It was the most emotional 19 minutes of what would be his last season at the club. When Tomáš Rosický replaced Alex Iwobi in Arsenal's 2-1 FA Cup victory over Burnley in February, he was lost for words. "It was unbelievable, something I didn't expect," he told Arsenal’s website. "Since the moment I started to warm up on the sidelines, it was exceptional. Honestly, I had tears in my eyes after being such a long time out."
The 35-year-old was received warmly. Very warmly, even, and made to feel at home. Rosický was greeted by a raucous round of applause by the Arsenal supporters on a wintry night in north London, returning after seven months out with a knee injury that threatened end his career. It was a commemoration to his resiliency in the 10 years he has spent at the club, the hard work and the fighting spirit to remain relevant, and a blunt ignorance to the words ‘give up’. In the past, many have fallen prey to injury recurrences at Arsenal, yet few have remained to become one of their longest-serving players since 2004's Invincibles side. The second-longest? Theo Walcott, by a week and a half.
Before all this, Rosický was one of Europe's most promising players. Everyone wanted him, it appeared. Franz Beckenbauer had urged Bayern Munich and Uli Hoeneẞ to not miss out on him again, previously deciding against it. His fellow countryman, Pavel Nedvěd, wanted him to spearhead an already physically-powerful Juventus midfield comprising of Emerson and Patrick Vieira. And had Atlético Madrid not low-balled Borussia Dortmund, he could have gone to Spain.
It's no exaggeration either, going by then-Czech Republic coach Karel Brückner. "There have been about 70 clubs interested," he told one newspaper in 2004. But, in any case, Rosický remained focused on one club: Arsenal. Long before either of their paths would meet, there was still admiration. It was being enthralled by Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, as the Guardian's David Hytner scribed, that an appreciation and desire to represent the Gunners would emerge. While Wenger had accomplished a league and cup double, electing him as the Premier League and LMA's Manager of the Year, Rosický was collecting back-to-back Footballer of the Year honours, along with the Czech Golden Ball in 2002 in his native land. All in a campaign with which Borussia Dortmund were crowned German champions for the sixth time in nearly half a century, rounded off with a UEFA Cup runners-up place, too.
When he signed for Dortmund from Sparta Prague in January 2001, it was unlike most transfers the Bundesliga had seen, because it was the most expensive that it had seen. At the time, €23.3 million (£18m) was an eye-watering figure, particularly since defender Lúcio switched from Brazil’s Internacional to Bayer Leverkusen for €17.5 million (£13.47m) days earlier. The consensus was mixed, depending on which side of the border you were; in Germany, Rosický was openly welcomed (Kicker labelled him the “Wunder-Baby”), but back in the Czech Republic, some still felt aggrieved. Even though Sparta fans were well-aware of the negotiations, they took a while to forgive their hometown starlet for packing up and leaving. “He is young and does not know the [German] language,” was Czech Miroslav Kadlec’s opinion, a defender that had spent eight successful years with Kaiserslautern. Rosický was only 20 at the time, yet penned a five-year contract, telling as much of the direction Dortmund were heading in.
A promising Tomáš Rosický was what Dortmund needed. What the Bundesliga needed. For Matthias Sammer and Der BVB, it was the invention and awe-inspiring presence he brought in the final third, and for German football it was a perpetually enthralling new-age era of Bayern, Dortmund, and now Leverkusen fighting for supremacy year-on-year. His debut season rose off the ground quickly, scoring twice and setting up three more in a five-match win streak to kick off August.
September was less productive, accruing only three points from a possible 12, but it was the switch from a right-wing berth to attacking midfield that continued the upward trajectory. The title race was closely contested and, with Bayern stuttering, it left Leverkusen as the favourites. Both teams overtook and fell behind the other several times in the campaign, but it was towards season’s close that the Bundesliga would see a grand finale.
A physically-tense draw away at Hamburg left Bayer with a five-point gap and three games remaining. Next up was Werder Bremen. The away side led through an incredible Krisztián Lisztes’ effort, which was then ruled out by a Zé Roberto leveler. Leverkusen had the chance to take the lead, only for Frank Rost – their goalkeeper - to miss a spot-kick. It was an Aílton effort that settled it and Bremen came away 2-1 winners, in a match that Leverkusen should have won. Dortmund dropped points against Kaiserslautern too, losing 1-0, but it was a surprise defeat nevertheless.
Nürnberg overturned the odds as well, winning 1-0 in an even more shocking result, yet vital for their survival. To stay top, Leverkusen would need Sammer’s side to not win in Hamburg. The home side went both a goal and a man down when Ingo Hertzsch fouled Márico Amoroso in the area. Before long it was two when the Brazilian found Rosický’s late run to slot one past Martin Pieckenhagen.
By then it looked comfortable, and should have been, but a second yellow for Christian Wörns led to Hamburg’s fightback and a converted penalty to reduce the deficit. Dortmund were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the 18-yard box, which deflected off the wall and bobbled towards Amoroso for an effort that restored the two-goal lead. 3-1. As more time elapsed, the match grew in intensity, with the supporters playing devil’s advocate to the opposition’s fortunes. Nico-Jan Hoogma rose highest to meet a cross and net the goal to make it 3-2, but it was Rosický’s build-up play to find Otto Addo inside the area that opened up Jan Koller for the finish. Four goals to two, with four minutes left. HSV’s Erik Meijer would make it four-three in injury time but it would not matter, as the points went in Dortmund’s favour.
Advantage Dortmund. Leverkusen had to win regardless, and started it off well with a Michael Ballack set-piece that flew in. He later made it two from a corner, giving his side a comfortable lead. At the Westfalenstadion, Bremen had taken the lead through Paul Stalteri, threatening to swing the tile back to the east side of the River Rhine. Fans were notified of each other’s results, and reacted accordingly when the other fell behind. Koller managed to pull one back through a right-footed shot to beat the goalkeeper from outside the box, before Razundara Tjikuzu hit the bar after racing through on goal that could have made in two apiece.
Sammer’s side continued to play through Rosický without consequence. Bremen could not stop him. Left-back Dédé continued his run into the box after a one-two broke down, with Rosický lofting the ball high to meet him. Dédé’s acrobatic cross didn’t meet the outstretched head of Jan Koller, but an unmarked Ewerthon at the back post. Two goals to one, with 15 minutes remaining, it would need another Bremen chance for the title to change hands. It didn’t, and upon the whistle’s blow, they were champions.
It was not before long that everyone else began to take notice again. The campaign was a sign of things to come, and one that finished with 20 assists in 49 appearances in all competitions. Inter drew first blood only eight months into his tenure, who then tabled a €51 million (£39.35m) offer to bring him over to the San Siro. “Yes, it’s true”, the club’s sporting director, Michael Zorc, confirmed as much talking to Spiegel. Too little too late was the answer, as they were swiftly turned down. Similar success would not follow, and financial issues continued to dog BVB. Failure to qualify for the UEFA Champions League in 2004 compounded what Rosický labelled as his “worst club season.” It ultimately forced the club into listening to offers, much like Sparta Prague.
From afar was watching Arsène Wenger, whose paths were not too dissimilar. Both had aligned themselves with success and knew what it took. Both rose from obscurity to the vanguard of a new and growing generation, for both players and coaches. Some can still recall the initial thoughts of Tony Adams upon Wenger's appointment, that he would not better the reign of George Graham some time before him, and "does he even speak English properly?" It was as low-key an affair as many would expect when David Dein unveiled the Frenchman to be Bruce Rioch's successor, that August in 1996.
As was that of Rosický. The old guard of Bergkamp (et al) took far more precedence in the press than the introductions of the fresh-faced Alex Song, Brazilians Denílson and Júlio Baptista, as well as the erratic William Gallas. People knew of it all and some eyebrows furrowed, but the fanfare was tame. It needn't have mattered anyway since the pitch was where his mark would be made as 'Little Mozart'.
It took time, but Arsenal fans began to see what Wenger, and all of Europe, saw in him. A magisterial midfielder with touch and grace to skip, hurdle, and jostle past opposition defenders. One, two, three defenders at a time, and yet far from an Olympic sprinter. An unparalleled work-rate that was exhausting in and of itself to watch a 5ft 10 figure scuttle furiously from box-to-box. With vision and intelligence to match, Arsenal's attack was a harmonious symphony that left opposition defenders in a daze. When fit, he conducted it all.
The never-say-die attitude remains endearing, and continues to put some team-mates to shame at Arsenal’s London Colney training complex. In a late-season surge that saw Arsenal accrue 24 points from 30, Rosický was named the club's 2011/12 Player of the Month in both March and April respectively. The following season would be less eventful, appearing only 16 times, but a thunderous effort that flew past Hugo Lloris settled the north London derby at White Hart Lane in 2013/14. He again was named that month's MVP. It still stands as his healthiest season with 39 outings in all competitions.
Yet the issue was that it has never happened enough. Of the 10 seasons that the 35-year-old has spent at the Emirates, none of them included 30 league appearances. He couldn’t crack 200 for the club. Of his last five campaigns, total league outings have been: 28, 10, 27, 15, 0. That is 17 games per season. In fewer seasons in Germany, he was one shy of 150, spanning years. It’s not through a lack of trying, for sure, but perhaps woeful luck.
When Arsenal hosted an FA Cup tie against Newcastle United in January 2008, Rosický pulled up. Wenger insisted that it would be “days, not weeks” before he would come back. Not only did he not return that season, but his first game back would be seven months later in pre-season. It was a bad move considering his hamstring was re-injured, setting back his competitive return another two away to Manchester City that September.
So when Rosický pulled up yet again, the worst was feared. Clutching at his leg, he was not going to continue. He needed to come off. It is even more gripping when you consider that his contract expires in the summer, leaving many to believe that it was the last.
“It is heartbreaking I can't give them anything back after the reception they prepared for me, but in life things will be thrown at you and you have to deal with it.”
The last player to have worn north London's red and white for more than a decade was Dennis Bergkamp. It's esteemed company considering what legacy the 46-year-old, now an assistant coach at Ajax, left at Highbury. The two never played together, but months after one began his journey with the Gunners, the other closed the chapter on his. And when the Dutchman returned for his statue unveiling this month two years ago, Rosický saluted him in typically whimsical Bergkamp fashion with a chipped effort that sailed past an onrushing Vito Mannone against Sunderland. At this point, very few would have begrudged him of a testimonial, too.
We wish we could have seen more of Rosický in English football, this much is true. But even if he were to end his career tomorrow, his legacy remains as well. Wherever he has been, he has been loved by those around him. Last year, Sparta fans sent a letter to club owner Daniel Křetínský pledging to pay his wages should he return to the club where it all began. German forward Marco Reus declared him to be his favourite player of all-time, surprising a few.
But he is not ready to give in just yet. Even though he knows that he will not be returning to Arsenal next season, his importance to the national team has not gone unnoticed. They still needed him for their 2016 European Championship campaign in France. The guard of honour he received at Arsenal’s final game of last season helped to illustrate the impact he has had in his time at N7.
"You are defined by how you deal with these things. I will deal with it again and I will be back again," he said. It would not have been the same if he didn’t.