On the day the World Cup play-offs begin in Europe, Petr Cech recalls his mixed experiences of them during his long Czech Republic career, explains what is required of Jorginho and Edouard Mendy in the next week, and expresses pride at his Premier League Hall of Fame nomination
The pressure told
Everybody thought this was going to be the time we qualified. We came second in the group and played a play-off against Belgium. I was 19 and it was the second time I had been called up by the national team. I had a brilliant year with Sparta Prague, breaking all the records and playing well in the Champions League, and I was called up as the number three goalkeeper.
You could feel the pressure was on. The atmosphere was a bit strange. Things were going on. The disappointment of the previous Euros and the expectation came together. We had two bad games and lost both 1-0. That was when I realised having top players at top European clubs was no guarantee at international level.
So when we played Norway four years later, everyone was aware of the disappointment of the previous campaign, when we missed out on the World Cup unnecessarily. That added to the pressure. I went there with the experience of having played big games for Chelsea, being under pressure, but I can tell you there was extra pressure in those games! Everybody wanted it so much. I felt it, and I put everything into it.
We had two really difficult games, but we managed to win both 1-0. We qualified for the World Cup as the Czech Republic for the first time in our history. It had a huge significance, and it was an amazing feeling to qualify. It’s a special moment in a player’s career, but it can really impact you if things go wrong.
Unfortunately, that is the last time the Czech national team qualified for the World Cup. This time the play-offs have changed and the Czechs have both games away. If they beat Sweden in a one-off game they have Poland away. It’s probably the toughest task you can have. We will see if they manage to do it.