The history of the beautiful game is awash with players that are commonly recognised as pioneers of a certain style or attitude. For most people, names such as Pelé, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff are most readily uttered, but it is extremely unlikely that anyone outside the Czech Republic would ever jump straight to Pavel Nedvěd. Yet through his superlative versatility on the wing, and in the centre of the park, he was a key figure in the reinvention of Italian football.
Nedvěd is, of course, most readily identified as a Juventus legend. Today, as reflected by Juventus odds of 34/5 for a domestic treble, the Turin club looks invincible. However, Nedvěd’s loyalty was a key part of Juventus’ ability to resume life seamlessly in Italy’s top flight, after a forced relegation in 2006. Like many of the greatest footballers in existence, life in the sport began humbly for Nedvěd. He began his youth career at TJ Skalná in 1977 at the age of just five, and worked his way up, surviving the brutal culls that are the dread of youth players at all levels of the game.
By 1991, a 19-year-old Nedvěd was finally deemed ready for first team action at Dukla Prague, and it took less than a year for his performances to gain the attention of Czech giants Sparta. Season on season, Nedvěd made an increasing number of appearances within a squad where first team places were at an absolute premium. In 1996, on the back of three Czech top-flight winners’ medals and a Euro 1996 runners-up medal, Nedvěd transferred to Lazio. It was a move that would help to change Italian football’s image forever.
Pavel Nedved’s golden goals for Lazio
As the final decade of the 20th century dawned, Italian football was the subject of derision across Europe. Though something of a stereotype, Serie A matches were seen as uninventive affairs, with a great emphasis on defending and cynical play. In the 1990s, Lazio was the club that decided to destroy the stereotype once and for all. After the success story that was Paul Gascoigne (who played for Lazio between 1992 and 1995), Dino Zoff’s successor, Zdeněk Zeman, had the perfect justification to continue Lazio’s culture for the scouting of foreign talent. As a fellow Czech, Nedvěd was already known to Zeman, and fully repaid the faith placed in him with a series of bold performances.
A Coppa Italia win in 1997/98 was the first sign of Nedvěd’s forthcoming legendary status, with that first piece of Italian silverware coming off the back of an excellent season in which Nedvěd struck 11 goals in 26 appearances. However, it would be over the following two years that Nedvěd’s full exaltation within European football culture would be completed. Lazio made an inauspicious start to the 1998/99 Cup Winners’ Cup, squeezing past Swiss minnows Lausanne-Sport on away goals in the first round. However, there was no looking back after that close shave with elimination. After scoring the opening goal of the first leg against Lausanne, Nedvěd struck several more times as Lazio powered to the final. He also scored the winning goal in the final itself, but even more successes were to come
In 1999/2000, despite scoring just five times in 28 league appearances, Nedvěd was a major component of the squad – by now managed by Sven-Göran Eriksson – that won only the club’s second (and, to date, most recent) Serie A title. His reward was a move to Juventus, and two more Serie A titles. Although he could not quite add a Champions League medal to his haul, with Juventus losing the 2003 final to AC Milan, Nedvěd is undoubtedly the bar towards which most academy midfielders worldwide now aspire.