Changing the Culture
How Pavel Vrba took the Czech Republic to France and changed the national mindset
With only two players – Petr Čech and Tomáš Rosický – at top European clubs, others struggling to make an impact at ordinary foreign teams and Czech clubs making little impression on the Champions League, the Czech Republic’s qualification for Euro 2016 feels vaguely miraculous. It probably wouldn’t have happened without Pavel Vrba, an offensive-minded coach who is a stickler for detail and who has influenced Czech football far more than anybody else in recent history.
Vrba was a clear choice when the time came for Michal Bílek to be replaced as national coach. For a time after he took the job, the instinctive scepticism of Czech fans disappeared – at least for a while. So while some hail the miracle, others say that this qualification, the Czech Republic’s sixth in a row for the European Championship, was simply the fulfilment of a natural expectation for Vrba after the job he did at Viktoria Plzeň. Once a yo-yo team, Viktoria twice won the league under Vrba and twice reached the group stages of the Champions League. But his chief legacy was in reminding Czech football how to attack, restoring the courage to play an offensive and attractive style.
It is not bad for a man whose coaching career in the Czech top flight began in May 2003 – as a caretaker at Baník Ostrava – with a 7-0 defeat at Slavia. “It’s impossible to forget this match,” laughs Vrba. “The next day, the local press even printed an obituary including the names of players and members of coaching staff.”
But rather than the death of the team, it was its rebirth. Ostrava did not lose in the remaining four matches of the season and extended their unbeaten run by another 17 matches the following season. Vrba became an assistant to František Komňacký in summer 2003 and together they led Baník to their first title since 1981 – and probably their last for some time as the club was relegated this season. For Vrba, though, the joy was short-lived. With no proper explanation, his contract was not extended.
He admitted recently that he regards the board’s decision as one of the biggest disappointments of his career. But it was also the beginning of his path to success. Komňacký, having some contacts in Slovakia, recommended Vrba to Púchov, a tiny club near the border with the Czech Republic. Matador, as they were called after their sponsor, were favourites to be relegated but under their new coach they finished sixth in a ten-team league. The board showed little patience and sacked him in April 2006. A couple of months later, the ambitious MŠK Žilina, also in Slovakia, appointed him. They scored 99 goals in 36 matches as they romped to the league title by a 20-point margin.
But again, a set-back soon followed. After MŠK had finished as runners-up in the 2007-08 season, Vrba was sacked in the September after a 1-1 home draw against Levski in the first round of the Uefa Cup. “I believed we could go through but not with Pavel Vrba’s style which I normally liked,” explained Jozef Antošík, MŠK’s owner. A month later, Vrba found another job. What followed would change the map of Czech football.
Viktoria Plzeň had a reputation of bouncing between the top two divisions, but they showed some ambition in summer 2008 by signing a group of players unwanted at Sparta: Daniel Kolář, Milan Petržela, David Limberský and, most importantly, Pavel Horváth, the former Sporting and Galatasaray creative midfielder. But with only eight points from the first nine rounds of fixtures, Jaroslav Šilhavý was sacked and Vrba appointed.
After his first speech in the dressing room, players looked at each other in astonishment. Their new boss had talked about a target of competing in Europe in the future. Viktoria climbed from thirteenth to eighth position by the end of his first season and came fifth in the next one, equalling their best ever finish.
But the 2010-11 season was dominated by their ferocious start to the season. Although Vrba had been a strong central defender during his career – he played in the Under-20 World Cup in Mexico in 1983, coming up against Dunga and Bebeto, but spent most of his playing days in the Czech second division – he prefers attacking football. His favourite formation remains 4-2-3-1, using fast wingers, offensively minded full-backs and creative central midfielders. In their European adventures, often as underdogs, Viktoria caused problems to opponents with fast counter-attacks. But on the home stage, against tough defensive teams, they needed to show patience and a high level of creativity. “I am not saying that defending has no place in football,” Vrba said. “It is important to keep a clean sheet but it is not interesting for fans if teams try to play for goalless draws to avoid defeat. Generally, we try to play offensive football. Sometimes we are successful, sometimes not. But our strategy is based on the fact that we want to be pro-active.”
Plzen started the season with 11 consecutive wins following an opening draw. And with goals loads of goals. At the end of the campaign, Viktoria celebrated the first league title in their 100-year history. They earned 69 points, 21 more than their previous record, and scored 70 goals, 33 more than in the record season before Vrba.
And it was time to celebrate. The father of two girls, Vrba is a friendly and entertaining type who is always good for a laugh. But he is also, as he says himself, a stubborn man who can be edgy if he feels some kind of injustice. Sometimes during his press conferences he is wry and ironical towards journalists, especially if there is an intimation of criticism. However, most people who have worked closely with him will not have a bad word said against him – not only players or members of his staff but even secretaries or other employees in the club. It became a habit for Vrba to bring doughnuts and coffee for the women in the club office.
On top of it, he has a sense of humour and is quite willing to make jokes about himself. Before the first title, he promised players that they could shave his head if they won the league. After the decisive match, Vrba patiently sat on his chair in dressing room – among screaming players and champagne – and the players did their barber’s job. And it was not the only bet he arranged.
The coach liked to wear an old-fashioned sweater with two reindeers on the front and was often the butt of jokes from players because of it. But he promised to give it up if Pavel Horváth, the most influential member of the team, lost weight before beginning of the spring season in 2012. He did and Vrba handed it over. But the players clubbed together and gave him a new one after winning the final match in the Europa League against Atlético Madrid (1-0) and finishing top of their group.
Successes in Europe are another sign of Vrba’s class. Viktoria paid for their inexperience in summer 2010, being eliminated by Beşiktaş after a 1-1 draw and a 3-0 away defeat, but once they started the motor they always made it through to the spring part of the competitions.
The unexpected journey started in the shadow of Mount Ararat with victory over Pyunik of Yerevan and wins followed against Rosenborg and FC Copenhagen. Six matches, six wins, eighteen goals scored and only five conceded. Viktoria became first non-Prague club from the Czech Republic to reach the group stage of the Champions League. With an annual budget of around £3m Vrba’s Viktoria could not cope with big guns like Barcelona or AC Milan. But a 2-2 draw against Milan saw them finish ahead of BATE to make the Europa League.
It was the summer preliminary rounds that really seemed to suit them. In 2012, they qualified for the Europa League group stage, having won five out of six. They topped a group that included Atlético before sensationally putting out Napoli. They were finally eliminated in the last 16 by Fenerbahçe.
After securing their second league title in 2013, Viktoria went into the Champions League qualifiers for the second time. Vrba again prepared his team meticulously. Having had problems against Željezničar of Sarajevo, they hammered the Estonian side Nõmme Kalju before facing the confident Slovenian champions NK Maribor. Two wins – 3-1 at home and 1-0 away – sent them to the group stage again. And Vrba, once again, showed his sense of humour. Before the ties, he had promised to turn a backwards somersault on the pitch. And he did – a truly magnificent one – in front of supporters and with laughing players behind him.
However, the signs of comedy should not disguise the facts. Vrba’s Viktoria won 17 of 18 qualifying matches between 2011 and 2013, scoring 52 goals and conceding 15. Again, they were unfortunate with the draw, being grouped with Pep Guardiola’s Bayern, Manchester City and CSKA Moscow. Again they played attacking football. With the exception of a 5-0 defeat at the Allianz Arena, they acquitted themselves well.
Before the final game of the group stage, against CSKA, there were two certainties: Viktoria would go through with a win, so long as it wasn’t a one-goal win while conceding two or more, and that after five years and two months it would be Vrba’s final game in charge of the club. Shortly after he set a new league record by managing Plzeň for 152 games in the same spell, Vrba accepted the offer of the Czech Football Association (FAČR). Viktoria’s leadership was furious, mainly because of their frosty relations with the FAČR chairman Miroslav Pelta, who was also the chairman of FK Jablonec. But they had to let him go because of an agreement between the owner and coach made two years earlier. Vrba had been very close to taking over the Slovakia national team in 2012 but Plzeň had refused to release him from his club duties. However there was a clause in a new, improved contract that if anybody was willing to pay £300,000 he could leave. And he did.
There was a bitterness around the club that November but the situation had settled down before the glorious Champions League night in December. With 15 minutes to go against CSKA, Viktoria trailed 1-0. But after Daniel Kolář cancelled out Ahmed Musa’s opener, the substitute Tomáš Wagner sent Viktoria through with a last-minute strike and ignited a firework of joy. “I could not wish for anything more,” admitted Vrba.
He left an indelible imprint, one which is unlikely to be repeated, winning two domestic titles, one Czech Cup and a Super Cup and taking Viktoria to the group stages of the Champions League, twice, and the Europa League, staying in European competition through the winter break three years in a row. But there is also a hidden bonus. When he arrived at Plzeň, the average number of goals per match was about 2.4. It increased after their first title season (2010-11) to 2.64 and kept at at least that level for the following three seasons (2.65, 2.58 and a record 2.8 in the last one). Other teams like Slovan Liberec, Sigma Olomouc and others followed the example of Viktoria and started to play more offensive football. And in particular, Sparta Prague, who lost their reputation as the main power in Czech football, had to react.
The trend went on even without Vrba who, he admitted, was in need of fresh motivation. “I had spent wonderful years at Plzeň but it was time to try something new,” he said. The Czech national team was slowly recovering from the failure to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and from the negative mood that had hung over much of the reign of Michal Bílek, despite participation in Euro 2012. The pessimism stretched back to 2008 and the end of Karel Brückner’s time in charge. Neither Petr Rada nor Michal Bílek enjoyed the full support of fans. Rada was perceived as lacking the quality for the position while Bílek’s strategy was deemed overly negative, something that played badly alongside his constant complaints about the lack of quality players after Pavel Nedvěd’s generation moved on. With his stony face and lack of charisma Bílek was so unpopular that during Euro 2012 he was whistled by Czech fans even before matches in the group stage began.
Vrba’s position was a complete contrast. The majority of fans wanted to see him in charge. And he is clever enough to know what the supporters wanted to hear during his first press conference. “It would be an excuse for myself if I said that I wanted to build a team that would try to qualify for a tournament in six years. We want to qualify for Euro 2016 and in a style I like. I am sure fans want to see goals. And the top clubs in Europe show that playing offensive football is the right way. There is no reason to make up something new when the biggest teams are successful with this style.”
Vrba inherited a struggling team. There were still two big stars in the heart of the team – the goalkeeper Petr Čech (34) and the midfielder Tomáš Rosický (35) –alongside the experienced defenders Tomáš Sivok (Bursaspor), Michal Kadlec (Fenerbahce) and David Limberský (Plzeň). The new generation is represented by the midfielders Vladimír Darida (Hertha BSC), Ladislav Krejčí (Sparta) and the right-back Pavel Kadeřábek (Hoffenheim). The last two names, and they are not alone, were clear proof of Vrba’s promise from his inaugural press conference: to give more opportunities to young and hungry players from the Synot liga.
After a run of unimpressive results and performances in first four friendly matches, typical Czech pessimism and doubts began to bubble again. But 52-year-old coach believed they could be well prepared for the opening match against the Netherlands. During the last World Cup in Brazil, he closely observed the Dutch team. “I spent my summer with Arjen Robben,“ he joked. “I looked for the way to eliminate him.“ He was lucky, the biggest threat of the Oranje did not come to Prague because of an injury. Vrba’s startling XI featured seven players from the Czech league. It was something the fans had not seen for a long time. The previous qualifying campaign under Bílek started with no player from the Synot liga. After ninety minutes, Vrba celebrated a lucky victory. Daryl Janmaat made a horrible mistake and gifted the last-minute winner to Václav Pilař who made it 2-1. The win had a massive impact on the Czech players’ confidence.
And euphoria could break out. It has been first victory of Národní tým against one of the European giants since October 2007 when the Czechs humiliated Germany 3-0 at the Allianz Arena. Karel Brückner was in charge. Looking like Gandalf with his long grey hair he now has a consultant role on Vrba’s staff.
A couple of weeks after the important victory, the coach again confirmed that he likes fun and challenges. He closed a bet with one sponsor – a brewery based in Plzeň – that if the national team earned at least four points from their October trip to Turkey and Kazakhstan, all 11,000 spectators at the following home match against Iceland would get one beer for free. With a 2-1 win in Istanbul and 4-2 in Astana, they gained six.
Coincidentally, Plzeň hosted the fourth match and the open pre-match training session attracted more than 4000 fans. “Welcome back, Mr Vrba,“ said one man in a wheelchair to the popular coach before the session started.
The match against Iceland did not start in the best way but the Czechs came from behind and kept their 100% record after four games. However, their unexpected winning streak ended in spring 2015 when their limited individual qualities could not be hidden in games where they had to find way through deep defences like against Latvia (1-1) and in Iceland (1-2). However, the continuing misery of Holland and Turkey and two September wins (2-1 against Kazakhstan and the same in Latvia) guaranteed them participation in France with two matches left.
Vrba was hailed for his philosophy and creating a working mixture of experienced internationals and motivated players from the Czech league. However, the euphoria was too brief. A few days later, David Limberský, Viktoria Plzeň’s left-back, was caught drink-driving by police. At the next press conference, Vrba announced that he would not call him up for the remaining two matches but refused to expand on his decision. After more questions regarding Limberský, he threatened to leave the press room.
For many, the scene confirmed what had been discussed before he took the job – his lack of ability to handle pressure and criticism. In the following weeks, he replied to most questions with unconcealed spitefulness and abruptness.
He admitted his mistake later but you could not lose the impression that he felt a sense of injustice and perhaps also a lack of appreciation for the success of winning a tough group. This behaviour and the worse performances of the team in the following months lost Vrba some of his admirers.
But none can deny the fact that this temperamental coach changed Czech football. For the better.