PRAGUE — After only nine matches, a provincial soccer club from eastern Czech Republic is starting to draw comparisons with Premier League champion Leicester.
FC Fastav Zlin, a 900-1 shot to win the Czech league title and already dubbed “Zlincester,” is 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 is 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 $2 million 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.
Under the name Gottwaldov, it only once played in major European competition, and was 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 so far have six wins and three draws.
Similar to Leicester, Zlin’s unheralded players rely on a well-organized defense 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 defense 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.
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 is on the right track so far — just like that team from England last year.
“Leicester is a story that reminds me of a fairytale,” Panik said. “I like fairytales.”