This week's inductee to The Cult is a man who stayed loyal to his own intense brand of football, and to an Old Lady in her time of need. You can read previous entries here.
Cult Grade: Hell Hath No Fury
Throughout his time in Italy, Pavel Nedved was linked with a groundbreaking move to the Premier League. Whether it was vague speculation over a transfer to England during his five years at Lazio, intense interest from Manchester United after he won the Ballon d'Or 2003, or the failed overtures of Tottenham and Chelsea in the aftermath of the Calciopoli scandal, the man the Italian press dubbed 'Furia Ceca' – that's 'Czech Fury', to all the unimaginative linguists out there – was coveted by some of the biggest and most ambitious clubs in English football. Rumours of Nedved's arrival were the source of feverish excitement amongst fans, especially during his halcyon days with Juventus in which he was often heralded as the most dynamic attacking midfielder on the planet. This was a player who had earned the longstanding admiration of Alex Ferguson, league titles at three clubs in two countries, and the most prestigious individual award in the game. What's more, he had iconic, unforgettable hair.
Hustling and bustling under his shaggy, flowing locks – his 'do resembled either a resplendent blond waterfall or a medievalist absurdity, depending on the eye of the beholder – Nedved's mop was an unmistakable feature of calcio from the mid nineties onwards. Obsessively hardworking, capable of lung-busting runs and hawkish when it came to a final ball, he would no doubt have carved through Premier League back lines with even greater ease than he did the defences of Serie A. Still, to the disappointment of the fans and managers in England who cast acquisitive glances in his direction, he had little intention of leaving a league that was still widely considered the best in Europe. Nedved valued his loyalty higher than most, especially when it came to the Old Lady to whom he pledged much of his life in the game.
Nedved joined Juventus in the summer of 2001, moving to Turin for a prodigious fee in the range of €41m. He arrived at the club a Serie A winner, having claimed a league title with Lazio at the turn of the millennium under the urbane guidance of Sven-Goran Eriksson. Together, he and Sven had also won the Coppa Italia, the Supercoppa Italiana and the last ever edition of the Cup Winners' Cup, striking up a fruitful partnership that had brought unprecedented success for the Biancocelesti. This was a golden age for Lazio but, unfortunately for them, in assembling a fantastic squad that also featured the likes of Fabrizio Ravanelli, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Diego Simeone and Roberto Mancini, president Sergio Cragnotti found that he had rather overstretched the club's finances. So Sven departed for the England job, and many of the club's best players found themselves touted around, tacitly or otherwise.
Though Nedved was by all accounts settled in Rome and happy to continue with Lazio, there was little chance of that once Juve came in with such an enormous offer. Despite tumultuous fan protests against Cragnotti, who was also in the process of finalising a deal to sell Juan Sebastián Veron to Manchester United, the fee being offered for Nedved was too good for the club to refuse. It says a lot about the bond between Nedved and the fans that, despite Lazio's financial future being on the line, they were willing to take to the streets – and vandalise Cragnotti's house – to express their fervent desire to keep him. Nonetheless, after intense and reportedly ill-tempered negotiations between Juve's managing director Luciano Moggi and Nedved's agent Mino Raiola, the Czech found himself being unveiled as the latest star signing for La Vecchia Signora.
If Nedved's loyalties were widely perceived to have been overruled in the process of the transfer – he had signed a four-year contract at Lazio only a few months before, and would claim resentfully after signing for Juve that "Lazio did not want me so much" – it would at least be the last time that he would have to swap one club for another. He would spend the remainder of his playing days in Turin, winning almost everything there was to win with the notable exception of the Champions League, a tournament in which he was a runner up in his second season with the club. Unlike other expensive imports such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Emerson and Patrick Vieira, Nedved refused to leave the Old Lady in the aftermath of Calciopoli, this despite Juve facing a season in Serie B with a potentially massive points deduction. In this, he showed himself to be more steadfast than some of Juve's Italian contingent – Gianluca Zambrotta, Manuele Blasi and Fabio Cannavaro all moved on – and so earned enormous gratitude from supporters and almost transcendent status on the Curva Scirea.
Not only did Nedved stay faithful to the Old Lady in her time of direst need, he also stayed loyal to his own intense brand of football. While he was very much the complete midfielder, his enterprising play was often streaked with an aggression that bordered on the uncontrolled. There is perhaps a clue as to his inclination to stay constant to Juve here, in that as much as Nedved was a dynamic footballer he was also a remarkably bloodyminded individual. Nedved basically admitted as much in a 2013 interview with Czech outlet iDNES.cz, saying of his early years as a footballer: "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."
Nedved preserved this near monastic dedication to his craft throughout his career, just as he did his proclivity for sporadic showings of prolific indiscipline. Having made his first senior move to Sparta Prague in 1992, he was at one point sent off three times in six games, leading to speculation he might have to leave the club. This prompted Karol Dobias, Sparta manager at the time and a legend of Czechoslovak football, to write in a newspaper column that Nedved would struggle to make it professionally, or at least that's how Czech football folklore would have it. In the end, what Dobias identified as his young ward's main weakness may simply have been a side effect of his fierce single-mindedness, a trait which was actually one of his greatest strengths and the source of the 'Furia' on which he made his name.
There were downsides to Nedved's disciplinary record, of course, not least a long list of wayward tackles, including one that contributed to a leg break for Luis Figo in 2007 when the Portuguese veteran was plying his trade with Inter Milan. The problematic side to Nedved's game was perhaps best summed up in the 2003 Champions League semi-final, when, despite putting in a fantastic performance to send Juve past Real Madrid, the Czech picked up a crucial yellow card for an impetuous scissor tackle on Steve McManaman. Nedved's accumulation of cautions over the course of the tournament saw him banned for the final, where Juventus played out a drab 0-0 draw with AC Milan before losing out on penalties. How the Old Lady could have done with Nedved then, when faced with an otherwise impregnable defence marshalled by Costacurta, Nesta, Kaladze and Maldini.
Putting aside what could have been, Nedved's obstinate approach to the game was ultimately a priceless asset for Juventus. Once he had settled down in Turin, he gave his all for the club because that was the only way he knew how. Much like he was uncompromising on the pitch and never quite learned to suppress his wild side, he refused to budge when Calciopoli struck and – along with Buffon, Del Piero and the like – couldn't bring himself to give up on Juve. He remained true to the Old Lady, just as in his ungovernable 'Furia' he couldn't help but remain true to himself.
Point of Entry: Fool's Gold
While he and his golden bob were already destined to become icons of Italian football, Nedved first gained international recognition with his home country at Euro 96, back when his hair was shorn uncharacteristically short. It was the first major tournament for the independent Czech national team after the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993, and Nedved not only helped his side qualify but also orchestrated a run to the final itself. His performances in a scarlet strip would seal an immediate transfer to Lazio, but before he could think of Serie A he was tasked with adding to the former Czechoslovakia's footballing heritage. This was the team of Antonin Panenka, Zdenek Nehoda and, well, Karol Dobias, and Nedved was the promising young talent who carried the weight of their heritage on his shoulders.
In many ways, Euro 96 foreshadowed much of what was to come for Nedved. He scored his first international goal against Italy, helped the Czechs to a crucial group stage draw against Russia, then sat out the quarter-final against Portugal owing to a suspension for two niggling yellow cards. In the semis he was named Man of the Match, taunting and tantalising France with his passing before the Czechs progressed on penalties. Sadly, in the final, the golden boy was denied a medal by a golden goal from Oliver Bierhoff, a rule we can all agree was stupid and gave Germany a win which was, if not technically invalid, then at least undeserved.
The Moment: Return of the Old Lady
Though Nedved was never gratified in his pursuit of international honours and failed to triumph in the Champions League, it is perhaps his least prestigious piece of silverware that most vindicates his life in football. While Juventus were threatened with a 30-point deduction ahead of their 2006/07 Serie B season, that was reduced to a mere nine on appeal, giving the Old Lady a chance of returning at the first time of asking to the Italian top tier. In a campaign that featured encounters with the likes of Mantova, Arezzo, Spezia and Triestina – not exactly what he had envisaged when he first joined Juve – Nedved was nonetheless a game opponent, scoring 11 goals and laying on plenty more for his teammates.
While there were a few Juve players who struggled to acclimatise psychologically to Serie B, Nedved was not one of them. With reserves of Czech fury to call upon, there was perhaps no one better equipped to steel Juventus against the enforced relegation that many of their fans considered a supreme injustice, and still do to this day. It is for that ignominious season in Serie B that Juve fans are most beholden to Nedved, with his determined performances a crucial factor in them winning the league by an emphatic margin. It is for sticking around for that season in Serie B that he has been immortalised at the club, and will remain the shaggy-haired darling of the Old Lady until he too grows old, and those iconic blond locks turn to grey.
"This lad has no future."
– The verdict on Pavel Nedved attributed to Karol Dobias, after the former had been sent off three times in six games during his early days at Sparta Prague.