October 30th, 1999.
In the morning I wasn’t even sure I was going to start. Aleš Chvalovský was still trying to see if his hip got better. Perhaps it might have. If he could have played, he wouldn’t have missed this match for the world. This was Sparta! And goalkeepers don’t tend to chicken out of games. But the hip still hurt. Three hours before kick-off, coach Beránek told me: “Petr, it’s on. You’re starting.”
I swallowed. This was it!
This might sound surprising, but the only thing I remember from that moment is that nothing existed for me except for the game. My first real grown-up game.
I retreated into my own mind and swore I wouldn’t mess up. Never!
Even if Mickey Mouse, the Pope and Elvis Presley were in the stands, even if all the comedians from the whole word were trying to throw me off and make me laugh, I wouldn’t budge.
I change into my kit, put on my shin pads, tie my boots, get my gloves. It’s six o’clock in the afternoon, the weather is quite warm. The light from four enormous floodlights at the Letná stadium is starting to shine, but the stands are still empty. I’m walking through the tunnel to the pitch, determined, I bounce up the steps, I’m there.
I’m on the scene.
The greatest football scene I’ve been on so far.
In the middle of a huge crater.
This is my big break.
During warm-up, I’m listening to Sparta fans’ horns. I’ve only ever heard them on the telly up until now. I don’t talk to anyone, I don’t look at anyone, I only focus on myself. A TV crew stopped me when I was leaving the dressing room, they wanted to me to tell them something about my premiere. But I had no idea. I mumbled a couple of words and took my leave.
Once I walk through this tunnel, there’s no turning back. This is it!
The starting eleven of Blšany is announced. In the goal: Petr Čech!
And then: Tichota – Drobný, Velkoborský, Šmarda – Krejčík, Gedeon, Šimák, Pospíšil, Došek – Koubek.
On week before the Sparta match I was telling myself that I deserved a chance now. I was getting better. I was getting closer to a big game. It had been four months and I had only tasted the league from the bench, if that. And now my moment came.
Sparta attacks for the first time, a long pass behind our defenders’ backs, and I shout to Honza Velkoborský: “Guma, leave it!” It was a simple command, one that I gave many times during practice, but now it gave my confidence a boost. I whispered to myself: “Look, mate, there’s nothing to be afraid of here. Sparta might be the most famous club in the Czech Republic, but even Sparta players are just people.”
It was the first time I ever held a proper Czech league football. And I found that it was just a normal ball, round, black and white, inflated, hard. The second time I touched the ball, I was picking it up from the net. In the thirteenth minute of the game, it was just Vladimír Labant and me. He put the ball on the penalty spot, took a little run, then kicked it with his left foot. The ball went right, I went left. Sparta was one goal up, it was all too fast.
We didn’t stand a chance, they were on a roll. And I started to worry – and rightfully so – that I was going to get a thrashing. In the end, the result wasn’t so bad for me – we only lost 1-3 and the newspapers voted me Man of the Match for Blšany. Coach Beránek came to me after the game, and with his typical sarcasm he said: “Apart from the three goals you conceded, it was pretty good.”
I was glad even for such a veiled praise.
I did make a few saves, which made Sparta fans very angry. They were shouting abuse at me, whenever I went to fetch the ball from the stands, they threw beer at me and screamed that I wouldn’t catch anything else. “Čech, you loser,” they intoned.
They were scary. I just took the ball and scurried away.
Who would have thought that in a little more over a year I’d be signing a contract with Sparta and these same fans would be chanting my name?
If somebody told me that, I would have tapped my forehead and told them to get themselves checked by a shrink.
P.S. The following chapter coming up next week!
Aleš Chvalovský is injured, which means I’m starting in a league match. FOR THE FIRST TIME! …
Quality prevails. …