Mr Žaloudek. I can still see him right in front of me, walking around the gym in his shabby tracksuit. Stern face with a thoughtful expression and kind eyes which flitted all around the gym, from one exercise stop to the next. He saw everything but felt no need to have everything under control.
Admittedly, he used to slouch when he walked, but he had tremendous energy. He saw us as future top league footballers, even when we were no more than primary school pupils. “If you want to be successful,” he used to say, “you need to have the basic triangle good and running.”
He drew in a deep breath to put emphasis on his words. “Football – family – school. Football – family – school. Football – family – school. If one of the three parts of the triangle doesn’t run as it should, you can try as much as you want, but you won’t get the results.”
You were right, Mr Žaloudek!
He himself never had a family, he never married, neither did his older brothers Adolf and Oldřich. Žaloudek lived with his mother his whole life, he brought his own lunch to school in small pots. Still, he was the legend of Plzeň football. I don’t hesitate to say he would have given his life for Viktoria.
He was born in Nýřany, a small village by a creek some 15 kilometres from Plzeň. He never had much success as a player, but he was a phenomenal coach. Everyone who is anyone in West Bohemia passed through his hands at some point, because he could tell at first sight whether you had talent or not. And then he asked you a couple of questions about your family and school and he had the whole picture.
He taught me one key thing: “Čechi, give it your all!”
And I did. Everything I had in me, I gave it all to football. And Mr Žaloudek watched me every step of the way.
He was Master Coach for me, the greatest football fanatic I ever met. Of course, I can’t compare him to Mourinho, Wenger, Brückner, Acelotti or Hiddink, but for me, he was the man who showed me the way. He was the man who turned the lights on at the school gym in the morning so we could play, and then turned them off again in the evening.
Sometimes he knew we played a match at the weekend and then had a draining practice on Monday, so on Tuesday morning, he wouldn’t even let us get changed. “Let’s have a chat, gentlemen,” he’d say. “Today, you need to rest.”
He was unobtrusive but insistent. He told us what a professional footballer’s life looked like, what it took. He sat us down on the mats and started talking. “Guys, try to get into a coach’s head. What is a footballer made of?”
We were all a bit shy, so none of us dared to answer. Žaloudek decided to take a softer approach. “My little twats. You have three bags and you need to make an ideal player out of the ingredients. What character does he need to have?”
He influenced everyone. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t consider his words very carefully. And I loved these talks. When he wanted to show us they were not just empty phrases, he brought in one of his former charges, some of the guys who were already playing in first league clubs. So we got to talk to Dan Šmejkal, Zdeněk Bečka, or Michal Čaloun, our Plzeň idols.
Mr Žaloudek was a visionary, so it wasn’t at all surprising when he became the first professional youth coach in the Czech Republic, along with Mr Žůrek from Otrokovice. Unfortunately, he died too soon. Once again we saw how unfair fate can be. He was strong, but he couldn’t beat cancer. He was sixty-three years old.
It was beginning of September 2003, I was with the national team getting ready for a European Qualifiers match in Belarus, when we got the news. I was deeply moved by the great coach’s passing. I just remembered him standing in front of me, wagging his right index finger and saying: “You twats, wait till you get to secondary school. The girls will go after you so much you’ll crap your pants. You’re young and handsome, you’ll forget about football! It’s going to be just parties and girls. So don’t act like twats, your life isn’t going to get away from you, but football might.”
He was right again. Many guys who were more talented than me never got to play in the Czech league, much less abroad.
P.S. Next week - Chapter 39
From one terminal station to another. And then back again. …
I was lucky my mom was a seamstress. Let me explain why. …