It is said that we only truly appreciate something once it has gone. In the Czech Republic, they are now realising just how good they had it during the Karel Poborsky era.
Along with close friend Pavel Nedved, Poborsky was the common thread running through an unforgettable decade for the Czechs and their 'golden generation' of footballers. Both were promising youngsters in the team that came within 17 minutes of becoming European champions in 1996, and while Nedved went on to become the nation's poster boy, Poborsky quietly set about making history.
When he hung up his boots in May 2007, it was as his country's most-capped player and, even then, the last of his 118 appearances did not signal the end of national service. After all, since retiring, the 37-year-old has been serving the Football Association of Czech Republic as technical director, and it was in this capacity - as the youth side's head of delegation - that FIFA.com caught up with him during the ongoing FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt. What quickly became clear is that pining for his playing days is not on Poborsky's agenda.
"I do not miss the game," he said. "My time is over. Actually, what I really miss is moving. I always liked to keep myself in good condition and now it's more difficult to find opportunities to move around and stay as fit as I would like. But I am enjoying playing a different role within football and I really appreciate that I am still involved in the game in some capacity. It makes me proud."
Poborsky may have moved on, but looking back on his playing career still evokes vivid memories and contrasting emotions. Regrets? He has a few, most notably the play-off defeat that cost the Czechs a place at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™. "We did everything wrong in those games," he reflected ruefully on the home-and-away defeats by Belgium. Yet such setbacks were few and far between in an outstanding international career that still leaves the 37-year-old glowing with pride.
"I played for 12 years with the national team and took part in four major finals - it was a great time in my life," he enthused. "The highlight, or certainly the most successful tournament, was EURO 96 in England. We went through match by match as underdogs, yet managed to reach the final. I also really enjoyed the 2004 EURO in Portugal. At that stage, even though we went out to Greece in the semi-finals, my opinion is that we had the best team in Europe."
It was as Czech Republic marched to the final of EURO 96 that Poborsky first came to the attention of a global audience. Impressive throughout, his contribution is nonetheless remembered for one moment of impudent brilliance: a legendary scooped lob over Portugal goalkeeper Vitor Baia in the quarter-finals at Villa Park.
It is a goal with which he has remained synonymous ever since, and the fact that it is still seen as something of a trademark of his clearly gives the former winger great satisfaction. "I am really glad of that," he said. "That was one of the greatest moments in my career and I still really enjoy thinking about it."
Such skill, vision and sheer audacity helped turn Poborsky from a relative unknown into one of the most-sought after players in Europe by the time EURO 96 was over, and it was Manchester United who won the race for his signature. Sadly, the challenge posed by Old Trafford and England's top flight came too early for the then-24-year-old. "It was really difficult to me there because I didn't speak English and I was still young," he recalled. "Plus, the United team was already full of great players."
Happier times followed with Benfica - "I loved living in Portugal" - and subsequently at Lazio, a period described by Poborsky as the most successful of his club career. Yet when it comes to naming the best player he lined up alongside during his glittering career, there is no need to look to England, Portugal or Italy. "It's a difficult one, because I am always proud that I had the opportunity to play with great players like [Eric] Cantona and [Peter] Schmeichel," he said. "But if I had to mention just one, it would be Pavel Nedved."
What the Czechs would give for a Nedved or Poborsky now. The transitional period that followed the retirement of these iconic and influential figures has proved predictably difficult and, unless San Marino can pull off a minor football miracle against Slovenia tomorrow, Ivan Hasek's side will be left to watch next year's FIFA World Cup from home. Not that their technical director is dejected by the outlook.
"In my opinion, we have great future ahead of us," Poborsky said. "We have a lot of talented young guys coming through; you only need to look at the performances at the last two U-20 World Cups in Egypt and Canada to see that. It's tough for us right now but I would compare the current situation to 1994, when we started building a new team after failing to qualify for the World Cup in USA."
Given that '94 witnessed two youngsters by the names of Nedved and Poborsky make their international debuts, that comparison will be encouraging indeed.
Clubs: Ceske Budejovice (1991-94), Viktoria Zizkov (1994-95), Slavia Prague (1995-96), Manchester United (1996-97), Benfica (1998-2000), Lazio (2001-02), Sparta Prague (2002-05), Ceske Budejovice (2006-07)
National team: 118 appearances (8 goals)
Honours: 3 Czech league titles (1995/96, 2002/03, 2004/05), 1 English Premier League title (1996/97), 1 Czech Cup (2004), European Championship finalist (1996)