Calling Pavel Nedved ‘forgotten’ may be a little strong, but for a player of his quality, I don’t hear his name crop up half as much as it should when discussing the best players of their generation. The ‘90s and early ‘00s were truly the golden eras for midfielders with players such as Figo, Giggs, Rui Costa and Zidane hitting their primes, but there is one midfield maestro that sticks out in my memory and not just for his flowing blonde locks. Aptly named ‘Czech Fury’ by the Italian fans, Pavel Nedved is arguably the most complete midfielder of that golden era.
As is a common occurrence with some of the true greats, Nedved came from humble beginnings working his way up the Czech ranks. He was putting in performances for the Dukla Prague first team at the age of 19, where the Czech powerhouse, Sparta Prague, would come knocking and give Nedved the platform to start making a name for himself.
The first time young Pavel would start to attract the attention of Europe’s elite was at Euro 96. The Czech Republic were in their first tournament as an independent nation and they didn’t disappoint. Whilst you screamed ‘Three Lions on a shirt’ through a runny nose and a stream of tears as Southgate spanked that football into the Wembley car park, Nedved and his Czech friends were shocking the world by dispensing Portugal and France from the tournament.
Unfortunately, Germany hadn’t finished shattering the hopes of a nation as Oliver Bierhoff slotted away the golden goal to beat the Czech Republic in the final and win the tournament. Two of the stars of that Czech team, Porborsky and Berger, would be shot into English stardom signing for Man Utd and Liverpool respectively, but Nedved moved to Lazio and a league that was starting to prove itself to be the most competitive in the world.
At the tender age of nine, the potent combination of Fifa, Championship Manager and Channel 4’s Football Italia completely hooked me onto everything Italy had to offer. It was grabbing my young impressionable self and ramming Italian flair and emotion down my throat. The world’s best players were playing with their socks down, shrugging and celebrating by taking off their shirts and somehow looking good in a vest your dad would wear.
With so much excitement on offer and romantic names like Vieri, Batistuta, Inzaghi and Shevchenko floating about, it would be very easy to miss the rather flat sound of ‘Nedved’ from the commentators. He could have easily been lost to the tactically unaware nine-year-old me, if it weren’t for the fact that he was thumping them in from 25 yards or more every week.
It was these five successful years at Lazio, including a Serie A title in 99-00, where the footballing world started to properly notice the talents of the Czech prodigy as he shined in a team that featured the likes of Nesta and Vieri.
The midfielders that grabbed the headlines were all about the silky skills and flair at that time. Juventus’ Zidane and Fiorentina’s Rui Costa left fans purring as they glided across the pitch without really breaking a sweat. Nedved was all about the sweat. He had the silky skills in his locker, but it was the work ethic combined with them that made him stand out.
In 2001, Zinedine Zidane transferred from Juventus to Real Madrid for a world record fee and Nedved was chosen to fill the boots, and fill them he did. Not exactly an easy act to follow, but what Nedved would go on to achieve with the Turin giants in the next nine seasons would cement him as one of their greatest ever players.
In the very early stages of his Juve career, he struggled, but it was when the coach, Marcelo Lippi, moved him into a role supporting two prolific strikers in Del Piero and Trezeguet that he started to shine. With Nedved pulling the strings in midfield, Juventus would go on to win the Scudetto in the 01-02 and 02-03 seasons. This wouldn’t go unnoticed on the world stage as Nedved won the Ballon d’Or in 2003. To put that into perspective, the two players who came second and third were Thierry Henry and Paolo Maldini. A Thierry Henry in the middle of his ‘Invincibles’ run and a Paolo Maldini, along with being who I consider to be the greatest defender of all time, would be named man on the match as he won the Champions League.
The following years at Juventus wouldn’t go so smoothly for Nedved as he faced a few injury problems. He still played a key role in the two titles that Juventus won in the 04-05 and 05-06 seasons that were later revoked due to match-fixing. Juventus were relegated in 2006 as a result and a few of the stars left the club. Pavel was not one of them. Staying with a club he considered to be ‘home,’ he helped the Old Lady back to the top flight the following season.
Despite all of these accolades, he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. I think if you asked any manager of a top club from 2000-2006 who they’d have in their dream team, Nedved would feature heavily. He was a proper workhorse that wasn’t afraid to put in the yardage for the team. You wouldn’t think it when your gaze is fixated on the hair a L’oreal model could only dream of, but he was as industrious as they come. He had a delicate touch when needed, but wasn’t afraid to put his foot through it and score a Gerrard-esque thunderbolt when it was required.
The type of player that would perfectly suit today’s game, Pavel Nedved is the definition of an all-rounder and should be considered to be one of the best of a generation.