Remembering Pavel Nedved - the man who did the impossible and replaced Zinedine Zidane
One night, more than any other, showed Juventus were right all along. Zinedine Zidane’s move from Turin to Real Madrid in 2001 was so earth-shatteringly huge that the then-world record £48 million fee stood for seven years, with nothing so much as scratching its surface. Aged 29 at the time, Zidane was at his very best, having achieved everything already; he was the heartbeat of the Juve team and there were understandable doubts as to whether selling him was the right move.
But on the 14th of May 2003, almost two years later, critics were silenced. Juventus faced Zidane and Real in the Champions League semi final second leg at the Stadio Delle Alpi, leading 1-0 from the first game. It was nothing to do with Zidane being on the other side or even that the match was against Real Madrid; but rather that Marcello Lippi was vindicated in his reinvestment of that money.
Lillian Thuram, Gigi Buffon and Pavel Nedved, all signed in the aftermath, were vital in helping the Bianconeri run out 3-1 winners. The latter wrapped it up with a sublime goal; generally, the team could not have worked better.
Later that year, in the days before Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s joint ownership of the award, Nedved would be awarded the Ballon d’Or. His success proved how much more widespread the footballing talent pool was in those days, because he was recognised where the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Zlatan Ibrahimovic rather unjustly weren’t. Juve went on to lose the final that year to AC Milan on penalties, failing to go that step further ever since. Missing through suspension, Nedved had to watch on at Old Trafford in Manchester. Andriy Shevchenko’s decisive kick broke hearts in the shootout, but it could have been different had the Czech star been on the pitch.
Comparing transfer fees nowadays to 16 years ago creates problems because value for money is getting harder to find. Replacing the world’s best player at the time was almost impossible, but spending the money wisely meant it could be done. Real Madrid have since broken their own record to sign the likes of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, yet neither Milan, Manchester United or Tottenham Hotspur have been able to take their recovery in their stride the way Juve did, all because of Nedved and co.
Today, the former Czech Republic icon and legendary midfielder turns 45 years of age. In many ways, he was the first modern day bargain, making even the great Zidane replaceable at almost half the price.
Serie A has a great tradition of depth of quality, which is still evident today. Inter have signed Matias Vecino and Borja Valero from Fiorentina, Patrik Schick has joined Roma from Sampdoria, Leonardo Bonucci has left Juve for Milan, where Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti headed from Atalanta.
Back in 2001, it was no different, as Juventus lured Thuram and Buffon from Parma and Nedved from Lazio, all for a combined £80million (by the conversion rate from euros at the time). Nedved’s departure left Lazio in crisis, with supporters protesting against president Sergio Cragnotti at the Stadio Olimpico. But their loss was the Old Lady’s gain, as he would help them lift two Serie A titles and two Coppa Italias, adding to one league and two cup triumphs back in Rome, before seeing a further two Scudettos stripped as part of the 2006 Calciopoli match-fixing scandal.
Juventus were relegated to Serie B, shocking the footballing world, yet Nedved stayed, alongside a number of teammates including Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero, to help them win promotion as champions despite a 17-point deduction.
Since retiring in 2009, Nedved has gone on to become Juve’s sporting director, overlooking their return to dominance in the modern era, which has included six more Serie A titles, three straight Coppa Italias and two more Champions League final defeats. But he will forever be remembered for his time as a player, distinctive for his long blonde hair and versatile for his ability to play centrally or on the left of midfield. Two footed, with a remarkable triple-jointed knee, he was one of the most talented players in his generation.
Playing a position that now, more than ever, requires pace, Nedved was hardly blessed but still thrived. Crossing may be a dying art, but he could play like a natural winger too, offering a wide outlet for Lippi’s Juve, one of the most underrated teams of the modern era, spearheaded by Del Piero and David Trezeguet and protected by the ‘Pitbull’ Edgar Davids.
There is no better way to describe Nedved other than the complete midfielder, armed with all the attributes to become a legend in any era. His departure from the game has been felt by everyone, particularly his home country; at Euro 2004, he helped the Czech Republic to the semi finals before a defeat to surprise winners Greece. Two years later at the World Cup in Germany, his international swansong, eventual champions Italy, and Ghana knocked them out at the Group Stage, but with 91 caps to his name, he had a fantastic innings.
Pavel Nedved was a special player throughout his career, from his days at Dukla Prague to Sparta Prague, Lazio, Juventus and the Czech Republic. He had skill, technique, strength and an amazing work ethic; the perfect modern day footballer. Yet, his main legacy to many will be helping Marcello Lippi and the whole of Italian football move on from the great Zinedine Zidane.