Czechs Today is our new monthly feature profiling prominent men and women shaping contemporary Czech life. To kick off our new series we decided to begin with sport - universally recognised and enjoyed - and an area where Czechs have made their mark. Among Czech athletes there are few who draw more attention than football's Pavel Nedved, the extremely talented midfielder who plays for Italy's Juventus Turin and captains the Czech national side. Adored by legions of fans both here and abroad, the Furia Ceca, as he is nicknamed in the Italian league, is a real tour-de-force. It is his style and impact that we examine today.
There is no question that Pavel Nedved has become the dominant figure in the Czech national side: the squad's captain has exploded in productivity over the last two years, outshining even such team-mates as Jan Koller, Karel Poborsky, and the up-and-coming Milan Baros in consistency and skill. Just this September he helped the Czechs finish unbeaten at the top of their group to qualify for Euro 2004 - the European Football Championships to be held in Portugal. Key performances against Belarus, Austria, but especially the Netherlands helped push the Czech Republic through, with most of the Czech press attributing Nedved's verve as a key psychological factor that helped the team pull together at difficult moments, especially when falling behind in a match against a surprisingly scrappy Belarus. The Dutch, featuring such stars as Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert could have been equally intimidating. Both times the Czechs persevered.
Jan Palicka, a sportswriter for the Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnes says Nedved's motivation was instrumental in the wins, but points out things weren't always that way. Above all, today's Nedved is a far cry from the player he was just two years ago: then temperamental and impulsive on the pitch, he carried his captainship poorly and suffered what was arguably the most numbing defeat of his career: the failure to see the national side through to the World Cup. Qualifying had become a lasting obsession for most players, but nowhere was it greater than with Nedved himself. The failure to qualify says Jan Palicka, had a lasting impact.
"In the last World Cup qualification there was great opportunity for the Czech Republic. Nedved was the captain. Big experiences with winning, it was euphoria in the Czech Republic and it came down to outsider Belgium in a play-off game. Nedved, however, was out of form, great motivation, but out of form. He was bad and he did not behave like a leader. He was sent off in the second match against Belgium."
"For losing his temper."
The Czechs lost and it would be the beginning of the long road to recovery. One important change was the appointment of Karel Bruckner as coach of the national side. The change was key especially for Nedved himself. Over two years Bruckner, something of an "old wolf" who had previously successfully coached the Czech Under-21s, pulled together a team that had been coming apart at the seams. He reinstated confidence in its captain, who had been considering altogether giving up the national side.
Since then, it's obvious the Bruckner-Nedved combination has been overwhelmingly positive. The Nedved we know now is a far more serious player: as he's said himself, after turning thirty he began to think about the example he was setting for younger players. The Czech Republic has not lost a single match in an incredible 18 games and Czechs will be keeping their fingers crossed at the Euro championships next year. For their team - and for its captain - who carries a silver medal from second place in 1996.
That alone is an interesting note: Nedved's international career began with the Euro championships in '96 - that was when that he was really first noticed abroad. He had already won three league titles with Sparta Prague - arguably it was time to move on. Jan Palicka again:
"The Czech Republic took part in Euro '96 as an outsider and Nedved as midfielder was one of the key men, who scored one goal, an important goal against Italy. That helped the Czechs go through to the quarter-final and it was the most important moment in his career. The team went on to win the semi-final against France and made the final against Germany, which was a great surprise. Surprise for a whole nation, for Europe and, I think, even for Nedved himself. After Euro 96 Nedved went to Italy's Lazio Rome."
Italy's love affair with the player was storybook from day one. Nedved has shined in Serie A with both Lazio and now Juventus, winning 3 league championships, 2 Italian Cups, 3 Italian Super Cups, as well as taking his club to the Champion's League final last season, though he missed the last game for a yellow card.
"In Italy football is number 1! Or put it this way: the pope is first, second is football! And Nedved is this megastar of Italian football. They call him the Furia Ceca, the Czech wizard. Or Grande Paolo - the great Pavel, and he likes it, he likes the status. Football is number 1 and a way of living in Italy."
It was in Italy that Nedved developed into the complete player capable of replacing an outgoing Zinedine Zidane, capable of outclassing any other player on the field. He has been called the best in the world in his position: an extraordinary midfielder who comes into his own on the left side, a strong sprinter and dribbler. If less flamboyant than Zidane, if not remembered for a single highlight goal like Poborsky or Panenka, he does have an extra edge going for him. Says Jan Palicka: he's a workhorse, a horse with blockers on the sides of his eyes. In other words, when he's on the field he lives for one thing and one thing only: to play his best and to win.
"He can score nice goals from free kicks. Long distances, beautiful shots, you have to watch it on TV. Last weekend the first goal against Brescia in the Italian league: beautiful goal, acrobatic style, a tremendous shot."
Football star Pavel Nedved. Many say this year could be the one that fans have all been waiting for. Many observers say he has a good chance of winning Best European Player of the Year. Nedved has led the Czechs to Euro 2004 where he is further expected to shine. Finally, many will be watching the charismatic team captain many years to come: to see if he tries for one more shot at the next World Cup. By then he'll be thirty-five, but journalists say barring injury he will still be team captain, putting the squad's achievements even above his own. Something which has become increasingly characteristic of Pavel Nedved's style as he has grown throughout his career.
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