A tribute to Pavel Nedved, the man who successfully replaced Zidane
As Zinedine Zidane’s direct replacement, Pavel Nedved had a seemingly impossible job when he was signed by Juventus. The fact 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 Nedved.
Nedved moved to Serie A after helping the Czech Republic to the final of Euro 96, scoring a vital goal against Italy in the group stage.
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 five years later – at some cost – may have had an element of cutting off a rival at the source.
“Nedved 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 transfer.
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 Nedved’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.
And if the title had at least seemed within touching distance then, it moved toward the horizon when Zidane was sold to Real Madrid for a world-record fee.
In a bid to replace him, 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 Nedved brought both attacking quality from the middle of the park and something even Zidane could never offer: flowing blond locks.
It is easy to downplay aesthetics on football, but Nedved’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.
Nedved only scored 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.
— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) April 21, 2018
Unlike some of his contemporaries, there has never been one type of strike you would describe as a ‘Nedved 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.
— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) October 31, 2019
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. Nedved 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.
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, Nedved – like Buffon and David Trezeguet – 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