A great goal can be the making of some players. For others, it can be more of a burden. Back in the days before widespread use of the internet, sophisticated scouting and more stats that you could shake a stick at, players would often be signed – even by the biggest clubs – off the back of their performances at a major tournament. And so it was for Karel Poborsky.
Like the majority of his Czech Republic teammates, the impossibly-haired winger arrived at Euro 96 to little fanfare – this was their first finals independent of Slovakia, after all, and few members of their squad played for clubs outside their homeland. All that changed when the Czechs stunned Italy 2-1 in their second Group C game and, by the time they face much-fancied Portugal at Villa Park in the quarter-finals, everybody had begun to sit up and take notice.
The Czechs’ outstanding player up to that point – even though Borussia Dortmund’s Patrick Berger had received nearly all the pre-tournament hype – Poborsky was largely anonymous until the 53rd minute (yes, even with that barnet), when he picked the ball up in the inside-left channel midway inside the Portugal half – notably a long way from his usual station on the right flank.
Typical of how direct his play in England had been to that point, Poborsky headed straight for goal, his now-familiar combination of searing pace and great footwork taking him between Paulo Sousa and Oceano, a ricochet off the latter wrong-footing Fernando Couto – a future teammate of Poborsky’s at Lazio – who had stepped out of the defensive line to try and avert the danger.
If that was the bit of luck that many great goals need, there was nothing fortunate about what happened next. With Oceano and Couto now in hot pursuit and centre-back Helder racing across to cover both, in a split second Poborsky decided there was only one route to goal, scooping the ball into the far corner of the goal from the left angle of D and penalty box.
In hindsight, Portugal keeper Victor Baia was much further off his line than was necessary, but it does make for amusing viewing as he belatedly sprints after the goal-bound ball.
Yet Poborsky’s post-match interview offered the first clues that this was a player not entirely comfortable in the limelight. “To be honest, I was pretty sure it would be a goal,” he straight-batted. “I only wished that the ball wouldn’t fly over the goal as well as the keeper.
And how did you celebrate putting your team into the semi-finals, Karel? “I ate dinner, drank a glass and a half of beer and went to sleep.”
Premier League problems
The questions would become more testing during 18 months at Manchester United, where he struggled to learn English and reproduce the moments of brilliance that had earned him a move to Old Trafford in the first place. “I wanted to hide, I wanted everyone to leave me alone,” he said later. “I wanted to be somewhere in peace with my family or borrow a canoe and paddle down the River Vitava with some friends. Instead, I had to answer the same questions all over again and again: how did you come to the idea of a chip? How much fame did it bring you?”
Not that it held him back in the long term. Poborsky revived his career at Benfica, Lazio and Sparta Prague, played international football for another ten years and even managed to perform a carbon copy scoop, this time over Edwin van der Sar in a Euro 2004 qualifier. But still the questions came. “Will the goal be as famous as the one against Portugal?” he asked journalists before they could ask him. “It depends on you, the press.”
The answer, 20 years on, is an emphatic ‘no’.
Poborsky scoops the ball over Victor Baia
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