So this was my baptism by fire and I survived. And it was a hard one.
My league premiere, at Sparta. And a defeat.
I had mixed feelings about it. An argument was raging in my head: “Damn this defeat, I didn’t want my career to start like this. But – it could have been worse, no? At least I’ve shown everyone I deserve a chance.”
This was also what I told the reporters who ambushed me when I was leaving the dressing room: “I believed in myself. I hope it wasn’t all that bad.”
Sparta was unstoppable and Blšany were struggling a bit in the past few weeks.
You can’t exactly jump with joy after conceding three goals, but I was happy. I didn’t have to hide. I’m not going to lie, on Monday I went to buy newspapers first thing in the morning, to see what the journalists thought about my performance. It’s an important feedback for footballers and if a player says he doesn’t care or doesn’t even read the papers, don’t believe him.
“Čech – seven points out of ten? That’s not so bad. It means I didn’t disappoint.”
Sparta must have been my fate. The stadium, the crimson jerseys. I’ve never told this to anyone, but the first time I went to the Letná stadium was when I was fifteen. We were coming back to Plzeň with the youth team, from Ostrava, and the Czech national team was playing an important game against Spain. A qualifier for the 1998 World Cup.
Pavel Srniček was in our goal, Andoni Zubizarreta in theirs. You can believe me when I say I had never been this angry about a game than at that moment. We were late, and our seats at the stadium were already occupied by a gang of boorish drunks. The organizers didn’t manage to move them, so we had to go into a different part of the stands – one where the visiting fans usually went. Left of the main stand, in the lower part of the bend. Which means I hardly saw anything through the metal bars of the pen, only about a third of the pitch. Whenever the game moved, I had to crane my neck and turn my head, I felt like a bobblehead figurine. And try doing that for ninety minutes!
I soon got bored, and the match itself wasn’t so great either. It ended in a goalless draw and we went home.
The second time I came to Sparta was with Blšany, I conceded three goals, and next Wednesday I was fulfilling my duties again, in a Cup game against Ratíškovice. I made some pretty good saves but suffered another defeat nevertheless – 0-1 this time.
It was the end in the Cup for us, Chvalda’s hip healed and he was back in the goal. Nobody had to explain anything to me, I knew it was bound to happen. I was back on the bench and that was the end of my first league stint.
One game, one defeat.
On the one hand, I was sad that even despite my good performance I didn’t earn my place in the goal, but at the same time I knew this was only the beginning for me. When you’re seventeen, you can live with being the reserve keeper. You gain experience, you learn, you train, you get used to the whole circus.
My dad told me the same thing: “Don’t give up, you’re only at the beginning.”
And I had other people around me who had my back. One of them was František Chvalovský, the big boss of Blšany. He was the chief, he made Blšany into the smallest footballing village in Europe. He got a diminutive club from the bottom to the spotlight, built a beautiful stadium, became the president of the Czech football association. He used to come see us after every match and we listened to him. He had a soft spot for goalkeepers, not only because his son was one, but also because of his own career. He had been Blšany keeper for many years. He might not have looked the part, being a little bit on the stocky side, but looks can be deceiving. He was pretty nimble. And he had a glass eye on account of having his eyeball shot out by a friend with a slingshot when he was young. Mr Chvalovský was a great character and a figure of authority. I liked listening to him, and he told me: “Hold on, your chance will come.”
And he was right.
P.S. The following chapter coming up next week!