To help mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. The Czech Republic chose Josef Masopust, who died on Monday at the age of 84, as their Golden Player.
Pavel Nedvěd's selection as European Footballer of the Year in 2003 was the cue for fans to remember the last Czech player to win that award, Josef Masopust in 1962. Comparing players from different eras can be difficult, 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 Nedvěd, but conditions in communist Czechoslovakia meant that Masopust spent 16 seasons with army side 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 and UEFA in prestige friendlies.
Masopust's journey to such thrilling fields as Wembley began on 9 February 1931 when he was born in the town of Most in northern Bohemia, the fourth of six children. His first club was lowly, local FK 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 there, won eight league championships.
Dukla also impressed in Europe, and were European Champion Clubs' Cup semi-finalists in 1966/67, losing out to the eventual winners, Celtic FC. Their success was no surprise given that Dukla had formed the backbone of the Czechoslovakia team that finished second at the 1962 FIFA World Cup.
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 World Cup in Chile two years later that he peaked. "Like every boy, I dreamed of playing in a World Cup final. I also dreamed 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. Some nine months later, he was handed the Golden Ball before Dukla's European 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," he recalled. '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 FC Zbrojovka Brno in 1978. Later, in the 1980s, he led the Czechoslovakia national team for three years before a spell in Indonesia.
The outlying district of Most that Masopust grew up in, Strimice, was demolished to make way for a coal mine. The original Dukla Praha also ceased to exist, being renamed FC Príbram in the early 1990s and leaving their famous Juliska Stadium. And, of course, Czechoslovakia has been an ex-nation since 1993. "Nothing remains from my day," Masopust once said.
Yet the memory of his genius has not faded. In 1995 he received the Václav Jíra prize – the highest honour bestowed by the Football Association of the Czech Republic (ČMFS) on individuals who have made a significant contribution to the development of Czech football. Further recognition of his achievements came in June 2011 with the unveiling of a statue of Masopust outside the Juliska Stadium, home once more to a team wearing the famous yellow and red he wore with such distinction, the reborn FK Dukla Praha.
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