A Čech homecoming
Legendary goalkeeper revisits his Sparta past as Chelsea picks up steam in Europa League
Posted: February 20, 2013
Much has changed for Chelsea's Petr Čech in the dozen or so years since he last found himself in the away dressing room at Sparta Praha's Letná stadium, when his side on that occasion, Blšany, were defeated 1-0. He moved abroad to further his career with French club Rennes in 2002, before sealing a £7 million move to the Blues two years later, going on to become one of the Czech Republic's most successful sporting exports.
"The last time I played here as a visitor was in 2000, so it's been a really long time," Čech told The Prague Post after Chelsea's 1-0 victory over Sparta Feb. 14. "It's the first time in my career I've managed to play against a Czech team in any competition, so it was an interesting experience. In the end, we won the game and we got the clean sheet. We're glad it went this way."
Affectionately called "Big Pete," the 30-year-old has been voted Czech Player of the Year an unprecedented six times and is regarded among the best goalkeepers in world football. At 1.96 meters tall, he stands out from the crowd, yet his towering, muscular exterior belies an intelligent and thoughtful man.
Being a goalkeeper can be a thankless task at times, but there was certainly no shortage of love for Čech, appropriately on Valentine's Day, when he returned to his native country for the sellout Europa League fixture.
The former Sparta player shook off a finger injury ahead of the first-leg encounter to take his place in the visitor's starting lineup, to the delight of some 18,000 home fans in attendance. Despite watching him help inflict a defeat on their side (see Sports, page ND18), they crowded round the Chelsea team bus after the match, shouting out his name and asking for his autograph.
Čech has fond memories of his spell with Sparta, whose 35 national titles are the most in league history. Then just a teenager, he joined the club from Blšany in 2001, making 39 appearances during a season that saw him set a domestic record of going 903 minutes without conceding a goal.
"I was glad to be a part of, historically, the best Czech club you can be involved in," he said. "It was great; I was only 19, and I was living my dream. It was fantastic in terms of football, and on top of that, Prague is a great city to live in, so I really enjoyed it."
He added, "You have so many things to do. You can go sightseeing, or you can go to the theater and the cinema and stuff like that. When you're young and you have no family [with you], you enjoy the time for yourself."
Last year, Čech's heroics inspired Chelsea to their maiden Champions League title as they beat Bayern Munich on penalties in the German club's own backyard at the Allianz Arena. He saved three spot-kicks in that match, including two in the shootout, to erase the pain of a final defeat against English rivals Manchester United in 2008.
And although the Blues suffered the ignominy of becoming the first Champions League holders to exit at the competition's group stage this season, Čech is determined to stay positive and take the much maligned Europa League seriously.
"Once you're out of the competition, you can't change the situation," he said. "Obviously we will all miss the Champions League campaign, but that's the way it is, and we can make ourselves happy by going far in the Europa League. If we can win the Europa League, it would be fantastic. This is a competition we really have to respect."
Only a trio of clubs - Juventus, Bayern and Ajax Amsterdam - have ever won all three of the Continent's major competitions. With that European Cup and the now defunct Cup Winners' Cup already sitting in their trophy cabinet, Chelsea just need to capture the Europa League to complete the full set of honors.
"It's obviously a great motivation for everyone," Čech said of attempting to reach that milestone. "When you play for a top club, you always want to try and win every competition. If you win the Europa League, you can also play the Super Cup. We missed out on the Super Cup this season [losing 4-1 to Atlético Madrid], and it was a big disappointment for us."
Echoing the view of his goalkeeper, interim Chelsea coach Rafael Benítez fielded a near full-strength side at the Generali Arena, as he bids to impress the club's ambitious owner Roman Abramovich by delivering some silverware. Previously, the Spaniard was asked by a Czech journalist how it felt to be playing "only in Prague" when European giants Real Madrid and Manchester United were about to kick off in the Champions League.
"Why do you say 'only in Prague?' " Benítez retorted. "It's a massive city, massive club and massive competition, so we're really pleased to be here. We can't change things. The Champions League is a massive competition, but the Europa League is also a massive competition, and we're playing against a historic team. I will try to give my players the right message because we know it will be tough."
Benítez has already tasted Continental success after leading Valencia to the Europa League title in 2004 (when it was known as the UEFA Cup) and Liverpool to Champions League glory 12 months later. That Liverpool side featured two Czech internationals, Milan Baroš and Vladimír Šmicer, with the latter coming off the substitutes' bench to score as the Reds recovered from 3-0 down at halftime to beat AC Milan on penalties.
"I have good memories [of Baroš and Šmicer]," Benítez said. "They were very good players and did really well for me. I remember I told Šmicer back then - he was coming back from an operation - 'You will not play too many games, but you have to be ready, because if you have to play, you can make a difference.' And he made a difference [against Milan] in Istanbul."
While both Baroš and Šmicer have long since retired from international duty, Čech - who wears a protective helmet when playing after fracturing his skull during a league match in 2006 - shows no sign of relinquishing his No. 1 jersey anytime soon. With 98 caps to his name, he should surpass Karel Poborský's record of 118 appearances for the Czech Republic, continuing the role of elder statesman in a team that boasts a wealth of young talent.
Before the tie against Sparta, Čech said the hosts' wingers would pose the biggest threat to Chelsea. He refused to single out individuals, but it was clear he was mainly talking about pacey 20-year-old attacker Ladislav Krejčí, who debuted for his country in the friendly with Slovakia last November. Indeed, the stopper sees the emergence of players such as Krejčí as vital for the future.
"It's very positive because you need people to come through the ranks for the national team," he said. "The more they play for clubs like Sparta, and the more experience they get at international level playing in the Europa League, the better it is for the national team. We will have more options, which is good."
The Czech Republic have made an inauspicious start to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, garnering five points from their three matches so far to lie third in Group B. Michal Bílek's men face make-or-break encounters against Denmark and Armenia in March, as the campaign enters its crucial phase.
"We have some decisive games coming up, so we need to make sure we take points from the next two games to have a chance to qualify," Čech said.
In the meantime, the goalkeeper's focus is on the second leg with Sparta, due to take place in London Feb. 21, and ensuring his side protects its one-goal advantage. If all goes well, he could be back in Prague sporting Chelsea colors in next season's Super Cup, with Eden Stadium the venue for the 2013 game.
Čech's presence in that match would no doubt boost ticket sales, and so given his huge popularity at home, would "Big Pete" consider finishing his career in the country where it all started?
"You never say never," he replied with a smile. "Let's wait and see."
Jonathan Crane can be reached at