|In Czech: Vaclav Pilar, Europe's answer to Lionel Messi|
LIONEL MESSI has a Czech mate. When Euro2012 kicks off tomorrow night, all eyes will be on a 23-year-old called Vaclav Pilar when the Czech Republic takes on highly-fancied Russia.
Dick Advocaat’s Russia are among the pre-tournament favourites but the Czechs have qualified for every European Championship since the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993 – reaching the final against Germany at Euro96 with a side of shock troops that included Patrik Berger, Pavel Nedved and Karel Poborsky.
That record was under threat in October when they faced a play-off against England’s closest qualifying challengers Montenegro in Prague.
After a frustrating hour, it was Pilar who broke through with the first goal in a 2-0 home triumph to ease the passage of his nation, which at 18, is officially the same age as the new South Africa.
But it was playing for his club – the Czech champions Viktoria Plzen – that Pilar established himself last season as something of a European Messi.
Alongside the talented Petr Jiracek, Pilar shone as the unfancied Plzen finished third in a Champions League group featuring champions Barcelona and Italian giants AC Milan.
And when now-ex Barca boss Pep Guardiola picked out Pilar as the Plzen player who had impressed him most, the EuroMessi tag was neatly tied to his talented boots.
Since then, close pal Jiracek has gone to earn the big bucks with Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga - and Pilar is expected to make the lucrative leap to Engand, Spain, Italy or Germany soon.
But for now, the nation calls. Pilar says: "I don't think about my club fuure right now. I just fully focus on the Euro. But it would help me a great deal if I play well."
Still a relative international novice with nine caps, Pilar goes in to his first major tournament saying from the team’s training ground in Wroclaw: "I'm really looking forward to it. We're among the best 16 teams in Europe and my dream is to advance in the tournament."
Unlike World Cups, the European Championship rarely offers an easy game. After Russia tomorrow (8.45pm, live on SuperSport3 in South Africa), the Czechs have got 2004 shockers Grece and co-hosts Poland - who kick-off the tournament tomorrow night at 5pm (6pm in South Africa, also live on SuperSport3) to come in Group A.
Pilar says: "There are no easy opponents in this group or this tournament and I want to do all I can for the team to succeed. I haven't played many big games but I want to do my best."
While the Czechs may ease past hosts Poland - the lowest-ranked side in the tournament at 62 (that's six better than Bafana Bafana at 68) - to qualify with Russia, things will get no easier.
In the deadly Group B, Germany and Holland should emerge ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal and dogged Denmark.
Group C should see champions Spain through, with Croatia perhaps getting the edge over troubled Italy and unlucky Ireland.
England may just sneak past Sweden in Group D with France on top and co-hosts Ukraine at the bottom.
The final? How about the Dutch to end Spain's four-year domination of world football?
You can follow me through Euro2012 on www.twitter.com/nealcol, http://www.facebook.com/nealivorcollins, my Tuesday Neal and Pray column in www.thenewage.co.za newspaper and on Monday mornings on eNews and eTV Sunrise. And every Saturday I'll be on SuperSport3 with EuroZone at 4pm, starting this week. I've been asked to be controversial. Like a certain Mario Barwuah-Balotelli. Don't miss it!