Marian Cisovsky's fight for life inspires Viktoria Plzen's Champions League run
It took Viktoria Plzen fans months to find out what happened to their beloved Slovakian centre-back. Marian Cisovsky picked up a minor knee injury in a win over Slovan Liberec in March 2014, underwent a routine surgery and was supposed to come back relatively quickly -- but did not. As months went by, rumours regarding the situation became more and more grim. The truth was even worse.
"Cisovsky's illness is worse than cancer," Nova Sport's headline said in January. Tragically, that was indeed the case. The stopper is suffering from ALS, widely known as Lou Gehrig's disease. While cancer usually leaves room for hope, ALS doesn't. It gradually kills neurons, and thus a person loses control of his muscles, becoming unable to walk, speak and eventually breathe. Life expectancy is short -- no more than a few years, and there is absolutely no cure. Czech people know that only too well -- former prime minister Stanislav Gross died of ALS in April at the age of 45.
Hopelessness is a terrible feeling. Everyone's heart went out to Cisovsky. When Slovakia and the Czech Republic played a friendly in March, they dedicated the game to the 35-year-old, as a "Fight, Ciso" banner was placed on the field before the kickoff. "We are thinking about you. You can do it," the banner read. It is so natural to support a friend, but players on the pitch knew that their hopes are not realistic. Nobody can do it. No one survives ALS.
Plzen supporters were devastated to learn that they will never see the popular 35-year-old Ciso playing football again. Ever since joining Viktoria in the summer of 2011, just after the team won their first ever championship title under the bold leadership of coach Pavel Vrba, he became an integral part of the team. Elegant and technically gifted, Cisovsky was a rather unusual type of centre-back. He liked to build the play from behind and frequently joined attacks with Beckenbauer-style runs forward.
Vrba, who now works wonders with the Czech Republic national team, implemented an attacking style and was at times criticized for naivety, refusing to park the bus when needed. That was the case when Plzen threw away the win against Jablonec in October 2012, but Cisovsky was having none of it.
"We will not play to defend our lead. That is why 10,000 fans come to watch us play in every game. We just don't want to win 1-0. That means that I have to work harder as a defender, but I am glad to play football that people can enjoy," Cisovsky said. That was his mantra, and it perfectly suited the team's philosophy.
It was no surprise, therefore, that Cisovsky was quite prolific in front of goal. He netted 12 times in the Czech league over three seasons, and his contribution was especially crucial in the qualifying stages of the 2013-14 Champions League, when he scored five goals, including a hat trick versus Nomme Kalju of Estonia. That enabled Plzen to qualify for the group stages for the second time and face the likes of Manchester City and Bayern Munich.
In his first Champions League campaign, two years previous, Cisovsky was privileged to play against Barcelona and AC Milan. Not everything went according to plan as he conceded a harsh penalty for a handball he was unable to prevent at San Siro, and was rather unfairly sent off for the foul on Leo Messi after slipping on a wet pitch, but the Slovak thoroughly enjoyed trying to stop the best strikers on the planet nevertheless.
His professional attitude, modest personality and intelligent interviews made him immensely popular with the fans. Marian was the role model for younger teammates, and that was also the case at Politehnica Timisoara of Romania, whom he joined in 2008 after winning three championship titles in Slovakia with Inter Bratislava and Artmedia Petrzalka.
"Ciso is one of the all-time favourite players with our supporters," Timisoara media officer Levente Balint told ESPN FC. "His humble personality made him a perfect teammate. He caught the eye from the very first game and fans compared him to the legendary Dan Paltinisanu."
Paltinisanu, the centre-back who spent 12 years at the club in the 1970s and '80s is probably the greatest Timisoara player ever, and their stadium is named after him. Sadly, he died of terminal illness at the age of 43. Comparisons to Cisovsky suddenly became tragic in the extreme now.
Cisovsky left Timisoara in 2011 when the club was declared bankrupt, but he is still fondly remembered. "We received countless messages of support for Ciso since his illness became known. The sympathy is overwhelming and we hope to stage a game in his honour," Balint says.
Naturally, such games have already been staged in Czech Republic. Pavel Horvath, the veteran midfielder who retired this summer, donated a large percentage of the income from his farewell game to his teammate, while beer was sold for 28 crowns during the event, because 28 is Cisovsky's number at Plzen.
There was a phenomenal day in Brno at the end of June, when popular local striker Petr Svancara organized a huge farewell game at the abandoned Luzansky stadium and asked hundreds of volunteers to work it back into playable shape. He invited Cisovsky to attend the event, and more than 35, 000 fans, the biggest crowd in the country for more than two decades, turned up to applaud him.
The most moving tribute to Cisovsky was made by Viktoria, who won the 2014-15 title in style, with a best-ever points haul of 72 points and 70 goals scored in 30 matches -- dedicating the triumph to their hero.
Special "Title for Ciso" shirts with the No. 28 on the back were sold to thousands of fans. The achievement was complete with a 2-0 win over Vysocina Jihlava, and after the final whistle the fans at Doosan Arena welcomed Ciso, who made his way to the stage and celebrated with the players. Supported by Horvath, he was hugged by all the teammates and greeted his supporters.
Everyone was close to tears when champagne bottles were opened and Cisovsky tried to smile, pumping his fist in the air. Those likely were the most emotional moments in the history of Czech football. It is impossible not to feel sorry for the brilliant player and person, whose career was taken away in such a cruel fashion. "I have been waiting 32 years for this title, but would give it up immediately if it was possible to make Marian healthy," coach Miroslav Koubek said.
Viktoria Plzen's success that brought them three championship titles in five years, is largely due to the superb spirit in the dressing room. This tragedy has made them even more united, and they are determined to qualify for the Champions League group stage, so that Cisovsky will be able to watch them play against the elite teams of Europe again, remembering his own matches against Bayern and Milan. If they don't make it now, that might be too late for Ciso, even though nobody will dare to talk about such a possibility. The stopper is still under contract that runs until the summer of 2016, and his name appears on the roster on Plzen's official website.
It is the perfect team for neutrals to fall in love with, then. Attack-minded as usual, Plzen won 2-1 at Maccabi Tel Aviv last week, and they are favourites to complete the job on Wednesday. Follow them on their journey, and think of Cisovsky who could still be leading the team on the field by example, had his fate been different.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin