BY KARAN TEJWANI
Francesco Totti is synonymous with Rome and football. Despite the ancient city’s two great clubs being the fiercest of rivals, Totti commands respect everywhere he goes and is an esteemed legend in Italian sporting folklore. Now in the twilight of his career, he’s still in magnificent shape to contribute to his side as he heads into the final chapter of his time with AS Roma.
However, the status as ‘emperor’ of the Eternal City could have been very different had it not been for financial misjudgements in Lazio’s Olimpico boardroom. Back in 2001, when the Czech Pavel Nedvěd was sold, there was a great uproar from the Lazio faithful. He was their star man, their hero and the one that kids missed school for. Nedvěd could very well have been in Totti’s shoes.
It all took off for Nedvěd at Euro ’96 in England where he played a key role in taking his Czech Republic side to the final of the competition. Impressive performances there – including a goal against Italy in the group stages and a man-of-the-match performance against France in the semi-finals – earned him a €1.2million transfer from Sparta Prague to the Italian capital.
Tenacious and two-footed, Nedvěd’s skills were evident in his first season at the club as he slotted well into the left side of the Lazio midfield. His first season saw him score nine times in 35 games across all competitions – a decent record for the 23-year-old who was in his debut campaign in one of the most physically demanding football countries in the world and probably, the best league in the sport at the time.
He wasn’t short on support at the club as well. The Biancocelesti were building a fine side to challenge the best in domestic and continental football with the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Roberto Mancini and Paolo Negro available to add to the firepower of Nedvěd. In the 1997-98 campaign, Lazio were in good form, but failed to mount a challenge for the Scudetto. They did, however, do well in the UEFA Cup and the Coppa Italia.
Nedvěd was crucial that season as his 13 goals across 37 games sent Lazio on their way to winning the Coppa Italia, beating AC Milan 3-2 in the final over two legs and reaching the final of the UEFA Cup, losing in Paris to Serie A rivals Internazionale. His all action style caught the eye of many and Lazio fans, who now expected their side to raise the bar and do well in the league as well as see their star man take on the rest of the world.
The following season would be even more fruitful for the capital club as they were now adapting to the methods of their Swedish manager, Sven-Göran Eriksson. They started the season off well and ended it similarly as they beat Juventus in the final of the Supercoppa Italiana and overcame Mallorca in the last-ever edition of the European Cup Winners Cup. Nedvěd highlighted his importance to the side by scoring the winners in both finals and was now firmly established as one of the best footballers in the world.
The goal in the final of the Cup Winners Cup was everything that Nedvěd was about. With just nine minutes left in the final, Nedvěd scored from a nothing situation, turning sharply and powering a volley into the bottom corner of the net before jetting off into jubilant celebration as Lazio earned their first piece of continental glory.
At the start of the 1999-2000 season, Lazio now believed they had a side capable of taking on the world. Sergio Cragnotti, the club’s ambitious owner as well as head of domestic food conglomerate Cirio, was forking out money left, right and centre on world class talent over the course of the two seasons prior. To add to Nedvěd’s skill, there was the inclusion of Argentinians Diego Simeone and Juan Sebastián Verón as well as other massive names such as Alessandro Nesta and Siniša Mihajlović amongst a host of others.
The players delighted their fans and finally delivered, with Nedvěd the fulcrum of the team in midfield, dribbling his way past opponents at will. They won the league in fine style, despite finishing just a point clear of runners-up Juventus. But the winning habit didn’t end there. Lazio would add the Coppa Italia – with Nedvěd scoring in the first leg of a 2-1 aggregate success over Internazionale. These two titles added to the one they won at the start of the season – the UEFA Super Cup, where they overcame Manchester United in the final.
His speed, technique and ability were a real delight for fans to witness. Amidst the intensity of the fiery Italian atmosphere, Nedvěd was the standout performer on most nights and was key to manager Eriksson’s plans. He was also diversifying his skill as a footballer, often being deployed down the middle to support the firepower of his attackers. That season also saw the birth of his nickname of Furia Ceca – which translates as ‘Czech Cannon’ in homage to his explosive speed and skill.
However, the joy of the Lazio fans didn’t last long after their title win. Poor form in the next season saw them finish third in Serie A and their dreams of challenging for the UEFA Champions League ended in dismay as they were knocked out in the second group stage. Sven-Göran Eriksson’s departure to take the English National Team job didn’t help their form and Lazio’s days at the peak of Italian football were numbered. Nedvěd did have a fine season, however, finding the net 12 times – the second-best tally of his Lazio stint that was soon destined to come to an end.
Cragnotti’s fearless spending finally got to him and in a bid to avoid further financial issues, Lazio were forced to sell their best players. When the fans heard about Nedvěd’s potential departure, they protested vehemently across the city in a display of affection for their hero. Nedvěd too wanted to stay but such were the problems in the boardroom that his departure was inevitable.
And while one door closed on him, another opened. Zinedine Zidane’s departure to Real Madrid made Pavel Nedvěd the Turin club’s prime target and they sealed his deal with optimism. And eight years later, after a deserved Ballon d’Or success, a couple Serie A successes, a relegation and subsequent promotion and lots of unforgettable times with the Bianconeri, the time came for Nedvěd to end his career with both sets of his supporters over a 13-year spell in Italy bowing to their icon.
His final game in a Juventus shirt came against Lazio and with a 2-0 lead over the capital club, Nedvěd was substituted in the final minute of normal time to a rousing reception from both sets of supporters who were payed homage to a man that had graced both clubs with such distinction. A perfect way to end a perfect career.