All eyes on Oslo as Czechs battle for place in 2006 World Cup

All eyes will be on a muddy football pitch in Oslo this Saturday, as the Czech Republic do battle with Norway for one of five places left open for next year's World Cup in Germany. The Czech Republic became independent in 1993, but has failed to qualify for the last three World Cups.

Ivan Hasek
The Czech Republic - ranked third in the world by FIFA - go into Saturday's first leg World Cup playoff as the favourites, but underdogs Norway - ranked 37th - are hoping for an upset. The two teams have played each other just twice in the past, in qualifiers for Euro 96. Back then the Czechs drew 1-1 in Oslo and won 2-0 at home. The Czech team will be hoping for a repeat on Saturday and the return leg next Wednesday in Prague.

Ivan Hasek was the captain of the Czechoslovak team which reached the quarter finals of the 1990 World Cup. He says the Czechs have reason for optimism, but must keep their feet firmly on the ground.

"I think playoffs are the hardest matches. We have such a great team I think we'll handle this one. But I have to say that even though the whole country is optimistic, it's still important to be careful. We have to go into this match with humility, we have to go into it with a great deal of discipline. The match will start out 50-50. Qualifying will be very difficult but I believe our team will do it."

The Czech side have been given a major boost by the return of 33-year-old Juventus midfielder Pavel Nedved, a former European Footballer of the Year. Nedved last played for the Czech Republic in the Euro 2004 semi-final against Greece when they lost 1-0. He injured his knee in that match and retired from international football, saying it was taking too big a toll on his body. Now he's back for this crucial qualifier against Norway.

"As far as the playoffs are concerned, I'm glad the coach has put his trust in me, and that I can help out for these two matches. It's not a long-distance race, it's just two games. So seeing as I'm fit, I'm glad I can be here."

Pavel Nedved,  photo: CTK
Nedved, who has never won a major title with his national team, is still seen as one of the world's best midfielders, up there with Zinedine Zidane of France and Portugal's Luis Figo.

However there is serious concern about the state of the pitch in Oslo. Heavy rain and men's and women's cup finals at the weekend have left Norway's national stadium virtually stripped of grass. Much of the pitch is mud, but the Norwegians say they are heating and drying the turf, and there is no chance of a postponement. The poor conditions have boosted the home side and spooked the Czechs - captain Tomas Galasek said his team needed good terrain to play their game.

However the Czechs have not lodged a formal complaint and coach Karel Brueckner said his team was ready to cope with any conditions. The weathermen are forecasting sunny skies for Oslo on Saturday; the bookies are forecasting a Czech win. Turn on your radios and TVs this weekend to see if those forecasts come true.