Rudi Skacel believes he would have ended up as a teacher if he didn’t make it as a footballer – although he feels he was always destined to become a sportsman.
The parents of the 37-year-old, who went on to become a two-time Scottish Cup winner with Hearts, both worked in education, while his sister went on to do likewise.
“When I graduated from school in 1998 I had two choices,” said Skacel, now at Raith Rovers. “My parents said you will be a professional footballer or you will go to university. I said I will do 100 per cent everything to be a footballer because that is what I love. If I didn’t become a footballer, I’d probably have been a teacher because my parents and my sister are all teachers. I’d probably have been pushed down that road as well if I hadn’t become a footballer. I didn’t really think about that too much though because I always had a chance to play football.”
Skacel, who grew up in the Czech city of Hradec Kralove – east of Prague and close to the Polish border – was exposed to sport from an early age. “My target as a small kid was always to be a professional sportsman,” he said. “My mum and dad always did sport. My mum [Nadezda] played volleyball and gymnastics and my dad [Rudolf] played ice hockey and football. He played professionally for Hradec Kralove.
“I had a great childhood because of all the sports I was introduced to. I did cross-country skiing at school, so I had plenty time to try every sport. Being around sport was always my first choice. The main sports I did were football, ice hockey and tennis. I didn’t support any particular club when I was young – I just supported my father. I followed ice hockey more than football when I was young, but I was most talented at football. I started playing for a club in my county when I was five and I scored a lot of goals. When I was 12 I played for Hradec Kralove and then later on I had my first experience in professional football with them. I had desire and I worked hard, and my family were happy. I wanted more though. I didn’t just want to play for Hradec Kralove – I wanted to play somewhere else, so I went to Slavia Prague [as a 23-year-old in 2002].”
From there, Skacel went on to play for the likes of Marseille, Panathinaikos, Southampton and Hertha Berlin and, of course, Hearts, where he enjoyed two memorable spells. “You always feel it could be better but I’ve had fun and I’m happy with what I’ve done so far,” he said. “I had so many friends who were a similar level to me and they didn’t make it in professional football, so I am grateful for the level I reached.
“All my career has been a bit up and down. One year was perfect and then another year something would happen. I would have liked to have been somewhere a little bit more long-term but I am not the sort of guy to hang around at a club if I am not important to the team. I have maybe had too many changes in my career, but variety is good for your life. I have played for great clubs in great cities and I have a lot of friends around Europe.
“I had great fun at Hearts and in Germany. Marseille were one of the biggest clubs in France. I called it football university because it was an incredible experience for me and a great education. I moved from Hradec to Slavia, who were a massive club in Czech Republic, but then to go to Marseille was just unbelievable.
“Panathinaikos were also a huge club playing in the Champions League. I had a great lifestyle there. I can’t just pinpoint one year, but obviously people notice when you score lots of goals and win trophies, so Hearts stands out in that regard.”
Skacel explained how the relatively unheralded Edinburgh club were able to lure him following spells at the more illustrious Marseille and Panathinaikos. “I was looking for a new challenge where I could play in midfield because I’d been playing left-back at Marseille, which wasn’t my favourite position,” he said. “One of the options was Hearts, who showed strong interest. The project looked good – they wanted to fight with Celtic and Rangers. It was a smaller club than what I was used to at Marseille and Panathinaikos but they did a good job of selling it to me and really wanted me. It was a good decision. I was lucky things worked out. I didn’t know straight away it was going to take off at Hearts. I came ten days before the start of the season and there were big changes happening with management and so many new players. When we went 1-0 down at Kilmarnock in the first game, I thought ‘oh, this is a mistake’, but then everything changed around.”
The rest, of course, is history.