To help mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. Slovakia chose Ján Popluhár as their Golden Player.
The one-time ŠK Slovan Bratislava coach Leopold Stastný was famous for making up nicknames for his players, and so it was that Ján Popluhár became known in Slovakian football circles as 'Bimbo'.
"I was called this because I always looked, and indeed was, good-natured, and I would never hurt anybody," recalled one of football's true gentlemen – and a man voted Slovakia's footballer of the 20th century. He was, moreover, a world-class defender who played a pivotal role at the heart of the Czechoslovakia team that reached the FIFA World Cup final in 1962, losing to Brazil.
Born on 12 September 1935 in Bernolákovo near the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, Popluhár started his football career with RH Brno. He is best known, however, for the 15 seasons he spent with Slovan where he made 262 competitive appearances, scoring 21 goals.
Adding in a subsequent two-year stint with Zbrojovka Brno from 1970-72, Popluhár made 306 league appearances in his home country, winning the Czechoslovak Cup three times – in 1962, 1963 and 1968. He also collected the Footballer of the Year award in 1965 despite the great form of his national-team colleague Josef Masopust.
The full stadiums and fervent atmosphere generated at the time provide a special memory. "When I was at my peak, the conditions for a football player were modest here in Czechoslovakia, but the spirit and support of the spectators was incredible. I am not sure that today's players, however, would want to return to my era," he said.
Popluhár appeared for Czechoslovakia at the 1958 and 1962 World Cups and his sense of sportsmanship shone out at the latter event in Chile when, in their second group match against Brazil, he brought the referee's attention to the injured Pelé rather than looking to turn the situation to his team's advantage. In 1997 he was awarded the World Fair Play award for this genuine sporting act.
Reflecting on his encounters with Pelé, he said: "I met Pelé several times, the first occasion in Chile and then in various international and club games. He was undoubtedly the best, but there were not many one-to-one situations he won and also not many Slovakian players who scored in the famous Maracanã Stadium. I belong to this lucky group after I scored with a free-kick against Brazil in June 1966." It is worth recalling that Popluhár was both two-footed and a fine header of the ball.
Popluhár and fellow Czechoslovaks Svatopluk Pluskal and Masopust featured in a Rest of the World XI that took on England at Wembley Stadium in 1963 in a match marking the centenary of the English Football Association. He played alongside Alfredo Di Stéfano, Raymond Kopa, Uwe Seeler, Denis Law, Eusébio and Ferenc Puskás in that side and further appearances in all-star teams followed.
In 1969 he embarked on a short stay with French club Olympique Lyonnais and he later left Zbrojovka Brno to wind down his career in Austria with amateur club SK Slovan Vienna, where he was player/coach. If football fans in Vienna thought that Popluhár would be shown up by players some two decades younger than him, they were to be disappointed – indeed Popluhár carried on playing until the age of 44.
Outside of football, Popluhár suffered some misfortune – working for a sports company that went bankrupt and suffering prolonged health problems – but returned to his roots by working for the Slovak Football Association (SFZ). After retiring, he lived in the small village of Bernolakovo near Bratislava, and was made an honorary member of the SFZ in 2010. He died in March the following year aged 75.
Last updated: 7 March 2011
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