I started my second season at Blšany as the first-choice goalkeeper. Chvalovský Jr transferred to Stuttgart and my coaches trusted me, they believe I could make it. They didn’t go looking for a more experienced keeper to take over the goal. I was good enough for them, and I have to thank them for that.
When journalists asked coach Beránek whether the “young one” was really up to such a demanding task, he said: “He’s getting his chance. We’ll see. He was good during pre-season and I believe he will grow up to be a great keeper.”
A side with an eighteen-year-old rookie in the goal? Most experts tapped us for relegation. We had no edge. Honza Šimák went to Hannover, it was the greatest opportunity of his life. Michal Pospíšil, another of our ace strikers, returned to Sparta from a loan with us. Veteran players Vrabec and Bittengel also said their good-byes. If you added all of this up, there seemed to be no doubt that we would get relegated. “I’m not going to let that happen,” I promised myself. “Even if I die in that goal, we’re not dropping out of the league!”
I only had one league game under my belt, but I didn’t feel like I was slacking off. I pushed myself, I worked hard every practice, and I gained experience and self-confidence playing for the national team. And I got promoted to the U-18, which meant that I started right in the first U-18 EURO qualifying match.
We played in Denmark and the Danish dominated for the better part of the game. They almost scored three times, I had to do my utmost to deny them. And then bam! we were one goal up. And bam! another one. I kicked the ball far, David Lafata, our striker and future Czech league all-time top-scorer, was running to get it, but was too far. He didn’t give up though, his eyes never left the ball and he kept running. Even back then he had this instinct, something that can’t be taught. The two Danes who were defending misunderstood each other, the goalie was stupefied, not expecting a header, and David just comfortably put the ball away in the empty net.
This was the match that decided who will be the first-choice keeper in the national team.
Without conceding a single goal we advanced to the play-offs, where we faced Italy. All or nothing! I love these games. Everything’s at stake, adrenaline is rampant, everybody’s nervous. One mistake can send you packing.
My friends were pessimistic: “They’ll destroy you.”
Not a chance! We won both games, home and away, and advanced to the Euros. To Germany!
However, I was destined to place fourth again. Damn it!
We believed in ourselves, we were meticulous in our preparation, but again, the footballing gods were not on our side. First we were upset by losing to the French, our second match in the group. Two French players got sent off, so France played almost the whole second half time without them. They were passive, never ventured into our half, only kicking the balls away and stalling. If we’d only managed to equalise, 1-1 would have changed everything for us. We had plenty of chances too but couldn’t score. France went on to win the whole tournament, while we got another upset when we played against Germany. We were wronged by the referee, and very badly too. A made-up foul, a penalty kick, and the score changed. Milan Baroš had scored in the third minute, but since the penalty, the referee didn’t let us play. I was so mad at him.
The second time I ever saw the same black-clad guy, my knees almost gave out under me. It was two years later and he was refereeing the U-21 EURO final in Basel. His name was Tom Henning Övrebö and he was from Norway. I was concentrating on my game, but I couldn’t banish one thought from my head: “Is it even worth it? Even if we try, we’re going to get thrashed.”
But it was worth it. It all went great; the ref didn’t make a single mistake and came to congratulate us on the win at the end.
Back in 2000 the situation was different. We were angry, livid. But time heals all wounds, that’s for sure, and placing fourth overall still meant we would advance to the U-20 World Cup in Argentina. So there was that.
I remembered the bald Norwegian referee and I knew our paths will cross again. And the moment came in May 2009, when I played for Chelsea and Mr Övrebö was refereeing our second-leg match in the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona. And once again he let me down. I couldn’t explain it. Why? Why? Why? He didn’t award us a penalty even though there were three clear occasions for him to do so. We could have played against Manchester United in the final in Rome. But that’s a different story, and not suitable for this book either.
P.S. The following chapter coming up next week!