Vrba leaves Plzeň transformed

After Pavel Vrba bowed out as FC Viktoria Plzeň coach to take the national job, Ondřej Zlámal recounts the transformation he has overseen in five years in charge.

©AFP/Getty Images

There is a willow in a Plzen square that has been officially named after Pavel Vrba. It is no coincidence because in Czech the coach's surname literally means a tree with strong roots. The council thus showed their gratitude for what the outgoing FC Viktoria Plzeň trainer has done for the city's reputation.

When Vrba arrived at the club "nobody knew him well", Viktoria captain Pavel Horváth writes in his autobiography. "He came to the dressing room and started speaking about a plan that we should not fight against relegation but play for a place in Europe. It seemed nonsense to me."

The playmaker's initial disbelief was understandable. The Western Bohemian outfit were playing at an old-fashioned stadium attended by 2,000 faithful fans happy for every point.

The former FC Baník Ostrava and MŠK Žilina coach, most recently Slovakia's assistant boss between 2006 and 2008, signed several AC Sparta Praha cast-offs and gradually built a new team that relied on spectacular attacking football. He demanded his players think positively; even under pressure the defenders were forced to pass rather than opt for a long ball. The ambitions and philosophy of the squad changed.

If any side had played at the Štruncovy Sady Stadión before Vrba's time and then returned, it would not have seemed the same place. Never before champions, Viktoria claimed the 2009/10 Czech Cup and then the First League title in 2010/11, regaining their crown in 2012/13.

Fans saluted Vrba on Tuesday
Fans saluted Vrba on Tuesday©AFP/Getty Images

That earned two UEFA Champions League campaigns; having had to move their first to Prague's Stadion Eden, this term they have been able to host FC Bayern München and Manchester City FC in Plzen. Having previously played just a solitary European tie in 1971/72, Plzeň have now been involved in UEFA competition for four straight seasons, most eye-catchingly reaching the 2012/13 UEFA Europa League round of 16.

There is one more thing that is equally incredible. In surveys asking about associations with the word 'Plzen', the traditional response has been 'beer', the pride of the city for centuries. Now, though, 'football' is also mentioned, something unthinkable five years ago.

But Vrba's glorious era with the club ended on Tuesday with a dramatic 2-1 win against PFC CSKA Moskva that clinched a UEFA Europa League round of 32 spot – the third successive campaign they have played in Europe after Christmas. "The 90th minute was a fantastic full stop to my stay in Plzen, I will remember it all my life," Vrba said after the Group D triumph. The fans had also unveiled a huge mural of him in tribute.

Czech coach of the year in 2010, 2011 and 2012, Vrba will take charge of the national team's attempt to qualify for UEFA EURO 2016. "I could put up my feet on the table now and just relax at a flourishing club," the 50-year-old said. "But we, men, are attracted by challenges with uncertain results."

He may feel a sense of deja vu. The Czech Republic will miss the FIFA World Cup in Brazil having failed to qualify. It may therefore require a similar visionary speech when he enters the Národní tým dressing room. The Czech national tree is not a willow but a mighty-looking lime. Will Czech supporters name one after Vrba in five years' time?

The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.