by Chris Brookes

In the sun-drenched Portuguese carnival that was Euro 2004, the true story of the underdog transpired as veteran German coach and three-time Bundesliga winner Otto Rehhagel led Greece to the unlikeliest of triumphs to stun all footballing observers. The Greek team’s success gave renewed hope to clubs and nations everywhere that such a feat, in whichever tournament it may be, was not beyond the realms of possibility. Enjoying his own individual ‘day in the sun’ was the Czech Republic’s 22-year-old striker Milan Baroš, the tournament’s top scorer who in a similar way to Greece, proved that the limelight is there for anyone who can grasp it in the European Championships.

A standout performer with Baník Ostrava in his homeland, Baroš was brought to Liverpool in the 2001/02 season under the management of Gérard Houllier, the season in which the French manager would fall ill and miss five months of the campaign. After only one appearance in his debut season, away to Barcelona in the Champions League nonetheless, his breakthrough arrived in 2002/03 as he made over 50 appearances for club and country, scoring 12 for Liverpool. I actually recall being at my Under-13’s football training after he’d scored his first Premier League goals at Bolton and one of my teammates talking in our run around the training field about the goals ‘Boras’ had scored at the weekend, but I digress! The 2003/04 season did not go as planned as he broke his ankle in September at Blackburn’s Ewood Park in a challenge with his former Reds colleague Markus Babbel. Consequently he would not return until February 2004 in an FA Cup defeat at Portsmouth but goals against Leeds United, Marseille and the Republic of Ireland meant he departed for the pre-Euro 2004 international friendlies with cause for optimism. A strike against Bulgaria followed by a brace against Estonia clearly sent him into the tournament with confidence simmering and he relished the opportunity amongst Europe’s best.

In a Czech team alongside the likes of Karel Poborský and Pavel Nedvěd, Baroš flourished out in Portugal, starting with their first group game against Latvia in Aveiro. After Latvia had taken a shock lead, Poborský’s delivery eventually came through to Baroš to control and lash a low effort into the net to level. Baroš also forced defensive indecision for Marek Heinz to notch a winner late on. The second match started terribly for the Czechs as the Netherlands went 2-0 up through Wilfred Bouma and Ruud van Nistelrooy, but Baroš drove at the Dutch defence and found Jan Koller to half the deficit. The equaliser was superb as Nedvěd fed Koller in the area who chested a perfect lay-off for the buoyant Baroš to hit an unstoppable first-time effort beyond Edwin van der Sar. In the 88th minute the Czech Republic snatched the three points with Baroš providing a lay-off for Heinz who saw his shot parried before Poborský squared for Vladimír Šmicer to win it. The victory secured qualification for the last 8 for Karel Brückner’s team with a game to spare. In the final group game, after a sensational strike from Germany’s Michael Ballack early on in Lisbon, the Czechs levelled via an inch-perfect free-kick from Heinz. Later on it was that man Baroš again as he gained possession around 30 yards from goal and clearly brimming with self-belief he took on the German backline, and with the form he was in it was inevitable that when Oliver Kahn saved his shot it would rebound back to him to bury the easy chance. The 2-1 win sent the Czechs through with 9 points and eliminated Germany. The team were flying and although Wayne Rooney was in such exciting form for England they had in Baroš the man of the tournament in front of goal.

The quarter-finals drew them Denmark in Porto and having rested some players against Germany the Czechs took a 49th-minute lead through Koller’s header from a Poborský corner. Baroš would grab another in the 63rd minute as the masterful Poborský played a through ball in behind the Danish defence for Baroš to lift a beautiful touch over the sprawling Thomas Sorensen – one of the best finishes of Euro 2004. He added another just minutes later with Nedvěd putting him racing through on goal before driving a left-footed strike into the roof of the net for his 5th of the tournament. The 3-0 win sent them into a semi-final with Greece and the Czechs were huge favourites to reach the final against Portugal. Despite their irrepressible form in the first four games it would not come together against a cohesive and efficient Greek side and although the link-up play was in evidence from Baroš he could not quite fashion the type of chances he had been rattling home so frequently. His golden rush had run out and the extra-time booking for a tired tackle summed up his night before Greece won it in the 105th minute through Traianos Dellas’ silver goal (remember those?).

Extra-time heartbreak for the Czech Republic in the Euro 2004 semi-final.

After his superb exploits in Euro 2004 Baroš entered into a season back on Merseyside that would bring Champions League glory, and aside from notably ducking in the Istanbul final to allow compatriot Vladimír Šmicer’s shot to fly past him into the Milan goal he did actually finish as the club’s joint-top scorer. It is however fair to say that the Reds’ striking options were limited in Rafa Benitez’ inaugural year at the helm as Djibril Cissé’s leg break left them with just Baroš, Fernando Morientes (who arrived in January 2005), and to a lesser extent Florent Sinama Pongolle, Neil Mellor and Anthony Le Tallec. Baroš scored 13 in all, the same as attacking midfielders Steven Gerrard and Luis García, and the Czech was the club’s outright top scorer in the Premier League with 9 goals – though that tells its own story about the team’s finishing void that year. An Anfield hat-trick against Crystal Palace was a highlight, as was a goal at Bayer Leverkusen in the last 16 of the Champions League, which came in March but was ultimately his last for Liverpool.

In August 2005, David O’Leary signed him for Aston Villa for £6.5million and he got off the mark on his debut with the winner at home to Blackburn. The goals did not flow quite as freely as his Euro 2004 form had perhaps hinted but he scored 12, with 8 of these in the league, though goals against West Brom and Birmingham always help as a Villa player. He made a fleeting appearance for the Czechs against eventual winners Italy in the group stage of the World Cup in Germany but injury had severely curtailed his participation and the team were eliminated early.

The Martin O’Neill era at Villa Park arrived ahead of the 2006/07 season and despite a brace for his country against perennial whipping boys San Marino in a 7-0 Euro 2008 qualifying win he struggled to break back into the Villa line-up. A goal at Sheffield United and one in the FA Cup Third Round at Old Trafford before defeat to a Henrik Larsson-inspired Manchester United were his last for the Midlands side. In January 2007 he moved to French giants Lyon with striker John Carew going the opposite way. The transfer reunited Baroš with ex-Liverpool boss Houllier and his overall form in front of goal for Les Gones was respectable as he won the title within months of signing, although he was forced to sit out three games for unsporting behaviour after a nose-pinching gesture to Rennes’ Stephane Mbia. His pace also landed him in trouble with the police as he clocked a regional record of 168 miles per hour in his Ferrari while driving near Lyon.

Having fallen out of favour under new boss Alain Perrin he returned to England for a 2008 loan spell with Frenchman Perrin’s former club Portsmouth. With Harry Redknapp in charge Pompey lifted the FA Cup and Baroš played his part, rounding Tomasz Kuszczak in the quarter final victory at Old Trafford before being fouled by the Manchester United keeper who was sent off. Sulley Muntari converted the penalty past Rio Ferdinand and Pompey won by that solitary goal. In the semi-final win over West Brom at Wembley, Baroš looked to have handled before his shot eventually lead to Kanu’s winner. He did not manage a goal at the south coast club however and after a disappointing group stage exit for the Czech Republic in Euro 2008 (in which he only played once) he moved to Turkey with Galatasaray.

His first year in Istanbul was a personal success as he hit 20 goals to finish as the Süper Lig’s top scorer. Injuries disrupted him considerably over the following two seasons but his goals-to-game ratio remained extremely impressive. The 2011/12 season saw Galatasaray win their 18th Turkish league title and their first since 2008, with Baroš contributing 8 strikes, outscored however by his teammates Johan Elmander, Selçuk İnan and Felipe Melo.

Although he does not turn 31 until October it has been reported that he is expected to retire from international football after Euro 2012. Despite reaching 40 international goals, only 13 shy of Jan Koller’s record, Baroš’ stock has fallen somewhat in his home nation and he seems to have become a target of derision. His international goals have dried up in the last couple of years and as much as I love the edgier characters in the game, Czech fans look to have taken a different view of some of Baroš’ escapades. In April 2009 following a World Cup qualifying defeat to Slovakia, coach Petr Rada was sacked, and Baroš, Tomáš Ujfaluši, Radoslav Kováč, Marek Matějovský, Martin Fenin and Václav Svěrkoš were suspended after being photographed leaving a restaurant with call girls at 6:30 in the morning. In November 2011, after the Czechs beat Montenegro to secure Euro 2012 qualification a party ensued on the plane home and a number of players entered the airport in Prague in ripped suits and without trousers. Baroš himself was reportedly in the national newspapers having been seen in just a thong!

He has remarked how he does not care about the critics and that rebellion is part of his character, but all the factors point to a very slim likelihood of him scaling his Euro 2004 heights again in this tournament. The Czechs face Euro 2008 semi-finalists Russia on the opening night of Euro 2012 in Wrocław, with Greece and co-hosts Poland their other competitors in Group A. The 1996 runners-up are coached by former Real Betis and Sparta Prague midfielder Michal Bílek who is working alongside ex-Liverpool man Vladimír Šmicer, and as well as established names like Petr Čech and Tomáš Rosický they tend to use a lone striker which could be Baroš, or Nuremburg’s 23-year-old Tomáš Pekhart (ex-Tottenham and Southampton).

I always took an interest in Baroš’ progress, more so after his Euro 2004 form, but as good as he was in that tournament (and he was terrific) I always had the feeling thereafter that I was willing him to do well rather than expecting it. His scoring form for Galatasaray should not go unnoticed but looking back it is fair to say that Euro 2004 propelled him to a level of attention that he never replicated again. There are no clear favourites for Group A and maybe Baroš can roll back the years if he gets the chance, but as much as I like him I’d have to say that if you’re looking for the player in Euro 2012 to be a star like Baroš was in 2004 then sadly it won’t be the man himself who repeats it.

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