Football has a singular way of introducing its next big stars. Many of the elite footballers you see strutting their stuff at the top today earned critical acclaim and eventual superstardom by imposing themselves on the world’s biggest, most opportune stages.
From the World Cup and the Champions League to the Copa América and the European Championships, one way or another, they make their presence known. Others, however, rely on the hand they’re dealt at the club level to stake their claim and show the world what they are capable of. Sometimes, however, a simple stroke of genius, a touch of social media virality – and a manoeuvre flirting with Dutch royalty – is more than sufficient to announce your arrival on the scene in Europe.
Sunday 23 April 2017 at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris in Genoa set the scene for what shaped to be the moment of magic that would make the young Czech Republic forward Patrik Schick a household name on the Peninsula. Sampdoria hosted a Crotone side clinging to hopes of survival in the relegation battle.
In the 21st minute, surrounded by three defenders, Fabio Quagliarella quickly rid himself of possession and spotted the 21-year-old up field. Instinctively, Schick – tightly marked by Gianmarco Ferrari with his back facing goal some 30 yards out – swiftly flicked the ball over the defender, corralled it and capped his run towards the goalkeeper with a tidy, left footed finish.
Soon, word got out of Schick’s unerring coolness to pull off a manoeuvre reminiscent of Dennis Bergkamp’s theatric strike for Arsenal versus Newcastle 15 years earlier. In that brief moment, Schick struck a chord with Europe’s elite clubs, whose curiosities had been undeniably obtained.
Hailing from Prague, the class of ’96 bomber grew up in the Sparta academy, eventually graduating his way into the first team picture by debuting in May 2014 against Teplice. Strangely enough, the Czech Republic’s lanky forward notched just five official appearances for his boyhood club between 2013 and 2015, tallying less than 90 minutes total. Still, it was clear Schick possessed the x-factor necessary to be elite, but it would require a loan spell to manifest it.
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Following limited action with his native club, Schick took his talents on loan to Bohemians Praha 1905 for the 2015/16 campaign. Instantly, he kicked on for his temporary employer, weaving in and around his every marker with ease and confidence. Whether deployed out wide as a right-winger or plugged centrally into his current preferred role that’s made him a star today, Schick dazzled, managing an impressive seven goals.
By all accounts, this single digit tally did not jump off the page, nor was it enough to comprehend the skilled number 9’s progression to that point. At any rate, his exploits were enough to gain the intrigue of two top-tier clubs in Italy, desperate to corral his signature.
Last summer, Roma and Sampdoria showed their intentions of making Schick a first team footballer in Serie A. Generally speaking, the Czech public is often very sceptical about sending their players abroad, in part due to man young stars having failed to adapt in previous years and having quickly fallen off the map.
Schick, however, refused to fall victim to such stereotypes and took it upon himself to see Italy for the golden opportunity it was to grow, similarly to Pavel Nedvěd who undertook the same route in 1996 when he left Sparta Prague for Lazio.
In spite of the Giallorossi’s concerted efforts bring him to the capital, in the end, Sampdoria sporting director Carlo Osti prevailed, bringing Schick to the Marassi for an estimated €4 million. His move to the Blucerchiati flew well under the radar and received little publicity in the media simply due to the fact most could not identify with his profile. But those close to the Czech academy pool knew Schick would seize the opportunity in Genoa to become a star.
Upon arriving at the club, Schick stood as the third choice striker behind Fabio Quagliarella and Colombian Luis Muriel. Manager Marco Giampaolo’s preferred formation, a 4-3-1-2, favoured the synchronicity between the two established men, meaning Schick’s appearances would arrive predominantly from the bench.
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Initially, he played the role of Giampaolo’s spark-plug, often igniting the team in trailing situations. Consolation it seemed, it was Schick’s maiden goal last October in a 4-1 defeat to Juventus at J Stadium that seemingly opened the floodgates to his rise. Sparingly summoned, Czech football’s crown jewel eventually forced Giampaolo’s hand in those brief cameos with his killer instinct and uncanny levels of confidence, earning regular starting nods after the winter break.
Once Giampaolo slotted him as the seconda punta, Schick was granted the freedom to be expressive; drift out wide and cut in to launch towards goal with his delectable left foot. Equipped with a beautiful first touch and the elegance to evade defenders gracefully, Schick’s movement was like poetry in motion and instantly reminded his many observers of a younger Zlatan Ibrahimović or Marco van Basten. Over 32 Serie A appearances, the striker scored 11 goals in just 1,504 minutes and accumulated five assists, concluding the season with a very different reputation across the continent than what was initially expected of him.
Club football paved the way for Schick to become one of Europe’s perennial super-talents. Inter, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus all immediately became enamoured by his illustrious performances last season and set out for his signature. Ultimately, due to reported heart concerns revealed from his medicals, the Bianconeri called off their pursuit at the last minute.
Last month in Poland for the UEFA Under-21 European Championships, Schick solidified his international scoring success when he struck the back of the net from distance in a 4-2 defeat to Denmark. Already with a handful of caps to his name, there is no telling the heights he will reach.
Long before his eruption at Sampdoria and the courtship from football’s elite, it was hard to imagine Schick’s meteoric rise and sudden development occurring so quickly. Every so often, there is a special type of player who emerges from the shadows and causes a chain reaction of conversations across their respective nation. They create a contagious belief among supporters where past glories are immediately revived with new hope.
For the Czech Republic, their thirst for a new idol in the same vein as Milan Baroš, Jan Koller and Pavel Nedvěd may finally have been satisfied
By Matthew Santangelo @Matt_Santangelo