HE CALLS HIMSELF AN ORDINARY KID FROM BROD. YET ENGLAND HAS ALREADY FALLEN IN LOVE WITH HIM AND THE CZECH REPUBLIC IS COUNTING ON HIM: AT THE EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIPS, TOMÁŠ SOUČEK WILL BE THE MAIN DRIVING FORCE OF THE NATIONAL TEAM. WHATEVER THE OUTCOME, BELIEVE ME, HE WILL REMAIN THE SAME. MODEST AND HIS OWN MAN.
DO YOU OFTEN HEAR THAT YOU'RE AN ANTI-STAR? A NORMAL GUY?
I have to say, yes. From people close to you, from friends, from you journalists. I'm glad, because I always tell myself that I'm just an ordinary kid from Brod who just knows how to play football. And it doesn't matter if I'm playing in a stadium with 60,000 people or on a patch of grass behind my house. I don't want to change, I have no reason to.
IS THAT WHY YOU DON'T CHANGE YOUR HAIRSTYLE?
I guess. I've never thought about it. I don't like to change. Sometimes when I was seventeen or eighteen, the boys would shave their heads at training camp, but luckily it stopped before it was my turn. What about the hair, it would grow back, but it was in summer training, thirty-five degrees, so whoever cut their hair had a total head burn afterwards. I'm glad I missed it.
YOU'VE REALLY NEVER HAD A FREAK ACCIDENT?
Maybe when I was ten, I made a punk mohawk on my head as a joke. And around 16, I used to gel my hair every now and then when I went to the disco. But no big deal. I just don't need that in my life.
DON'T YOU LIKE CHANGE?
I guess that's the point. I'll play in a pair of kicks I'm comfortable in until I tear them up. To post on Instagram that one day I'm playing in pink and the next day I'm playing in green... Oh, no. I'm the opposite case, I stick to my habits and rituals. Sometimes maybe a little too much.
ARE YOU SUPERSTITIOUS? I DON'T KNOW THAT ABOUT YOU.
I am. A lot! I always step on the field with my right foot first, off the field with my left. I only step on the club emblem that we have on the ground in the locker room on game day, I believe it can give me strength. Otherwise, I avoid it, just like the opposing team's. I wrap my wrists with tape, I'd feel weird without it. And on game day I wear colored socks for luck, I have more of them. My Ukrainian teammate Yarmolenko already knows me, so he's always checking me out: So, what's today? But that's the height of my extravagance.
WHAT ABOUT TATTOOING? IT'S A VERY COMMON THING IN FOOTBALL.
Sometimes I think I'm the only one who doesn't have one. I'm not saying I've never considered it, but I've actually ended up asking myself: Why would you do that?
I couldn't find a reason. Get a tattoo of my daughter's, wife's, or parents' birth date? What for? It's in my head, I don't need to look at my hand. I'd rather tell them to their face that I appreciate them for all they do for me than have something patched on my body. At most, little Teresa and I will draw a picture on my hand at home and wash it off the next day. That makes more sense to me.
I WANT. WHAT ABOUT FAST CARS? THEY SAY THEY BELONG WITH FOOTBALL PLAYERS.
I like them, but I don't really condone it either. If I get a chance, I'd like to drive a nice car, maybe rent one, just for fun. But I certainly don't need to show off my car or tell you how much I got out of it on the highway. That's not for me.
AND FASHION? I GUESS YOU'RE BEST IN JEANS AND A T-SHIRT.
I'd swap the jeans for sweatpants and it'd be perfect. (laughs) Especially now, in the time of the coronavirus, when you only go between home and the training center, it doesn't make sense for me to get fancy. It's different when my wife and I go out to dinner, but I can actually get by with jeans and a T-shirt anyway. I don't feel natural in a tuxedo, which I wear for formal occasions.
BUT IN THE FOOTBALL DRESS ROOM, CLOTHES ARE A BIG DEAL.
I guess it depends. At West Ham, the dress code is so proper, so normal. Even here, sometimes the lads will hang up clothes that look funny, but no one's ever done that to me. On the other hand, if someone wears a new extravagant thing every day, it's purely their choice, I don't judge it at all. We all have our own style, it makes the dressing room fun too. But I don't want to change.
BUT PEOPLE LIKE YOU ARE A MINORITY IN FOOTBALL.
I guess that's the way it is. I know that little boys play like stars, and they don't just emulate them on the field, they emulate them off the field. They copy their style, they do their hair, they buy their clothes. But I'm only interested in setting an example on the turf.
IS THAT HOW YOUR PARENTS RAISED YOU?
The fact is, they probably wouldn't take a tattoo. I'm sure I'd have gotten a lot of flak if I'd gotten one when I was a teenager. I'm grateful for the way they guided me from a young age, but now they don't talk to me about anything anymore. They see I'm not changing and there's no need.
DOES IT BOTHER YOU WHEN PEOPLE SAY FOOTBALLERS ARE WHIPPERSNAPPERS? WHEN THEY'RE LUMPED TOGETHER?
It bothers me. It's said a lot, but there are only a few who stand out - one or two in the team. Then it often comes back to them, journalists bash their heads in, they feed it on social media. And it casts a shadow over others who don't deserve it. It creates prejudice in people.
I KNOW YOU'RE NOT THE TYPE TO SEEK OUT CAMERAS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS. HOW DID YOU FEEL THE FIRST TIME YOU HAD TO BE INTERVIEWED ON TV?
I was nervous. It started when I was nineteen-twenty and got a chance to play in the league. I was at Slavia, the biggest club in our country, where the media interest is always huge, and I fell right into it. I was often overexcited,
I stammered, I laugh at myself when I see it in retrospect. The first time I accepted an award at a gala and looked into the hall where several hundred people were sitting, I got pretty sweaty too. Same with the first time I spoke in English. But I always get over it.
IT'S FASTER IN THE DRESS ROOM, ISN'T IT?
It does now, but when I was 18 and I was supposed to train for the first time with the Slavia team, I had a little soul in me too. I came into the dressing room where there was, for example, goalkeeper Radek Cerny, a guy twenty years older than me. Of course I didn't say hello to him, but hello. I went to watch him and the other guys as a fan, I couldn't imagine that I would suddenly be giving them a hug.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE FOR THE GREASERS TO START PICKING YOU UP?
You only get older guys on the field. It pays to be humble and work hard. When you get a chance, you gotta take it. I know it sounds like a cliché, but that's all it is. It's true everywhere.
EVEN IN ENGLAND?
I was surprised how quickly everything went. I was a bit scared, but my first games came out and the boys took me on straight away. I feel great now, they're letting me know I'm important. It makes me feel better, everything goes by itself. I'm even helping the younger guys in the locker room who are coming up from the youth. I try to support each one of them when something goes wrong. Once I settle in, I want to be heard - that was true at Slavia, in the national team and at West Ham.
THEY LOOK FOR RACISM EVERYWHERE
EXCEPT, IS IT NO LONGER THE CASE THAT CO-OPERATIVES MIX CZECH WITH CZECHOSLOVAK OR CHECHEN AS THEY USED TO?
Fortunately, no. Although during the Newcastle game the boys asked me if their goalkeeper Dúbravka was with me in the national team. He's Slovak.
WELL, DON'T YOU SOMETIMES FEEL THE BRITISH ARE A BIT TOO SUSPICIOUS OF PEOPLE FROM EASTERN EUROPE?
It's true that every now and then they confuse Sparta with Slavia, which as a Slavist I don't like, and I correct them immediately. Our assistant coach joked about it, brought me a Sparta flag and said: I'm bringing you a present, look, it's your team, isn't it? But honestly, if someone asked us in the Czech Republic about teams from, say, South America, a lot of people wouldn't know either. My teammate Vláďa Coufal and I are trying to give the Czech Republic a good name and hopefully we are succeeding. Thanks to us, the guys in the dress room have already cheered for Slavia in the Europa League against Leicester or Rangers.
BUT THEY MUST HAVE ALSO DISCUSSED THE TOPIC OF RACISM, WHICH WAS COMPLETELY COVERED UP DURING THE MATCH AGAINST RANGERS. IT WAS ABOUT WHAT YOUR FORMER TEAMMATE KUDELA SAID TO THE DARK-SKINNED OPPONENT KAMARA.
Of course, everyone was asking me how it went, what the words were. And I've been fighting for Ondra the whole time. I believe he didn't say anything racist, nobody proved anything to him, yet he was condemned by many people on the islands and received a heavy sentence of ten games from the disciplinary board. I find that absurd. I know him so well that I can't imagine him saying anything racist. I tried to convince the guys in the locker room of that.
HAVE YOU NOTICED HOW EXTREMELY SENSITIVE THE BRITISH IN PARTICULAR ARE TO RACISM?
Yeah, I see it every day. There's two streams running into each other, we think a little differently than they do. That they want to fight racism, that's right of course, but sometimes they go to such an extreme that I think it's downright counterproductive.
CAN YOU UNDERSTAND THEM?
I'm closer to the Czech view, so it's hard for me to understand. I think that if they look for racism in everything, they can never get rid of it completely. On the contrary, they are harming themselves. I'll give you an example: our little one goes to kindergarten here, and when she goes to draw something on the blackboard, she can't say that the blackboard is black or white - she says both could be interpreted as racism. So she has to say interactive board. Slowly one becomes afraid to say anything, lest one offend or offend someone. And I think that's wrong.
YOU AND YOUR FAMILY HAVE BEEN IN LONDON FOR A YEAR AND A HALF. HAVE YOU SETTLED IN?
I have. The language was a problem at the beginning, it took me a while to speak properly, but I'm used to England and London. My wife and daughter miss their grandparents, of course; we've been away from home for three quarters of a year because of the coronavirus. We live a lot of our lives via video chat, it's harder to get used to.
PROBABLY AS HARD AS DRIVING ON THE OTHER SIDE.
I was really worried about that. When I first got on the road, I told the guy who was taking care of me: I've never experienced this before, it's going to be unusual. He told me it would be fine, but I could also see him shaking for the first five minutes to make sure I didn't crash. After that it was fine, when you see cars coming the other way, it tells you to go in the right direction.
SO YOU NEVER ONCE WENT THE OTHER WAY?
Once when I was leaving the car park. There's no cars around, so I'm in a nice right-hand turn and suddenly I see I'm in the opposite direction. That's when I broke a sweat, but I haven't made a mistake since.
EVEN IF WE IGNORE THIS CHANGE, NAVIGATING THE HEAVY LONDON TRAFFIC IS PROBABLY NO FUN.
I've often wondered how we could grumble about Prague traffic. Sure, you're stuck in a traffic jam sometimes too, but in London it's a real force. One time we drove to the city centre, about 20 kilometres by car. It took an hour and three quarters.
I GUESS IT'S BETTER TO TAKE THE TUBE.
It only takes about twenty minutes to get downtown. Especially in the beginning, until the coronavirus came out. After that, I tried to avoid the risk of infection and we drove, but as soon as I can, I'd rather take the subway again.
AND YOU'RE NOT WORRIED ABOUT THE FANS DESCENDING ON YOU?
It's hard to say what it'll be like. During the first month, when I took the subway, they didn't know me very well. Now they're getting to know me more and more. Especially as we live in a neighbourhood where almost everyone is a West Ham fan, so as soon as I go out on the high street, I often get honked at, waved at, asked for an autograph. But everybody's nice.
WHAT'S IT LIKE LIVING IN EAST LONDON? WHAT'S ITS REPUTATION?
It's strange. I've heard it used to be around West Ham's stadium that the crime rate was the highest in the city. They said it was a den of iniquity, people were afraid to live there. But when London hosted the Olympics, they built a beautiful park there and everything changed. It's a great place to live now, there's always somewhere to go. There's a café we like where the little one goes for a babyccino, a kind of coffee for the kids. My wife and I have a coffee and we're comfortable.
HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR EATING HABITS IN ENGLAND? KNOWING YOU, I'M GUESSING YOU DON'T HAVE EGGS AND BACON FOR BREAKFAST.
Not at all. Since I've been playing football for a living, I'm used to eating chicken, fish, pasta. Some people find it monotonous, but I'm perfectly happy with it. The English have it a bit different, they'll have beans or something greasy before a game. I'm fine like that, just if I happen to have a week off, I'll ask my wife for a sirloin. But I do sin after the game, I must admit.
YOU SURPRISE ME.
By running a lot, I often get hungry and eat the fridge. I'm craving everything and eating whatever I can find. I'll have a big meal first, a piece of meat, and a sweet at the end. I have to get back the energy I expend somewhere, so it's forgivable, right?
THE HARDEST SEASON OF MY LIFE
DEFINITELY. WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU DIDN'T PLAY FOOTBALL FOR A LIVING?
I would definitely want to hang around it, coaching or working in management. When I was finishing my high school diploma, I was already in Slavie's team, but I still managed to apply for university, sports management at FTVS. I passed the exams, I could start, but in the end I wrote a letter saying I was sorry. That I couldn't reconcile it with pro football.
YOU REALLY COULDN'T? FOR EXAMPLE, YOUR FORMER SLAVIA TEAMMATE LUKAS PROVOD IS STUDYING ECONOMICS.
I admire him a lot for that, too. But back to what I said at the beginning: if I tried to do something else besides football, in this case studying, I would feel that I can't do either of them 100%. I'm glad I can do football to the fullest.
EVEN AS A KID, YOU NEVER DREAMED OF ANY OTHER PROFESSION? A DOCTOR, A GARBAGE MAN, A TRAM DRIVER...
I've always been into ball. I was drawn to the sport. Besides football, I used to play handball, which my mother used to do, my sister even plays league for Písek. My coaches told me that I could go somewhere in this sport too, so I combined the two for a while. I alternated practices during the week, handball game on Saturday, soccer game on Sunday.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN DOING THIS?
Briefly, until I was about ten. But even after that, when I moved from Brod to Slavia, I was occasionally tempted to help out at a handball tournament. At thirteen, I stopped doing that too, at most I played a few times for the school.
YOU WEREN'T DRAWN TO LONG-DISTANCE RUNNING WHEN YOUR MOM WAS RUNNING MARATHONS?
I never wanted to race in it. I know I run a lot on the field, but would I enjoy sweating for hours without a ball? No, I don't. But if the school had a cross-country meet, I'd sign up right away. It was fun and I could get out of class at the same time. The marathon doesn't really appeal to me yet, but maybe I'll give it a try one day after my career when I'm not in danger of getting injured.
IT'S ALMOST A MIRACLE YOU MADE IT THROUGH THIS SEASON WITHOUT INJURY. YOU'VE PLAYED ALMOST 50 GAMES.
It's true, it's been extreme. The toughest of my life, from many angles. Because of the coronavirus, my family and I didn't get to go home. It was also the first time I had a year without a winter break, they don't have one in England, so there was no room to rest for a while. But I don't really mind because I never get tired of football.
REALLY? DO YOU ENJOY EVERY TRAINING SESSION?
There's no reason it should be any different. We made it to the cups, I did well personally, every game recharged me rather than tired me. When the season was over, I had a chance to recharge my batteries - I had to quarantine myself for five days after returning to the Czech Republic, so there wasn't much to do anyway. I believe I rested and it will be enough. When you have a motivation like the Euros in front of you, you put fatigue behind you.
ADMIT IT, DID YOU GET ANY REST AT ALL? OR DID YOU RUN AROUND ON A TREADMILL AT HOME DURING QUARANTINE ANYWAY?
We made ourselves comfortable in the garden with the family, occasionally kicking a balloon for fun with my wife and little one. But I did get on the treadmill a few times. I have the biggest tournament of my career so far and I want to be ready to make sure it goes well for us.