Following the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, the Czech Republic has established a fine footballing reputation. Runners-up at EURO '96 and winners of the 2002 UEFA European Under-21 Championship, the country has produced excellent footballers who have played throughout Europe, representing the Czech people with distinction.
The Czech lands belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire when football arrived in the 19th century. The city of Prague embraced the sport and in 1892 its first club, SK Slavia Praha, was founded. Královské Vinohrady, or King's Vineyard, followed a year later, becoming AC Sparta Praha in 1894. Thus a great rivalry was born. The first capital derby came in 1896, and soon football was thriving. Thirteen clubs united in 1901 to form the Czech Football Association (now the Football Association of the Czech Republic – FAČR), which six years later gained FIFA membership.
Prague was one of the cities to rise against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and 1918 witnessed the creation of the Czechoslovak Republic, a single state of two equal republics. Nothing changed for football, as Sparta – the first domestic champions in 1912 – and Slavia continued to dominate. An international competition for Central European teams, the Mitropa Cup, was established in 1927 and Sparta were inaugural victors.
The strength of Czech football was evident. The national side reached the final of the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, succumbing 2-0 to Belgium, but did not participate in the first FIFA World Cup in Uruguay in 1930. However, they excelled at the 1934 tournament in Italy, losing the final 2-1 to the hosts after extra time. The world now recognised the skills of goalkeeper František Plánička, forward Antonín Puč and Oldřich Nejedlý, the World Cup's leading scorer.
After World War Two the communists introduced a new political order. On the pitch, army club FK Dukla Praha took control of the domestic game, with Slavia suffering as a result. Internationally, the Czechoslovaks presented a united front to come third at the 1960 UEFA European Championship. A golden generation headed by 1962 European Footballer of the Year, Josef Masopust, and featuring Svatopluk Pluskal, Ladislav Novák, Viliam Schrojf and Ján Popluhár, fared even better at the 1962 World Cup: only Brazil stopped them, 3-1 in the final in Chile.
In 1976 Czechoslovakia's flowing football was finally rewarded when they beat West Germany 5-3 on penalties to win the UEFA European Championship after a 2-2 draw in Belgrade. Ivo Viktor kept goal, Anton Ondruš and Ján Pivarník shone in defence, and a midfield trio of Jozef Móder, Karol Dobiaš and Antonín Panenka supplied strikers Zdeněk Nehoda and Marián Masný.
Although Czechoslovakia failed to retain their crown in 1980, finishing third, they promptly struck gold at the Moscow Olympics – exactly 16 years after claiming silver in Tokyo. Following the collapse of communism, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist and two independent states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, were born on 1 January 1993. Three years later the Czechs made the final of EURO '96, falling to Germany's golden goal at Wembley. Talents such as Karel Poborský, Vladimír Šmicer, Patrik Berger and Pavel Nedvěd duly moved abroad.
If the new state was a notable absentee from World Cups until 2006, any disappointment was tempered when the country's youngsters won the UEFA European U21 Championship in Switzerland in 2002. Several of that side, including goalkeeper Petr Čech and forward Milan Baroš, became stalwarts of the senior squad, who were semi-finalists at UEFA EURO 2004 and then World Cup debutants in Germany. Two key men subsequently departed the national-team scene: centre-forward Jan Koller, the Czech Republic's 55-goal record scorer, and midfielder Nedvěd, European Footballer of the Year in 2003.
Still, the production line goes on: witness the Czechs' silver medal at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada in 2007 and the country's fifth successive qualification for the UEFA European Championship, with Michal Bílek's new-look team getting to the quarter-finals of the 2012 tournament held in Poland and Ukraine.
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