Czech Under-20 footballers face game of their lives for place in World Cup final

Photo: CTK

The Czech Under-20 football team are preparing for what could be one of the nights of their lives; if they overcome Austria, they will be in the final of the Under-20 World Cup in Canada, something few could have predicted before it began. Already the youngsters have gone further in the competition than any previous Czech team. What's more, the junior World Cup is a great shop window, and several of the Czech youngsters have reportedly been attracting the interest of European clubs.

Photo: CTK
After returning home as heroes following a successful Euro 2004, the Czech senior football team have fallen from grace somewhat; mixed performances and reports of the players partying into the wee hours have together tarnished their reputation. This has perhaps added to the excitement surrounding the country's juniors, who have become the first Czech team ever to reach the semi-finals at the Under-20 World Cup, which is taking place in Canada.

Many fans here in the Czech Republic will be staying up on Wednesday night to watch the Czechs line up at 1:45 Central European Time against Austria, who are another of the competition's surprise successes.

The Czech players are talking about the game as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And they aren't the only ones who are on tenterhooks before the big match: Miroslav Soukup is the Czech Under-20 coach.

Miroslav Soukup, photo: CTK
"I'm not calm. I can't be calm given that we are just one game away from winning a medal. On the other hand I'm aware of how things could be different - I could have been back home a week ago. I know what could have been the case, and I'm trying to take things like that."

Coach Soukup and his charges have been in Canada for a whole month now, but whatever happens on Wednesday night the Czechs will be there for a few days yet; if they lose to Austria they will be taking part in the game to decide third place on Sunday. But obviously the Czechs would prefer to be in the final, in which they will face either Chile or Argentina, who they played - and drew 0:0 with - in their opening game.

Photo: CTK
Given their youth, many of the Czech team were previously unfamiliar names to all but the most ardent football fans. For instance, midfielder Lubos Kalouda, the Czechs' top scorer with three goals, has played less than four hours of league football with Brno. Team captain Jan Simunek is not a regular starter for his club Sparta Prague.

If they and their team-mates do make it to Sunday's final, they will put themselves very much in the football shop window. Actually, clubs from Europe's biggest leagues have already expressed interest in some of the Czech players, whose market value is said to have doubled or tripled thanks to their success in Canada.

But obviously it isn't all about money. If the Czech youngsters can keep their winning run going for two more games they will indeed be on top of the world.