Illustration by Federico Manasse
Football is seldom, if ever, free from political realities. Had it not been for the collapse of Communism in 1989, Pavel Nedvěd’s career would have likely followed the trajectory of another iconic Czech footballer: Josef Masopust.
A World Cup finalist and Ballon d’Or winner in 1962, Masopust is widely regarded as the greatest Czechoslovak footballer of all time. He could have played for any of Europe’s top sides but was prevented from doing so by the Communist leadership of Czechoslovakia. However, with the disintegration of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in 1993, a new generation of Czech footballers had the opportunity to showcase their talents on Europe’s grandest stages. This was perfect timing for 21-year-old Nedvěd, who began building his reputation as the greatest player in the young Republic’s history: their very own ‘Czech Fury’.
As a boy, Nedvěd trained assiduously, teaching himself to be two-footed and ensuring that, physically, he could conquer any opponent on the field. Despite this industry, when the youngster earned his first big move to Sparta Prague in 1992, his world-class potential was not yet obvious. In fact, in a newspaper column by Karol Dobiaš – a winning member of Czechoslovakia’s 1976 European Championship team – Nedvěd was written off as a lad with “no future”. Four years with Sparta and three league titles later, Dobiaš was already being made to rue his gratuitous prediction.
During his days at Sparta, Nedvěd’s teammates teased him about his relentless training habits. “You have everything you need,” they would say, “a good wage, a house, a beautiful car … who makes you do it?” The answer was nobody but himself. For Nedvěd, there was always a bigger picture; one he longed to paint on foreign soil.
Euro 96 proved to be another seminal moment for the Blonde-haired Bohemian. Nedvěd was the midfield dynamo in a talented Czech Republic side, boasting the likes of Patrik Berger and Karel Poborský. Their run to the final, and in particular Nedvěd’s all-action performance in the semi-final against France, was perhaps his crowning moment with the national side. These performances earned him a move to Serie A, where he joined Zdeněk Zeman’s Lazio.
Playing in what was at the time the most competitive league in Europe, the Czech catapulted himself to greatness. His desire and tenacity enamoured him to his supporters and earned the respect of his opponents. But this verve was also complemented by skill and subtlety.
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Nedvěd’s versatility allowed him to play across the midfield. From the wing he could fire in crosses or cut inside and unleash violent shots with either foot. Centrally he had the vision, composure and passing range to conduct play, whilst also possessing the turn of pace required to make darting runs into the penalty box. He was a supreme tutto-campista – a jack of all midfield trades.
After five trophy-laden years with Lazio, including two Coppa Italia, one Cup Winners’ Cup and only the second Scudetto in the club’s history, the ‘Czech Cannon’ moved to one of Europe’s premier clubs, Juventus. Such was Nedvěd’s cult status, the Laziali vehemently protested against his transfer. But this would pale in comparison to the reverence he would command at Juve.
In Turin his legacy transcends trophies and match-winning performances. Though they ensured Nedvěd became European Footballer of the Year in 2003, instead, Nedvěd’s legacy belongs to the man, as well as the player, and the dedication, hunger and loyalty central to his creed.
After winning four straight Scudetti and reaching a Champions League final in 2003, this loyalty shone through as he remained in Turin despite the club’s relegation to Serie B for their involvement in the 2006 Calciopoli scandal. After helping the Bianconeri return to Serie A, he stayed for three more years, steadying the ship and guiding Juve into a new era of dominance. For that, Nedvěd’s status amongst Juventini is untouchable.
How, against his contemporaries, should Nedvěd ultimately be judged? Admittedly, Petr Čech, Tomáš Rosický, Milan Baroš and Karel Poborský all earned more caps for the Czech Republic and, in some cases, had equally appreciable impacts abroad. Furthermore, had he returned home for a touching farewell season, like his fellow countrymen Rosický, Baroš and Poborský, perhaps his status as the nation’s greatest would be irrefutable.
But none of the aforementioned players evoke the same vivid imagery as Pavel in his pomp; the Czech Fury with a warrior spirit, a right foot as good as his left, and an unyielding desire to succeed. Neither did they match Nedvěd in becoming the first Czech player since Josef Masopust to win the Ballon d’Or. As such, he has to go down as the unrivalled icon of modern Czech football