Pavel Nedved: The Czech Fury.
His nickname is actually a play on 'Blind Fury' in Italian, but it's a nickname befitting of someone with his wild, blond hair, or the fury with which he struck a football, or the nature of his play, which saw him sent off three times in six games in his first season with Sparta Prague.
But he wasn’t just blood and thunder. So technically gifted was Nedved – despite his protestations that he wasn’t ‘that great technically’, he could have been forgiven for not being the hardest worker in a side. But his work rate, like virtually every other facet of his game, was never in question, and it helped turn him into one of the midfielders of a generation.
He was even asked by team-mates why he trained so hard when he already had everything. Sven-Goran Eriksson recalled when his team-mates would take a month off, Nedved would take just five days off and be straight back at it.
“I knew the training pitch better than anyone. When others went out clubbing, I went to sleep. When others had Christmas, I went out in the woods to run.
"I went to a football school 60 miles away from where I lived. I practised 12 hours a day, training both feet so thoroughly, that I no longer know which is better. At Sparta Prague, I would retake the field after a match and train until the floodlights were extinguished."
Not only was he equally talented with both feet, making him almost impossible to defend against at times, but he was a fearsome tackler – albeit overstepping the mark on occasion – a talented dribbler, and the possessor of a lethal shot which made him a threat from almost anywhere in the opposition half.
He scored all kinds of goals – headers and volleys, inside the area and outside the area, long-range piledrivers and impudent chips – and so often the goals would leave you simply shaking your head in disbelief.
Despite not being of a particularly intimidating stature, nor being overly blessed with pace, he more than made up for both with sheer tenacity and determination. There were no half measures in Nedved’s play; he was 100 miles an hour, full throttle.
Nedved was everything you could want in a footballer. He was the complete midfielder.
But Nedved’s story could so easily have been so different. The title of his autobiography, translated to English, was "My Normal Life: Running from the Revolution, to Europe, and the Ballon d’Or", in reference to his upbringing in the former communist Czechoslovakia.
Aged 17, bidding to make it as a professional footballer, the laws of the land prevented Czech footballers leaving to play in a foreign country before the age of 32.
The Berlin Wall fell, and Nedved joined demonstrations to spark change in his homeland.
The protests indeed sparked change, and Nedved was free to showcase his talents to the rest of Europe.
After completing his spell with the army-run Dukla Prague as part of his military service, Nedved joined Czech giants Sparta Prague, where he would begin to make his name.
It would, however, take a while for Nedved to find his feet with Sparta. Manager Karol Dobias said he could be happy with a place on the bench, remarkably stating that ‘this lad has no future’ in a newspaper column. The words motivated Nedved, for which he later thanked Dobias, but with suspensions due to his numerous red cards – three in six games – he didn’t have much opportunity to prove himself at club level.
His performances with the Czech U23 side gave him the opportunity to get back into the line-up, which he grabbed with both hands. Nedved would prove his worth in Prague, becoming a part of the team that won the final Czechoslovak First League, then the newly-formed Czech First League in three straight years.
By 1995, Nedved had established himself as the division’s marquee player, scoring 14 goals and winning the Czech Cup, albeit finishing an extremely distant and disappointing fourth in the league.
It would be Nedved’s final season in the Czech Republic, with his performances at Euro 1996 cementing his move to bigger and better things.
Dealt a tough hand, with the group stage draw pitting them against tournament favourites Italy and Germany, few gave the Czech Republic hope of getting out of the group let alone reaching the final.
Rank outsiders for the tournament, they lost their opening match with Germany 3-0, but followed that up with a shock 2-1 win over Italy, with Nedved, unrecognisable without the blond mop he later became so well known for, scoring the opener.
An incredible 3-3 draw with Russia in the final group game was enough to secure passage to the quarter-finals where they would meet Portugal, albeit without the suspended Nedved, with coach Dusan Uhrin admitting even he’d be surprised if they progressed.
But they did progress, with Nedved returning for the semi-final with France.
Underdogs once more, Czech Republic kept France at bay for 120 minutes, edging past them on penalties, with Nedved being named Man of the Match following a typically tireless display.
The fairytale would end in the final for Nedved and the Czech Republic, but the summer of ‘96 would bring about the start of a new chapter in his story.
With superstar Ronaldo departing for Barcelona, PSV Eindhoven looked set to sign Nedved, but the Czech joined up with compatriot Zdenek Zeman at Lazio.
It was a move Nedved was initially hesitant about making, believing he wouldn’t have been able to adapt to Italian football, nor cope with its challenges.
I thought: 'Where have we ended up?'
- Pavel Nedved, after moving to Rome
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
He did have large hurdles to navigate at first, though. Nedved was just 23 years old at the time, with the language barrier perhaps being the biggest hurdle, especially with his wife being pregnant in a foreign country with their first child. They’d also moved to Italy as non-EU nationals, presenting further bureaucratic difficulties.
But Nedved would quickly find his feet in the Italian capital.
Across his first two seasons with Lazio, he’d score 18 goals, with the Biancocelesti winning the Coppa Italia and being UEFA Cup runners-up to an Inter side spearheaded by Ivan Zamorano and Ronaldo.
More silverware followed in 1999, winning the last-ever Cup Winners’ Cup with Nedved scoring the competition’s last-ever goal.
Despite the domestic and European trophies, the Scudetto continued to elude Lazio, who finished second in 1999. The previous summer had seen huge investment as the likes of Marcelo Salas, Christian Vieri, Dejan Stankovic and Sinisa Mihajlovic all joined, with Juan Sebastian Veron and Diego Simeone proving to be the final pieces of the puzzle the following year.
Not only would Lazio finally lift the title, they’d make it a league and cup double, with Nedved scoring in the Coppa Italia final.
Unfortunately, the spending that had lifted Lazio to the summit of Italian football would prove to be their undoing.
In huge financial trouble, several big names were offloaded in the years following the title win, with Nedved featuring for just one more season before a big-money move to Turin.
Make no mistake, Nedved wasn’t forcing a move, but as former Juventus director Luciano Moggi revealed in his book: "Nedved always scored against us… We’ll buy him so we can resolve this problem!" Lazio needed to generate funds, and Juventus had lost Zinedine Zidane in a world-record move to Real Madrid that summer. Nedved was tasked with filling his shoes.
A few eyebrows were raised at the time, not getting much change out of the Zidane money to sign a player pushing 30, but what a signing Nedved would prove to be.
Despite 15 Serie A goal contributions, including a couple of massive ones with their title charge in jeopardy to secure a first Scudetto in four years for the Old Lady, Nedved hadn’t yet lived up to the high standards he’d set.
The second season, however, would not just be the Nedved of old, but a Nedved taken to new levels. Juventus won the title again and Nedved was named Serie A Footballer of the Year.
In a league with the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Paolo Maldini, Gianluigi Buffon, David Trezeguet, Andriy Shevchenko, Cafu, Alessandro Nesta and so many others, Nedved stood above them all.
2003 however, also had its share of heartbreak.
Despite his performances being good enough to win the Ballon d’Or at the end of the year, as well as good enough to help Juventus to the Champions League final, he’d suffer the heartbreak of missing the final through suspension.
Less than 10 minutes after his wonderful goal, which effectively sealed Juventus’ place in the final, Nedved, who’d been superb throughout the night for the hosts, committed the most petulant of fouls on Steve McManaman, to pick up the most stupid of bookings.
He jumped to his feet immediately to apologise, knowing full well what he’d done, and knowing full well what was about to happen. The apology was in vain; Nedved was booked and fell to his knees.
It was the best and the worst of the Czech Fury, who was overcome with emotion at the final whistle; Juventus in the Champions League final, but he’d watch from the sidelines.
Despite playing in UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup finals, it was the closest Nedved would ever get to a Champions League final, which Juventus lost on penalties to Milan. It had been a dour 120 minutes, crying out for Nedved’s presence, and you can’t help but feel the result would have been different had he been present.
So good was Nedved at his peak, that his Ballon d’Or win of 2003 saw him beat Thierry Henry – who’d registered a ridiculous 44 Premier League goals and assists that season – into a distant second place.
Although the following season would see Juventus drop off, another major tournament awaited for Nedved, whose Czech Republic were much more well fancied than they were eight years earlier.
A come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Latvia where Nedved was crucial in the comeback, followed by another come-from-behind 3-2 victory in the game of the tournament against the Netherlands, where Nedved was named Man of the Match, saw the Czech Republic win the group with two games to spare.
Nedved would lay on an assist in a superb display during his side’s comfortable 3-0 win over Denmark, setting up a semi-final with a Greece side who, to be frank, had outstayed their welcome at Euro 2004. Their defensive style of football hadn’t won many fans, but had seen them cause a number of upsets throughout the tournament, and they still had a couple more to come.
Like everyone else, the Czechs – big favourites for the clash – came unstuck against the Greeks, with their talisman limping off after 40 minutes. Had he played the full 90, who knows what would have happened?
Despite the agony of another near miss on Europe’s biggest stage, Nedved would earn a place in the Team of the Tournament.
Now in his 30s, Nedved would return to Juventus to win two more Serie A titles, both stripped due to the Calciopoli scandal, resulting in Juventus’ demotion to Serie B.
It would present a seminal moment for Nedved and much of the Juventus squad. This was still one of Europe’s leading teams, with players capable of playing for sides hopeful of reaching the latter stages of the Champions League. The Italian second tier was certainly beneath them.
As such, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Patrick Vieira, Fabio Cannavaro, Emerson, Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta departed for some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Even manager Fabio Capello left for Real Madrid.
But the likes of Del Piero, Buffon, Trezeguet and Nedved all stayed, endearing themselves further to the Juventus faithful. For Nedved, he would sacrifice any realistic hope of winning the Champions League medal that eluded him in order to get the Old Lady back to where they belonged.
Though retirement had already crossed Nedved’s mind, he was persuaded to continue his stay in Turin for another couple of years after promotion. No more titles would follow, but he would be nominated to the club’s board of directors in 2010, becoming vice president five years later.
So well revered is he – even from the boardroom – when walking onto the pitch before a match, he’s still serenaded by chants of his name during the warm-up, having to point out there are 11 current Juventus players out there with him.
All in all, he finished his career with more than 750 appearances, more than 150 goals and more than 100 assists, 18 winners’ medals, a handful of major runners-up medals and, of course, the Ballon d’Or.
But he was so much more than numbers; he was the Czech Fury.