By Jack Perry
Pavel Nedved won the Ballon D’or. Pavel Nedved had the most glorious, thick, flowing blonde bob football has ever seen. When was the last time he was mentioned in a pub debate? Not recently enough is the answer.
Appearances may not directly impact a player’s ability but they can certainly dictate how a performance is received. Maroune Fellaini rarely escapes an underwhelming performance without criticism, partly no doubt, due to the fact his mistakes will never be attributed to another 6ft 5ins centre midfielder sporting an afro – perhaps this is the real motivation behind his recent trim. Similarly, when Nedved collected the ball, twisted and turned before firing an obscenely clean strike into the top corner, his blonde locks would bounce delicately and unmistakably behind him. However, when struggling, the Czech midfielder suffered the wrath of the Italian press who produced such inventive headlines along the lines of ‘All hair, no skill’ during difficult spells. Though he never shied from spotlight that was fixed on him whenever the ball was at feet. There was never a moment’s doubt as to who had effortlessly glided past another defender and played a cutting a final ball – it was the man with floating blonde curls. He could not easily fade into a sea of 22 men nor would he ever have wanted to. Nedved sought out the action and grabbed games by the scruff of the neck whenever necessary.
This infamous on-pitch personality did not reflect that of a player with a floppy blonde fringe. He was unapologetically competitive. He was the type of man you would desperately want to play with rather than against. Seeing him line up next to you must have instilled a confidence that cannot be inspired in any other way than having a teammate of his ilk. He made no attempt to hide his fury when losing and disappearing on a big occasion was never even a possibility. There are few players that can skew the odds of a 50/50 challenge so heavily in their favour solely through determination and grit. However, it was ultimately these traits that would cost him a Champions League finals appearance in 2003. A yellow card in an otherwise flawless performance against Real Madrid in the semi-final meant he would miss out on a final against AC Milan which Juventus would go on to lose. The challenge that earned him a caution was a petulant flying kick out on Steve McManaman in the most needless of scenarios. His recklessness, in this case, cost him a chance at the Champions League trophy which continued to elude him throughout his career. The nickname ‘Furia Ceca’ (‘Czech Fury’) was well earned.
It was the Czech’s unwavering loyalty to Juventus that ensured he forever has a place in the heart of the Old Lady. Joining for 41 million euros in 2001 as a Serie A winner under the guidance of Sven Goran Eriksson, Nedved arrived with the weight of expectation on his shoulders – which he happily and comfortably carried. His faithfulness to Lazio was questioned after he signed for the Italian giants despite signing a four year contract just a few months previously. Commenting that “Lazio did not want me so much” upon leaving, it quickly became clear that Nedved was willing to throw himself into the arms of a new lover. After Juventus were relegated to Serie B at the end of the 2005-06 season, other high profile stars including Fabio Cannavaro abandoned La Vecchia Signora but Nedved refused. The ever divisive Mino Raiola represented him and in 2008 explained to Czech magazine ‘Hattrick’ that: “[Nedved] made it very clear that football means a lot more to him than money.” His decision to continue in Serie B as he reached the final years of his peak provide proof of these beliefs.
Nedved regarded himself as the epitome of versatile, refusing to answer questions regarding his best position because he believed he genuinely did not have one – pointing out that he had performed excellently as a stand-in defender at times. The self-belief Nedved possessed originated from the near religious devotion he applied to training. In a 2013 interview with Czech outlet iDNES.cz, he gave an insight into his dedication: “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.” This application of dedication translated in his playing style. It is easy remember a player through their YouTube highlight reel, of which Nedved’s is undoubtedly special, but what is not depicted is the tireless running he provided across the pitch. He had an ability to get in every crevice of the opposition’s midfield while not allowing them a single second to catch their breath. He was relentless in his pursuit of possession and did not allow himself lapses of concentration.
Serie A defences very quickly discovered that shepherding the Old Lady stalwart onto a weaker foot was not an option. A truly two-footed striker of the ball, Nedved could unleash a quite frankly disgusting amount of power with his left or right boot. Most players couldn’t get that much force behind a ball if it was fired from a cannon. He needed very little time, space or back lift to beat the keeper from distance. Nedved told uhlsport in 2003 “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.” Watching him abuse the ball time after time from the edge of the box, it is hard to be cynical of his claims.
Despite not being blessed with superhuman athletic abilities, Nedved was capable of carving through defences as a result of his perfect balance and close control in tight spaces. Several of these mazy runs ended in a delightfully deft chip over the oncoming keeper. Any player who is a regular proprietor of a chipped finish will automatically find himself in a list alongside my favourite players. In addition to the delicacy he could display, Nedved also possessed impeccable volleying technique in his repertoire. A well struck volley is one of the purest experiences on offer in football. A ball dropping from above while time is briefly suspended, a swinging foot cuts through the air and connects with effortless grace to send the ball goal-wards. Throw in a glance off the underside of the crossbar before cannoning down over the goal-line and you have yourself a piece of artwork. Nedved performed an almost selfish number of these acts. He had an instinct for the immaculate timing required to create poetry in the form of volleying a ball dropping through the air.
There have been few players in the mould of Pavel Nedved and it is worth reminiscing on the playing style that made him so unique as opposed to listing his accomplishments. Although, in brief, it is worth remembering he was placed in the UEFA team of the year three consecutive years from 2003-2005, played 501 league matches and was capped 91 times for the Czech Republic. The final years of years of his career were largely uneventful and he admitted to considering retirement as early as 2005 before announcing the time had come in February 2009. What he had achieved by this point may not have resulted in him rolling off the tongue alongside other greats, but this seems unfair. Instead of a slight raise of eyebrows upon seeing his name in a list alongside other Ballon D’or winners, next time you read his name please simply nod in silent appreciation of the man with the golden bob.
By Jack Perry