This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
Tomas Soucek’s career was not quite going in the direction he and his father, Frantisek, had hoped. While playing for Slavia Prague against Vysocina Jihlava he stood on the ball, fell over, and his clumsiness led to the opponents scoring.
Soon afterwards he was on loan at Viktoria Zizkov in the Czech second division. The club were struggling financially: they had no money, there were difficulties in the boardroom and they had very poor training facilities.
Soucek recalls: “We practised between the dog poo in the park near the main stadium. The players had no salary, they borrowed money from their parents and friends.” It was also, however, at Viktoria he first met the coach who would turn him into a proper footballer: Jindrich Trpisovsky.
The coach initially did not trust him but there is a Czech proverb that roughly equates to the English one of “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and Ivan Hornik, the sporting director, knew he had to convince Trpisovsky to keep Soucek in the team. Hornik, it seems, may have been able to look behind the physical awkwardness to see the talent.
The view of Soucek as a young boy is a clumsy player who many did not think would make it as a footballer. He always possessed the qualities to succeed at the highest level; his height; his heading, his scoring, his defending – but it was never guaranteed that he would make it to the top.
Soucek came from a small village. Frantisek was a football coach and initially trained Tomas at the fourth division side Havlickuv Brod. For the youth teams, Soucek played up an age group. He was taller and stronger than his teammates and relished playing up front and scoring goals. He reflects that his athleticism came from his mother, Iva, who used to play handball.
“For the last 15 years she has been running half-marathons and marathons and sometimes when I was younger I went with her to the forest,” he told the Guardian in October 2020. “I’m a footballer and I don’t like too much space without intensity but sometimes when I was in pre-season I would go with her to run in the forest. I think I got my stamina from her. She was brilliant. I think she won the park marathon,” he said in October 2020.
Soucek joined Slavia Prague at the age of 10 and it was his father who took him to training sessions twice a week. The whole family made sacrifices and he had to work hard to establish himself at Slavia. He made the senior squad but was not considered an incredible talent.
He was loaned out, not only to Viktoria Zizkov but also to Slovan Liberec after the current Czech national team coach, Jaroslav Silhavy, preferred Michael Ngadeu as a defensive midfielder. However, after Trpisovsky, Soucek’s former coach at Viktoria Zizkov, was named as successor to Silhavy at Slavia in 2017, Soucek’s fortunes began to change.
The appointment worked out for everyone and Slavia have not looked back. They won the title in 2017 and 2019 and impressed in Europe, going far in the Europa League and then qualifying for the Champions League group stage, where they and Soucek in particular impressed in a fiendishly tough group alongside three former holders, Barcelona, Inter and Borussia Dortmund.
Soucek’s running stats were particularly impressive. In four Champions League games he ran more than 50km and in one of his first games for West Ham after joining from Slavia Prague initially on loan in January 2020, he clocked up 13.1km against Manchester City, the furthest any Hammers player had run in a match for more than six years.
“I was maybe one of the tallest from nursery but from even when I was younger I told myself I wanted to cover every square of the pitch,” he said in the same interview in 2020. “I wanted to help my guys in every situation so longer legs helped. It suits my style and prepared me for the way I play even now.”
“He is our computer,” Trpisovsky used to say, describing Soucek’s role. “He is great tactically, our most important player in open play and on set pieces offensively and defensively. We need him to pressure the ball, we need him in the buildup and we need him to score.”
At Slavia he developed from being a purely defensive midfielder to an all-rounder who won the Golden Boot in the Czech league. His success sparked interest from bigger clubs. Spartak Moscow wanted him, as well as clubs from Serie A and the Bundesliga but West Ham won the battle.
Now, at 26, his talent is well recognised. His heading, his clearances, the tackling, his energy and, of course, his goals have helped turn West Ham from relegation strugglers to battling for a place in Europe. Soucek was an untrained thoroughbred but was able to negotiate the barriers he faced. This summer the Euros will be his biggest challenge but it is one he is relishing. Soucek is ready for the big stage.
Jan Podrouzek writes for iSport
Follow him on Twitter @JanPodrouzek
For a tactical guide on the Czech Republic click here.