Editor's Note: This piece will be part of a series, hopefully. With enough positive feedback, I'll happily undertake the project of delivering a number of these posts, venturing into the minds of the men that wear the blue of Chelsea for the words we want to hear, we believe we would hear, and perhaps even the words we fear. Although there will be a substantial amount of research that goes in them, each interview will be a foray into fiction, a tour as much of the mind of the author as the mind of the Chelsea community or the subject. With that, I hope you enjoy.
It's a frigid night in Chicago that the perfect scenario to describe the current atmosphere surrounding Chelsea's number one comes to me in the dark. Well, not in the dark so much as beneath the lights of the football field. American football. Let's get the scene straight.
Cowboys vs Bears - via i.cbc.ca
It's late in the fourth quarter and Bear's backup quarterback Josh McCown is driving down the field on yet another unstoppable offensive drive. At this point, he's just mopping up (trying his best to clear Soldier Field of the dilapidated Cowboys defense), but he's not in the game as a second-stringer. Due to an injury to regular starter, Jay Cutler, McCown began the game under center. After capping off his third consecutive appearance with ~350 yards passing, he was starting to look like a more than capable replacement. And then came the moment.
Following a discussion of the likely imminent return of Cutler, one of the announcers turned to the other and exclaimed, "You know what they're going to be talking about on the radio in Chicago tomorrow...? Jay, or Josh?" It seems to this writer that the whispered words passed back and forth in the unofficial channels of Chelsea fandom (not yet shouted on the match day programs) have been in a similar vein: Cech, or Courtois?
The tall Czech goalkeeper is not oblivious to this notion, but in his trademark style, he remains mostly reserved on the subject. "I know of course that my career will end someday. I hope that it is not soon, but I know that- and I have always known that I will not always play football, and this means I will not always play for Chelsea." His dark eyes shine defiant over the lid of his red chai tea, betraying a ferocity that opposing strikers know is always there, barely beneath the surface. The eyes say what the words do not. Someday is not today.
It's been a long talk that has lead us to this pivotal question in the interview. The reticent keeper seems happier to discuss the international government spying scandal and the prospects of the latest chess rivals than football. He drinks in the sunlight at the cafe we've met at, elated to have snagged a seat by the window, though his dark woolen pea coat and thick grey scarf remain on throughout the conversation. His smile comes easily and remains comfortably, a feat not many can manage. Despite what I know of his typically observant nature, he seems indifferent to my questions while his tea cools. Only when I ask him about how it felt to stand between the goalposts in the 2012 Champion's League Final do I seem to have his full attention. His face grows tight with a kind of cool excitement that only the true ice-in-their-veins warriors can ever pull off. "You could never be more alive." It is not an accusing "you," merely the general, calm statement that he has been to the summit of human experience and returned with the holy grail.
The one who stands last - via upload.wikimedia.org
"Your blood is rushing, the sound is deafening, and the pitch seems enormous in that moment, but it is what you have trained for. Every day, every practice, is not just so that I can survive this moment, but so that you can reach it. In a way, you feel you have already reached your goal, simply to have arrived in that time." His accent isn't overwhelming (and why should it be? Petr has been in England for nearly a decade now), but it adds the sense of deep wisdom and sophistication that comes with learning and embracing a new culture. Listening to him, you accept every word without question; he's an old friend with a sharp mind and a well-meaning heart.
All the same, it is difficult to imagine that he would have been satisfied or fulfilled simply reaching a penalty shootout in the UCL final. "Not satisfied, no," he smiles wryly; "I have been there before. I mean only that you feel as much the excitement as you do the pressure." He is polite to me in my ignorance, a stark contrast to the arrogance that emanates perpetually from players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In the place of a smirk and a disdainful glance, there is a quiet confidence, a friendly aura. He is a man who does his homework, and then does his job.
Having gotten to know the man a bit, I endeavor to see more of the goalkeeper, so when we travel together back to his home in Surrey, I ask to see his film collection. He points me to a shelf above the television where I glimpse a few labels among perhaps a few dozen DVDs: La Vita e Bella, Das Leben Der Anderen, and Forrest Gump, among the multitudes. Your other film collection, I say, and I have his attention again. In another room of his amply charming residence located miles from the Chelsea training facility at Cobham, the Czech proudly displays the trophies of his past accomplishments alongside the tools for his achievements yet to come. The tools are as follows: one enormous screen (roughly ten meters across, three meters high), one futuristic projector (with 3D capabilities), and thousands of hours of match film, including every minute of Cech's career. Besides these, the big man tells me he needs only a net, a ball, and someone to kick it.
The student that is the master - via www3.pictures.zimbio.com
We spend the next few hours going over tape together. As we look through the work of his rivals, I make a remark about a distinction I've noticed over the years. He is not the barking general of Gianluigi Buffon, nor does he cut the vicious figure of Manuel Neuer's intense warrior. From Cech there is another different energy. He is at work, dedicated and focused, but not a man in the trenches. "That- the yelling- is for others. For John and Ashley, and for Frank, for the manager. I do my bit to organize for set pieces, and try to keep the space right, in between myself and the goal and in between myself and the defensive line."
As to that, is he comfortable with the higher line Chelsea have increasingly played over the years, under Andre Villas-Boas, to some extent under Roberto Di Matteo, and of course, Rafa Benitez as well? "Yes, of course," he laughs, "I have to be comfortable. This is part of my job, as much as all the other players; I have to adapt to how the manager wants the team to play. Jose Mourinho has asked a lot of us, including this same high pressure, and we want to comply with that. We want to give everything we can to reach the highest point we can and to play the best we can."
The never forgotten golden goalkeep. - via www.london24.com
And he and Chelsea have played quite well this season. The team sits third, one lucky weekend away from topping the table. Cech, for his part, has passed the clean sheet record of club legend Peter Bonetti, recording 209 and counting. In a squad that seems comprised of two distinct parts: the aging and the up-and-coming, part of what comes with the achievement of these kinds of records is the question of when his run will end. Fellow senior citizen Frank Lampard experienced similar trials and tribulations upon reaching the top of Chelsea's all-time goalscorers list. Lamps, it seems, will be expected to wind down his career in the unimpressive environment of the MLS. One wonders if Cech's attainment of that incredible mark will be as much a catalyst for the Czech's inevitable ride into the sunset as the occasional shaky performance he's registered thus far. The United States is not the place for him, however, whenever that horse comes calling. "We have visited the US many times on tour, and I like America very much. I think, though, if I am to leave Chelsea, it will not be to this kind of destination." Would he consider retiring when his time at the London club is up? This question marks the first time I see a crack in the big man's cool exterior. "I do not know, we will have to see when this moment arrives. Right now, I am very happy, and I have not spoken to anyone about leaving."
This topic seems to have put him off, so I retreat to a more light-hearted matter. The Chelsea locker room always seems to be one of the loudest and most extroverted in the Barclays Premier League. David Luiz is widely-known as the proverbial class clown, John Terry is perhaps the most vociferous center-back England has ever had, Ashley Cole has only recently learned how to stay out of the news, and Eden Hazard hasn't been able to complete an interview without winking at the camera. Even the more-reserved Lampard made a comedic appearance on the popular British sitcom, Outnumbered, for Red Nose Day. Throw in the frequent dance parties* held in the locker room, and one wonders how the low-key Cech keeps his head above water. "It's true, the boys are quite wild sometimes, but I think people forget about the quieter members: Ramires, Oscar, Nando, and Ryan Bertrand. Mark (Schwarzer) is with us now, too, and he's more like me." Mata? I ask, expecting the affirmative. "No," he laughs sheepishly, "he is always talking." Cech went on to remind us that he can take the spotlight sometimes as well. He pointed me back to the cook-off he had with jokester John Obi Mikel (featuring Carlo Ancellotti). Moreover, the goalkeeper has always been game for a bit of drumming with or without Chelsea's Fab Four. But with GQ goof André Schürrle and samba musician Willian joining the squad, and the inclusion of Nemanja Matic providing Branislav "Crazy Ivan" Ivanovic with a new partner in crime, the Chelsea squad has become younger and even more exuberant over the past year.
While he admits that the squad is younger now, big Pete believes he has a while yet before his career is done. "We have a lot of younger talent now, with Hazard and Schürrle and Oscar and these kinds of players. We know that our best years are still ahead of us in this way. And I feel fit, and I have been training well. I think I can play for another four or five years, you know, at a top level." Still perhaps one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Cech sees himself very much as a part of the future at Chelsea. With Belgian counterpart Courtois making plenty of noise in Spain, the only question that remains is: does Chelsea feel the same?