Do you know how to recognise a good goalkeeper? It’s not only about how he gets a cross, how fast his reflexes are or how confident he appears. No. Try closing your eyes during a game and listen. If you hear him commanding his teammates over half the pitch, giving clear orders, you’ve hit the jackpot. And this might happen maybe once in a lifetime.
And for me, that has been and will be Petr Čech.
In 2002, he had just turned twenty, and I said that within three years he’d be among the best goalkeepers in the world. And he managed to do it even sooner than I predicted.
He has a sixth sense in football. He has a feeling, he anticipates, he knows what the correct reaction will be. He’s got a gift from God. And he was there when I achieved the greatest success of my coaching career – winning the U-21 European Championship.
It was Tuesday, 28th May, in Basel, Switzerland. We were playing against France and even after extra-time the match was still goalless. There was to be a penalty shoot-out. Petr wandered off to the side and lay down on the grass. He even pulled his shirt over his head as to not be disturbed. “Leave Petr alone!” I told all his teammates.
He was immersed in his own world, concentrating on only one moment, on the crucial instant of a goalkeeper’s life. After three long minutes he got up, gave me a high-five and that was it. I’ll never forget the spaced-out look on his face. His eyes weren’t on the pitch, it was as if he was lost in another galaxy.
The first penalty went over him, the second and third he caught, the fourth only grazed the bar. That was it. We did it. We won! It was a once-in-a-lifetime outburst of joy.
“If you perform like Dominik Hašek in the Olympic final in Nagano, we’re going to win,” I’d told him before the match. And he did it.
It could have ended the same way in the 2004 EURO semi-final in Portugal. We had a great squad, Karel Brückner and I, and we felt like we had a shot at the title. Do you remember? Nedvěd, Poborský, Koller, Baroš, Rosický, Ujfaluši, Šmicer, Jankulovski... We played against Greece in the semis, there were no goals, and right before extra time started, Petr came to me: “Coach, if there’s a penalty shoot-out, don’t let anyone near me. I need to be alone.”
Unfortunately, this time there was no penalty shoot-out, our hopes were thwarted by a Greek goal in the 105th minute. It was sad, we were really, really close to becoming European champions.
You might not believe this, but the first time I ever saw Petr was in 1983. He was just learning to walk. I had got a job in Plzen at that time and I lived with my family in the same building as Petr and his family. They were on the first floor, we were on the seventh and top floor.
I went to practices and my wife and Petr’s mom got to know each other walking with their prams. I had two daughters, one-year-old Olina and three-year-old Svatava, who was already scuttling around the prams. The kids played together in the sandbox and on the monkey bars, and in the winter they tried their little skis on the mounds around our house.
In April 1985 we had to move to Prague because I started playing for Slavia, and I’ve lost sight of Petr for fourteen years. Then I saw him in Lanžhot at the U-16 Euros. He was tall and had his goalkeeping gloves ready. I had no doubt about him. His physique, the look on his face, his self-confidence, the positive impact he had on his squad. Okay, he messed up a few clearance kicks, but the way he carried himself, the way he talked, the way he directed his defenders… “I want this guy for Blšany!”
I knew he had great things ahead of him.
It was only when his parents arrived to see his first practice at Blšany that I realised who he was.
And even then, Petr was a character. He built his own experience piece by piece like a puzzle and became one of the best goalkeepers in history. He is Somebody. He’s a legend. Children need role-models, and there’s no greater role-model than him.
P.S. The following chapter coming up next week!
I make money, I have a car, I’m a goalkeeper! …
I had to take the test twice. …