Czech Fury: The Story of Pavel Nedvêd, the Unstoppable

CHEB, in western Czech Republic, is a small town. Karlovy Vary, the region to which it belongs, is one of the least developed in the country, despite the cultural benefits derived from its proximity to Germany. Cheb’s main sight is the Market Place, which is outlined by eleven coloured houses. Among them there’s a green one that belonged to the Wrendl dynasty, which is said to have hosted Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, undoubtedly the greatest emblem of the aforementioned cultural influx from Germany.

From then on, it was just like a halo of genius intertwined with strength had been hovering above this little town by the foot of the Smrčiny mountains. It kept levitating in the air for two centuries, until the day it found the right reason to go back to the ground again. The year was 1972, but the new custodian of Goethe’s spirit wasn’t meant to be a writer. The blond-haired Pavel, family name Nedvěd, wanted to become a professional footballer. And such he became.

After having grown up in some minor teams, Pavel Nedvěd made his professional debut with Škoda Plzeň (currently Viktoria Plzeň) in 1990, just to end up at the Czech powerhouse Sparta Prague two years later, after a one-year stint with the capital’s other club of Dukla Prague, now defunct.

By the half of the decade, the boy from western Czechoslovakia was one of the most promising midfielders on the European stage: a complete player, fast, tireless, and clever enough for his age, he could as well use the right and the left foot indifferently. In fact, he was born a left-footed player, but started practicing his weak foot as a child and, consequently, made no distinction between his two boots by that time. In 1996 he’d already won the national league four times and the national cup once.

With these premises, no wonder that the national team’s coach Dušan Uhrin decided to rely on Nedvěd full-time for Euro 1996. Under the guidance of the 23-year-old, though he wasn’t the captain yet back then, Czech Republic ended up as runners-up of the tournament, to everybody’s surprise. Only Germany, the most favourite team of all, managed to stop Pavel Nedvěd and his compatriots, and only thanks to Oliver Bierhoff’s golden goal.

That summer, the young midfielder ran across his future for the first time when, in Euro 96’s second match, he scored just three minutes after the kick-off, against the squad representing the country that went on to become his new home: Italy.

Everybody in the boot-shaped country was focused on the poor display offered by Arrigo Sacchi’s team, blaming the coach for not having called up people like Roberto Baggio, Gianluca Vialli and Beppe Signori. The only Italian who wasn’t really concerned about the Azzurri that day was Lazio chairman Sergio Cragnotti.

Zdeněk Zeman, Bohemian like Nedvěd and coach of the Biancazzurri back then, had already noticed there was something special in the boy from Cheb, and had already tried to persuade his president that bringing him to the capital was the right choice. Cragnotti, for his part, wanted to make sure that the player was already fit for Serie A, especially after the mighty Aron Winter had moved to Inter Milan.

The goal scored against Italy on the 14th June, paired with a majestic display by the 23-year-old, finally convinced the chairman to open the wallet. Some necessary phone calls were needed by Zeman in order to convince the player that he was ready for Italian football («Back then, I thought it was better to proceed by small steps, going to the Netherlands, for example», stated the Czech some years later), Pavel Nedvěd touched down in Rome in the scorching-hot summer of 1996.

What was an unpolished jewel luckily found his place into the strongest Lazio team of all time. With the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Marcelo Salas, Roberto Mancini and Siniša Mihajlović, among others, Lazio won more titles in three years than they had done in all their history: a Scudetto, two Coppe Italia, one Supercoppa Italiana, one UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and one UEFA Super Cup. Among all these triumphs, Nedvěd was one of the vertebrae in Lazio’s spine, amassing 208 appearances and 51 goals, developing into one of the most exciting midfielders around. His main characteristic was, already back then, an uncommon ‘ferocity’, though not in the negative sense of the word. His strength lied in the will to run one centimetre more than his opponent every time, and in the natural predisposition to seamlessly pump the air in and out of his lungs in order to reach the ball, with no breaks from the start to the final whistle. All these features, usually typical of ‘quantity’ players, were paired, in Nedvěd, with technique, vision and, most importantly, the capacity to cut into the box from time to time, scoring an amount of goals not often seen when talking about midfielders. Oh and… let’s not forget his terrific shot.

It wasn’t difficult to foresee what the future held for Pavel. A player like him caught the eyes of every club in Europe but finally, in 2001, Juventus won the heart of the Czech, bringing him under the shadow of the Mole Antonelliana.

His first months with the Old Lady were far from idyllic. Juve had just sold Zinédine Zidane to Real Madrid and Filippo Inzaghi to AC Milan, and the Frenchman’s legacy was all on Nedvěd’s shoulders. He struggled more than everybody thought to settle in. By the end of the year, anyway, things started to improve as Marcello Lippi designed a new role for the midfielder that suited his characteristics perfectly.

Until then Nedvěd had mostly been employed as a left midfielder, but Lippi’s intuition finally brought him towards the middle of the pitch, just behind the two forwards. With Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet in front of him, the newly-purchased midfielder (and indeed Juventus) finally managed to square the circle. It was the onset of another long stint of triumphs.

While an iconic mop of blond hair had already replaced the old good-guy haircut on Nedvěd’s head, the Bianconeri grabbed their 26th Scudetto, thanks to an instrumental goal by the Czech in the third-to-last week, which allowed the team to complete their comeback against Inter Milan.

In the following seven years spent in Turin, Nedvěd definitely established himself as one of the strongest midfielders of his generation, something that was officially acknowledged in 2003, when he was awarded the Ballon d’Or. He became the second Czech player, after Josef Masopust, to ever win the most prestigious individual award in the world of football.

During his Juve days, he won the Scudetto four times, although the Bianconeri were stripped of two titles due to the infamous Calciopoli scandal. This dark page of Italian football is what relegated Juventus to Serie B for the 2006/07 campaign, during which the Czech decided nonetheless to remain at the club.

His style of play earned Nedvěd the nickname of ‘Furia ceca’ (Czech fury), which played on the assonance between the Italian words for ‘Czech’ (ceco) and ‘blind’ (cieco), written differently but pronounced in the same way. His great commitment and dedication when it came to soak the white-and-black shirt with sweat, along with his capacity to be a thinking man, before being a thinking player, are probably what lied at the decision taken by Juventus in 2010 to offer him a post as executive, directing him to becoming the deputy chairman of the club in 2015.

Rewinding the tape to a few years before, one comes across the image of Nedvěd’s last match, in 2009, the year of his retirement from professional football. The venue was Turin’s Olympic Stadium, it was the end of May, and Juventus hosted Lazio. Against the team that gave him his debut in the Italian football, the 36-year-old from Cheb, western Czech Republic, played one more astonishing game, assisting Vincenzo Iaquinta for the 2 – 0 and forcing the 20.000-strong crowd to stand up and applaud when he left the pitch, on 84 minutes, replaced by Tiago. That crowd paid homage to one of the strongest midfielders to have ever worn the striped shirt of La vecchia signora, and was ideally joined by all those people who, in front of their television, felt sad for having to say goodbye to a player capable of bringing Goethe’s Sturm und Drang to life on every pitch he stepped on.

By Franco Ficetola and artwork by Barry Masterson

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