After only nine matches, a provincial soccer club from eastern Czech Republic is starting to draw comparisons with Premier League champion Leicester.
Fastav Zlin, a 900-1 shot to win the Czech league title and already dubbed ‘Zlincester,’ are in the early title hunt with the country’s traditional powers.
‘It’s a nice comparison,’ Zlin coach Bohumil Panik said in a recent interview. ‘It pleases me. Leicester is, for a small club like us, an example to follow.’
Leicester surprised just about everybody last season, starting well in the Premier League and holding on to win the English title for the first time in its history.
Zlin, a town of 75,000 where in 1894 Tomas Bata founded what was to become a global shoe empire, started as a soccer team in 1919 and made its debut in Czechoslovakia’s first division in 1938.
The team has never won the title, and did well to even stay in the top league after finishing only three points above the relegation zone last season.
‘We hit the bottom in the spring,’ Panik said, referring to a winless streak in early 2016. ‘The players well remember that and don’t want to go through it again. The team has learned a lesson.’
This season, Zlin are five points ahead of Sparta Prague and trails leaders Mlada Bloeslav and Viktoria Plzen by only one point.
With its budget estimated to be less than £1.5million a year, a stadium that seats just over 6,000 spectators and no big successes in the past, Zlin is a very unlikely candidate to challenge the Czech heavyweights.
Stadium name – King Power
Capacity – 32,262
Population – 383,300
Manager – Claudio Ranieri
Premier League – 2015-16
League Cup – 1963-64, 1996-97, 1999-2000
Stadium name – Letna Stadium
Capacity – 6,000
Population – 75,000
Manager – Bohmil Panik
Czechoslovak Cup – 1970
One appearance in European Cup Winners’ Cup in same year
Under the name Gottwaldov, they only once played in major European competition, and were eliminated in the first round of the Cup Winners’ Cup by PSV Eindhoven in 1970.
Yet this season, the Cobblers beat defending champion Viktoria Plzen 2-0, held Sparta Prague to a 1-1 draw and have six wins and three draws.
Similar to Leicester, Zlin’s unheralded players rely on a well-organised defence and fast counter-attacks, punishing any defensive mistakes.
But the team has also proved it is ready to adapt, like when visiting Jablonec altered its tactics and focused on defence and counters on Saturday. Zlin trailed 2-0, but in a display of undying fighting spirit, the team rallied for two goals in the final six minutes to salvage a draw.
‘Given the development of the game, it’s a victory for us that the team managed to come back,’ Panik said.
Panik is an admirer of some great coaches, including Italian master tactician Giovanni Trapattoni and Karel Bruckner, known for his free-flowing attacking soccer as Czech national team coach.
Panik said Leicester’s story reminds him of a fairytale, one that he wants to replicate
The 59-year-old Panik, who has experience from coaching several Polish clubs, including Lech Poznan, applies tactics that suit the players he has available at Zlin.
For instance, attacking midfielder Vukadin Vukadinovic, one of the fastest players in the league, has become a lethal weapon under Panik by creating chances from his runs down the right flank. Vukadinovic’s previous club, Slavia Prague, failed to find use for his speed.
It’ll take a team effort to win the title, but Zlin are on the right track.
‘Leicester is a story that reminds me of a fairytale,’ Panik said. ‘I like fairytales.’