GLASGOW: Scotland's first match at a major tournament for 23 years is laced with acrimony for the Czech Republic, who travel to Hampden today having been forced into a last-minute change of training camp and without suspended defender Ondrej Kudela. Kudela was hit with a 10-match ban for racially abusing Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara when Slavia Prague visited Scotland in the Europa League last 16 in March.
The widespread condemnation of Kudela in Britain has not been reflected in his homeland, where Slavia and many of his club and international teammates have stood by the 34-year-old and claimed there was a lack of evidence against him. "I fight for Ondra all the time," Tomas Soucek, who starred in the Premier League for West Ham this season told Czech publication Idnes.
"I believe that he did not tell him anything racist, there was no evidence, but a lot of people on the islands (the UK) condemned him and he received a severe sentence. I find it absurd. I know him so well that I can't imagine him saying anything racist. I also tried to convince the boys in the locker room about that."
On the field, Kudela's presence will be missed. Without him, Slavia were swept aside by Arsenal in the Europa League quarter-finals and the Czechs are not blessed with strength in depth at center-back. "When it comes to Ondrej and his case, the entire team can feel it and we would like to have Ondrej with us," Czech Republic assistant manager Jiri Chytry said this week.
'Nobody wants to risk anything'
But his ban has not been the only bump in the Czechs preparations. Thanks to qualifying automatically, months before Scotland did so via the Nations League playoffs, Jaroslav Silhavy's men had snapped up the Scottish national team's normal base in Edinburgh with the first two of their Group D matches in Glasgow before facing England at Wembley.
However, those plans had to be changed just over two weeks before the start of Euro 2020 as the Scottish government refused to ease its strict coronavirus rules for close contacts of a positive case. Scotland's own bid to qualify was nearly derailed by those rules when key players Kieran Tierney and Ryan Christie missed a playoff semi-final against Israel due to a positive test for Southampton's Stuart Armstrong.
Under those rules, one positive case in camp could force a host of players into isolation. As a result, the Czechs will be based in Prague and fly into the UK for all three of their group games. "I personally would be happier if we were in a single place and had the base camp in Scotland. But I also understand nobody wants to risk anything," said Burnley striker Matej Vydra.
To stir the pot even further, the Czech FA even failed in a late attempt to get the match switched from Hampden due to the strict travel rules that prevent travelling fans from attending without spending 10 days in quarantine. By contrast, Scotland will be roared on by home fans for the first time since Nov 2019, with 12,000 in attendance.
The Scots have never qualified from a group stage at a major tournament, but will arguably never get a better chance with another home game to come against Croatia and just eight of the 24 teams being eliminated before the knockout phase. "Obviously a win would be massive in the first game," said Scotland boss Steve Clarke. "Three points can almost guarantee you a place in the last 16, so that would be a great start." - AFP