Home 1998/99 – Puma
Yep, that’s what it’s called now. As of May 2016, the Czech government has been promoting “Czechia” as the country’s new official English language title with the intention of phasing out the orally cumbersome “Czech Republic”, a move that has proved quite divisive, with many expressing concern that outsiders will now confuse them with the similarly named war-torn Russian region of Chechnya, an understandable concern given just how eerily similar the two look. I mean, just look at the pictures below of the respective capitals Prague and Grozny and see if you can tell which is which. No cheating now.
See what I mean? Brings whole new meaning to the term “twin cities.”
Regardless of what you know the country as, Czechia, and especially its gorgeous, near-mythical capital Prague, is one of Europe’s most popular travel destinations, and a place that I myself was fortunate enough to visit for a few days in August 2016. Amongst the most splendid of the city’s attractions were the spectacular Charles Bridge (stunning at sunrise, but practically impassable once the tourist hordes descend, making you yearn for a cattle prod to “encourage” them along ) the picturesque Old Town Square (slightly marred by an obnoxious stag party whose protagonist was attached to a dog lead and being ushered around on all fours by a group all dressed as Winnie the Pooh, not exactly a ringing endorsement of the daft twat’s judgement skills, or indeed those of his future wife) as well as a plethora of eccentric museums, most notably the Sex Toys Museum and the Museum of Torture Instruments, which were at times frankly indistinguishable. Interesting gift shops, though.
The most pleasant surprise however would have to be the food and drink. Czech cuisine is greasy, fatty, absolutely delicious and positively murderous, the kind of grub that brings a smile to your face and a defibrillator to your chest. Popular dishes include Prague duck, pork knee, pickled sausages and beer cheese – how could you not love a country that has beer cheese? – while the beer itself is justifiably world famous, revolving around signature brews such as Staropramen, Pilsner Urquell and of course the original Budweiser, not to be confused with its American namesake, which in turn is not to be confused with beer. Finally, anyone with an interest in linguistics might be interested to know that the Czech language, despite being a relatively obscure Slavic tongue, has a couple of credits in the English dictionary. ‘Robot’, for example, originates from ‘robota’ meaning forced labour, while the term ‘defenestration’, i.e. the act of hurling a person through a window because you find them in some way disagreeable, stems from incidents in 17th century Prague, whereby corrupt city councillors were flung to a messy death from the castle’s upper floors by an angry mob who, just to add insult to catastrophic internal injury, probably didn’t even have an appointment.
When the Czechs aren’t too preoccupied with guzzling beer, accumulating cholesterol and decorating the cobblestones with the soft, pulpy organs of their civil servants, they’ve proven themselves pretty adept when it comes to kicking a ball around. Prior to the 1993 dissolution of Czechoslovakia, the old national team actually reached the World Cup final twice – losing 2-1 to hosts Italy way back in 1934, and 3-1 to Brazil at the 1962 edition in Chile – and were even crowned European champions in 1976*, besting both the iconic Dutch ‘Total Football’ side in the semis and then reigning world champions West Germany on penalties in the final, with the winning spot- kick converted by Antonin Panenka in a manner so cheeky and original that his name still gets trotted out today, with any penalty floated down the middle labelled ‘a Panenka.’ Unless they balls it up of course, in which case the supporters will doubtless have their own choice terminology to throw into the mix.
*Admittedly, the Czechs can’t claim all, or even most of the credit for this unlikely success as, although Panenka himself was indisputably Czech, some eight of the starting eleven in the final were in fact from Slovakia. Gratingly for the Slovaks, Czechia is considered by FIFA to be the official successor to the Czechoslovakia team, meaning they, and only they, are credited as 1976 European champions. I wonder who got to keep the trophy after the split?
Since splitting off from their Slovak cousins, the Czechs have continued to prosper at the European Championships*, most memorably at Euro 96 in England where, despite starting as 80-1 outsiders, they ousted Italy, Portugal and France en route to the final, even taking the lead against Germany at Wembley before Oliver Bierhoff sprung from the bench to first equalise and then bag a golden goal winner for the dastardly spoilsports. Eight years later, the team went close again. Playing arguably their best ever football, Czechia lit up the 2004 tournament in Portugal thanks to Pavel Nedved, then in the form of his life, pulling the strings in midfield, while upfront the partnership of competition top scorer Milan Baros and beanpole goal machine Jan Koller laid waste to opposition defences. Even they couldn’t find a way past the stubbornly invincible Greeks in the semi-finals though, and when defender Traianos Dellas popped up to head home a corner in the dying seconds of the first period of extra time, this was sufficient to send Greece straight through to the final courtesy of UEFA’s experimental ‘silver goal’ rule, an idea that was discarded shortly thereafter for reasons of being fecking stupid.
*Their record at the World Cup as a separate nation is abysmal by comparison, having made just a single appearance (2006) where they were eliminated at the group stage.
Finding an interesting Czech shirt is not a straightforward process. The national side rarely wear anything particularly noteworthy, happy as they are to don a red/blue version of whatever template Puma are bandying about at the time. In fact check out these ludicrously dull, barely changing designs they wore between 2002 and 2010 and see if you can decipher any real difference, or indeed even stay awake.
All of which brings us neatly to this design, as worn when the team steamrolled their Euro 2000 qualifying group, winning ten out of ten matches and securing their finals place a full year in advance. It would also have been worn at France 98 but, true to Czech World Cup tradition, they failed to qualify. Though it’s as generic a late 90s shirt as you’ll find (I also have very similar Morocco and Macedonia shirts from this era) the blue panelling across the chest and mini Czech flags on the cuffs make it about as compelling as this country’s shirts get. Funnily enough, Puma’s most recent effort goes too far the other way, with its awkward looking robot lion on the front giving it the look of a terrible movie advert, perhaps ‘Transformers 6: The Scraping of the Barrel.’ Side note; this monstrosity was originally advertised as the “2018 World Cup edition”, a label quickly dropped because, well, you can probably guess.