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Czechs eye debut of distinction

Germany 2006 will be the Czech Republic's first appearance at the World Cup finals.

Although Czechoslovakia graced the finals eight times between 1934 and 1990, following 1993's 'Velvet Divorce' from Slovakia the young Czech nation missed out on both the 1998 and 2002 tournament.

When it came to qualifying for Germany the main obstacles for the Czechs were the Netherlands, Romania and Finland; Andorra, Armenia and Macedonia merely served as cannon fodder.

Reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2004 meant the Czechs embarked upon World Cup qualification in confident mood - but that confidence was to be shaken in the very first game.

Their Dutch opponents, keen to avenge the spectacular 3-2 defeat in the group stages of Euro 2004, dismantled the their opponents 2-0 in Amsterdam and set the tone for Group One, with the men in Orange going on to enjoy an unbeaten campaign.

In their remaining qualifying games the Czechs were to suffer only two more defeats; again to the Dutch in the return fixture and away to Romania. But victories in their other nine games gave the Czechs 27 points, two more than the Romanians and that was enough to secure second place in the group and a berth in the play-offs.

Having failed to reach Japan/ South Korea in 2002 as a result of a play-off defeat to Belgium the prospect of meeting Norway over two legs was far from relished in Prague. But two 1-nil victories brought qualification and what Karel Bruckner claimed proudly to be 'his finest hour as a manager'.

However, if Bruckner thought reaching the finals was tough, the draw for the group stage of the World Cup underlined exactly how difficult the level of competition will be in Germany.

After being pitted against Italy, USA and Ghana the Czechs not only face a stiff challenge to make it through Group E, but they know that anything less than first place will almost certainly result in a second round game against tournament favourites Brazil.

Much is made of the necessity for national squads to blend 'youth with experience'. Happily for the Czechs this is an area in which they excel.

With old stagers like Karel Poborsky and the inspirational Pavel Nedved adding their wisdom to more sprightly members of the team like Milan Baros, the top scorer at Euro 2004, and the talented Tomas Rosicky the Czechs boast a well-rounded and talented squad.

Factor in a defence boasting Petr Cech, one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and the Czechs are, on paper at least, a very well equipped side - a point illustrated by their position as second in FIFA's somewhat spurious world rankings.

However, if the Czechs can recapture the brand of free-flowing, attacking football that saw them into the last four in Portugal they could prove a match for anyone in Germany.

KAREL BRUCKNER

Karel Bruckner has become a very highly-regarded figure by both his countrymen and the players within his squad thanks to continued success as coach of the Czech Republic and his role in developing many of the country's best players.

After a successful spell in charge of the Under-21s, Bruckner stepped up to take control of the national team in 2001 following the country's failure to reach the 2002 World Cup.

It was during his four years in charge of the Under-21s that Bruckner helped develop the careers of many of the current squad, including the likes of Petr Cech and Milan Baros.

Relationships built in the Under-21s have since been transferred to the current national side, ensuring both respect for the 66-year-old manager and an enviable team spirit.

Popular support for Bruckner is a result of his domestic coaching career allied to consistent success with the national team.

Thanks to his coaching skills and an ability to blend established stars with exciting young talent Bruckner guided the Czech Republic to an impressive 20-match unbeaten run and to the semi-finals of Euro 2004.

Underlining Bruckner's popularity, just moments after hailing the Czech Republic's play-off triumph and qualification to the World Cup as the peak of his career, Bruckner's players carried their manager above their heads onto the pitch to absorb the adulation of the Czech supporters.

While many attribute Bruckner's analytical skills on the sidelines to his hobby as a keen chess player it was in club management that his reputation as a tactical wizard and set-piece maestro developed.

Bruckner's coaching career began in 1973 with Sigma Olomouc, a club with whom he enjoyed four periods in charge. There have also been spells with FK Drnovice and Inter Bratislava with whom he won his only trophy as a club coach; the 1985 Slovakian Cup.

This summer Bruckner will hope his tactical acumen can help him add to his career achievements and lead the Czechs to the ultimate prize in football in Germany.

TOMAS ROSICKY

At 25 Tomas Rosicky has matured from bright young prospect into one of European football's most talented and exciting midfielders and as such will be one of the Czech Republic's most important players in the World Cup.

Rosicky, who boasts a collection nicknames ranging from 'Little Mozart' (because he's good) to 'Dumplings' (because he likes to eat them), has not been without his critics.

While the contributions of Nedved, Baros and Cech will also be vitally important if the Czechs are to progress in the tournament it is Rosicky who stands the best chance of catching the eye in Germany thanks to his exceptional technique, defence splitting passing and a superb work-rate.

After beginning his career with CKD Kompensory the attacking midfielder moved to Sparta Prague, where, after breaking into the first team aged 17, he was soon tasting success as Sparta won back-to-back domestic league championships and playing Champions League football.

A move to German outfit Borussia Dortmund followed in 2001 and success followed as Borussia won the Bundesliga and UEFA Cup in 2002, which resulted in Rosicky being named Czech Footballer of the Year in 2001 and 2002.

However, Rosicky, who boasts a collection nicknames ranging from 'Little Mozart' (because he's good) to 'Dumplings' (because he likes to eat them), has not been without his critics, with some observers arguing that for a player of his undoubted talent his goals return is less than impressive.

Rosicky's most prolific season for Borussia (at the time of writing) came back in 2001-2 when he scored five goals, since then his season goal hauls have not topped four.

However, this did not stop some of Europe's top clubs from showing an interest, with Arsenal eventually winning his £7m signature - Borussia's financial problems had guaranteed that the playmaker will move after the World Cup.

Despite a meagre domestic goal return in the domestic game, Rosicky has proved more prolific for his national team.

During the Czech Republic's World Cup qualification campaign Rosicky struck seven times, including the vital goal which secured qualification to the World Cup in the second leg of their play-off against Norway.

Rosicky's game is built around his terrific technique. One-on-one he has the ball skills to make a defensive midfielder look flat-footed and off-the-pace, while the accuracy and precision of his short and long range passing can unlock the tightest of defences.