechs will line up in Bruckner’s preferred formation of 4-1-3-2, with Galasek performing his usual protective role in front of the back four. This gives the other three midfielders the license to get forward and roam around almost at will, with the attacking fullbacks Zdenek Grygera and Marek Jankulovski also providing ammunition for the 6-foot 7-inch Koller.
Here lies the flexibility of the Czechs. They are equally adept at playing either possession-based football, with the skilful midfield trio probing for openings for Baros, or playing direct football, with the fullbacks and wide midfielders providing crosses for the giant Koller. This gives the tactically aware Bruckner two clear ways of playing, depending on the opposition or the scoreline.
The one thing certainly not in the Czechs favour this time around is their status. At Euro 2004 they were the underdogs and revelled in the tag, but their progress at that competition means that they will be favourites to progress from Group E along with Italy. Bruckner is well aware of this, and the danger posed by Ghana and tonight’s opposition, the USA.
“How far the team progress depends on numerous factors – preparation, strategy, the context of each match and the quality of the opposition,” Bruckner revealed on the eve of the tournament.
“We are lucky in that most of these things are in our own hands, but not so lucky in the fact that much is now expected of the squad by those at home and those who witnessed our form in Portugal. It is bad that we don’t know as much about Ghana and the USA as other European countries. We respect them very much, but cannot fear them.”
After leading the USA to the quarter-finals of the last World Cup and to a FIFA world ranking of five, coach Bruce Arena faces a mammoth task in emulating previous exploits and living up to the USA’s inflated ranking. Should the USA manage to qualify for round two it would surely be as runners-up, and if this transpires then the likely last sixteen opponents are Brazil, the overwhelming favourites to win the World Cup. A repeat of last time’s performance is therefore unlikely and this may have a negative effect on the sport domestically.
The sport is now a large part of youth culture in the USA, with the vast majority of girls and boys participating in it up to under-14 level. There are now two TV channels exclusively devoted to football, and average attendances in Major League Soccer stand at a respectable 15,000 per game. There remains, however, a stigma attached to football by the mainstream media and the fact that most boys turn to basketball, baseball and American football as their teenage years progress is inescapable. Much like the situation in Australia, America likes its sports teams and stars to be the best, and feelings of inferiority are remedied with derision and negativity towards sports that cannot easily be conquered. Should the USA fail to reach the knockout stages, something which is a distinct possibility, the latest attempt at mainstream development, MLS, could be jeopardy.
Arena is the longest serving national team coach in the world, having taken the reins in 1998. The hallmarks of his teams are hard work, discipline and rigid tactical adherence. His main concern has been how to channel the usual American attributes of strength, fitness and athleticism, something that the squad possesses in abundance.
The USA’s squad contains a number of European-based players, though their star player has recently returned to the USA having failed to impress in the Bundesliga. Landon Donovan, a versatile and skilful forward will be hoping to impress at the finals and therefore seal a second move to Europe after his unsuccessful spell with Bayer Leverkusen. He is likely to be rotated from the right wing into the hole behind the strikers, depending on the opposition and Arena’s decision to field a standard 4-4-2 formation or his preferred experimental 4-3-1-2.
Other key men for the USA include Fulham striker Brian McBride, the veteran Manchester City midfielder Claudio Reyna (who has recovered from injury), the talented but inconsistent DeMarcus Beasley of PSV and the experienced goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who has spent many seasons in the English Premiership. Of the home-based players, electric striker Eddie Johnson could be one of the surprise packages of the tournament. Johnson scored seven goals in seven games during the qualifiers and, at just twenty-two years old, remains open to improvement. If he can edge out Josh Wolff for a starting berth alongside McBride he could be something of a revelation. It is in defence that the USA will be most vulnerable, with no established stars and the fresh memory of a comprehensive thrashing at the hands of Germany in the run up to the finals.
Despite the magnitude of the task facing his team in the forthcoming days, Arena remains positive about his team’s chances.
“We realise that against Italy, the Czech Republic and even Ghana we will be playing against big-name players from big-name teams, but we’ve learned in the past that they’re just players like we are,” said the coach on Friday, clearly enjoying the motivational side of the underdog tag.
“We can play anyone on a given day and the strength of opponents doesn’t worry us. I think some of the big boys will be going home early.”
Playmaker Donovan echoes his coach’s attitude.
“It doesn’t really matter who we are playing or where we play them,” he said.
“We have a tough group, but it’s just coincidence and bad luck. It won’t be playing on our minds.”
Czech Republic: Cech; Grygera, Ujfalusi, Rozenhal, Jankulovski; Galasek; Poborsky, Rosicky, Nedved; Baros, Koller.
USA: Keller; Cherundolo, Pope, Onyewu, Lewis; Reyna, Mastroeni, Beasley; Donovan; McBride, Johnson.
Referee: Carlos Amarilla (Paraguay)