The Czech Republic's footballers - unofficial ambassadors to the EU!

You may recall that Radio Prague ran a competition earlier this year in which we asked who you considered the most interesting Czech, living or dead. Someone from our Russia section told me something interesting: they got a few letters in which people chose the Czech football captain, Pavel Nedved. As almost every single player on the Czech national team plays abroad, it occurred to me that many people's only connection with the Czech Republic might be that their favourite team features a Czech player, be it Petr Cech at French club Rennes, or Patrik Berger at Portsmouth. Indeed when Vladimir Smicer joined Liverpool - Berger's old club - the fans had a song which went "he's Czech, he's great, he's Patrik Berger's mate".

There is something to be said for the idea of Czech footballers being unwitting ambassadors for their country, at least in Europe. Pavel Nedved, who Juventus fans affectionately call the Czech shrew, is reportedly their favourite player. And millions of people around the continent will have been moved by his tears when Nedved - one of the best players in the game - missed out last season on the greatest club game in the world, the Champions League final, after being booked for a foolish challenge.

Czechs playing for European clubs is not a wholly new phenomenon, with one of the best known examples from the Communist era Antonin Panenka's stint at Rapid Vienna in the 1980s. But the current situation, in which almost every member of the national team plays abroad, did not exist before the Czechs got to the final of Euro 96, where they were beaten by Germany. The tournament provided the best possible shop window for Czech talent, and was followed by a max exodus, with the most notable signings Nedved's move to Lazio in Italy and Karel Poborsky's transfer to Manchester United.

European Union regulations have meant Czech fans have had, up to now, at least a couple of seasons to watch top young stars like Tomas Rosicky or Milan Baros before they go abroad. However, while most footballers seem to welcome EU accession, joining could spell the end of that opportunity. Recently for instance 18-year-old Michal Papadopulos joined Arsenal after getting an EU passport via a Greek grandfather, and is probably the first instance of a player going to a major club abroad while virtually unknown in the Czech Republic. Still, if he starts scoring goals for one of the biggest clubs in the world he will surely become yet another footballing ambassador for the Czech Republic.