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”.

Who will take over from Ronaldo and Messi?

Ballon d'ors all round boys...
Ballon d’ors all round boys…

The latest Ballon d’Or reminded us that the world is waiting for a new generation to take on the role of “World’s Greatest Footballer”. That Ronaldo and Messi were – once more – shoe-ins, despite the latter having an indifferent year, tells us that we are lacking successors to these giants of the game.

For the past four seasons, these two characters have dominated the first two placings in the Ballon d’Or. Indeed, look at the last seven years of player awards, including the European Footballer of the Year, which morphed into the current FIFA-run exercise in 2010.

2008: Ronaldo – Messi;  2009: Messi – Ronaldo; 2010: Messi – Iniesta; 2011: Messi – Ronaldo; 2012: Messi – Ronaldo; 2013: Ronaldo – Messi; 2014: Ronaldo – Messi

It’s doubtful that two players have been so dominant for so long in the history of the game. Certainly, when players like Pele, Maradona and Cruyff were at their best, they were certainly not matched by anyone as closely as Ronaldo and Messi have. Their careers have peaked at the same time to create what many people will look back on as a golden age, albeit one that will be characterised by greed, excess and the marginalisation of much of European football.

Between 1962 and 1970, if you asked anyone “who is the greatest player in the World?”, they would have said “Pele!”. Ask today and you will get a divided answer between CR7 and Messi, although it does look like Ronaldo is now eclipsing the little Argentinian.

There have been times when we have not had a suitable and genuine resident for the gold medal podium. We’ve seen workmanlike technicians reach the zenith, but never will they be mentioned in the same breath as the triumvirate of Pele, Cruyff and Maradona. Just consider the successors to Cruyff as European Footballer of the Year: Blokhin, Beckenbauer, Simonsen, Keegan, Rummenigge and Rossi. All fine players, but only Der Kaiser would feature in an all-time squad.

Then we had the era of Platini, which led on to the age of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten. Then we’ve had an assortment of excellent players who were of their time and at the top of the game, but no way comparable to the greats. Products of the system, you might say.

The truth is, people like Pele and Maradona don’t come along very often. Ronaldo and Messi are, to use a well-worn phrase, “modern greats”. They now belong in the same club as Pele, Cruyff, Eusebio, Beckenbauer, Maradona, Van Basten, Platini, Best, Puskas and Di Stefano.

What is reassuring is that, some years ago, football folk feared for the future emergence of virtuoso talents like Ronaldo and Messi. We live in an age where the team is invariably greater than the sum of its parts – Germany 2014 demonstrated that – their goalkeeper was short-listed for the Ballon d’Or.

The next Ronaldo or Messi will almost certainly not come from North-Rhine Westphalia or Bavaria. He’s more likely to emerge from the back streets of Buenos Aires or a Brazilian favela. We’re waiting, but in the meantime, where are the heirs?