Speed and reflexes are just two of his strong points, while diving presents no problem and he is as assured in the air as anyone. And if he has to hold his hand up when he gets things wrong, he does so with a sense of calm and maturity. In short, he has all the qualities a goalkeeper needs, and goes beyond the call of duty, practising them off the field as well as on. not to mention the fact that he also has the game in his blood.
“I grew up in a football family and my father was a goalkeeper,” said the custodian in question, Jan Mucha, the last line of defence for Slovakia and SK Slovan Bratislava. “He was my role model, so it was easy for me to decide which position to play.”
It is one he has occupied since he started out as a youngster with his hometown club in Bela nad Cirochou, from where he made his move into professional football with Inter Bratislava in 2000 before making his name and winning some silverware with MSK Zilina between 2002 and 2005.
It was at around that time that Mucha took up another pursuit about which he is passionate and which also requires some speedy decision-making. “I love snowboarding. It helps me relax,” he told FIFA.com. “Whenever I get some free time, I head off to the mountains and do some snowboarding.”
Hitting the pistes on his board gives Mucha the opportunity to switch off from the pressure of football and his job of trying to thwart opposing strikers week in, week out. “I’ve been doing it for around 12 years now, and I can tell you that I’ve always been very careful,” he replied when asked about the risk of suffering an accident. “Anything can happen to you at any time, so I don’t think that snowboarding is any more dangerous than the things around us every day.
“I’m also aware of the responsibilities I have as a football player. I’d never do anything that would put my life or career in danger,” he continued, before adding with a smile: “In any case, the club’s owner is aware of the snowboarding, though I’m not sure the coach knows.”
By air and sea That club is Slovan Bratislava, where Mucha has been plying his trade since 2015, following a tour of Europe in which he made his mark at Legia Warszawa, warmed the bench at Everton and then excelled in Russia with Krylia Sovetov Samara and Arsenal Tula. During those ten years of exile, both Mucha and Slovakian football blossomed, thanks in no small part to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
“It was a historic event for Slovakia; the first time that we had ever appeared in the competition,” recalled the keeper, who had won his first international cap two years previously. “It was an amazing experience, not just for us players but for the whole of Slovakia as well. The entire nation was crossing its fingers for us and football fever took a hold right across the country. Our supporters were proud of our team, and in some way we became heroes for them.”
Not content with reaching their tournament, the Repre went and qualified for the second round, at the expense of the World Cup holders no less. “Obviously, the most intense memory I have is of the win against Italy, who were reigning world champions at the time,” said Mucha, whose side eventually went down 2-1 to the Netherlands in the Round of 16. “It was one of the highlights of my career.”
That career has involved him pulling off a number of feats on his line, though as intimated above, Mucha is someone who also likes to dive and go airborne, quite literally so, as he explained: “I have a passion for planes and I have a pilot’s licence (which entitles him to fly light aircraft).
"Aside from flying, I also love diving. They’re two totally different worlds. With one, you’re up above the clouds, and with the other you’re under the sea, though I get pleasure out of both of them. I feel totally relaxed when I fly and when I go diving. I don’t fly as often and I never do it on my own. I still need to get a bit of experience.”
In safe hands Now 33, Mucha has more than enough goalkeeping experience to help Slovan, who currently lie second in the Fortuna Liga, push for the title, and his country to impress at UEFA EURO 2016, where they will be making their European finals debut. And while his day job involves him taking a lot of responsibility should things go wrong, the time he has spent in the cockpit allows him to put things into perspective.
“I have to be focused the whole time and I can’t afford to make the slightest mistake,” he explained. “But I don’t want to compare it to the concentration levels in a football match, where you obviously have to be switched on the whole time. The thing is, when you’re flying you’ve got people’s lives in your hands. You just can’t make a mistake in that situation.”
So, do the pressure and the infinitesimal margin for error prevent him from enjoying himself when he is at the controls? “I wouldn’t say it’s stressful,” came the reply. “What I feel is a huge amount of responsibility combined with a sense of relaxation."
Describing his happiest memory in a plane, he said: “I was flying over the Maldives, and the weather was fantastic: the sky was clear and the sun was shining. I can’t find the words to describe what I was seeing. My dream is to fly over New Zealand one day.”
For the time being, he has some shorter, but nevertheless exciting, trips to look forward to, with EURO 2016 in France coming up fast, followed by the race for places at Russia 2018. “I’ve spoken to the national team coach and we’re going to assess the situation when the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup come round,” said Mucha, who will be 35 by the finals and contemplating his future. “It all depends on my performances and the physical shape I’m in. But it would be great to qualify for Russia, play, and end my career there.”
Having taken control of planes when flying with his team, albeit, as he explained, “with the supervision of the pilot at all times”, Mucha is a safe pair of hands for Slovakia and will be hoping he can take them to the heights before making a smooth landing at Russia 2018.