It’s 19 May 2001 in the German city of Gelsenkirchen. All around the Parkstadion, tens of thousands of Schalke fans are ready to celebrate their first league title since 1958. With their team winning 5-3 against already relegated Unterhaching, it is a simple case of waiting for Bayern Munich’s match in Hamburg to finish, praying for the hosts to score a late winner.
Sergej Barbarez obliges in the 90th minute, heading home to spark wild celebrations for those dressed in royal blue. Two minutes of added time come and go; still 1-0 to HSV. Twenty seconds over the allotted two minutes of stoppage time, Bayern are awarded an indirect free-kick some ten yards from goal. Stefan Effenberg tees up Patrik Andersson, and the Swede fires home to seal the title.
Amidst the scenes of delirium at the Volksparkstadion, matched in equal measure by the despair unfolding some 350km south-west, was a 23-year-old Czech defender named Tomáš Ujfaluši. It was he whose right boot had beaten Paulo Sérgio to a through ball of Effenberg’s, passing back to Mathias Schober and conceding the free-kick. An unfortunate and perhaps often forgotten place in the history of one of the great final day stories, it was the misfortunate start of a stellar top-level career for Ujfaluši.
Born in 1978 and swiftly progressing through the ranks of Sigma Olomouc, in December 2000 the Czech defender would move to Hamburg, commanding a fee of around €2m. He would play every remaining minute of the Bundesliga season, impressing with his physical approach. The 13th-place finish Ujfaluši would help HSV to would be unspectacular compared to the part they played in a frantic end, but over the next three seasons he would establish himself as one of the Bundesliga’s most consistent defenders.
The situation was only dampened by a knee injury sustained in 2003, keeping Ujfaluši out of action for around two months. Nevertheless, he would recover, balancing his club duties with a big part in the defence of the Czech Republic’s golden team. Playing all bar one of the Czech’s qualifiers for Euro 2004, Ujfaluši would help the side go unbeaten in qualifying, conceding just five goals.
In Portugal for the finals, he would start the first two games as the Czechs expertly navigated a group of death containing Germany and the Netherlands, alongside the less formidable Latvia, to claim maximum points. Rested for the final group match with his home of the past four years, Ujfaluši would return for the victorious quarter-final with Denmark, picking up a yellow card in a 3-0 victory. Unfortunately, the semi-final against unfancied Greece would see Traianos Dellas’ extra time header send Ujfaluši and his teammates home.
By this point, ‘home’ would be found in a new country, for Ujfaluši. His showings for Hamburg and the Czech team prompted rumoured interest from AC Milan, Inter and Juventus, but it was with the resurrected Fiorentina whom he would sign. Costing around €6m, it would be a wholly unsuccessful first season, featuring a reaggravation of his knee and a relegation battle where Fiorentina only guaranteed their safety on the final day.
Despite returning to full fitness the following season, there would be further problems for Ujfaluši. Satisfied with the centre-back pairing of Alessandro Gamberini and Dario Dainelli, coach Cesare Prandelli decided to move the Czech out to right-back, which rankled him. However, with time Ujfaluši grew into his new role, adding a dangerous crossing ability to his more routine defensive skills. Fiorentina would end 2005/06 in fourth, although were demoted to ninth, later in the summer, as punishment for their role in the Calciopoli scandal.
This coincided with Ujfaluši preparing for a return to Germany as part of a Czech side widely seen as dark horses for that summer’s World Cup. On the road to the finals, he played more minutes of qualifiers than any other European player, participating in the full 90 of all 12 group games and both legs of the playoff victory over Norway. Unfortunately, this appeared to have taken its toll on the defender when he finally arrived back in Germany.
Despite playing without error in a comfortable 3-0 opening win over the USA, Ujfaluši would endure a miserable afternoon in the following match against Ghana. After just two minutes he threw himself at a cross from Stephen Appiah, missing his header to allow Asamoah Gyan space to finish. Things didn’t improve in the second half as he was sent off for tripping Matthew Amoah in the box and, despite Petr Čech saving the resulting spot-kick, Sulley Muntari would score later in the game to leave the Czechs facing elimination.
Nevertheless, Ujfaluši would bounce back to put in two more stellar seasons at Fiorentina, predominantly in his new role as right-back. La Viola would have qualified for the Champions League in 2007 had they not been docked 15 points for their role in Calciopoli. Meanwhile, the following season saw Fiorentina end in fourth in the league to secure a return to Europe’s top table, whilst being unfortunate to lose on penalties in the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup to Rangers.
In a league stereotypically associated with defending, Ujfaluši was now quite rightly regarded as one of Serie A’s best. Noted not only for his versatility, but also his uncompromisingness in the challenge and warrior-like attitude, Fiorentina reportedly turned down several offers from top European clubs. Such is the esteem the man known as ‘Ufo’ is held within Florence, he was named in their best ever XI by fans through the website ViolaNation earlier this year.
Into his 30s, such experience counted for Czech coach Karel Brückner, who named Ujfaluši as his captain for Euro 2008. Unfortunately, there would be no repeat of the heroics of Portugal four years earlier, as a late turnaround against Turkey in Geneva eliminated the Czechs at the first hurdle.
The conclusion of another summer tournament yet again signalled a transfer for Ujfaluši, this time to Atlético Madrid upon the expiry of his contract in Italy. In his first season he helped Atléti end in fourth, playing in the centre of defence, forming a strong partnership alongside Luis Perea. This campaign would also involve international retirement for Ujfaluši in the most bizarre of circumstances.
Losing a crucial World Cup qualifier to neighbouring Slovakia in April 2009, the aftermath saw Czech tabloids running a story that showed Ujfaluši and his teammates out for dinner with several prostitutes. In response, the married Ujfaluši announced his retirement from the team, stating how the players were being solely used as a scapegoat for administrative problems within the Czech FA.
Solely focused on his club football, the end of the decade would see Ujfaluši again moved to the right, partly due to the arrival of Juanito, but also on his own insistence. He would enjoy another strong campaign, rounding off the decade in the best possible fashion by winning the UEFA Cup in 2009/10, poetically back at the Volksparkstadion.
He would remain at Atlético for a further season, before being sold at the end of 2010/11 to Galatasaray. Istanbul would serve as the final meaningful destination of Ujfaluši’s journeyed career, where back-to-back Süper Lig titles were won, before a brief return to his homeland with Sparta Prague, which ended without any appearances after injuries forced Ujfaluši to retire, aged 35.
Schalke fans probably paid little attention to this retirement in 2013. Indeed, most were probably too distraught on the day of their four-minute championship to even try to identify a scapegoat. The Czech media were not quite so forgiving nine years later when addressing their own footballing shortcomings, which, as time has proven, are yet to be sorted. Regardless, it is unfair to categorise Tomas Ujfaluši in this bracket, given that he carved out what deserves to be remembered as a highly commendable career.
By James Kelly @jkell403