Vladimir Coufal: We're ready for England challenge at Wembley
The West Ham full-back discusses following in the footsteps of great Czech teams and why this side can beat team-mate Declan Rice and England at Euro 2020.
Few players will have as many ties with a Euro 2020 opponent as Vladimir Coufal when Czech Republic play England at Wembley on Tuesday.
When they step out at 19:55, Coufal and his team-mates will be following in the footsteps of the great Czech side who made the final of Euro 96.
He will do so next to Declan Rice. The pair were integral as West Ham finished sixth in the Premier League and qualified for Europe.
And Coufal will be familiar with the rest of England’s team, too. They are Premier League players against which he has established himself as one of the most consistent full-backs in the country.
That experience, Coufal believes, could count for plenty.
“Since I’ve been in in the Premier League, I feel the guys in the national team look for help from me even more,” he says. “I feel more responsibility for the team and for my players.
“Playing in the Premier League with the best players in the world has helped me a lot. The experience has turned me into a better and more important player.”
A meeting with fellow Hammer Rice is one that Coufal is particularly relishing, though, with anticipation among the West Ham squad having been building for months.
Training ground banter even spilled over onto the substitutes’ bench as long ago as during a cup tie in January.
“I remember when we were sitting together during the home game against Doncaster,” Coufal says. “Declan reminded me of his first game for England, when we lost 5-0 at Wembley.
“Then we spoke about the return game, when we beat England 2-1. I have to admit I am hoping we repeat this game.
“Of course when we are team-mates we are fighting for one goal, but when we have different jerseys on the body we are opponents. I want to beat him and England.”
If they do, then the most optimistic Czech fans may start dreaming that the class of 2021 could replicate the feat of that legendary ’96 side by progressing into the latter stages of a European Championships.
Pavel Nedved, Patrick Berger, Karel Poborsky. Coufal was three, so has only vague memories of this special crop, but is of course aware of their legendary status.
“I was young,” he says, “so I didn’t realise then how successful our national team was.
“But of course I now know lots of the players who were involved in that squad. A few of them went on to play in Euro 2004, which I remember well.”
Czech Republic were the only side to finish the group stages on nine points in that tournament, with Milan Baros ending it as the top scorer on five goals.
“The Czechs had really good players in that time,” says Coufal. “To be honest, while I know all the names, the two that stick in my mind are Poborsky and Vladimir Smicer.
“Particularly Smicer, because he is a former Slavia Prague (Coufal’s old club) player. He is a legend of the club and I remember loving him during that tournament.”
There is far less expectation around this Czech Republic side, with the team less star-studded than that which went before.
Bayer Leverkusen striker Patrik Schick’s remarkable goal against Scotland in their opener will take some beating for the goal of the tournament, though, while Coufal and club team-mate Tomas Soucek sprinkle some Premier League class on the side.
The full-back, who provided the assist for the first goal at Hampden Park, is quietly confident that his side can cause a surprise.
“When we beat England in our qualifying group, everything became possible,” Coufal says. “England are one of the best national teams in the world, comparable with France and Brazil, and we beat them.
“Of course, I expect a totally different match. They are particularly strong at Wembley and it’s a home Euros for them. But I hope we will do better than last time at Wembley when we lost 5-0.
It took Coufal until the age of 27 to secure a big transfer to a team in the top five European leagues, however, and the success he has enjoyed that might never have arrived has provided him with plenty of perspective.
A meeting with England at Wembley is an occasion he will enjoy, rather than be fazed by.
“There is a special feeling when you represent the national team, but I never feel big pressure to perform personally.
“That said, I have hope that we can be successful like our team in ‘96.”
Victory for the Czechs at Wembley is a long shot, but their history at this tournament, in this venue, should remind them that anything is possible.