Prague (AFP) – Two East Londoners, Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal, are set to return home as they lead the Czech Republic against England at Euro 2020 at Wembley on Tuesday.
Nicknamed “Suk” and “Cuf”, the two former Slavia Prague players were behind West Ham’s spectacular rise in the Premier League last season.
And although they have been somewhat overshadowed by striker Patrik Schick and his three goals at the Euro, including his wonder shot from near halfway against Scotland, they are indispensable for Czech Republic coach Jaroslav Silhavy.
Conditioned by tough training standards at Slavia, who have won the Czech league three times in the past four years, both Soucek and Coufal are in the tournament’s top 10 in terms of distance covered.
One of the Premier League’s most tireless runners, Soucek was second on the list with 23.4 kilometres after two games, while Coufal’s 22.5 kilometres put him in ninth.
Defensive midfielder Soucek, who takes over the captain’s armband from Vladimir Darida whenever the skipper is substituted, is a solid wall in front of the Czech defence.
At Wembley, he will have a special motivation facing his West Ham team-mate Declan Rice in the England midfield.
“That match will be a special moment for West Ham supporters,” the 26-year-old Soucek said before the tournament.
“We’ve spoken about it –- (Rice) told us that we can’t win at Wembley and we said, ‘Well, remember your last game against us!'” Soucek said, recalling a 2019 Euro qualifier in Prague won by the Czechs 2-1.
“It’s been fun, it’s been friendly. Only the 90 minutes on the pitch will be unfriendly, perhaps,” added the lanky midfielder.
– ‘The wrong boots’ –
Coufal, who is 28, set up Schick for the first goal against Scotland with a perfect cross, and then took on Croatia’s Ivan Perisic in the next game.
Indefatigable on the right flank, he led many forays into Croatia’s defence as the Czechs dominated the first half — until he changed his boots at half-time.
Having put on moulded boots, Coufal slipped on the freshly watered pitch two minutes into the second half, giving Perisic all the room he needed to blast the ball home for a 1-1 draw.
“If I hadn’t slipped, I think I could have blocked the shot, but I can’t use that as an excuse. I put on the wrong boots for the second half and unfortunately he was on target,” said Coufal.
Despite being held, the Czechs only need a point from the England game to win Group D.
Soucek joined West Ham in January 2020 with an option saying he could stay if the Hammers avoid relegation.
They did, Soucek stayed, welcomed Coufal in the locker room ahead of last season and West Ham started their climb up the Premier League table.
The Hammers finished sixth in the end, securing a place in the Europa League for next season.
Soucek played all 38 games and scored 10 goals, while Coufal had seven assists in his 34 appearances, being denied by the woodwork twice.
Soucek was a virtual ever-present, his sending-off deep into stoppage time at Fulham the only exception, although the red card was later overturned by the FA.
His brilliant season saw Soucek shortlisted for the Player of the Season award, eventually won by Ruben Dias of Manchester City.
West Ham manager David Moyes has repeatedly lavished praise on both Czechs, hailing their “winning mentality” the club needed so badly.
– Colourful socks –
Despite his rise to stardom, the clean-cut Soucek remains grounded, shunning the limelight and preferring the London tube to cars in the gridlocked British capital.
His most extravagant habit perhaps is wearing colourful socks on matchdays.
“I’m an ordinary boy who simply can play football. I don’t want to change, there’s no reason,” he said in a recent interview.
An equally modest family man, Coufal once said his first thought at West Ham was “what am I doing here? Maybe I should get back to Slavia!”
But he was quick to adapt, flying along the touchline and giving his best for the team.
“They’re not quite used to it here in England, because there are many individualities. And so they are quite excited, for now,” Coufal said recently.
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