Should the Czech Republic advance from a difficult group D (Denmark, Spain, Hungary are their opponents) at the Men's EHF EURO 2018, it would already be considered a huge success.
The Czechs failed to make it past the preliminary round in 2012 and 2014, and given the opponents they face in Croatia, it will be extremely hard to do so this time. The roster consists 'young guns' paired with 'old foxes' and lacks a real star, but one thing is for certain: hard work and team efforts will mark their game.
They may not play for the medals, but playing for their country is more than a matter of individual pride for the men. They will fight like the lion on their crests to make their fellow countrymen feel proud.
Compared to previous major tournaments, the team has to cope without 2010 World Handball Player Filip Jícha, who retired from handball last year.
“Filip has been handball giant and the team does not have a player of his class now. However, it is not always easy to integrate player like him into the team as his expectations on his own perfection can be really demanding,” says Michal Barda, a former Czech international.
“The team had enough opportunities to play without Filip during qualification. Filip will be missed - which does not mean the team cannot succeed without him.”
A bigger blow is the absence of centre back Tomáš Babák because of an elbow injury. “Tomáš is an extremely creative and flexible player with terrific leading qualities. Ondra Zdráhala and Roman Bečvář are the ones to play in Tomáš’s position,” says Barda.
A youngster to look out for is Stanislav Kašpárek, the 22-year-old right back who plays for Balatonfüredi KSE in Hungary.
With the of Babák, Ondrej Zdrahala and Roman Becvar are expected to pull the strings in the centre back position. The left back will be taken by Pavel Horak, the team's most experienced player and its leader. Jan Stehlík is the man for the right back position, but Kašpárek could become a surprising element.
Jakub Hrstka and Jan Sobol are expected to play on the wings, while considerable responsibility will rest on the shoulders of line player Leoš Petrovský, who has developed impressively since playing in Germany for Bergischer HC.
The Czech Republic's match depends heavily on a fierce defence. The one charged with the biggest responsibility is Pavel Horák, the squad's 'big boy', its most experienced player. Recognised as the leader on and off the court, Horák will play an important part in the defence.
“Pavel Horák with his tremendous experience and the line players will be the most important factors in defence,” analyses Michal Barda.
Czech Republic are the only team at the EHF EURO to have two coaches in charge. Daniel Kubeš and Jan Filip took over the national team in summer 2014 when they took over from from Vladimir Haber and Jaroslav Hudeček.
Both are well-known former players: Kubeš has been one of the most appreciated defensive specialists in Europe at his time, while Filip was one of the best goalscorers in the German Bundesliga.
They have their players natural respect and put often faith in young talents. However, without Jícha and Babak in the team and faced with an extremely difficult preliminary round group, the task ahead of them is huge.
“The guys played a long time on the highest level and know top international handball. They enjoy full respect within the team,” says Barda.
“The task distribution is actually automatic, and their experience and competence help to integrate the young players.”
Czech Republic are no favourites for medals. They know in what position they are. Qualifying for the EHF EURO is already a success. Modesty and work instead of big words are their key assets.
“The team has a good fighting spirit and a working internal hierarchy. A fierce defence and fast attack were the assets of the team in the qualification.
“However, there was a big gap between home and away performances in past seasons. The team has to demonstrate its qualities on neutral ground,” says Barda.
“You cannot qualify for the EURO and expect it will be an easy weekend trip. Realistic expectations are nice but tend to be boring.
“Dreaming is much more adventurous. I use to say: 'If you can imagine it, you can achieve it; if you can dream it, you can become it.' The main round would surely be a dream come true for the Czech team.”
The 18 Czech players invited for the final training camp ahead of the Men's EHF EURO 2018
Goalkeepers: Martin Galia (Górnik Zabrze, POL), Tomáš Mrkva (HBW Balingen – Weilstetten, GER)
Centre backs: Roman Bečvář (HC Elbflorenz 2006, GER), Jakub Sviták (HC Dukla Praha), Ondřej Zdráhala (TSV St. Otmar St. Gallen, SUI)
Left backs: Pavel Horák (HC Meschov Brest, BLR), Michal Kasal (Tatran Prešov, SVK), Jan Landa (HK Lovosice)
Right backs: Stanislav Kašpárek (Balatonfuredi KSE, HUN), Jan Stehlík (SSK Talent Plzeň), Dieudonne Mubenzem (HC Dukla Praha)
Right wings: Tomáš Číp (Tatran Prešov, SVK), Jan Sobol (Dijon Bourgogne Handball, FRA)
Left wings: Jakub Hrstka (Tatran Prešov, SVK), Milan Kotrč (Bergischer HC, GER)
Line players: Leoš Petrovský (Bergischer HC, GER), Petr Šlachta (Dabas VSE KC, HUN), Štěpán Zeman (HC Zubří)