Sometimes I have these vivid dreams, and in them I am standing in the goal unable to move. The ball comes rolling towards me, so slow a turtle could overtake it, so all I have to do is catch it or stop it with the sole of my boot. But nothing works. All of a sudden, it’s as if somebody has turned my body off. I’m standing like a bronze statue and the only thing I can do is watch. Watch as the ball rolls into the net. Goal! I might frown and curse in my sleep, but I never wake up. I just roll over to the other side and continue sleeping.
I must say, it’s a tremendous advantage that the goals I concede never haunt me. I’m angry about them, of course, but they don’t stress me out, my mental state doesn’t suffer because of them. Not even because of the goals from my dreams.
When I was signing my deal at Letná, however, my hand was shaking with nerves. I was taking a crucial step in my career, a step that could take me to places I’ve never even dreamed of.
Even though I knew I would stay on a loan in Blšany for six more months, and then join Sparta in the summer, it still felt surreal. My life was about to change dramatically.
I had only started in fourteen lousy league matches… Do you get it?
I was nobody, a hardworking boy who was eager to play some football. My monthly salary was around fifteen thousand crowns, and suddenly I got a 300-thousand bonus just for signing the deal. I bought myself a car with that money and promised myself that no amount of money would ever change me.
You know what’s paradoxical? I’d never even met the coach who persuaded Sparta to buy me for the crazy sum of twenty-two million crowns. It was Ivan Hašek, but he left the club at the end of the season, so we didn’t coincide.
The same thing happened to me years later at Chelsea: Claudio Ranieri was the one to pick me, but when I came to London it was José Mourinho who was at the helm. And I’ve experienced many moments like that during my career.
My transfer to Sparta was the real beginning for me, and I want to thank everybody who helped me get where I am now. Especially my parents, who made me who I am. Thank you to all the coaches who helped me grow. Thank you to all my teammates for hundreds of great games we played together. And I also want to thank those who didn’t believe in me. It’s partly because of them that I always worked hard, and still do.
I had a diary where I wrote the results of my games and glued newspapers clippings. At the end of January 2001, I added an article in which Vladimír Borovička, former Bohemians goalkeeper, commented on my transfer to Sparta. And he was quite merciless, saying that I stood no chance, that I’d never make it into the goal because Sparta had two national team goalkeepers, Blažek and Poštulka. “And if Čech is only sentenced to be the third-choice goalkeeper, he’s going to kill his career.”
I remember that quote to this day because I’ve read it so many times. I couldn’t count how many times I opened that little notebook and found the page with this particular article.
“No chance you say? Well, I’m going to show you how wrong you are!”
I wasn’t angry, I know everybody is entitled to their opinion. I was pretty sure many people thought the same as Mr Borovička, they just didn’t say it out loud. By the way, even my dad, who was quick in his judgment as usual, told me: “At least Sparta have a reserve team. They’ll let you play there. And that’s good too.”
The hairs on my arms bristled.
He didn’t even finish the sentence and I knew I’d never content myself with a place in the reserve team. Never! I’d work hard to be happy. And the only way I could be happy was if I was the first-choice keeper in the first team.
I was lucky to have been born with a mindset like that. I was never happy being average.
I hate half-assing anything.
I hate failing.
I hate being second.
That’s the motivation that pushed me, helped me overcome all obstacles.
And still does.
When I left Sparta for Rennes after only one year, my parents couldn’t understand it: “Why didn’t you stay there? You would have been the king!”
Yeah, but I wanted to be a king in France.
When I left Rennes after a year and a half to join Chelsea, it was the same: “What are you going to do in London, be a benchwarmer? They have Carlo Cudicini in the goal, one of the best keepers in Premier League.”
But I only had one desire: To make it!
To prove to the whole world that I could do it, that I was good enough.
That’s why I managed to deny the French those penalty kicks in the U-21 EURO final.
That’s why I won the Premier League four times with Chelsea, eventually winning the Champions League too, in May 2012.
That’s why I came back after a severe head injury that threatened to end my goalkeeping career.
That’s why I got used to the helmet I need to wear to protect my health.
That’s why, at 33 years of age, I could transfer to Arsenal, another fabulous club.
That’s why I have over 200 clean sheets in Premier League.
That’s why I have 124 caps for the Czech national team.
My priorities are clear. If you want to go far, you need to continuously work hard and make sacrifices.
That’s the only way. Trust me, I’ve tried.
MY LIFE, PART 72: Where to, boss? To Letná
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