Czech Republic back after five-year absence
The Czech Republic return to the IHF Men’s World Championship for the second time since 2009, reflecting what has been a tough period for the team – but one that seems to be ending, as they have reasserted themselves as one of the nations to watch in Europe in recent years.
Over the last couple of years in particular, the Czech Republic have shown they are to be taken very seriously. Most notably, at the 2018 European championship, they equalled their best result in history, sixth place (previously in 1996), thanks to a campaign that forced their continental rivals to take notice.
In the preliminary round at the Men’s EHF EURO 2018, the Czech Republic caused a considerable upset when they overthrew Olympic champions Denmark, who would ultimately progress to the semi-finals. The Czech Republic followed that with a decisive victory versus Hungary that saw the team progress to the main round. In the main round, the Czech Republic beat North Macedonia and drew versus 2017 World Championship bronze medallists Slovenia, who would go on to contest the medals at the following European championship, in January 2020. With that, the Czech Republic booked a place in the 5/6 play-off, where they were defeated by hosts Croatia.
That EHF EURO 2018 was the campaign that put the Czech Republic firmly on the map – and not only the team, but some individual players in particular. Back Ondrej Zdrahala finished as the clear top scorer of the event, while the likes of defensive ace Pavel Horak put on enough of a show to catch the eye of top German club THW Kiel, whom he joined ahead of the 2019/20 season.
On the back of such a European campaign, the Czech Republic were then unfortunate to miss a place at the 2019 IHF Men’s World Championship, due to a defeat in the two-leg qualification play-off at the hands of Russia. At the Men’s EHF EURO 2020, they could not quite repeat their previous continental performance, although they still recorded wins in the preliminary round and put up strong challenges in the main round, for example, losing to eventual silver medallists Croatia by just one goal.
Regardless, with the European play-offs for Egypt 2021 cancelled by the European Handball Federation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Czech Republic’s 12th-place finish at the EHF EURO 2020 was enough to book a place at the upcoming World Championship.
The Czech Republic are led by the coaching duo of Jan Filip and Daniel Kubes, both notable former players for the national team themselves. Filip remains the top scorer for the Czech Republic, with 991 career goals in 200 internationals, while Kubes tallied 210 goals in a career spanning 140 caps and was an integral leader in the defence.
“Our main goal is to help to make the Championship possible and be able to be part of it. This championship will be different, with a new playing system. Three of four teams in the preliminary round [groups] will proceed to the next step of the championship and this is our goal – be one of them in the next round and play at least three more good matches,” says Filip.
“For us, this is the first championship after five years – last time we took part in Qatar 2015. This is a new challenge for us! And another big goal for us is to improve our performance and engage young players who can reach new experiences important for whole team.”
At Egypt 2021, Filip and Kubes will lead the Czech Republic in the same group as hosts Egypt, where they will meet Sweden and Chile as well as the African champions.
“Our preliminary round group is not an easy one. But I do not see any ‘weak’ team in the championship at all,” says Filip. “Sweden is a very traditional top team. Players of high quality and a coach who I know from my previous career. Sweden is the favourite of our group.
“Very strong will be also Egypt. I guess Egypt will be prepared very well because they will have most of the time and the best conditions for preparation. A lot of important players of the Egyptian team play in clubs in Egypt and their coach is also very good. The only question is whether there will be spectators and how many during the championship. It would be also different for the Egyptians to play in an empty hall than to play with 16,000 loud fans in their backs,” continues Filip, before commenting on the final opponent (at that point still unknown), who is likely to be a dangerous team to face.
“In our group, I cannot see any weak opponent.”