Anyone who begins a career as a goalkeeper, but ends it as his country’s top goalscorer would stand out from the crowd. Given the stature and physique of Jan Koller however, there’s more than an ability to put the ball in the back of the net, that makes him noticeable.
After realising that there was more to be gained by deploying the player’s physical assets in the forward line, rather than guarding the goal line, Sparta Prague gave Koller his professional debut in 1995. It didn’t take long for the young forward to impress, and the following year, Lokeren whisked him off to Belgium where he quickly proved that the fee of more than €100,000, had been money well spent.
Aged 23 when he made the move to Belgium, Koller had grown into the more than two metres height that would define most of his career. This was no tall, gangly forward, however. As well as the towering height, he had the natural physique to combine into the complete package as the rumbustious forward capable of leading the line. His three seasons with Lokeren also demonstrated an ability to adapt to the new league and progress. Netting eight league goals in his first season, this improved to eleven. Then, in his final term to 24. All scored in a shade over 30 games per season. The final total made him the league’s top marksman and attracted the attention of the country’s top club, Anderlecht, who took Koller to the Belgian capital.
The move hardly put a stumble in his giant stride and, teaming up with Canadian striker Tomasz Radzinski, they provided the archetypical ‘big man, small man’ strike force. Koller provided 33 goals in his first season with the Paars-Wit and a further 31 in the subsequent term, to power the club to successive Jupiler League titles.
Much as he had outgrown the Czech football scene, his goals in Belgium attracted envious glances, and a move to the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund followed. Again, the value of the fee was quickly demonstrated, with his 11 league goals being a prominent contribution to yet another league title, as Dortmund were crowned champions. His time in Germany proved to be the high point of his career, and by now he had also become a regular feature for the Czech national team, after making his debut in February 1999, ironically scoring the winning goal against his adopted country, Belgium.
Having netted half-a-dozen times to drive the Czechs to the European Championship Finals in 2000, his nation fared badly and exited at the group stage. The 2004 World Cup brought further disappointment, but Koller enjoyed the 2004 version of the European Championships much more. Paired with Milan Baroš, in a similar partnership to the one he enjoyed with Radzinski at Anderlecht, he scored twice in the finals as the Czechs reached the last four, before falling to eventual champions Greece via one of the rare appearances of a ‘Silver Goal’.
Back in club football, Koller had enjoyed his most prolific time with Die Schwarzgelben in the two previous seasons. Twenty-two goals across all competitions in the 2002-03 term was followed by another nineteen ahead of the tournament in Portugal. They would prove to be the zenith of his time playing in front of the Yellow Wall, as both games and goals fell into decline afterwards. By the end of the 2005-06 season, Koller was into his early thirties and, as seems to be the case with so many players whose game is built on their physical attributes, his effectiveness was declining with age.
A move to Monaco in 2006 merely underscored the inevitable and unforgiving passage of time, but even in the more sedate French league, goals became harder to score. In two seasons in the Principality, twelve goals across all competitions in 44 games was a much lower return than he had become accustomed to, and when the chance came for a return to Germany, he took it and left Les Rouges et Blancs during the mid-season window. The new club were no Dortmund however. Nürnberg had been struggling and continued to do so, eventually falling to relegation. Koller’s couple of goals in his 14 league games for the club were hardly of significant help. His stay in Nürnberg would be brief.
The final four seasons of his career saw a move to Russia and Krylia Sovetov Samara, before a return to the south of France and Cannes in Championnat National. Even with his powers in obvious decline, scoring in French third-tier football was not beyond a Jan Koller now heading towards retirement. In his final season, 16 goals in 29 league games showed that there still remained a slumbering ability. Nevertheless, in August 2011, as his body rebelled against the insistent pressure of professional football with a string of injuries, Jan Koller retired.
The old adage that ’there’s more than one way to skin a cat’ could perhaps be a fitting description for Jan Koller. Whilst so many successful players are small, with a low centre of gravity and a surfeit of ability, Jan Koller typifies the stubborn reluctance of some who can offer success via a different road. If league titles and 55 goals for his country are evidence of success, then Jan Koller, without doubt, proved himself as a giant in the game, and not only due to his frame.