Wojciech Szczesny: The Light-Hearted Joker Who Replaced a Legend

04 August 2020 07:00

"When I was playing for Roma, the world's best goalkeeper at the moment was sitting on the bench, Alisson - who plays for Liverpool today. Now, at Juve, my replacement is one of the greatest players in history [Gianluigi Buffon]. The conclusions are that I'm probably the best in the world and in history."

When Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny delivered this gem in September he was - at least for the first two sentences - factually correct.

During Szczesny's final season on loan at Roma, Alisson was indeed his understudy and the past two years have seen the Poland international rise to the position of Juve's number one ahead of the legendary figure of Gianluigi Buffon.

However, the 30-year-old was quick to stress that he was joking - something Szczesny is never far from doing, at times to his own detriment.

Szczesny followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a goalkeeper and joining his former side Legia Warsaw at the age of 15. One year later though he was spotted by scouts of the club he cheered on from afar.

When Szczesny announced that he would be leaving Arsenal in 2017 he wrote an emotional goodbye message to the fanbase on Instagram, beginning with: "I remember being a young boy in Poland, watching David Seaman, Thierry Henry, Dennis Berkamp [sic] and others play for Arsenal. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get a chance to play for the club I supported as a little kid."

Coming through the youth ranks with Jack Wilshere, Szczesny's dream move entered the realm of nightmares. In November 2008, the 18-year-old fractured both his arms after dropping a heavy weight while working out in the club's gym.

In typically playful fashion, Szczesny can laugh about the origin of those two scars: "I say that one is from the war and the other is from a shark bite."

An encouraging loan spell at Brentford in 2009/10 - which he later claimed 'can be just as valuable' as learning from Buffon - provided some game time before he established himself as Arsenal's number one in the second half of the following season. Szczesny went from playing in front of 6,000 fans against Hartlepool United to 96,000 at Camp Nou ten months later as Arsenal took on Barcelona in the Champions League.

Szczesny cemented his place as the club's first-choice goalie over the next three seasons - winning the Premier League Golden Glove in 2014 - although controversy was never far away.

In January 2012, he quit Twitter for 18 months after an ill-advised tweet likened his teammate Aaron Ramsey's appearance to a 'rapist'. After being sent off against Bayern Munich in February 2014 Szczesny made an offensive hand gesture before going down the tunnel. But the most notorious incident in his Arsenal career came on New Year's Day 2015.

After conceding two goals he would rather forget in a 2-0 defeat to Southampton, Szczesny was fined for smoking in the showers and subsequently dropped in place of David Ospina. It would prove to be his final Premier League appearance as the remainder of Szczesny's season was spent in the FA Cup - which he would go on to win for a second time that year.

Petr Cech's arrival from Chelsea in the summer prompted Szczesny to seek playing time elsewhere, moving to Roma on loan for two successful seasons.

In an interview with The Guardian Szczesny candidly recounted his career leading up to his move to the Italian capital: "I was quite still for five years – sometimes I played better, sometimes worse, sometimes phenomenal, sometimes rubbish."

Szczesny noticeably benefitted from his two years in Rome, with the Pole himself the first to highlight his progress: "You don’t see me with that rush of blood that I used to have as a younger keeper. It’s not that I don’t feel that rush of blood but tactically you are more aware of when to be involved, when to let the defenders recover.”

The goalkeeper left Roma in 2017 but stayed in Serie A, departing Arsenal after 11 years at the club for Juventus. In his first season in Turin, Szczesny played second fiddle to Buffon but described it as 'the best career opportunity I could ever have'.

Szczesny went on laud Buffon's impact on his character, telling the BBC: "He also helped me to mature. You try to live up to that standard when you are called upon."

Perhaps, as it was still his first season, the message hadn't quite gotten through to Szczesny when Juventus travelled to Wembley to face Tottenham in 2018. The former Arsenal man watched on quietly from the bench as he was subjected to the welcome he could only have imagined.

Yet, Szczesny couldn't control himself after seeing Harry Kane's header bounce off the post in the dying minutes to all but confirm Juve's win, he launched into a rendition of 'Sit down, shut up!' before making the universal gesture of 'chin up' to the Tottenham faithful on his way to the tunnel.

Szczesny may not have completely quelled that cheeky streak in his character, but it has done little to impede his performance in recent years. The Poland international was one of Juventus' most consistent players in a turbulent season this term and was deservedly rewarded with the Serie A goalkeeper of the year award.

He may not quite be 'the best in the world and in history' but this light-hearted joker has achieved the impossible - seamlessly replacing Buffon.

Source: 90min