Pavel Nedved, the Czech international football captain, has won perhaps the most prestigious award in his sport, the magazine France Football's Golden Ball for European Player of the Year. Nedved, who plays for the Italian club Juventus, won the poll of sports journalists from around the continent by some margin, and his win has generated great excitement here in the Czech Republic.
Speculation that Pavel Nedved had won the European Player of the Year Award filled the Czech media for the last week or so. However, that didn't detract from the jubilation which greeted the confirmation that the 31-year-old midfielder had joined greats like Alfredo di Stefano, George Best, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and Michel Platini in winning football's greatest award. Nedved, who comes from the village of Skalna near Cheb in west Bohemia, had this to say after receiving the award in Paris on Monday evening.
"I can finally believe I've won it because I have the Golden Ball award in front of me. I'm extremely happy, winning really means a lot to me and not just for me - it means a lot for the Czech Republic and football in our country. It's not so easy to win it either, no Czech has won it for 41 years. I didn't win it just because I had a good year, it's an award for my whole career, which has been successful. That said, it doesn't change anything for me. I'm still going to train hard, to run, and I'm going to be motivated to show everybody that I really deserve this award."
As Pavel Nedved said there, no Czech had won the European Player of the Year Award since 1962, when Josef Masopust - generally regarded as the best player ever from this country - took the award. Masopust, who captained and scored for Czechoslovakia in the World Cup final against Brazil that year, was among the first to congratulate Nedved.
"The award has more importance now than when I won it, because now players from around the world play in Europe."
Another Czech footballing legend, Antonin Panenka, said he had no doubts that Pavel Nedved really was the best player in Europe this year.
"I think he really deserved it, because I think all year his performances were out of the ordinary. Also I'd have to say he's become a bit wiser in the last few years, he's more mature now - you can see it in him. I think the award is a wonderful thing and the right man has won it."
Pavel Nedved has had a great year: he helped his club Juventus to the Champions League final, only to miss what would have been one of the most important games of his career through suspension. And, as captain, he was inspirational for the Czech Republic, who this year extended their unbeaten run to 19 games and qualified for Euro 2004. Let's hope Nedved, without doubt the best Czech footballer of his generation, can help put Czech football on the map by going all the way in Portugal next summer. It would be the culmination of a magnificent career.
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