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The summer of 2001 would see a seismic shift in the delicately poised tectonic plates that lay beneath European football. At the core of this was the impending transfer of Zinedine Zidane, an event that would reshape the footballing landscape for the remainder of the decade. After what must have seemed like a year’s worth of speculation and negotiation, the saga was finally concluded: Zidane would be leaving Juventus for Real Madrid.
For Los Blancos, the fee, which at the time was a record-breaking sum of 76 billion lire (or €38.7m, if you want to use the slightly less dramatic, contemporary currency) was a formality. Zidane was to become the cornerstone of Real President Florentino Perez’s infamous ‘Galacticos’ dream team of the 2000s, and, for Perez, money was clearly no object.
For the Old Lady and her fans, it was an admittedly painful farewell to one of the greatest players that had ever graced Serie A. Yes, Juve had procured a world record transfer fee for Zizou but where to even begin when seeking to replace such a towering talent? Luckily, the protracted transfer had brought Juventus more than just money. It gave them the time needed to try and locate an heir apparent. When that resource was spent, they had found their man.
La Furia Ceca (The Czech Fury), as he was called in Italy, had also undoubtedly become a star in Serie A.Having arrived on the scene at the same time as Zidane, in the summer of ‘96, Pavel Nedved had been an instrumental cog in the success of Sven Goran Erikssen’s iconic Lazio teams of the late 1990s. Nedved would form a part of Le Aquile’ super team of the age, alongside the likes of Veron, Mijhalovic and Ravenelli, to name just a few.
Like Zidane, he would become a Scudetto winner, as well as adding the Coppa Italia and Cup Winners Cup to an increasingly glittering CV. Obsessively hardworking, capable of perpetual lung-busting runs and hawkish when it came to a final ball, Nedved also emulated Zidane in being aesthetically unique and a proven winner. Instantly recognisable due to his mop of blond hair, there were other physical attributes that made Nedved a Lazio fan favourite: he was also easy to pick out during a game because of his unusual, loping almost shuffling running style.
But the truly unique thing about Nedved was unbeknownst to many, unless perhaps you were a member of Lazio;s medical department. There was a biological oddity within his physical make-up that explained his unique style of play, his running gait and his ability to retain the ball so adeptly in many tight situations. Shortly before the European Championship in 2004, Czech team doctor Petr Krejci explained that there was a biological phenomenon that occurred in both of Nedved’s knees that might go some way to explaining how he mastered this most inimitable manner of playing.
“Most people have a single piece of bone to make their kneecap. One per cent of people have two parts, but three parts? Only Nedved.”
The condition is called ‘patella tri-partitia’ and to suggest the billion-to-one medical marvel that resulted in Nedved’s bionic knees was the sole reason he reached the heights of the beautiful game would be misleading.
That said, you only needed to watch Nedved play briefly to immediately recognise how he might be taking advantage of this anatomical anomaly literally at every turn. Deployed on his favoured left inside wing position with Juventus, he would drift around the pitch, helping in defence when needed and supporting the attack with his endless runs. He was prodigiously two footed, and the hypermobility in his knees was obvious as he whipped in crosses down the left or cut inside to shoot on the right, with great ease and even greater power.
While the exact advantages gifted him by having two extra parts to his knee joints compared to the common man were never fully proven by medical professionals, Nedved’s continued success on the pitch remained evident. By the end of his first two years at Juventus, the Czech international had filled the void left by Zidane and then some. Winning back-to-back Serie A titles, Nedved was handed the Ballon D’Or in 2003 – the most coveted individual accolade. All that was left to fully eclipse the successes of Zidane was to win on the international stage.
In 2004, Nedved would go to the European Championship as arguably the best midfielder in world football. He also happened to be heading to the finals in Portugal with one of the finest attacking teams of the decade. It was a Czech Republic side that certainly made the most of their strengths, and the individual talent amongst their roster was enough to overpower anyone on a good day.
Placed in a group containing Germany, the Netherlands and Latvia, Nedved would have an uphill task in his quest for elusive international glory. This was a true ‘Group of Death,’ if ever there was one, but the Czechs upset the sizeable odds by not only entering the knockout stages of the tournament as group winners – but also as the only team in the competition to record three wins out of three.
Nedved had suffered a heart-breaking defeat at the hands of Germany some eight years prior, losingto a golden goal in the Euro 96 final. Eliminating the Germans this time around was the first checkmark in vanquishing those demons. As the Czech Republic advanced to face eventual winners Greece in the semi-final, it was to be the biological phenomena that were Nedved’s knees that would give up on him at this most crucial point.
The 31-year-old was substituted in the 40th minute of the defeat after damaging his knee while challenging Konstantinos Katsouranis in the Greek penalty area. Nedved was later quoted as saying he felt “enormous helplessness” as he saw the Czechs’ campaign end abruptly. A cruel irony then, that his greatest strength would ultimately transpire to be his greatest weakness, as this was the first of a series of knee injuries that would ultimately conspire in ending his career.
Although never winning an international trophy, one thing is still for certain; in the hearts of Juventus’ fans, Pavel Nedved (who has since gone on to become Vice Chairman of the football club) can claim to have forever replaced Zidane as one of the most beloved players to ever don the shirt of the Bianconeri.