Tomas Rosicky keen to leave a legacy with Czech Republic vs. Croatia
Tomas Rosicky cruised through his Arsenal debut against Dinamo Zagreb in August 2006, but he had little reason to stop and ponder how good the Dinamo No. 19 lining up against him would become.
Arsenal won their Champions League playoff first leg 3-0 in Croatia, and Luka Modric, who had just turned 20, was quiet. The midfielder had already turned heads, but he gave little sign of his burgeoning talent as the Gunners coasted to victory.
Yet, a decade on, Modric is in irresistible form for Real Madrid and Croatia, while a 35-year-old Rosicky finds himself clubless as the two meet again in a match of utmost importance in Saint-Etienne.
It has been a trying year for the Czech Republic captain, who played only 19 minutes all season due to injury, having been handed an one-year contract extension at the end of last season despite similar struggles. Sources close to the player told ESPN FC that Rosicky was upset not to be handed an emotional farewell at the Emirates when Arsenal played Aston Villa on the final day of the Premier League season; Mikel Arteta was afforded the applause instead and Rosicky faded off into the night with little fanfare.
It was certainly not adequate preparation for a major tournament, with the Czechs playing three times in eight days and unlikely to afford the luxury of resting their captain after the opening defeat to Spain. It is testament to Rosicky's enduring talent, rather than a denigration of a national team for which he was available just five times in qualifying, that his importance remains undimmed. Despite his many spells on the treatment table, any slowing up is imperceptible.
Back in 2012 Rosicky talked about his "football age," believing that two years lost to various ailments might have the effect of lengthening his playing career. He cited the longevity of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes as inspirations and anyone who watched him control a pre-tournament friendly against Russia, in which he volleyed a crisp goal and dictated proceedings from behind the attack, might fairly label him a footballing Benjamin Button.
Rosicky looked fit in the last-gasp setback against the Spaniards too, lasting 88 minutes and visibly annoyed to be taken off. He now goes head-to-head with a Croatian midfield that -- inspired by a vintage Modric performance -- controlled proceedings in their win over Turkey.
Rosicky set an unusual record against Spain, becoming the oldest player to represent the Czechs at a European Championship almost 16 years to the day since writing his name in the history books as the youngest. His task is twofold now: show the verve and spark that might just salvage this year's campaign and use all his experience to galvanise those around him, too.
"These young players were very surprised against world-class players," Rosicky said about their performance in Toulouse, where heavy Spain pressure eventually paid off for a late Gerard Pique goal. "They have to go through it. It is part the development of a footballer, and they have to be more self-confident if we are going to hurt big opponents."
The Czech team is hardly full of teenagers but there is little top-level experience these days, with few of the squad operating in major leagues and only Petr Cech, Rosicky's erstwhile Arsenal teammate, having comparable Champions League exposure.
Rosicky will surely have garlanded them with tales of Euro 2004, when -- at just 23 -- he shone as part of a remarkable generation of Czech footballers that reached the semifinals. That side, also including the likes of Cech, Pavel Nedved, Milan Baros, Marek Jankulovski, Karel Poborsky and Jan Koller, should probably have won the tournament and although such an achievement is almost certainly beyond this year's crop they certainly have the chance to launch a few careers.
Vaclav Darida, the Hertha Berlin midfielder, has already been linked with Real Madrid and perhaps, against a narrow Croatian midfield, there will be opportunities for the excellent Hoffenheim right-back Pavel Kaderabek to make several of his trademark bursts upfield.
"They are very well organised and the best player they have is Rosicky," Croatia midfielder Marcelo Brozovic said in the prematch news conference. That Rosicky's career has influenced younger midfielders like Brozovic, who was linked with Arsenal himself in the January transfer window, is no surprise; the task now is to eke two more big performances out of those legs and outshine Modric once more. If he can do so on Friday, that will certainly give people something new to remember him by.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.