First time at a big stadium. Looking around with the name Čech and number 1 on my back.
Only a handful of boys who play at the Under-16 European Championship actually make it in football. That’s a fact. All of them, every last one, have talent and dream of gleaming careers. Back then, twelve national teams came to Moravia and as I delve into my memories, I can only come up with a handful of names of guys who did become international stars.
The Croatian squad had Darijo Srna, future Shakhtar Donetsk icon. Swedes brought Kim Källström, who was later the leader of Lyon’s midfield for six years. Russia introduced their two burly centre-backs, the twins Aleksei and Vasili Berezutski. Spain boasted Pepe Reina in the goal and in the midfield, Mikel Arteta, who would become my teammate at Arsenal sixteen years later.
Our squad was also full of young hopefuls, but who can remember Šimeček, Lizák, or Holeček today? Maybe these guys didn’t have as much luck or as much willpower as I did. But it was still a generation of players with interesting stories. Jaroslav Plašil left Hradec Králové right after the tournament, with only four appearances in the Czech league, and joined AS Monaco. In the end he had over a hundred caps for the national team and for me personally he is one of our unsung heroes. Tomáš Jun might have been slight of build but as a striker for Sparta he was prolific for many years. The late David Bystroň won league titles with Baník Ostrava, Viktoria Plzeň and Levski Sofia, while Filip Trojan enjoyed a successful career in Germany.
I cannot name all of them, but I do think it was an interesting squad. And as I almost managed to keep a clean sheet against Germany, the tournament’s favourites, people started noticing me, too.
I was a patriot and I wanted to stay in Plzeň, where I was also attending grammar school. But I had to take turns in the junior team goal with Martin Ticháček, who was one year older and so had the right to be offered a professional contract sooner than me. And he was moved into the senior squad for the pre-season preparation.
He got precedence and I couldn’t be happier for him, but…
P.S. The following chapter coming up next week!
It’s the beginning of 1999, I’m nearly seventeen. …
Give him a task, he’ll do it. …