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Petr Čech has seen plenty of excitement during his long successful spell with Chelsea FC but, in terms of great triumphs, the Czech Republic's win at the 2002 UEFA European Under-21 Championship remains hard to beat.
Čech put in a sterling performance in the decider in Basel as his side held France to a goalless draw and then won 3-1 on penalties, the goalkeeper saving twice from the spot. "It remains one of the best victories in my career," he told UEFA.com. "I have been playing for one of the best teams in the world for the last seven years. I have won the top league three times and the FA Cup three times. I have lots of victories behind me, but that one is something special."
The Czechs had lost 2-0 to France in their opening fixture, barely scraping through to the semi-finals with a narrow win against Belgium and a draw with Greece. However, they came into their own in the semi-finals. Though they let a 2-0 lead slip against Italy, Michal Pospíšil's extra-time strike secured a shock 3-2 triumph.
"Fortunately, we succeeded in the roller coaster against Italy, which was a psychological turning point," recalled the 29-year-old. "We went into the final with fresh mental energy. We knew that the worst was behind us, so the final was a reward for our hard work during the tournament and for the previous two years of qualifying games."
While the Czechs had been losing finalists in the championship's 2000 edition, Čech said they were still amazed to go one step further two years on. "We went to the finals to have a good time," he said. "It was our dream to play in the final. When we came to Switzerland, we didn't think our dream would come true. We knew we had a good and strong team, but nobody dared mention a possible final. Our dream materialised."
Čech believes the relative financial weakness of Czech club football had served that U21 side well. At 19, he had broken a national record by going 13 games without conceding a goal for AC Sparta Praha, and most of his team-mates in 2002 had been toughened up by plenty of competitive matches in the seasons before the finals.
"Most of the best national team players had left the country to play abroad," he recalled. "That exodus gave youngsters aged 18 to 21 a chance to play in the top league. That didn't happen in every league so I think that was to our advantage. Most of us already played in the senior ranks and had gained enormous football experience."
Čech turned 20 midway through the tournament and, though he is much nearer 30 now, his delight at having won the competition remains undimmed. "I represented my country and became a European champion," he said. "It doesn't matter that it wasn't in the senior category – it is still very precious. Not everyone gets to experience such pride."
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