What Viktoria Plzeň wanted?
A 49-year-old coach was rolling around on the pitch of Maribor’s Stadion Ljudski Vrt and this was exactly what the Viktoria Plzeň fans had wanted.
It was August of 2013 and the Czech champions were at the end of a gruelling three-hurdle Champions League qualifying campaign. Slovenia’s NK Maribor were the final obstacle and coach Pavel Vrba had promised that if Plzeň qualified then he would attempt a backwards roll and a handstand, the famous celebration of midfielder Pavel Horváth. He managed the first part and flopped the latter, but the fact he was even attempting it meant that Plzeň had qualified for the 2013/14 Champions League, defeating Maribor 4-1 on aggregate.
For the Plzeň supporters, this was still unbelievable. A decade previously they had been relegated from the Czech first division and they were nothing more than a mid-table team by the time Vrba took over in 2008. But the former centre-back changed their fortunes in almost no time at all.
Although he had been a centre-back during his playing days, Vrba was about attacking as they came and drew comparisons with Arsene Wenger because of his side’s style of football. “We always try to play attacking football, the kind that our fans like, and we don’t intend to change,” Vrba once said. Even when his formations might have looked defensive in numbers form, if you dug a little deeper you probably found that the full-backs used to be wingers, or that the defensive midfielder was a former No.10.
Salvaging Plzeň’s 2008/09 season he took them to eighth in the table, before leading the modest side to fifth the next year, but combining that with the lifting of the 2010 Czech Cup. That brought with it Plzeň’s first European ticket since 1971, when they had made their only other UEFA appearance, losing 7-1 on aggregate to Bayern Munich in the first round of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, entering and exiting European football as quickly as a Grandpa Simpson in a brothel meme.
With a difficult Beşiktaş side drawn against the Czech cup winners in the qualifying rounds, Plzeň didn’t reach the 2010/11 Europa League group stages, but they’d be in the Champions League soon enough. That’s because Pavel Vrba pulled off his greatest trick yet in the 2010/11 season, winning Viktoria Plzeň their first league title in their 100th year of existence. Even sweeter than the fact that they pipped Sparta Prague to the title by one point was the fact that they did so by using a number of Sparta’s cast-offs. Jan Rezek, David Limberský, Milan Petržela, Daniel Kolář and Pavel Horváth all arrived from the Czech capital in the summer of 2008 and they were five of the seven most-used players in that successful 2010/11 championship bid, with the late František Rajtoral and David Bystroň the other two. Vrba was also helped by the strong youth setup, with the Under-19s having just won the Czech championship when he took over in 2008, but he was the man able to whip up a Michelin-star dinner using a variety of raw and disregarded ingredients.
Winning the league did not, though, ensure European football would be coming to the Doosan Arena, made famous last summer due to the novelty Gambrinus beer can dugouts. There was a tricky qualifying campaign to come though first, but Plzeň were excellent and defeated Pyunik, Rosenborg and Copenhagen with 9-1, 4-2 and 5-2 aggregate scores respectively.
That brought with it their first ever taste of Champions League football, and trips to play Barcelona at the Camp Nou and AC Milan at the San Siro. Unsurprisingly, they lost both of those away trips, each by a 2-0 scoreline, but they drew with the Italian giants back home and got the better of BATE Borisov too to earn a Europa League consolation prize, even if Schalke 04 beat them after extra time in the round of 32.
Already Plzeň were becoming something of a European regular, having played 10 UEFA matches in one season, compared to the two legs of the Bayern Munich clash from the 70s that had previously been their only continental experience.
In 2012/13 a run through the Europa League group stages and to the last 16, where they were beaten by Lyon, followed, but Plzeň won the domestic championship again that year and had another shot at Champions League qualification, the one which finished with Vrba rolling around a Slovenian football pitch. The coach didn’t last much longer, though, as his undeniable talent saw him courted by the Czech FA for the national team job, one which he took, even if it upset the club’s directors.
Viktoria Plzeň general director Adolf Šádek, whose family had even gone on holiday with Vrba’s, was not at all happy about his departure and stated that there was no agreement in place. Instead, a clause in the contract had been activated. “It’s an opportunity for him, but I can’t say I’m not disappointed,” Šádek told Mladá fronta DNES newspaper. “Now I wonder if we were ever friends. I understand the fans’ frustration and disappointment. I feel the same way.”
In the three and a half years following Vrba’s departure for the top job in the country, five other managers came and went in Plzeň, with Vrba’s European achievements unmatched and with no more Champions League football achieved.
But… the legend eventually returned after leading the national team to Euro 2016 and then embarking on a brief Russian adventure with Anzhi Makhachkala. And under their legendary coach’s guidance, Plzeň are way ahead in the Czech top division, even if they’ve rode their luck at times, and have also made it all the way to the Europa League last 16, which is an accomplishment in itself for a club so small. The fact that they were the team the likes of Atlético Madrid, Arsenal and AC Milan wanted to draw last Friday says more about the overachievements they have managed than it does about the famous Pilsner which will be flowing for visiting away fans.
In the end, they drew Sporting CP and the Doosan Arena should sell out its 11,000 capacity, as it did in the previous round as the Czech side got the better of Partizan Belgrade, winning 2-0 on the night. Vrba famously said in a TV interview that when he arrived there were so few fans in the stands that he could barely see any and he was right, as league attendances would fluctuate between 1,000 and 2,000. But now Plzeň is one of the hottest tickets in Europe and that’s mostly down to him.
This tiny club’s only claim to fame one decade ago was once upon a time having Pavel Nedvěd and Petr Čech registered in their youth academy. Now, they are a European regular. Mention the name Viktoria Plzeň and most football fan swill think ‘yes, that rings a bell’. For a club of their size, that’s a sign that they’ve made it.