Every fan who attended the Doosan Arena in Plzen on Sunday was entitled to a free beer. In a brilliant PR move, the famous Plzen-based Gambrinus brewery made a bet with Czech Republic coach Pavel Vrba ahead of their Euro 2016 qualifying games away to Turkey and Kazakhstan in October -- and it was time to pay up.
The wager was: "Get four points and we will give out the drinks during the following game against Iceland." The Czechs eventually overachieved and won both fixtures -- and the Plzen crowd were even happier when the run continued with a 2-1 success against the Scandinavians.
Granted, the winner against Iceland was an outrageously bizarre own goal and Vrba is riding his luck on the way to the perfect record of 12 points from four matches in qualifying for Euro 2016. Netherlands defender Daryl Janmaat gifted Vaclav Pilar the injury time winner in a 2-1 victory for the coach's official debut in September. The Czechs needed a slice of good fortune to come from 1-0 down to win 2-1 in Istanbul as well.
However, the bottom line is that such remarkable success is far from incidental. It's all down to courage, boldness and self-belief -- something the Czech Republic so desperately lacked in recent years. The atmosphere around the national team has changed completely. From dour no-hopers who failed miserably in the World Cup qualifiers, they have turned into everyone's darlings; full of positive energy and ready overcome all the obstacles ahead of them.
This astonishing turnaround of a team that were written off just a few months ago should be credited to one man only. Vrba is not fully admired yet outside of his country, but he undoubtedly is one of the brightest and most intriguing coaches in Europe.
Those familiar with his methods are not surprised. After all, he is the most loved coach in the history of Zilina, whom he led to the Slovakian league title in 2007 with the most exciting brand of attacking football the country has ever seen; scoring 80 goals in 36 matches. When such an approach didn't help Zilina to retain the crown next season, Vrba was deemed too naïve by some and was eventually fired, but fans have never forgiven those who made that decision.
They could only look with envy at what he achieved at Viktoria Plzen. They used to be a poor club who won nothing in a hundred years of existence; only relevant because Pavel Nedved and Plzen-born Petr Cech used to play for their youth team.
Then Vrba came along in 2008, took a bunch of Sparta Prague rejects and turned them into the best team in the country. Under his guidance, Plzen first lifted the Czech Cup in 2010, then won two league titles in 2011 and 2013. They twice qualified for the Champions League group stage and remained devoted to their style even when facing the best teams on the continent -- as exemplified by a 5-0 aggregate win over Napoli in Europa League last year. "We always try to play offensive football which our fans like. We don't want to change anything," Vrba has previously said.
The fans were naturally thrilled, both with the results and the way they were achieved. Vrba took pride in that, saying in an interview to Martin Vait of Ceska Televize: "When I came to Plzen, there were 1500 fans in the stands, and I couldn't even see them. Now there are 11 thousand."
Some compared him to Arsene Wenger for his tactics, others nicknamed him the Czech Alex Ferguson because he kept the job for so long and built a dynasty in Plzen, setting an all-time record of 157 league games in charge. The club would have wanted him to stay forever but when the Czech Football Association came calling in late 2013 following the sour departure of Michal Bilek, it was obvious that he had to accept the job. Vrba had taken Viktoria to the top and it was time for a bigger challenge.
While the Plzen management felt betrayed the coach chose to buy out the rest of his contract, the supporters fully understood him and didn't blame him for a second. It was a source of pride that their idol was now bound to change the national team. He signed off with some aplomb -- his team beat CSKA Moscow 2-1 thanks to a last minute goal to leapfrog the Russians into third place in their Champions League group.
A new adventure was about to begin. Vrba's first move as the national team coach was to name legendary Karel Bruckner as his advisor, and suddenly memories of his glorious Euro 2004 campaign, inspired by Nedved in his prime, came to mind. That was a superb team -- talented, positive and mentally strong, having come from behind to win all of their group stage matches, including the 3-2 triumph over Netherlands that must be considered one of the games of the tournament. That is what Vrba wants to reproduce and he wasn't shy to ask the old fox to assist him.
The immediate results in the friendlies were not good but the vibe has changed. Vrba is a friendly and humorous person, ready to discuss everything with the press, and it is easy to support his cause in any circumstances. Bilek's tenure was dull in the extreme, whereas Vrba is able to call up a newcomer, Filip Novak, to the squad by asking him over the phone: "Are you free this weekend?"
Remarkably for a man so strongly associated with one club, Vrba doesn't always prefer the players he raised. On the contrary, he controversially plays Sparta's Ladislav Krejci instead of Pilar, whose career was made at Plzen. From the very beginning, the coach has worked carefully to unite the nation around the team and the results are stunning.
"He really is a hero. He brought his style into the national team, making it offensive and attractive," says Michal Hrdlicka of Nova Sport.
He returned to Plzen a hero on Sunday. It was an emotional day for Vrba, who even told the driver where to park the bus near the stadium that was his home for so long, and where a willow tree is named after him (Vrba means willow in Czech). More than 4000 fans turned out to see a training session. It would have been possible to fill a much bigger stadium during the game itself, even without treating the supporters to a free beer. The own goal was absurd in the extreme, but even Iceland players openly accepted that the Czechs deserved to win. It was a perfect way to celebrate Bruckner's 75th birthday.
Naturally, nothing is perfect yet and a lot of issues remain to be solved. The play is still inconsistent and the Czechs haven't kept a clean sheet in any of the games under Vrba so far.
But the progress is phenomenal in every possible sense and we are very likely to see a vibrant and confident Czech side at Euro 2016. When the qualification is assured, Vrba is supposed to keep his word and perform a handstand, just as he did when Plzen qualified for the Champions League.
Try not to like him after that!