After twenty years into hall of fame, Cecah announces his retirement from football
Last January the 15th, like a bolt of lightning against a light backdrop, Petr Čech announced that at the end of the season he would bid farewell to football. The decision of the Czech goalkeeper, with twenty years of professionalism behind him, by now was sensed in the air, but losing his place in Arsenal’s starting lineup to the German Bernd Leno probably somehow accelerated it. Every goodbye is always shrouded in a cloak of veiled melancholy, and is often the product of a decision taken on the wave of the emotions of the moment, but at this point of no return Čech seems to have ended up with lucid reasoning, after a planned and calculated journey at every stage: “It’s been 20 years since I signed my first professional contract, so I feel the time has come to announce my retirement at the end of this season”.
After all, he is not entirely wrong. In fifteen years of Premier League football, since arriving as a kid at Chelsea in 2004 to currently being a veteran at Arsenal, the giant from Plzeň, has gained all sorts of personal and individual satisfaction, turning into a totem of English and world football. The results speak for themselves: he won the Premiership four times and the Champions League once with Chelsea, he maintained a clean sheet in 202 matches, an unattainable record for anyone else in Premier League history, and for some time, according to some, it was not wrong to consider him the greatest goalkeeper in the world, even better than our Gigi Buffon.
And to think that Čech, as a child, did not like football, but instead was crazy about ice hockey, a very popular and much practiced sport in the Czech Republic. What changed his mind, however, was his father, a worker like so many others in Škoda in Plzeň. Not so much due to different taste, or a different aspiration from that of the son, who grew up with the myth of Dominik Hašek, but for a simple economic reason: “I always wanted to play ice hockey, but of course I would have to buy all the equipment. And, basically, we could not afford it”.
Few people know, however, that as a child at least initially, he was not used as a goalkeeper, but rather as a striker, precisely on the right wing. He did rather well too, scoring several goals, but then at ten years of age a knee injury brought him back on the pitch, confining him between the goalposts in the penalty area, as had once occurred at training when none of the three goalkeepers had appeared. That would become his home, his place in the world, but Big Pete did not know yet. As often is the case in the stories of the great goalkeepers, born as strikers or midfielders and later asserting themselves with a pair of gloves on their hands, what determined his trajectory was fate. The first opportunity in goal did not go very well, but Čech immediately felt at ease between the posts, really happy in fact, as if in the end preventing goals excited him more than scoring them: “The guys we were playing against were older, taller and stronger, but we did not do badly, we conceded five goals, but there could have been five times more, I never imagined that this friendly match would change my life forever”.
Formed in Viktoria Plzeň by an icon such as Jiří Sequens, and also by Josef Žaloudek, one of the first coaches of a certain Pavel Nedvěd, at seventeen Čech was still immature, but ready and “tall enough” to make his debut in the Czech first division with Chmel Bišany, the team where he transferred to when Plzeň allowed him to break away, after not following his economic demands to sign his first pro contract. Big Pete knew he was lower in the hierarchy than Aleš Chvalovský, the son of the club owner and goalkeeper of the U21 national team, but still decided to accept the proposal: “It was a train that could not return. I had no contract and therefore I could sign with anyone”. Čech’s settling in top level football and a reality like the Chmel Bišany, where talented youngsters were sided by veterans such as Günter Bittengel and captain Petr “Béda” Vrabec, was more complicated than expected, but two years later, in 2001, he had already risen in the ranks and wore the colours of the institution of Czech football that is Sparta Prague, where he would beat the record of Theodor Reimann, the legendary goalkeeper of Sokol Bratislava, having kept the goal of the maroons unscathed for a good 855 minutes. The national team had been a natural consequence of such performances. In the summer of 2002 at the European under 21 championships came the early feats, when the Czech Republic beat France in the final, after eliminating the Italy of Pirlo and bomber Maccarone in the semifinals, and he was a great protagonist, earning the consideration of the international audience. One more reason that prompted Stade Rennais F.C. to spill five and a half million euros to Sparta and take him to France, where he would remain for two seasons, before receiving the call of José Mourinho and reaching what would become his home for over a decade: Stamford Bridge.
At Chelsea, but also with the Czech national team, for which he is the most capped player ever (124 games), he has represented the prototype of the elegant and efficient goalkeeper for years, even if at home they do not stop blaming him for the blunder against Turkey which cost them qualification for Euro 2008. For a certain period, in the second half of the 2000s, Čech was not only considered one of the best goalkeepers of the moment but also gave a sense of physical omnipresence thanks to a gargantuan body size and an innate sense of position, even when forced to come out of goal to make up for some flawed defending. In those years, when an attacker challenged him one against one, Čech was simply unbeatable. He seemed to have the gift of doubling of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man and we already knew how it would end, who would come out the winner of the duels involving his classic “scissor” sliding saves or covering the goal like a Christ Pantocrator depiction. But, apart from this, if we loved him so much it was also for his fragility, already displayed in his early years, but which then emerged dramatically in 2006. In the history of Čech, there is in fact, a before and after October 2006. You all know the story: he was playing in a match between Reading-Chelsea, when during a collision in which his opponent Stephen Hunt, unable to slow down after a sprint, ended up striking Big Pete with an accident knee-blow to the head, leaving him on the pitch lifeless. The impact could have even cost him his life, but the Czech goalkeeper came out of it only with a fracture of the skull (more fragile than normal due to the twinning of his birth), before returning to the pitch a few months later covered in a protective helmet modelled on those commonly used in rugby, which later became his trademark, to the extent that it was always represented even in video games. “I had splitting headaches, but in the end I began to train and went back to shot-stopping”. Despite the initial suspicions of the fans, who were worried that they would never see the Čech they were used to ever again, the Czech number one has shown to everyone that he has not been minimally impaired in his abilities by the incident and has guarded the posts of the Blues for further two decades, reaching the most prestigious milestone of his career in 2012, when together with Terry, Lampard and Drogba he turned Abramovič’s dream into reality by winning the Champions League, before saying goodbye to Stamford Bridge three years later. In the evening at the Allianz Arena, in which Chelsea made more than fifty thousand Bavarian fans ready to celebrate cry, Big Pete probably gave us the best postcard of his career, that of a goalkeeper of physical means and an extraordinary engine, but also and above all that of a very intelligent man with a head on his shoulders, married for years with Martina and father of two loving children, Adela and Daniel. The dive with which he foiled Arjen Robben’s penalty in extra time, which played a big part in the memorable triumph of Di Matteo’s Chelsea, was not random, as nothing has ever been in Petr Čech’s extraordinary parable: “When you’re tired, you’ve played in 104 or 105 minutes, players choose power rather than technique, and a left-footed player usually aims to the right, which is why I went that way”.
You cannot be certain, however, that an evening like that is impossible to repeat. Petr Čech, who is also an experienced drummer, dreams of a dramatic exit, a final deafening clash of cymbals before the curtain falls on an extraordinary career: “I will give everything to win a final trophy with Arsenal”.
by Vincenzo Lacerenza