Win or bust as Czechs face Italian job: Nedved still chasing his destiny

The former European footballer of the year aims to help his homeland bounce back with a win against his adoptive country, despite inconsistent performances in the group so far. Jason Burt reports
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The Independent Online

There's a black dog hanging over the shaggy hair of Pavel Nedved at the moment. And it may haunt him until the end of his career - a career which could come to a close today. For his country at least.

For all the domestic titles and cups Nedved has won - an impressive 15, mainly in Italy - there remains the suspicion that here is a destiny unfulfilled for a footballer selected as Europe's finest just three years ago.

And if the Czech Republic lose in Hamburg to Italy - which is of course Nedved's adopted home, to add extra potency to the story - they will fail to progress from Group E in the first World Cup they have qualified for since 1990 when they were still part of Czechoslovakia.

For Nedved it would be a fierce personal blow, adding to the theory that he is a nearly man. The evidence, so far, is clear enough. Nedved was part of the team that reached the final of Euro '96 only to lose to Germany, while a petty foul committed against Real Madrid's Steve McManaman in the Champions' League semi-final of 2003 cost him a place in the final against Milan at Old Trafford. It also probably cost Juventus the trophy. Then, perhaps most crucially of all, the following summer there was the Czechs' defeat in the last four of Euro 2004 to Greece, with Nedved limping off after just 39 minutes with a twisted knee and burying his head in his hands to barely disguise the tears that followed.

It was a tournament that was unkind to the biggest names - the failure of Alessandro del Piero, David Beckham and Raul spring to mind - but Nedved was only denied greater glory by ill-luck and vied with the equally unfortunate Wayne Rooney as the tournament's best player. It was no way for him to go out but, worried about the state of his battered knees, he announced his retirement from international football.

Naturally, that decision prompted great criticism. Nedved was regarded as a leader of the so-called "silver generation" - which also included Karel Poborsky and Jan Koller who are also due to step down after this tournament - and was the captain of his still relatively newly-formed country. He was the talisman. Suddenly the heart-beat stopped beating.

It appeared a selfish choice, especially from a man who had played so selflessly for his country for so long, and it understandably divided opinion in Prague. To many he remained a god and the best Czech player since the 1962 World Cup hero Josef Masopust. Maybe he was the best of all. To others Nedved was castigated for his apparent betrayal, especially as the Czech Republic's coach, Karel Bruckner, who - when in charge of the under-21s - nurtured six of the current first-choice XI, had maintained that he was building a team to have a tilt at this summer's World Cup.

Nedved has cut an interesting figure at this tournament and it is still odd to see him in a Czech shirt without the captain's armband which has passed to another veteran, Tomas Galasek. During one training session at the Schulstadion training complex, in the small town of Westerburg in north-eastern Rhineland, Nedved limped out apparently hurling abuse at coaching staff while hundreds of fans, drinking beer and enjoying the sunshine, looked on bemused.

It wasn't quite shades of Roy Keane in Saipan four years ago but expectation - both personal and collective - is weighing heavy for a player who, not for nothing, is known in Turin as the Furia Ceca - "blind fury" ( Ceca meaning both "blind" and "Czech" in Italian).

Nedved only returned from self-imposed exile to help to steer the Czechs through their play-off tie against Norway last autumn. He has often repeated the phrase that he feels he has "one more final in me". On the pitch he has re-forged a deadly midfield partnership with Tomas Rosicky, who has probably supplanted him as the team's most important player, scoring seven goals to qualify for Germany and two more so far in these finals, but he has met set-backs, especially after the defeat to Ghana, with doom-laden predictions.

Westerburg, named after its medieval castle, has also not been a happy location for the Czechs. There have been complaints of the squad being unfriendly and aloof despite the fact that the 6,000 inhabitants have tried to embrace their presence, decorating the streets with flags and posters, with schoolchildren turning up for training sessions.

It doesn't help that Bruckner is clearly uncomfortable in the spotlight and doesn't like the accompanying attention of international football management. More damagingly, stories began to circulate from the camp that the players had celebrated a little too enthusiastically after defeating the United States. If that is true, they paid the price against Ghana.

"We wanted to get a point but we did not achieve this," Nedved said. "Now we are in the worst position of all. I do not think our chances are big. We have got into a situation where we have to win advancement against the strongest team." Injuries to Koller, Vladimir Smicer and Milan Baros - who may be risked today - and the suspensions of Tomas Ujfalusi and Vratislav Lokvenc have not helped.

Nedved said his country needs a "miracle". They hope he is the miracle-worker. He has been in the past but, this week, Nedved has also, in a thinly veiled way, levelled criticism at Bruckner.

"We play very offensive football, as the coach wants us to do," Nedved said. "But sometimes that means that we leave our defence vulnerable. That is our only weakness." The inference is that Nedved believes it is a fatal flaw.

How the Czechs need him now. And how he also still strikes fear into his opponents, however familiar. Fabio Cannavaro, his Juventus team-mate and Italy's captain, said: "Nedved has a way of playing that is annoying for those who have to face him. He gives his soul and he is an example of professionalism, and he has an interior strength superior to the average."

Another Italian, Andrea Pirlo, agreed. "We all know him because he plays in Italy," the Milan midfielder said. "He plays differently for the Czech Republic, but he's a great player who can decide a match; we'll have to watch out." It may be that the Italy coach, Marcello Lippi, alters his tactics to deal with Nedved, deploying Gianluca Zambrotta to handle him.

For certain Lippi will tell his defenders to stay on their feet when faced with a foe castigated last season by the Internazionale coach, Roberto Mancini, as "a diver and everybody knows it". Nedved's days in Italy may be numbered, especially with Juve facing demotion. A move to join Koller at Monaco is possible.

Nedved's professionalism is legendary. This is a superstar with a work ethic. He apparently runs 10 miles every day and is constantly in his gym at the home he shares with his wife Ivana and their two children. "He's a complete player," the Chelsea goalkeeper, Petr Cech, said. "He can still do everything: play with both feet, tackle, run. He's aggressive, he has a wonderful shot with both feet. And he has that great spirit - a winning spirit."

Nedved is less effusive about himself. "As I'm almost 34 it's hard for me to keep playing at this level and it takes a lot of energy," he said. "But I'm happy I can be useful and I'll help till I am able to, though my days are coming to an end." That end may arrive soon enough, unless he can inspire his country once more today.

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