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Miracle beckons the Czech squad

Thirty years after historic the European Championship win, team hopes for another big one this year.

india Updated: Jun 03, 2006 13:33 IST

Just before the decisive kick, Ivor Viktor took his friend Antonin Panenka aside. "Give a good kick Tonda, do you hear? This is a European Championship final, not a friendly," the CSSR goalkeeper urged before Panenka, who took the penalty against the West German side.

Minutes later, Sepp Maier made an anticipatory dive to the left, prompting a cheeky ball from Panenka into the middle of the goal. "If I'd missed, Ivo would never again have shared a hotel room with me," Panenka says now, 30 years after the win in Belgrade.

Three decades on, Czechoslovakia's historic European Championship victory in 1976 eclipses all the country's other football successes.

Czechoslovakia were the runners-up in the 1934 and 1962 World Cups and in 1996, the three-year old independent Czech Republic lost 1-2 to Germany in the European Championship final at Wembley.

But it was the victory over its larger neighbour that remained deeply rooted in the memory of Czechs, largely because of the spectacular missed penalty by Uli Hoeness, which soared way over the bar.

"They're still looking for the ball in Belgrade," Franz Beckenbauer joked recently in Prague. That visit of the head of Beckenbauer revealed the excitement in the Czech Republic ahead of the World Cup.

President Vaclav Klaus and Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek received Beckenbauer like a statesman, and photos of his visit Praguethe front made pages of newspapers the following day.

Beckenbauer predicted a successful World Cup for the Czech team, "If all the players are fit, they have the potential to make it into the quarter-final or semi-final. Maybe even further, who knows?" Ironically, it was Beckenbauer of all people who helped end the World Cup ambitions of Czech footballers in the 1990s.

The 60-year-old former manager trained the West German team that sent Czechoslovakia packing in the 1990 quarterfinal.

As the team makes a return to the World Cup this year, football fever in Bohemia and Moravia is running so high, it has even influenced the date of parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2-3.

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek said recently, after a meeting with Beckenbauer, that he had decided against holding the poll on the date preferred by many - June 9 and 10 - because the World Cup begins in Germany on June 9.

"Thousands of Czechs may be travelling to support their team in Germany, plus the live footage will keep many football fans rooted to their television sets," he said.

Although the monarchy in Prague was abolished in 1918, Czech democrats have no chance against Kaiser Franz and King Football, he joked in a radio interview.

World Cup fever has even overshadowed the biggest corruption case in the history of Czech football - 14 referees, five clubs, six officials and two delegates are caught up in an extensive network that was detected by police in May 2004 through phone-tapping.

Now, partly as a result of the scandal, only about 5,000 spectators show up at Czech first-division games.

Odds Zone Total number of goals in the tournament 6/5 Under 160 goals 9/5 Between 160 and 170 (inclusive) 11/5 Over 170 goals

First Published: Jun 03, 2006 13:33 IST