Red Letter days
It is eight months since Vladimir Šmicer last played a competitive match for FC Girondins de Bordeaux. A knee injury in February brought his first season to an abrupt end and wrecked his chances of playing in the FIFA World Cup. Now things are finally looking up. Fit again, the UEFA Champions League winner cannot wait for Wednesday when his old club Liverpool FC come to town. They are a side he loves like no other.
When Šmicer was injured in February 2006, he was in the first of his two-year contract with Bordeaux. He was approaching his 33rd birthday and the previous season had already spent a number of months nursing a serious knee injury. He never lost belief, though, that he would play again. "I was sure this wouldn’t be the injury that would stop me," he told uefa.com. "I had the support of the club and on top of that I love football and the life that comes with it." Conscious of just how ephemeral a playing career can be, he is determined to make the most of the season that has started without him. Bordeaux are also impatient. Despite the arrival Johan Micoud, Šmicer's intelligence, experience and precise passing have been missed.
Šmicer has been performing well for Bordeaux's reserves and hopes to return to Ligue 1 action this Saturday against AS Monaco FC. Then comes Liverpool, where Šmicer spent six years after signing from RC Lens in 1999. The Czech midfielder believes he had his best years at Lens between 1996 and 1999 (winning the league in 1998), but he still won an impressive collection of trophies while in the north-west of England. "I experienced the highest level in England. I wasn't able to impose myself completely because I wasn't always at my peak. Others were stronger. But I experienced some big moments."
After winning the UEFA Cup, the FA Cup and the League Cup twice, "Vladi" signed off on a high by helping Liverpool FC triumph in the UEFA Champions League final in Istanbul. He assumed legendary status on the Kop by scoring the second goal against AC Milan as the Reds battled back from 3-0 down at half-time to win on penalties. It was his last match in the red shirt, a fantastic memory but one tinged with regret.
"In my last match at home against Aston Villa [FC], with nothing at stake, the coach Rafael Benítez didn't even pick me in his squad of 16. I was furious. After six years at the club I didn't get the chance to salute the fans. There was the final of the UEFA Champions League after that...but that wasn't the same, that wasn't at Anfield. Even if I wasn’t the most loved player it was important for me to play, even just five minutes."
Šmicer soon adapted to life at Anfield, finding many similarities between his new club and the one he had left behind. "The first year was difficult because they presented me as the successor to Steve McManaman, the fans' favourite. The comparison was inevitable, and not in my favour. But [then manager] Gérard Houllier gave me time. Although the pressure in England is incomparable, Lens like Liverpool lives for football. The people are passionate, and would give there last penny to watch a game. For a player that's the dream."
With Houllier in charge, Šmicer felt at home. "It was the French school. The only concession to the English style was the match preparation. If we were playing at 3pm we would arrange to meet at 11.30 to eat together. The night before the match, we never stayed overnight somewhere. We slept in our own beds and that's superb. Perhaps the English players are more serious or they have more confidence in them. In any case, I really enjoyed that."
Šmicer grew up in Prague dreaming of the Reds and King Kenny Dalglish. "Signing for Liverpool was a dream and I am not just saying that. They were my idols. When the club contacted me, after two good seasons at Lens, I didn't hesitate, despite offers from Paris [Saint-Germain FC] and Monaco. It was magic. After the Heysel tragedy when Liverpool were suspended from European competition we didn't see them on television anymore. I became an AC Milan supporter and of Paolo Maldini, and then I played in the final against them..."
Bordeaux is a new experience. Open and intelligent, Šmicer is enjoying this latest stage in his career. "I've found what I've been looking for here," he said. "Time to play, a good championship I know well, a well-run club, quality of life, the Champions League..." Šmicer appreciates the pace of life in Bordeaux after the pressure of English football. He has turned the page, but is looking forward to opening that particular book again very soon.
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