Petr Cech column: Pride and pressures of playing international football

With another international break beginning, our former goalkeeping great and current performance and technical advisor Petr Cech recalls his own extensive time playing for his nation and explains how the demands of winning caps has an impact on club football…

It was always an honour for me to play for the Czech national team. I think I showed that because every time I could do so, I went and represented my country. That's why I ended up with 124 caps, which makes me the most-capped player in my country’s football history.

To keep playing international football you need to stay fit and you need to keep playing at a certain level as well and I always had pride in playing for my country, but on the other hand you know when you play for a top club team, you have a congested calendar. Playing international football obviously adds to the travelling, it adds to the time spent in hotels, it adds to the pressure, it adds to the fatigue and to the accumulation of games.

You come back at the last minute to play your next club game. You may arrive on a Thursday, train one day and then you travel with your team for an away game. So it poses its own challenges and you need to find your way to deal with this rhythm and how to switch between club and national team with the travelling and the different emotions.

At a top club you have maybe 15 to 17 international players and that is a massive disadvantage for the preparation of the first game after an international break. This is one of the very biggest challenges these clubs face as it's not easy for the players to come the day or two days before the game and quickly switch to the different competition but still, I think if you ask any player then everybody's happy to travel and play for their national team.

I always felt that, even though I knew it was going to be more demanding. The long season finished and then you had the June internationals which took away half of your days off and if there was a Euro or a World Cup, you might not have had any holidays.

Over the years that has changed. Nowadays players have to have a certain amount of time off. Before it was sometimes sorry, you need to come back and you had six or seven days and you were back in. It was always demanding and hard times but I still enjoyed it.

People may think that travelling as a footballer is not much of a strain because you are not exactly travelling on budget airlines and waiting for hours in airports, but for the Czech national team that was not entirely true.

The budget was not the same as for big clubs and although yes, you had a charter plane, it may not have really comfortable seats and if you have a four-hour flight with not much space, it makes a difference.

But what affects you more is the time-zone changes sometimes, or having a lot of games and the time you spend in the hotel as well. It's not like you have day off when you can go and play golf or do whatever you want. But as I said, it is rewarding at the same time when you play for your national team, and if you manage to win something it is even more special.

Growing up and joining a great side

When I was young, I knew a full international cap was coming. I managed to be selected through the different young international age groups, playing in the European Championship for Under-16s and Under-18s and then the World Cup for Under-20s. Then I rose to play in the Under-21 Euros which we won.

At that time you know the next step will happen because at that level you have a chance to play for a club in a top league which week in week out, gives you the opportunity to show what you can do. To play for the Under-21s you have shown consistency in international games which is a platform for the senior national team coach to pick you, so in February 2002 I got my first call and then I never looked back.

We definitely had a team capable of winning Euro 2004, but in a tournament sometimes you just need one unlucky moment and you are out. Greece were having their tournament of the century and they knocked us out in the semi-finals before managing to win it by beating host nation Portugal in the final. That’s the way it is sometimes in sport.

It would not have been easy for the Czech team to beat Portugal in Portugal in the final but we had a great team with all the qualities to have had a chance.

The side I came into is looked on as our golden generation. It is a shame we didn't put that stamp on it. We finished third so I have good memories but it's a shame because the Czech team in ’96 were very close but they lost the final in extra-time to a golden goal, and we lost the semi-finals in 2004 to a silver goal*, which has never been repeated.

It was an amazing team. We had players like Pavel Nedved, Milan Baros, Tomas Rosicky, Jan Koller and other famous names. It was a great team with a great team spirit, a great coach, all the coaching staff were good and we had players who played important parts in top European teams.

I’m proud of the fact I never missed out on a European Championships. Since I was 15, I always qualified - at Under-16, Under-18, Under-21, and then four times with the senior team in 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016. It was an amazing achievement for our country which is not big, with a population of around 10 million.

My dream was to play one full international and I managed to get 124 which is nice. I think I could have played for longer but I had done almost 15 years in the national team with all the strain I have explained, and I reached that point in 2016 after the Euros where I knew I was ready to let something go in order to keep my career going at the highest possible level. You can feel you need to do that after all those years.

Nations League adding something

This week at Chelsea we have Jorginho, Marcos, Cesar and Romelu, plus two of our players who are on loan, Emerson and Michy, playing in the in the final two rounds of the UEFA Nations League.

This competition means that national teams are not playing as many friendlies as they did when I was playing.

I have to say that if you have games where you play for something, then it's probably better than just travelling and spending time in the hotel for friendly games. So it is better to have a competition where when you win a game it actually moves you somewhere.

Yes, it has added some more games to the schedule which with a congested calendar, might look a bit too much, but at the same time I would rather play proper games than just go for a friendly so in that respect, I think it is not a bad idea.

* A golden goal was when the first goal scored in extra time ended the match. The silver goal was when an extra-time goal did not finish the game straightaway, but a team leading at the end of the first period of extra time would be declared the winner at that point.

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