Pavel Vrba: To Russia with Love?


What rumours

Speaking to a group of journalists in the wake of the Czech Republic’s tepid exit from Euro 2016, Pavel Vrba attempted to dismiss the speculation that surrounded his future. Since the turn of the year, report after report surfaced that linked the former Viktoria Plzen manager with a lucrative switch to the Russian Premier League. And when the Czechs departed this summer’s tournament in France, the rumours began a talking point once more.

Vrba’s flippant remark was the latest in what has become a worryingly long list of mystifying utterances. At times – generally when defending his decisions to naturally curious journalists – he has appeared to be aloof, arrogant, and irritable.

However, this time, when discussing his future and denying the existence of speculation, he came across as being disingenuously conceited.

Maybe he was attempting to retain some power by outwardly appearing to be in control of his own destiny. Yet behind his facade of loyalty, he was waiting for his release. At worst, he was negotiating his exit strategy whilst telling everybody he wasn’t.

If so, it was a cynical, self-serving act at a time when the nation deserved honesty and accountability. But as Jimmy Breslin wrote; “the ability to create the illusion of power, to use mirrors and blue smoke, is one found in unusual people.”

When you think about it, Pavel Vrba is unusual – because he is a very successful manager. For the past six years, he has been named the Czech Coach of the Year; he has won titles in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and; he turned Viktoria Plzen from a provincial club to a true domestic heavyweight.

And, when in charge of the national team, he did what many had thought was improbable: lead the Czech Republic to the top of a ridiculously tough qualifying group that featured Holland, Turkey and the dark horses of Iceland.

Sadly, this whole game of smoke and mirrors and his irritable attitude in the months leading to his departure- coupled with the Czechs’ poor performances in France – has seen public opinion change. When it was announced that Vrba would be heading off to Russia to join Anzhi Makhachkala, many people were glad to see the back of him.

The figure of negativity that recently snapped at supporters is very different from the man who was at one point the toast of a nation.

When the times were good, Vrba’s demeanour was outgoing and jovial. He would often make bets with his players and the public in a bid to boost morale, most noticeable ahead of Viktoria Plzen’s Champions League play-off against NK Maribor. If Plzen progressed, he promised to do a backwards roll and attempt a handstand, the usual celebration of the mischievous Pavel Horvath. True to his word, he unbuttoned his shirt and rolled around on the grass.

In another masterstroke, he made a wager with the Gambrinus brewery ahead of back-to-back qualifiers against Turkey and Kazakhstan. If the Czechs could emerge from their games in Istanbul and Astana unbeaten, the Plzen-based company had to provide free drinks to those attending the Czechs’ next game.

The Czech Republic won both games and so those who went to the Doosan Arena received a complimentary beer.

At that point, the Czech Republic had won four of four qualifying games, leading to Michal Hrdlicka of Nova Sport proclaiming Vrba to be a “hero.”

The feel good factor that had spurred the Czech team on to an unbeaten start in qualifying quickly disappeared. A last-minute equaliser from Vaclav Pilar was required to salvage a point from a tie with Latvia, an indolent performance against Kazakhstan was forgotten about thanks to Milan Skoda’s heroics and, finally, the Czechs were easily swatted aside by Turkey on home soil.

But that gloom was eradicated by a batshit crazy encounter in Amsterdam that defied all reason and logic. And thanks to Selcuk Inan’s late goal against Iceland, the Czech Republic finished atop of Group A.

Once again, people began to take note. Vrba – already something of a hipster’s choice – became a focal figure on the periphery of mainstream football journalism.

“In terms of individual quality, neither Viktoria nor the Czech Republic can match sides such as Atlético Madrid, Napoli or Holland, yet Vrba’s men were able to beat them,” wrote Michal Petrak in The Guardian. If that was lofty praise, FourFourTwo went further: “Beloved and hugely respected in his homeland, Vrba is an excellent manager. If you are willing to look beyond the very elite, you’d even be tempted to call him a genius.”

A genius a club level, yes. His record at Plzen and Zilina is exemplary

But at international level? No.

Heading into Euro 2016, Vrba’s stock was arguably the highest it had ever been. He was well respected in his home country and had admirers in the foreign press and at foreign (predominantly Russian) clubs. However, on the eve of the tournament, an ill feeling permeated from the camp.

After staggering over the line in qualifying, the next wave of results threw up far more questions than answers. Serbia were dispatched with ease, but then came defeats to Poland (3-1 in Wroclaw) and Scotland (1-0 in Prague). A draw with Sweden in Stockholm followed, but these results failed to affect people’s generally positive expectations of this Czech side.

There is a problem that many people (myself included) were carried away by the exhilarating performances against Holland, Iceland and Turkey, and overlooked the dire displays served up in non-competitive environments. Those defeats and draws in games against Finland, Slovakia and the United States were explained away. He was easing into the job, experimenting, giving new players a chance and so on.

In total, Pavel Vrba was in charge for twenty-five games, winning ten, losing ten and drawing five. Strip away that run four-game undefeated run at the start of qualifying and it drops to twenty-one games played, six won, ten lost and five drawn – those victories coming against the might of Malta and Latvia, Russian, Dutch and Serbian sides in disarray, and Iceland. Only the result against Iceland stands up as being ‘true’ victory.

It isn’t what you would call a good record.

There is a massive gulf when it comes the differences between a club manager and an international one. Club managers traditionally everything: they shape the on-field philosophy, dictate who comes and goes, and are supposed to improve their players. In comparison, international managers find their squad selection compromised by nationality and can only work on tactical minutiae in short, infrequent bursts.

Vrba will have been aware of these problems and maybe he was struggling to make the transition. There’s no dishonour in that; some people are better suited to club management. But for somebody accustomed to success, the poor performances and results to must have rankled.

In the build-up to Euro 2016, a host of Czech players either suffered a severe loss of form or were forced out through injury.  David Pavelka moved to Kasimpasa, broke a couple of ribs and lost his place in Onder Ozen’s starting lineup; Martin Frydek emerged as a likely starter, only to miss out due to a severe concussion; Matej Vydra lost all form ploughing away in the Championship, and Borek Dockal limped out of one of the pre-tournament friendlies. And then there was the perennial problem of Tomas Rosicky.

It is unsurprising that under a great deal of pressure and with the weight of a country on his shoulders that Vrba’s public persona went from jovial to cold to angry. And given what he had to work with, his safety-first approach in France shouldn’t be too surprising: With hindsight, it was all about damage limitation.

On a base level, Pavel Vrba underachieved when in charge of the Czech national team. After all, he failed to do what the maligned Michal Bilek could and lead the Czechs to the last eight of the European Championships. But it’s worth remembering that he played a large part in for the Czechs’ success at Euro 2012, given he helped turn David Limbersky, Petr Jiracek and Vaclav Pilar into international quality players.

Vrba has always been one to wear his emotions on his sleeve. His off-the-cuff celebrations and his good-humoured PR stunts were ten-a-penny during the good times, just like his grumpy press conferences were when things were bad. Speaking to Ceska Televize, a representative for the FACR admitted as much, saying Vrba “always said what he thought,” even when a silent approach would have been for the best.

Luckily for Anzhi and the Dagestani, he seems to be enjoying life once more. In his first interview since joining the Russian side, he began to sound like the Pavel Vrba of old: When asked about his aims, he said that his first goal was to “attract fans to the stadium.”

Vrba might not be leaving the Czech Republic on a wave of public adoration, which is a shame given his achievements at club level. Hopefully, though, with something of a blank canvas to work on in Dagestani, he’ll be able to leave Russia with love.

header: arthur shuraev (creative commons)

  • Posted by Chris Boothroyd
  • On 5th July 2016
Tags: Viktoria Plzeň