Masopust's memory lingers onMonday 22 March 2004
To help mark UEFA's Jubilee, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. The Czech Republic chose Josef Masopust as their Golden Player.
By Ladislav Josef
Pavel Nedved's selection as European Footballer of the Year for 2003 was the cue for fans in the Czech Republic to remember the last player from their country to win that award - Josef Masopust in 1962.
Comparing players from different eras can be precarious, but those who saw both men in action were able to define common traits - admirable stamina, an eye for pinpoint passes, and the moral courage to take a game in hand and win it.
In another age, the first Czech Golden Ball winner might have been even more celebrated than Nevded. But conditions in communist Czechoslovakia meant that Masopust spent 16 seasons with army side FC Dukla Praha before finally moving abroad aged 37 to play for Belgium's R. Crossing Club Molenbeek. He did, nonetheless, line up alongside three other greats of his generation - Alfredo di Stéfano, Raymond Kopa and Francisco Gento - when representing FIFA or UEFA in prestige friendlies.
Masopust's journey to such thrilling fields as Wembley began on 9 February 1931 when he was born the fourth of six children. His first club was lowly Baník Most, but FK Teplice signed him as a 19-year-old left-half and gave him his top-flight debut. Then, in 1952, he joined Dukla Praha, the dominant club, and as midfield general, won eight league championships.
Dukla also impressed in Europe, and were European Champion Clubs' Cup semi-finalists in 1966/67. Their success was no surprise given that Dukla formed the backbone of the Czechoslovakia team that finished second at the 1962 FIFA World Cup.
World Cup dream
Capped 63 times, Masopust's international career started against Hungary in 1954. He played at the 1958 World Cup and then the 1960 UEFA European Championship, claiming a bronze medal in the latter. However, it was at the Chile tournament two years later that he peaked. "Like every boy, I dreamt of playing in a World Cup final. I also dreamt of scoring in one." That dream came true when he gave Czechoslovakia a 16th-minute lead against Brazil in Santiago on 17 June 1962.
Although the Brazilians rallied to win 3-1, Masopust received a hero's welcome back in Prague. Several months later, he was handed the Golden Ball before Dukla's Champions' Cup quarter-final against SL Benfica. "There was no ceremony," he recalled. "Eusébio just shook hands with me, I put the trophy in my sports bag and went home on the tram."
Considered a playmaker for his passing ability, he was also a scorer of great goals. Speed might not have been his greatest asset, but he was able to dribble past opponents before hitting the net. "I could jink to the right, then to the left, by controlling the ball with either foot." 'Masopust's slalom' was the terrace term for these solo runs.
When he eventually went abroad in 1968, he helped Molenbeek win promotion to the Belgian first division as player-coach. His coaching career continued at Dukla, yet his greatest achievement on the bench was winning the Czech league with Zbrojovka Brno in 1978. Later, in the 1980s, he led the Czechoslovakian national team before a spell in Indonesia.
Masopust was born in the northern Bohemian village of Strimice, which was subsequently demolished to make way for a coal mine. Dukla Praha met a similar fate, being renamed FC Príbram in the early 1990s and leaving their famous Juliska stadium. And, of course, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist after 1993. "Nothing remains from my day," said Masopust. Save for the Golden Ball on the shelf of his modest Prague apartment.
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