As Pavel Nedvěd walked off the pitch for the final time he could’ve been forgiven for wondering what exactly was going on. He was being substituted in the 89th minute of his last game for Juventus to allow the Turin crowd to send him off with a rapturous standing ovation. Remarkably, it wasn’t just the Juve fans that were standing and applauding, the away fans took to their feet as well. For someone of Nedvěd’s stature, it shouldn’t have been surprising.
A great player being shown respect by fans of opposing teams has happened on a number of occasions – after all Ronaldinho achieved such a response from the Real Madrid faithful while playing for Barcelona. However, if you left your previous employers amid fans protesting your departure you wouldn’t expect much adoration – but love is exactly what the away Lazio fans gave Nedvěd that day, demonstrating the level of respect he garnered throughout his time in calcio.
His story begins many moons before this day in the tiny town of Skalná, in what was then Czechoslovakia. The young Nedvěd was playing for his local team from the age of five. His mum used to watch and cheer him from the sidelines, recognising the long locks of blonde hair that her son had even then as he darted up and down the pitch.
Having separated himself from the rest of his teammates in his youth, a professional career beckoned, but Czechoslovakian law dictated that no players under the age of 32 were allowed to leave for foreign clubs. By now he had left the city of Cheb behind and moved to Prague to complete his military service whilst playing for Dukla Prague, a club still run by the army. It was 1989, a year he must look back on with fondness. This is the year the wall of Berlin was finally toppled and communism in East Germany and many Balkan states was put to the sword.
In the days after the demolition Nedvěd joined non-violent demonstrations, which eventually led to the first democratic elections to take place in Czechoslovakia. “We went with our keys in our hands, shook them to make noise so that the regime would understand that it was time for them to go,” he later said. With the political change in his country came a change to some of the old archaic rules too. Gone was the law dictating that only players over the age of 32 would be allowed to join foreign clubs. “It was the right moment for me, perfect for my career.”
He played 19 times and scored three goals for Dukla that season before ending his military service and transferring to Sparta Prague, the nation’s biggest club.
It was here that the foundations of a great career would be laid – but not everything was smooth sailing. The young Nedvěd had a fierce temper and, combined with the naivety of youth, managed to get sent off three times in six games whilst playing for the club early on. To his credit, he outgrew these early teething problems and would go on to have a successful time in Prague, winning three league titles and a domestic cup, as well as scoring 23 times in 97 appearances, mostly from midfield.
His impressive performances led to a call up to the Czech Republic team in 1994. Like many before and after him, it is on the international stage where Nedvěd first made his name. He was already catching the eyes of scouts with his performances for Sparta, but he wasn’t in the mainstream realm of consciousness yet. Euro 96 would change all of that.
The Czechs weren’t expected to do much in their opening game against Germany – and duly lost 2-0. Nedvěd missed two good chances but a superb goal-line clearance from a Christian Ziege shot got him some early recognition. In the team’s next game against Italy we got a glimpse of the ‘Czech Cannon’s’ star rising. A goal after four minutes and a scintillating individual performance saw the Czech’s record a famous win, and Nedvěd some individual praise from around the continent.
The last group game against Russia would bring him back down to earth with a thump, however. In a 3-3 draw Nedvěd didn’t manage to get on the scoresheet but instead earned himself a yellow card, meaning he missed the team’s quarter-final victory over Portugal due to suspension.
His legs rested and his mind refreshed, he was back for the semi-final against France. France were two years away from winning the World Cup but already boasted names such as Zinedine Zidane, Laurent Blanc, Youri Djorkaeff and Lilian Thuram in the starting line up. Entering the game as heavy favourites, Les Bleus would become the Czech’s greatest international scalp.
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Nedvěd was inspirational during Lazio’s ascent at the turn of the new millennium
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In 120 minutes of football that finished 0-0, Nedvěd ran himself ragged, constantly looking for openings for his team and defending from the front. In the ensuing penalty shootout he scored the team’s second- and they went on to win when Reynald Pedros missed and Miroslav Kadlec converted. Cue pandemonium back home.
The Czech Republic was still in its infancy as a nation but their football team had given them something to be proud of. Despite a hard fought loss to Germany in the final, they returned as heroes and are still revered to this day.
Having shone on the international stage, clubs around Europe came calling for Nedvěd’s services. PSV were in the driving seat initially, and even had a verbal agreement with him, only for the Czech to experience a change of heart and instead sign for the rising blue tide in Rome. Lazio had signalled their intention to sign some of the world’s best talent and subsequently bought Juan Sebastián Verón and Hernán Crespo, among others, to the club. Nedvěd was just another jewel in the crown of the Rome club as they attempted to build a scudetto winning team, sparing no expense in the process.
Although now playing for a big team in Europe’s best league at the time, the move to Italy was not without complications for Nedvěd. “Back then I considered the Italian field too tough. I was 23 and had never been abroad. Italy’s championship was too hard and it seemed too much for me.” His wife was pregnant at the time with his first chid and the language barrier meant it took him a while to settle off the pitch. At the time the Czech Republic was a non-EU country, which meant dozens of documents needed to be filled out to be allowed to live in the country. “I thought: ‘Where have we ended up?’”
On the pitch things were different, though. Free from the stresses of life off it, Nedvěd embraced the 90 minutes he consistently played to do what he did best, and in his first season managed to score seven goals in 32 league appearances. It was a solid if unremarkable return for a player new to the league and to Italy itself.
The 1997-98 season would be far more fruitful as he helped his team win the Coppa Italia and reach the final of the UEFA Cup, whilst managing to score 13 goals in 37 appearances. The Lazio team that had been so expensively assembled would finally gel under the management of Sven Göran-Eriksson the next season, and would go on to win the Supercoppa Italiana and the last ever Cup Winners’ Cup, in which Nedvěd would underline his importance with the winning goal.
Having now established himself as one of Europe’s best players, and a man who complimented the flair and star power of his teammates – and his own undisputed talent – with honest, hard work, he went into the 1999-00 season craving the league title that Lazio had dreamt about for so long. They did that and more, completing an historic double. It was only the second scudetto in Lazio’s history and Nedvěd had been right at the forefront of it, dribbling his way towards the title and into Lazio folklore.
The club would win the following season’s European Super Cup with victory over Manchester United but the season would yield no further trophies for the Romans. Behind the scenes things were tense too. Many of Lazio’s players were beginning to leave the club as the financially carefree days of Sergio Cragnotti started to catch up with them.
When fans heard of Nedvěd’s potential departure to Juventus they protested with incredible vigour, such was their love for him. Despite wanting to stay in Rome because his family had settled in the city, the time, on a professional level at least, had come to leave. He had outgrown Lazio. His agent, the divisive Mino Raiola, had told him in no uncertain terms: “It’s over in Lazio.” The fond memories he had built up in the charm of Rome played on his heartstrings, but from a sporting perspective the time for a new challenge was right.
It was 2001 and Juventus had just sold Zidane to Real Madrid. Juve needed a star player to fill the gap left behind by Zizou now more than ever, not only to strengthen the team but to also please their fans, who knew the club had money to spend and encouraged them to do so. Nedved became target number one in a process that was as complex as any in modern calcio history. Not only was the deal between the two clubs complicated to negotiate, the deal between Raiola and Luciano Moggi was just as hard to complete. Moggi, Juve’s sporting director, and Raiola had a feud that had once led to Raiola telling Moggi he would “rue the day” he ever wanted to sign one of his clients.
After much “arguing and yelling” – according to Raiola – between the pair, the dotted line was signed on a £30 million deal and the ‘Czech Cannon’ had a new home for the 2001-02 season.
Like Michel Platini and Zidane himself before him, Nedvěd struggled over the course of his first few months in a Juve shirt. He was not new to Italy so the tactical element of the Italian game was no problem, but the adaptation into a more regimented Juventus side under Marcello Lippi was proving tough. The Italian press seized on his high-profile, expensive struggles, rustling up headlines such as “All hair, no skill”. Scoring just once that season, it was perhaps the worst in his illustrious career.
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Nedvěd was a leader for the fledgling Czech Republic throughout his international career
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Having endured such a disastrous debut season, Nedvěd had been struggling all summer. He didn’t want to leave Juventus like all the papers were speculating though – after all, he had cost the club a huge sum of money and he wanted to repay their faith with improved performances. Already known to be a gym rat, he dedicated his summer to getting even fitter in a quest to leave no stone unturned for the upcoming season.
The work he put in paid off spectacularly. The 2002-03 season would be the most glorious chapter of any book written on him. Nedvěd and Mauro Camoranesi wreaked havoc on the wings and he rediscovered his scoring touch. Not only was he scoring goals again, he was scoring crucial goals. An equaliser away to Deportivo La Coruña helped Juve escape the Riazor with a crucial point in the group stages of the Champions League, and in the quarter final against Barcelona he scored a memorable away goal that would set up a win.
In the semi-final against Real Madrid he would score the goal that would take Juventus to the Champions League final, only to let the emotion of everything get to him. His goal had given Juve a commanding 3-0 lead in the second leg and 4-1 aggregate lead. It was time to relax and avoid any mistakes that could change the game, but the competitive side of Nedvěd wouldn’t allow this to happen.
Near the halfway line he tried to win the ball back from Steve McManaman but instead managed to foul the Englishman. The referee waltzed over and flashed a yellow card at Nedvěd. Everyone in the stadium knew it meant he wouldn’t be able to start the final against AC Milan. Nedvěd looked distraught for a brief moment but got up and carried on until the final whistle.
When it came to the final, Juve couldn’t have missed him more. They looked mundane throughout the night, lacking the spark and inspiration that Nedvěd provided. In what was a dreary game, fans could only imagine how Nedvěd would have grabbed it by the neck and changed it had he not picked up his booking against Madrid. Milan eventually won via a penalty shootout and sealed their sixth European Cup.
He still got his hands on the scudetto that season, however, and was also awarded the prestigious Ballon d’Or, becoming the first Czech player to win it since Josef Masopust in 1961.
Two more scudetto’s would follow for Nedved, in 2005 and 2006, before the Calciopoli scandal engulfed the club. At the end of the 2005-06 season Juve would be relegated to Serie B as punishment for fixing matches. Zlatan Ibrahimović and Fabio Cannavaro were just two of the stars that would leave the club. Nedvěd wouldn’t though. He refused all offers that came his way. His family, who he always put first in his life and in his career, were settled and happy in Turin. He was still committed to the club that he had grown to love, and along with Alessandro Del Piero and Gigi Buffon decided he would stay and help La Vecchia Signori back to Serie A, which they did at the first time of asking.
The rest of his career was played out like a long farewell. Nedvěd had been thinking about retirement as far back as 2006 but didn’t feel the moment was right, until February 2009 when he was 36.
And so it leads us back to the moment he is walking off the pitch. Both fans standing for him, clapping for him, and wistfully recalling his greatest moments in their minds as he walked off into a new life.
That new life still keeps him busy. As well as being an avid fitness fanatic and golf player, he is now Juve’s vice president and plays a major role in their transfer dealings, as well as other day-to-day decisions. Still passionate as ever, he was banned for three weeks for berating a referee during a game not long ago.
Despite rarely being one of the first names to roll off the tongue when you think of modern day greats, there’s no doubting his pedigree in the game. A loyal and unassuming family man off the pitch, but a competitive and dazzling player on it, the name Pavel Nedvěd is firmly etched into the long, glittering annals of Italian and Czech football.
By James Bhamra. Follow @JamesBhamra