I hated playing on slag – the cinder football pitch we used – and coming home all scratched and skinned. I hated when my teammates berated me for a stupid goal. I hated being soaked to the bone, more than anyone else on the pitch, when it was raining. I hated each and every defeat. But I had to be real.
I was the goalkeeper.
A goalkeeper never complains.
Not even when he’s feeling really bad.
The coaches who coached me during my childhood couldn’t have known that I’ll grow up to be a Sparta player, Chelsea player, Arsenal player. And I never thought of that either.
A big career in a foreign club? No way!
More than a hundred caps for the national team? Have you gone mad?!
My dreams were much more mundane. I wanted to play for Plzeň, my beloved Škodovka, which went back to its original name Viktoria in 1993, returning to its traditional name after more than forty years.
I’ll forever hold my hometown in my heart, but I never had the luck to play for their first team. Of course, I have no reason to feel sorry for myself, but looking back I get a bit nostalgic and I feel like both me and Viktoria would have deserved it.
But let’s get back to my boyhood. Up until the eighth grade we had football practice organised by the school. Sometimes we trained on slag, sometimes on grass. But when I say grass, you need to imagine a weird trampled ploughed field with a million bumps and potholes which made the ball jump erratically and our ankles suffer. We hated that pitch and if it was at all possible, we chose to play on the cinder pitch.
You say you can’t believe that?
I’m pretty sure children today don’t even know what slag or cinder means. It was hard black crumbling grit, full of dust in the summer and hard and scraping in the winter. As late as 1965, Hradec Králové, a top-flight club, still played their home matches on a cinder football pitch, so when Dukla Prague came, legendary players such as Masopust, Novák, or Jelínek must have felt like they went back into football prehistory. But those guys never complained, they grew up on slag, so they had no problem adapting to it. Just like us.
We weren’t spoiled, we were hardened by falls, bruised knees, bloodied elbows. Sliding tackle on cinder was a challenge only the most thick-skinned were up to. We knew that if we did that, we’d have to stand in the tub after the match with a scrubbing brush in hand and scrub, scrub, scrub, until all the little black stones got out, otherwise they would grow over and stay in our skin forever.
You’ve probably guessed that goalkeepers were the worst off. Nowadays you can get proper goalkeeping equipment so that you are protected, but twenty years ago I used to come home grazed and skinned more than anyone.
The only strategy we goalkeepers could employ to avoid whimpering and pain was to wrap ourselves up in anything at hand so we wouldn’t get scraped. Knee pads were a must to protect the knees. I also borrowed elbow pads from my sisters who played volleyball – another indispensable piece of equipment.
I was lucky that my mom was a seamstress, so she came up with all sorts of tricks to make the cinder hell at least a little bit more bearable. She took scraps and leftovers of fabrics and lining materials at work and made me some protective gear out of them. From cotton wool left over from an old men’s jacket, for example. And it was fine. She also sewed foam rubber into the sides of my shorts (and my tracksuit bottoms for the winter), otherwise every fall would mean bruises, sores or even blood. Especially in winter when the cinder was frozen solid and hard as hell.
And they say being a goalkeeper is easy.
I can honestly say that cinder makes men out of boys, and that’s not an exaggeration.
P.S. Next week - Chapter 37
Something hurts? Well, off to the goal with you! …
One more time and I’ll have to find another hospital. …