Czech Republic Euro 96 keeper Petr Kouba reflects on going from hero to villain with final blunder
GOALKEEPERS can go from hero to villain in the blink of an eye – and no one knows that better than Petr Kouba.
As the Czech Republic’s goalkeeper at Euro 96, his penalty save in a last-four shootout against France helped his newly-formed nation take their fairytale all the way to the final at Wembley.
But days later, Kouba let Oliver Bierhoff’s shot slip through his fingers, and with it the European Championship, as a major tournament was settled for the first time by a golden goal.
Kouba, now 52 and part of the Czechs' Under-21 set up, said: "You just feel helpless: sudden death, the match over, you can’t do anything and we were the first team to experience that.
"This feeling in the Euro final is really terrible and I don't wish it on anybody.
"The goal? It was a silly one, our defender got a bit on the ball and I didn’t cover the shot as I needed to.
"It looked like my mistake but that was a rather unfortunate goal – the worst I conceded."
Kouba’s Bierhoff boob meant the Czechs’ tournament ended as it had begun, with defeat by Germany.
But in between, the team playing as a separate nation for the first time since the 1993 split with Slovakia created some magical memories.
After a 2-1 win over Italy at Anfield, the same ground staged a ding-dong clash with Russia in which the Czechs led 2-0, then trailed 3-2 before a late equaliser by Vladimir Smicer that turned out to be crucial.
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Kouba said: "Our match finished a bit earlier than the Italy-Germany game.
There were only a couple of guys in our team with mobile phones back in 1996.
"I don't know who provided the information about the other match but when we got the news that Italy had drawn, it was crazy."
The quarter-final against Portugal was decided by a single, sensational goal – Karel Poborsky's famous run and extraordinary scoop finish.
Kouba said: "I didn't believe that the ball would go in. I said to myself, 'What the hell is he doing?'
"I was shocked and thought the only thing you could think, 'Wow, we've seen something very special that will go down in football history.'
"I felt something similar when Patrik Schick scored that fantastic goal against Scotland."
France had the better of the semi final, but it went to penalties.
Kouba said: "I got a lot of notes from our assistant coach Verner Licka, who played in France.
"I guessed well with all the takers and almost saved Laurent Blanc’s kick but it went under my body.
"Reynald Pedros was the only guy I didn't have any information about on his penalty taking!"
Kouba saved Pedros' kick, captain Miroslav Kadlec scored to complete a 6-5 win and the Czechs were in the final.
But a different kind of sudden death killed the dream as Bierhoff cancelled out Patrik Berger's second-half penalty and then struck again less than five minutes into extra-time.
Despite the unfortunate end, Kouba and his team-mates returned to a hero’s welcome.
He said: "The homecoming was special – Prague airport full, people in the streets and the Old Town Square absolutely packed when we went to greet our fans.
"Everybody was celebrating a silver medal like a gold one.
"We promoted our country in the best possible way and showed we could be a part of civilised western Europe!
"The Czech Republic went crazy for that tournament and our team caused that madness."
Now Kouba hopes the current Czech players go on creating their own great memories, starting with tomorrow's game against England at Wembley.
He said: "I remember the original, old Wembley stadium. I played there twice and it reminded me of a cathedral.
"I am happy for our boys that they can play there as well.
"They will face an extremely difficult match against a well-balanced team, but nothing is impossible!"
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