On Saturday afternoon, Tomas Rosicky played the final game of his career. At Sparta Prague’s stadium, Generali Arena, many of his famous team-mates gathered – including Cesc Fábregas, Petr Cech or Robin van Persie.
It was a celebration of one of the best footballers in the country’s history, who achieved a lot. However, there was always a feeling that Rosicky could have reached a higher level, if injuries had not halted him.
In an interview with local media before the game, Petr Cech (who played without his trademark helmet) said that if it was not for all the injuries, Rosicky “had the talent” to become a Ballon d’Or winner, and would have followed in the footsteps of Josef Masopust (1962) and Pavel Nedved (2003) in becoming the third player born in the Czech Republic to collect the award.
The whole event was about praising Rosicky, nicknamed “Little Mozart”. ‘Little Mozart leaves the concert hall, but he stays in our hearts,’ read one of the PR slogans. Another one compared him to Napoleon – ‘small in stature, but big leader’.
And yet, before the exhibition game started, it was almost called off due to a heavy storm. ‘We were sitting in the dressing room and guys started joking like: “Look, it is a sign, you should not retire,”’ Rosicky laughed afterwards.
Despite the storm – and the ultras’ whistling of Milan Baroš, now playing for eternal rivals Baník Ostrava – the evening was overwhelmingly pleasant and entertaining, and the attention focused on the main man: Rosicky played the first half for the “World” team, and the second for the selection of Czech legends.
The most affecting moment came at the end of the match, when his father, brother and son came onto the pitch. The son, four-year-old Tomas – scored a goal: after a pass behind defence, Tomas sr. took him in his arms, ran straight at Jens Lehmann’s goal, “beat” purposely-falling defenders like Kieran Gibbs in the box, and Tomas jr. scored between Lehmann’s legs.
Not that Lehmann made it easy for Tomas Sr. A couple of minutes before that, after referee Martin Atkinson ordered a penalty in Rosicky’s favour, Lehmann had no intention to allow Rosický to score his first goal in the game, and caught it. However, Atkinson showed sympathy and ordered a re-take, which was converted, to the sound of laughter from the fans. ‘I was surprised Jens let my son’s shot in,’ Rosický stated light-heartedly.
Asked about Atkinson’s decision at the press conference, Rosický jokingly defended the referee, making the universal sign of VAR referral.
‘He probably he meant an envelope,’ joked a local journalist.
Although Rosický’s son is still very young, according to his famous dad he likes football more and more – and, as Rosický has made a move into a management role at Sparta during the last season, he will also be able to influence the growth of talented players in the country, where, after a golden generation of Čech, Rosický or Nedvěd, there is now a clear dearth.
In one of the many videos before the game, Rosický talked about his move to Arsenal in 2006 – he said he believed he could go on to “win everything with them”. However, it was a story of many disappointments: even if Arsenal had been able to secure their Champions League spot, they had to satisfy themselves with occasional FA Cup glory. ‘We were not good enough to win the Premier League,’ Rosický admitted.
He also highlighted 2007/2008: a season when Arsenal came very close to the league title, leading the table at the start of the spring. Rosický was one of their key players, who developed a great understanding in the midfield with Francesc Fábregas, Aleksandr Hleb or Mathieu Flamini, and Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor in the attack. With the exception of Adebayor, all were present in Prague: and while watching them play, one could not escape the thought of what could have been, or what might have been achieved if they had played together for longer.
The level of their understanding during their time at Arsenal a decade ago was “great”, as Robin van Persie insisted in a short post-match interview. While others left, Rosický remained at Emirates Stadium, doing magical things on the pitch when not fighting with injuries.
After his departure, he refused offers from USA or UAE, and returned to Sparta. Despite the fact that he was, skill-wise, in another dimension compared to the majority of the players in the league, Rosický announced his retirement during the winter break, stating that ‘my body would not allow me to play anymore’.
All those unlucky injuries were like slaps for him, but he always managed to come back. Every day, he worked hard to be able to return, even if fate was not always in his favour. Petr Cech remains full of admiration: “Every time, he managed to raise himself through the rehabilitation process in order to get healthy and to be useful for the team.”
However, it would be a shame to let injuries be the first thing to think about when Rosický’s name comes up. His legacy is enormous – without doubt, thanks to his exceptional will and character, he is one of the very best players to have emerged from ex-communist Europe.
One Italian journalist at a press conference asked Rosicky a question, trying to indicate a connection with his and Andrea Pirlo’s retirement. ‘Are players (like you and Pirlo) missing in modern football?’ he wondered.
While it is essential to say Rosický’s style was very different to Pirlo’s, as Rosický could have been used on the wing as well and was more dynamic than the Italian, the emotions around Rosický’s retirement can be based on how much people love this kind of a player – technical, intelligent, resourceful, elegant with vision. Even if Rosický is considerably far from a Riquelme-sque type of playmaking number ten, the Czech was a football romantic in his own way.
“If you love football, you love Tomáš Rosický”, Arséne Wenger once said.