The Czech Republic face a tough task attempting to re-establish their European reputation in Portugal next month after it was tarnished by an early exit from Euro 2000.
The Czechs have been drawn in Group D along with Germany, the Netherlands and Latvia, a tough group from which passage to the quarter-finals is far from assured for any of the big three former champions.
Until Euro 2000, the Czechs had never finished worse than third in a European Championship they had qualified for. Runners-up in 1996 in England, they won the trophy in 1976 and finished third in 1960 and 1980.
But defeats by the Dutch co-hosts and eventual winners France sent the team packing after the group stage in 2000, obliterating the memory of their 10 victories in the qualifying campaign -- the first time that had been achieved by any team in the European qualifiers.
"We will be ready. This is a tournament I think we all have been looking forward to for a while. Some things went wrong before. This time, we won't let them," said inspirational leader Pavel Nedved, the 2003 European Footballer of the Year.
The Czechs have reason for confidence as they head to Portugal.
Since 64-year-old coach Karel Brueckner took over at the end of 2001, his side have lost twice in 22 matches including wins against European champions France and World Cup semi-finalists Turkey in friendlies.
The Czechs went through the qualifying stage in top form with seven wins and one draw in eight matches.
Further bolstering their confidence was a 3-1 win over the Dutch to clinch the qualifying group. The victory was also a taste of revenge for the Czechs who lost to the Netherlands in the World Cup qualifiers.
It is no wonder that Brueckner, and most of the Czech team, could not believe their eyes when Formula One champion Michael Schumacher pulled out the Czech ball in the draw, pitting them against their new arch-rivals as well as Germany.
"What can we do? Sometimes it's good to have stiff competition right from the beginning. Sometimes it's not. We don't have a choice, we will fight from the beginning," Brueckner said.
Brueckner, who took charge when Jozef Chovanec resigned after his team failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, has mainly stuck to a 4-5-1 system, leaving the towering Jan Koller as the lone striker.
Juventus playmaker Nedved pulls the strings in midfield alongside Borussia Dortmund's Tomas Rosicky, with Vladimir Smicer and the evergreen Karel Poborsky roaming the wings.
Poborsky, who first came to international prominence with his memorable lobbed goal against Portugal at Euro 96 in England, has beaten Zdenek Nehoda's appearance record for his country with his 92nd cap. If the Czechs, who have three warm-up games lined up, go deep into the tournament, he could reach 100.
Now playing his club football back in the Czech Republic with Sparta Prague, Poborsky has shorn off the wild, flowing locks he wore in the 1990s but at the age of 32 he has added guile and invention to his still pacy game.
Brueckner has abandoned the cautious game plans of his predecessors, using speed to pressurise opponents in their own half.
He has also stressed discipline, leaving out talented but volatile players such as Tomas Repka and Patrik Berger, while even Nedved, who missed the Champions League final last season due to suspension, has been the epitome of restraint when playing for his country.
One of the new players to emerge on the squad is Liverpool's Milan Baros, a 22-year-old striker who has scored 13 goals in 23 matches for the national squad.
Baros said that even the 2-1 loss to Ireland in Dublin on March 31 that ended the Czechs' unbeaten run at 20 matches had failed to dampen hopes of a strong showing in Portugal, although they suffered a further surprise 1-0 defeat at home to Japan last month.
"It's better that the defeat came when it did and not during the Euro tournament. We can learn and move on now. Later, it could be too late," he said.
- Dusan Bucanek
Two years ago, with boos ringing in his ears as the Czechs lost a World Cup qualifying playoff against Belgium, midfielder Pavel Nedved considered hanging up his international boots.
His surging runs, incisive passes and devastating finishing had made him one of the most feared midfielders in Europe.
But at home Nedved was roundly accused of being a negative influence on a team that could and should have done better...
looking to lead Czechs on new
|All coaches hate to lose but Czech Karel Brueckner hates it more than most.
Luckily for him though, since taking over the Czech team in December 2001 he has not had many defeats to be angry about.
With only two losses in 22 matches, few can argue with his formula for a team looking to return to the top in Europe.
Brueckner has led a once dispirited and disorganised team back into contention for the Euro 2004 title, mixing solid defence with a swift attack and a little bit of luck.
"I hate losing, no matter when or where. But I won't make any predictions about Euro 2004, just that I would consider it a failure if we did not emerge from our group to the next round," the 64-year-old Brueckner said.
The Czechs lost their 20-match unbeaten run at the end of March when Ireland beat them 2-1 in Dublin. They surprisingly lost again at home to Japan a month later.
Now, however, the time looks right to embark on another unbeaten run that could take the Czechs, European champions in 1976, all the way back to the summit.
They have their work cut out, having been drawn in Group D along with Germany, the Netherlands and Latvia, a tough group from which qualification for the quarter-finals is far from assured for any of the big three.
Brueckner has cast a spell over the Czech squad in the past two years, reinvigorating players who suffered the disappointment of failing to qualify for the 2002 World Cup following a shock playoff defeat by Belgium.
The Czechs have become steady at the back, creative in a midfield led by Pavel Nedved, and lethal when they need be up front, as they were in the 3-1 drubbing of the Netherlands to clinch first place in their qualifying group.
Brueckner has taken a group of talented players previously lacking cohesion and created a strong camaraderie that has underpinned their success.
"The magic of coach Brueckner has worked incredibly well," said Liverpool midfielder Vladimir Smicer, a member of the side that finished runners-up to Germany at Euro 96.
Brueckner's no-nonsense approach has been the formula for success.
The former chain smoker relies on a down-to-earth carrot-and-stick approach, refusing to differentiate between first-choice players and substitutes.
He also admits luck has been on his side recently, though after the Euro 2004 draw
- in which his team were once again pitted against the Dutch
- he said he was no longer sure about his lucky charms.
"It's difficult to say if the draw is a piece of good luck or bad luck," he said.
Even bad luck may be serving Brueckner these days.
Playmaker Tomas Rosicky looked worn out at times during the first half of the Bundesliga season before he broke an arm just after an exciting 2-2 draw with Italy in February.
With surgery keeping him out of action for several weeks, Rosicky is likely to be well rested when Euro 2004 kicks off.
Brueckner rose from coaching a provincial first division team in Olomouc and the country's
U-21 team to becoming an indispensable commander-in-chief.
With his shock of white hair and voice often hoarse with screaming from the bench, Brueckner is admired by players and fans alike.