Euro 2012’s first quarterfinal sees Portugal and the Czech Republic face off today in Warsaw. The Portuguese, runners-up in Group B, the supposed “Group of Death,” are strong favorites to triumph over the unlikely Czechs, who managed to top Group A (also known as the “Group of Meh”) despite having a negative goal differential. Portugal’s talisman is the tournament’s preeminent superstar: Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s most expensive player, a man whose prodigious talents run in proportion to an outsized, cringe-inducing ego. After a frustrating start, the Real Madrid winger exploded in Portugal’s last game against the disappointing Dutch, scoring twice and attempting twelve shots on goal — a single player record for the Euros. In that match, he also walked out onto the pitch in the second half with a different hair-style than the first.
Against Ronaldo, the Czechs, who are arguably a weaker side than any Portugal had to face in its own tough group, will have their work cut out. In their first game in the Euros, the Czechs’ suspect defense shipped four goals against a pacy and classy Russian attack; the Portuguese specialize in high-octane wing-play and, with players like Ronaldo and Manchester United’s Nani, boast some of the most technically-gifted footballers in Europe. So if the Czechs stand a chance, they’ll need a sterling display from their back four and, in particular, the unheralded right-back who will likely line up against Ronaldo: Theodor Gebre-Selassie.
Gebre-Selassie, 25, who plays for Slovan Liberec in the Czech league, has emerged from relative obscurity to become one of the revelations of the tournament. A skillful, enthusiastic full-back, his marauding runs down the right and excellent passing and crossing helped propel the Czechs to wins over Greece and hosts Poland. But there’s another, more obvious reason why he catches the eye—wearing the shirt of a country hardly known for its racial diversity, Czech-born Gebre-Selassie is black.
He’s a product of the Cold War world, where some of the brightest students from socialist countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America attended universities on the east side of the Iron Curtain. Gebre-Selassie’s father, an Ethiopian, went to medical school in then Czechoslovakia and fell in love and settled down with a local Czech woman (a schoolteacher). His children have grown up fully Czech, having made few visits to their father’s homeland. Still, Gebre-Selassie has had to overcome racism throughout his childhood and playing career, most recently when he allegedly faced a barrage of abuse from Russian fans during this tournament. A profile in the Guardian lavishes praise on Gebre-Selassie’s positive temperament:
“I am glad I am different. At least I am more visible. On the other hand, that is a disadvantage when I play badly,” he says, showing, all in a few sentences, his laid-back character, intelligence and mental strength.
It goes on:
Gebre Selassie smiles a lot. In fact, if you meet him you are pretty much guaranteed a flash of his broad and warm grin. His mother Jana, a teacher, says: “Theo has been surrounded with friends all his childhood. And his advantage is that he was born with a sunny character that helped him overcome any negative reaction. One of his teachers got it exactly right by saying: ‘Theo laughed his way through his school years.'”
He and his sister are far more jockish than their brainy parents apparently would have liked (the younger Anna is on the Czech handball team). Indeed, while loaned out to a team in the Czech fourth-tier, Gebre-Selassie almost gave up on professional soccer as a career and was prepared to go back to university studies—but football won out, and a surge in form and confidence has brought him to the most important game of his career.
It’s hard to predict how he’ll cope with Ronaldo and, indeed, Fabio Coentrao, the rampaging Portuguese left-back (and Ronaldo’s compatriot at Real Madrid). Gebrie-Selassie’s current displays suggest he won’t return to the anonymity of Czech football next season—expect a committed, gutsy performance. Compounding the challenge, though, the Czechs may be without their elfin midfield dynamo, Tomas Rosicky, who despite years of chronic injury problems remains their most pivotal player. The Portuguese, moreover, have a historical grudge to settle: sixteen years ago, at this same stage, the Czechs upset Portugal — then the team of a so-called “Golden Generation” — with a wonder goal by the lavishly gifted (and coiffed) Karel Poborsky.
Eight years later, when Portugal hosted the tournament, the world was denied a dream final between the hosts and the Czechs—then in the fullness of their own Golden Generation, a team brimming with elite stars like Poborsky, the great Pavel Nedved and the giant Jan Koller. But they were knocked out in the semifinal by the 2004 tournament’s shock upstarts, the Greeks, who went on to smother and defeat the Portuguese in the final in Lisbon. Cristiano Ronaldo, then a teenager, wept on the pitch. Eight years on, the Czechs’ rich vein of talent seems to have dried up. Nor is the current Portuguese vintage as good as its iterations a decade earlier. But in the showdown between Ronaldo and Gebre-Selassie — one man a global celebrity, the other, a journeyman who has persevered on the margins and against the odds — is the sort of narrative that only the beautiful game can write.