The date was 31st May, 2009. Juventus faced Lazio. These games tend to have an edge on them, Lazio has an infamous reputation of being a bogey team to Juve. But this game was different, both sets of fans had gathered to pay homage to a player they loved. Every touch the player took was greeted with cheers. The player didn’t let the fans down, he started one of his trademark mazy runs from the flanks & set up the second goal for Juventus. Juve won that match 2-0, but there was more to this game than the result. On the 89th minute the player was substituted. Both sets of fans gave him a standing ovation. The world had seen it’s last glimpse of Pavel Nedved, as a professional player.
Juventus FC, the Grand Old Lady of Turin can boast of one of the most illustrated halls of fame in the world. Hundreds of celebrated players, both Italian and non-Italian, have donned the famous black and white jersey. In this Valhalla of gallant Bianconeri warriors, the Czech Fury holds his position with unmatched integrity.
Pavel Nedved, the Czech Cannon, the player who never stopped running. He was the player who never gave up, someone who was admired all across the board, irrespective of which club you supported.
Nedved’s career began when he was 19;starting out in Dukla Prague. Soon his talents were spotted by one of the biggest Czech clubs, Slavia Prague. He was instrumental in the Slavia side, winning two back to back league titles. But it was his performance in Euro ’96 that really garnered the attention of the world media. The Czechs put on a brilliant display, beating Italy, Portugal and France on their way to a silver medal. Nedved scored the first goal in a 2-1 win over the Azzuris and was hailed as the next big thing in football.
Nedved was a motivational figure on the pitch
His Euro heroics earned him a place in the Serie A. Lazio, on their quest to build a Scudetto winning team was splashing the cash for fun. Nedved joined the Biancocelesti and had an immediate impact. He was one of the main driving force behind the team that won a Coppa Italia, a Cup Winners’ Cup and the holy grail – their second ever League title in 1999-2000 season. He scored the winning goal 2-1 win over Mallorca in the final of Cup Winners’ Cup.
In 2001, Juventus had just sold Zinedine Zidane for a then world record fee. The French master had developed into the best player in the world at Turin. Very few players were capable of filling up those gigantic boots Zizou left behind. Luciano Moggi, the Sporting Director at Juventus, chose Nedved for the job. The deal was done for 41 million Euros. He had to deal with two hurdles, first to replace one of the finest players of all time; second to justify his expensive price tag.
Nedved becomes a Juventus legend
His start was hardly auspicious, his poor run of form in the first few games brought scathing reviews from the ever critical Italian press. They dubbed him as “all hair, no skills”. It is worth noting that even Michel Platini and Zidane both had struggled to get accustomed to Serie A’s tactical football in their first seasons. This was not Nedved’s first season in Italy but he seemed to be suffering from the same problem. His first goal in the black and white jersey came in December 2001, against Perugia. Six barren months without a goal followed – the Czech was not doing justice to his price tag.
Season 2002-03 arrived, in this season millions of Bianconeri fans would be treated to some vintage performances from the Czech master. He formed a lethal combination with Camoranesi on right-wing and turned into one of best attacking players in Serie A and Europe. He found his goal scoring form and scored crucial goals. His best goals came in the Champions League. In the group leg, Juve were down 1-2 against Deportivo La Coruna, Nedved’s strike earned a crucial 2-2 draw. Nedved scored again in the quarter-final, at Camp Nou. It was a crucial away goal that paved the way for a 2-1 win.
His workrate was unmatched…
His best goal that season was probably in the semi-final. Juventus hosted Real Madrid with Carlos, Raul, Figo and Zidane in their ranks. Real carried a slender 2-1 lead from Madrid. At Turin, Trezeguet, Del Piero, Nedved and Zambrotta served up a classic display of Italian football as they raced to a 2-0 lead. Real managed to get a penalty in 2nd half, Buffon rose to the task and saved Figo’s penalty. Nedved, bossing the midfield with Davids at that time, drove the final nail. Latching onto a beautifully floated pass, Nedved unleashed a typically powerful drive that flew past Casillas. 3-0 to Juventus and the match was over. However, after a few minutes of that goal, Juventus hearts would be broken. An ever-eager Nedved tried to win the ball in the midfield; in the process he fouled Steve McManaman. The referee flashed a yellow card – that meant that Pavel would not be able to play in the final. A distraught Nedved instantly understood what happened and hid his face with his hands. But like a true professional he promptly got up and continued with the game. Nedved would be missed in the final against Milan. Juventus looked radar-less without him and lost the match in penalties.
Nedved did however, win the Scudetto that season. His exploits earned him the coveted Ballon d’Or. Nedved became the first Czech player in modern era to receive the honour of Best European Player. He had perfectly filled Zidane’s boots.
Nedved’s wonderful career in Juventus included four Serie A titles, one Serie B titles. After Calciopoli scandal, Juventus were relegated. A clutch of players like Ibrahimovic, Zambrotta and Cannavaro left the club. But Nedved stayed back and played in Serie B. He scored eleven goals as the Old Lady got promoted the very next season. Old war-horses, Del Piero, Buffon, Trezeguet, Nedved and Camoranesi became figures in Juventus folklore after their unflinching loyalty to the club.
Nedved’s glittering career ended on 31st May, 2009. Fittingly, the match featured two clubs which made him a superstar – Lazio and Juventus. He captained the team on his final game. Nedved, at 36 managed to make an astonishing 44 appearances for Juve in that season, scoring 7 goals. From 2001 to 2009, he played 244 games for Juve, scoring 51 goals.
A unique player
Nedved was easily one of the most complete midfielders in last 15 years. He had a good crossing ability; he was pacy and technically brilliant. He could beat players one on one and often cut back from wings with a winding run. He had a lethal long ranger, which earned him the nickname of Czech Cannon. His amazing fitness level ensured that his side of the field remained mobile throughout the course of the match. Take this ridiculously well taken goal against Ajax for example.
What made Pavel Nedved so special was not his skills. Nedved was a player with excellent skills but it was his attitude that made him a towering presence. He was a born leader, always leading from the front, he demanded 100% commitment from his fellow players. Del Piero, Conte or Cannavaro might have adorned the captain’s arm-band in those seasons but it was Nedved who led in the field.
A classic example of his passion is Euro’04 semi-final. Powered by a dynamic midfield the Czechs were the most attractive team in the Euro. The faced Greece and their vice like defence in a clash of styles. In that game Nedved tried an outrageous volley, there was a huge chance of him getting injured, but that didn’t deter him. He went for the shot and injured himself. Sadly, that ended his Euro and in the process ended his team’s campaign.
Nedved also had a strong bond with fans. He wore the Juventus jersey with pride. After scoring that goal against Real he jumped past the boards and ran straight towards the Juventus curva to celebrate with the fans. He remained a popular figure throughout his career and one of the few players who never earned the displeasure of Bianconeri faithful. His last European game for Juve ended in heart-break as he got injured against Chelsea. His helpless expression on being unable to help his team will be etched for a long time in memories. Sadly, very few of the current Juventus players possess the same amount of dedication, passion or commitment Nedved had. There have been talks about him joining Juventus in an administrative role; with the club in doldrums presence of a figure like his can prove very useful
Playing his last European game against Chelsea
Pavel Nedved was a model professional and a wonderful footballer. His irrepressible style of play made him a vital player for two of the strongest teams in recent past. He is truly a hero for football fans across the world.