A tribute to Pavel Nedvěd, the man who managed to replace Zinedine Zidane


Pavel Nedvěd was signed by Juventus as a replacement for Zinedine Zidane. That he spent the remaining eight seasons of his playing career in Turin tells you everything you need to know.

Whenever a club holds open trials, be it for seven-year-olds starting  out in the game or twentysomethings trying to take advantage of a final chance, the odds are at least a couple of outfield players on the pitch have naturally or artificially blond hair.

In theory, this allows these players to stick in the memory of any watching coaches or scouts, although one suspects there must be a saturation point whereby the players without blond hair are in the minority.

In theory, the whole idea has nothing to do with Pavel Nedvěd.

In theory.

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Signed by Lazio after helping the Czech Republic to the final of Euro 96, Nedvěd was the Kif Croker to Karel Poborský’s Zapp Brannigan, doing all the important bits while finding a way to make his colleagues look good.

In what might be considered a reverse-Ahn-Jung-hwan, the midfielder’s vital goal against Italy earned him a move to Serie A. But if you consider that strike the sole catalyst, you’re doing a disservice to the Biancocelesti’s scouts – or suggesting they got very, very fortunate.

Yet his move from Rome to Turin – at some cost – may have had an element of cutting off a rival at the source.

“Nedvěd always scored against us. We’ll buy him so we can resolve this problem,” former Juventus director Luciano Moggi once claimed of the player’s €41million move in 2001.

He arrived with the club at a crossroads. Without a league title since 1998, Juve had narrowly missed out on the 2001 Scudetto, in part due to Nedvěd’s brace in a 4-1 Lazio victory in mid-March, the Bianconeri’s final loss of a campaign which ended with them two points adrift of champions Roma.

However, if the title had seemed within touching distance, it moved toward the horizon when Zidane was sold to Real Madrid for a world-record fee.

There is more than one way to replace a legend, and manager Marcello Lippi plumped for defensive solidity, perhaps in the assumption that too much pressure on a direct replacement for the Frenchman could only end badly.

Gigi Buffon and Lilian Thuram arrived from Parma and soon became legends. But Nedvěd brought both attacking quality from the middle of the park and something Zidane could never offer: flowing blond locks (sorry Zizou).

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READ: A forensic analysis of Zizou’s performance vs Brazil, 2006 World Cup

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It is easy to downplay aesthetics on football, but Nedvěd’s contrast to the haircut-you-can-set-your-watch-to squad was certainly striking.

At times, watching Juve felt like reading a graphic novel, with poster-boy Alessandro Del Piero only a couple of steps removed from chiselled centre-back Mark Iuliano, and Antonio Conte providing the missing link between the two.

Among the broad strokes of black-and-white, it just so happened that one of the men who stood out visually did so both with his looks and his play.

With Channel Four ditching their live Serie A coverage for the 2001-02 campaign, players had less of an opportunity to stand out to those watching on TV, with their only options coming in Gazzetta round-ups and UEFA competitions.

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READ: A tribute to Hernan Crespo, once the most expensive footballer in the world

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Yet while others struggled to make an impression, Nedvěd still looked as though he had all the time in the world to pick and choose how to show off his talents.

In a midfield blessed with ball-winners – Conte, Edgar Davids and Alessio Tacchinardi were all on Juve’s books when their Czech star arrived – freedom to do what you want comes with pressure to do everything yourself.

He ended up only scoring four times in his maiden season with the club, but two of those goals – late-season winners against Verona and Piacenza – helped the club come from nowhere to snatch the title on the final day.

Those last five games might have had more to do with Buffon and Thuram than their fellow arrival – five wins from the final five games with no goals conceded tells its own story – but that would have counted for nothing without someone to perform at the other end.

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Unlike some of his contemporaries, there has never been one type of strike you would describe as a ‘Nedvěd Goal’ – even if they did flow far more freely after that Piacenza goal earned him a place in Juve fans’ hearts for the long run.

It seems almost reductive to define him by his goals when he was about so much more than that, but boy oh boy did he score some incredible ones.

His triple threat of tenacious tackler, ball-carrier and fantastic striker of the ball made him the perfect man to take on the Zidane role, even if the depth of his abilities might have been played down at times.

Still, when you see goals like this one against Chievo you can see why people often pointed to his ability to find the back of the net.

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Perhaps his most famous goal, however, is tinged with some sadness.

A run from deep and composed finish helped Juve put one foot in the final of the 2003 Champions League, putting the Italian side 3-0 up against Real Madrid and effectively extinguishing a 2-1 first-leg deficit with 20 minutes still to play.

For some, it was proof that a post-Zidane Juventus could thrive, with a man capable of outshining his predecessor. Nedvěd was imperious at the Stadio Delle Alpi that night, making a mockery of the Galacticos.

But he was also booked, ruling him out of the final against AC Milan, a game which Juve would lose on penalties, denying them the honour of being named European champions for the first time since 1996.

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Nedvěd is not the first to miss a momentous game in such circumstances, nor will he be the last. Roy Keane had sat out the same showpiece event just four years prior, while it wouldn’t be too long until John Terry did the same against the same opposition as Keane, with the game decided in the same manner as that missed by Nedvěd.

It can be tempting to use the absent individual as a scapegoat after defeat, but to do so is itself an acknowledgement of their importance to the team. And the appreciation went both ways.

There are few greater signs of a player’s loyalty to a team than the decision to stick around after relegation. When Juve were demoted amid the Calciopoli scandal, Nedvěd – like Buffon and David Trézeguet – may have been coveted by those still at the top table. But why do that when you can give something back to the supporters who were blameless in the whole affair.

Indeed, he retired with the club and remains on their board, taking on the vice chairman role in 2015. He remains the best-looking of the lot.

By Tom Victor

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