Bohemian Rhapsody: Josef Masopust and Dukla

Cold War Europe was a sinister place. Behind the Iron Curtain, popular opinion told us, it was a grey, totalitarian world where spies drank thick black coffee in cafes, children informed on their parents, smoke-chugging cars rolled off production lines and food queues, for inedible black bread, went on for miles The lingua franca was strictly Russian.

As for football, teams were supposedly mysterious, functional, militaristic and tough. They were known as “Crack” Hungarians, Bulgarians and East Germans. But while these teams were hard to beat, it was the latin contingent in Europe that emerged as the dominant forces, notably the Spanish and Italians. In 1962, the trend was broken when one Josef Masopust, a 31 year-old Czech, was named European Footballer of the Year.

Masopust combined the silky skills of a Brazilian with the typical work-rate of an Eastern Bloc forager. He was a state hero – he still is – in the former Czechoslavakia after leading his country to third place in the European Championship in 1960 and runners-up in the World Cup two years later. Along with Lev Yashin, Ferenc Puskas and Florian Albert, Masopust was one of the finest players to emerge from the Iron Curtain.

Masopust spent 14 years with Dukla Prague, a club that has been made famous by Half Man Half Biscuit’s, “All I want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague away kit.” But the fact is, Dukla were never a very popular outfit because of the club’s army roots.

Even when Dukla were at their peak, such as in 1965-66 when they won the Czech league for the fifth time in six years, they averaged 9,000 people per game, while Prague rivals Sparta and Slavia were drawing bigger crowds. Despite this, Masopust himself became a much-loved figure.

He was the figurehead of Communist era football in Czechsolavakia. Dukla were formed as ATK in 1948 by the Czechoslovak Army, taking the name Dukla in commemoration of the Battle of the Dukla Pass in World War Two. Being the Army team, Dukla could take their pick of the country’s best players, including those of Sparta and Slavia, the two clubs that dominated Czech football before the War. It was highly competitive, as the club had 64 players to choose from, many of whom were established members of the national team. Hardly surprising that Dukla won title after title in the 1960s, with Masopust at the heart of their midfield.

Born in 1931, the son of a lignite miner, Masopust joined Dukla in 1952. He was born near Most, a town that suffered at the hands of demolition as much as it did from two world wars. It had changed hands several times over a 200-year period, passing from Austro-Hungarian rule to Czechoslavakia, then from Nazi Germany back to Czechoslavakia and then finally, on to the Czech Republic. Masopust’s first club was ZSJ Uhlomost (now called FK Nanik Most), whom he signed for in 1950 as an old fashioned left half who could not only control a game with his immaculate passing, but also run hard for 90 minutes. He then went on to ZSJ Technomat Teplice before joining Dukla.

Masopust’s transfer to Dukla was controversial as many clubs were interested in him, but the Army club’s “cherry picking” strategy made the young man from Most unpopular, in stark contrast to the way he was idolised later on in his career.

He made his debut for Czechoslavakia in 1954 and went on to win 63 caps. He featured in the 1958 World Cup, but it was the 1960 European Championship that first earmarked Masopust on the international stage. The Czechs finished in third place, losing in the semi-final to the USSR.

Two years on in Chile, Masopust and his team-mates surprised everyone by reaching the World Cup final. The Czechs had qualified for the trip to South America by disposing of Scotland and the Republic of Ireland but in Chile, nobody gave them much chance of coming out of a group comprising holders Brazil, Mexico and Spain. Masopust later recalled that the Czech team had been told not to unpack their bags as they would be leaving [Chile] soon.

But they defied the odds and beat Spain 1-0, drew 0-0 with Brazil and were beaten in their last group game by Mexico, but still qualified for the quarter-finals. Over the next two rounds, they beat Hungary 1-0 and Yugoslavia 3-1. The Czechs, who had developed their so-called “passing game”, Ceske Ulice, to good effect, found themselves in the final with Brazil.

Masopust, never the most prolific of scorers, put the Czechs ahead after 15 minutes. He told World Soccer in 1970: “Match by match we grew in confidence and stature, and in the final, we had nothing to lose. Before the kick-off it was agreed all round we’d show everyone we could play a bit, without rough play or defensive tactics, and suddenly we were in front.”

“Right winger Pospichal, who had replaced Stribani and Kvasnak, started the move with a one-two out on the right. Pospichal was shuffling up to Nilton Santos, who stood away and refused to challenge, and with Zozimo and Mauro moving across to cover him, they left a terrific hole on the left. I was on my way. At every step I knew I would score if I got the ball. I ran 30 yards to the edge of the Brazilian box, and, with Nilton Santos still standing off, Pospichal laid the pass just right. All I had to do was control the ball, look up and pop it home.”

Masopust 2
European Footballer of the Year, 1962

But almost immediately, Brazil equalised. “For one minute, we were champions of the world,” recalled Masopust. “But then Amarildo scored and in the second half, they scored two more from Zito and Vava. It was disappointing to lose, of course, but the legacy from that time lasted all these years.”

The Czechs went home bemoaning that goalkeeper Viliam Schrojf, named the best in the tournament before the final, had made two errors that had helped Brazil on their way. “They were the best team in the world, though, despite not having Pele in their side, who was injured,” admitted Masopust.

But Pele, among others, was left with a great impression of the Czech maestro. “Masopust was a midfielder of such technique he gave the impression of being born in Brazil, not in Europe. He was comparable to players like Platini, Beckenbauer and Xavi. He was also a man of great intelligence off the pitch.”

By the end of 1962, the pundits had recognised Masopust as one of the outstanding players of the World Cup and he was awarded the Ballon d’Or, the Golden Ball, by France Football as Europe’s top player. He was voted number one ahead of the great Eusebio of Benfica and Karl-Heinz Schnellinger of FC Cologne. Masopus dedicated the award to his colleagues in Chile, but the critics knew only too well that without the player known as “the Knight”, Czechoslavakia would not have reached the final. World Soccer, in February 1963, commented: “Some may still say ‘Masopust…never heard of him’, but take it from me, he’s an outstanding ball player and a shrewd tactician. The award could not have been given to a nicer fellow, or a more dedicated footballer.”

Indeed, Masopust’s approach was much admired. Brian Glanville, in his seminal work, “The Story of the World Cup”, said: “Seriousness was the keynote of his game and his personality. In hot, gay Rio, he was the player who spent his evenings quietly with his fiancée, his Sunday mornings in church.”

Money never really came into it. After Chile 1962, the Czech team returned to Prague as heroes and were invited to a reception at the Palace at Hradcani to meet the Minister of Defence. The squad listened to speeches for over an hour and then, expecting to get some kind of bonus, each member was presented with a book on the importance of sport in society, autographed by the Minister, the author.

Back at Dukla, Mosopust played his part in continued success for the club. In 1966-67. Dukla, with Masopust 35 years old and playing a more withdrawn role, reached the last four of the European Cup. They had beaten Esbjerg of Denmark, Belgian champions Anderlecht and an up-and-coming Ajax before losing to eventual winners Celtic.

In 1968, the Dukla legend was released and was allowed to play abroad. He went to Belgium as player coach of Crossing Molenbeek. He returned to Dukla in 1973 as coach and was asked to manage his country in 1984.

Josef Masopust remains a legend in his own lifetime – he’s still in circulation and much sought after whenever World Cup years come around. The Czech magazine, Gol, named him “Czech footballer of the century” a few years ago, and rightly so. As World Soccer said in June 1962, he was “one of the modern masters”.

Not just a jazzy away kit

Photo: GOTP

“THE PROBLEM with Dukla is that nobody really liked them,” said Filip, the taxi driver who ferried me between football grounds in the Czech capital. “Army. That was the reason. OK, so we had Masopust, a great player, and Nehoda and Viktor, but the rest of the Czech football world didn’t like us.”

UK politicans, football hipsters and an indie band from Birkenhead may have done their best to make Dukla into a cult of a sort, but they were far from being the club of the people.

The very name “Dukla” is intriguing and associated with the days when Eastern bloc football teams were eyed with curiosity and no small amount of suspicion. Dukla Prague were actually named in honour after a small Slovakian town that is now part of Poland. Dukla defiantly stood up to the German army, but 90% of the town was left in ruins.

But the story of Dukla Prague is the typical tale of how Communist-era football in Czechoslavakia was shaped by politics. If you were attached to either the army or the secret police, you never had too many friends as the perception was the competition was rigged in favour of the state-backed clubs – witness the situation in the old DDR with Dynamo Berlin.

There is still an air of cynicism in modern-day Prague, despite a robust economy and plenty of tourist euros. You can buy t-shirts with “KGB – Still watching you” emblazoned on them, and Soviet memorabilia still commands a premium. The Czechs have never forgotten the events of 1968, either, when Russian tanks rolled into the delightful capital city. Today, the invasion in Prague is from Beijing and other parts of Asia, the direct flights from China filling one of the most picturesque cities in Europe with visitors hungry for luxury goods and enamelled souvenirs. And you’re just as likely to see replica shirts of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich walking the cobbled streets as you are a Czech football strip. Therein lies a big problem for Czech football – well, one of them, at least.

FK Dukla Prague may be a top flight club today, but they have to battle to attract public interest. Their crowds hover around the 2,500 mark on a good day. In fact, Czech football, generally, still struggles to win support, last season’s average attendance in the top division barely reaching 5,000. Too many people have become disenchanted with Czech football, which like so many segments of the European game has become marginalised by the behemoths of the continent.

It doesn’t help that the domestic game too often flirts with misdemeanour. Only recently, the head of Czech football, Miroslav Pelta was arrested over corruption allegations, along with the man responsible for the Czech Union of Sport. So frequent have been the outbreaks of malpractice that the long-time sponsor of the league, brewery company Grambinus, has pulled out of deals with the Czech FA. Look back across the history of football in what was once a central European stronghold, and scandal and abuse of power seems to be commonplace.

Dukla themselves were once perrenial Czech champions, thanks to their unique position in the state as Armádní Tělocvičný Klub, the Military Club of Physical Education. Two men were responsible for giving the club this elevated and privileged status: Alexej Čepička, a full-on Stalinist, and minister of defence who effectively militarised Czech society; and his father-in-law, Klement Gottwald, a hard-liner who implemented the Soviet model of Government in Czechoslavakia. These gentlemen drove the project that allowed Dukla to specially select the best players in the Czech army. This didn’t go down well with other football fans, but even members of the Communist party showed their disapproval. The rationale was to create a football team that was a flagship for the state, underlining the strength and vitality of its young men.

Dukla were the most successful club in the post-WW2 years and their team formed the backbone of the Czechoslavak national squad in the World Cups of 1954, 1958 and 1962, the latter of which saw them reach the final against Brazil.

Crowds at Dukla’s Juliska Stadion were never big, though. While they were winning titles year-in, year-out, they would get around 9,000 people in the ground, lower than the league’s average and less than half the support enjoyed by Prague rivals Sparta and Slavia. The club was even sent on a charm offensive in the 1960s to the US, playing in the International Soccer League and American Challenge Cup.

In 1986, Birkenhead-based band “Half Man, Half Biscuit” recorded a song called “All I want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit”. This obviously appealed to the When Saturday Comes generation, but it is doubtful if more than a handful of people have ever heard the actual song. But it kept the name Dukla Prague alive as the club was about to decline.

With the Velvet Revolution and the collapse of the old regime, Dukla almost disappeared from view. In 1994, their association with the military came to an end. Their last league title was in 1982 and their last Czech Cup triumph was in 1990. The club moved out of Prague in 1997 following a merger with 1.FK Pribam, playing some 60 kilometres from the capita to become FC Dukla Příbram.

The current incarnation of the famous name, FK Dukla Prague seemingly has no claim on the heritage of the old. 1. FK Příbram, which plays in the second division, still insists it is the natural successor to the Dukla Prague that once reached the semi-finals of the European Cup.

Dukla may not be the multi-sport organisation it once was, but the name still has enormous cachet. Thankfully, they have clawed their way back to the Juliska, a fascinating stadium perched on a hill, and once overlooked by the luxury homes of sporting legends such as runner Emil Zapotek and tennis star Jan Kodes. Josef Masopust, who died in 2015, is remembered with a statue outside the stadium and, perpetually, a rose is place at the foot of what is a graceful monument.

As for the current team, Dukla will probably never grace the heights they enjoyed in the 1960s. The class of 2017, playing in a sparsely-filled stadium, struggle to live up to the reputations of former Dukla giants like Masopust, spectacular goalkeeper Ivo Viktor and Zdeněk Nehoda.

On a bright summer’s evening on the hill above Dejvice, Prague 6, Dukla recorded their first win of the season against Zlin. It was a scruffy victory, 1-0, thanks to a free kick from veteran defender Ondřej Kušnír. There were just 2,400 people at the game, but the club’s small band of “ultras” were delighted their team had got off the mark after losing their first two fixtures. They’re a lively bunch, but a lot of people still remember Dukla were once beneficiaries of what was de facto state manipulation, and the recent problems surrounding the credibility of Czech football just serves to remind everyone that level playing fields have rarely existed in this corner of European football.

So that was the end of Game of the People’s Prague assignment. Visiting Dukla was an ambition, because although we know what really happened, their name remains part of the history of European club football.