Tribute to Czech football legend Josef Masopust (1931 – 2015)

Josef Masopust, photo: ČTK

Czech football legend Josef Masopust died on Monday, June 29. In tribute, Radio Prague is rebroadcasting this edition of Czech History from February 2011.

The World Cup in 1962,  photo: ČT
The 1962 football World Cup final in Chile featured cup holders Brazil and unexpected finalists, Czechoslovakia. And even more unexpected was the opening goal from the midfield captain of the Czechoslovak team Josef Masopust in the 15th minute.

Unfortunately, the score did not stand that way. Almost before Josef Masopust had finished his celebrations the Brazilians had got one goal back. Two goals for Brazil in the second half before around 70,000 spectators resulted in a final score of 3-1 to the holders. Masopust recalled later that the day of the final was also that of his wife’s birthday and he had been hoping for a joint celebration. It was not to be.

But for a team that has been written off almost before it arrived in Chile, even defeat in the final was a victory. Perhaps apochryphically, Josef Masopust later recalled that players had been advised not to unpack their bags after their arrival because they would be leaving soon.

For Josef Masopust even further recognition was to come. He was chosen as European footballer of the year, as the holder of the so-called golden boot, around six months later.

Radovan Jelínek is the co-author of a cartographical history of Czech and Czechoslovak football clubs. He had this to say about that European recognition.

“It was something exceptional, especially from the point of view of the Eastern block because the other winners came from Western countries, apart from those from southern Europe. So it was really something great from this point of view. Maybe he was not by a big margin a lot better than some other players. But he won the golden boot and that makes the difference.”

Josef Masopust,  photo: ČTK
Next week, Czech and European football will mark Josef Masopust’s 80th birthday on February 9th. Among other events, a statue of the player will be unveiled in front of Dukla’s ground. Other events are also planned with the promised participation of the player dubbed the European Pele in the 1960, Portuguese striker Eusebio.

This is what the current head of the Bohemian and Moravian Football Federation and former player Ivan Hašek had to say about the modest midfied star at a recent dinner of Czech footballing greats in his homour.

“I think that Mr. Masopust can be an example for every generation that has grown up here. He is a great advert for this most celebrated sport. For myself as a person, Mr. Masopust is a real example.”

But Josef Masopust’s story and that of his beloved Dukla Prague is also to some extent that of how football was transformed by the new Communist regime to reflect its ideology and priorities. No-one, players, managers or even national federation bosses could escape that.

In fact, Dukla Prague’s predecessor was initially known as ATK, the Czech abbreviation of the Army Club of Physical Training. It was basically created as the football club of the people’s army. It’s entry into the top league was far from orthodox and the club was also given a clear run to cherry pick the best players as were Radovan Jelínek describes what happened.

“Normally you would have to say that every club would have to qualify (to get in the league). This was not really the case with Dukla Prague, or ATK Praha, as was the name before Dukla Prague was adopted. Also at that time in the late 1940’s, the other top clubs were instructed to allow Dukla Prague to take any of their players and they had to transfer them to Dukla Prague. From today’s point of view this was something extremely strange, something unacceptable. So this was the start of Dukla Prague. So once they could have all the best players from other clubs, like seven players from Slavia or five from Bohemians and so on, they could dominate Czech and Czechoslovak football.”

Josef Masopust,  photo: Study1919 / Klub přátel Josefa Masopusta,  CC BY-SA 4.0 International
Enthusiastic communist minister of defence after 1950, Alexej Čepička, who also doubled up as the son in law of people’s president, Klement Gottwald, was largely responsible for turning the club into the army’s sporting flagship.

Josef Masopust, the oldest son of a miner from the former Sudeten town of Most, or Brux in German, had already joined the league club Teplice at the age of 18 in 1949. When army service beckoned two yeas later he was transferred to ATK and performed his military service there as a player. His first call up to the national team came in 1952. That same year the club won its first title, the Czech Cup.

A year later ATK was renamed ÚDA, or the Central House of the Army, and in that season won its first league championship. In 1956, the Dukla name was introduced in honour of the Slovak village that withstood a Nazi onslaught during WWII. The club won the championship again, in one game beating the forerunner of today’s Sparta Prague 9-0.

There followed a run of league victories from 1961-1964. Dukla Prague also began to make its mark on the European club stage. In the European Champions Cup the club reached the quarterfinals each time. While Dukla found it could beat less European clubs it was beaten by the likes of English club Tottenham Hotspur, Benfica Lisbon and Borussia Dortmund.

In his 1967 book ‘Ten Golden Balls’ published by the army publisher, Our Armed Forces, Josef Masopust complained of the club’s loss of three top attackers in 1963 to injury and other Czechoslovak teams. He observed that if the same had happened to any West European club then they would simply have gone onto the transfer market and bought replacements. He implied that there was not a level playing field at European level.

Dukla, he moaned, had to wait for some promising youngster to have to perform his army service or train up a replacement from the existing ranks. According to this version of events, Dukla seemed to have lost its ability to take its pick from the best of Czechoslovak players or, clearly, even this selection was not sufficient.

Even so, Dukla enjoyed a series of cup wins at home at the end of the 1960’s and reached the semifinals of the European Cup in the 1966-67 season, beating the likes of Belgium’s Anderlecht and Ajax Amsterdam on the way. The team went down to the eventual winners of the competition, Glasgow Celtic.

Masopust went on to take the player manager’s position at Belgian club, KVV Molenbeek, in 1968 at the ripe age of 37 yeas old. He helped the second division club win promotion to the Belgian first division.

But according to Mr. Jelínek the foreign engagement came at the price of a compromising relationship with the regime. Although Masopust’s working class background made him a favourite of the authorities, he was only allowed to play abroad towards the end of his career. Understandably, the regime was nervous about taking such a step with younger players whatever their class background.

After the two year Belgian stay, Masopust came back home to management positions. He won the league with Zbrojovka Brno in 1978 but otherwise had a mixed management record.

But Dukla Prague’s roots as an army club made it unpopular with ordinary football supporters. Some football fans would turn out when foreign teams came to play on the big occasions but they stayed away for the run of the mill league games.

“People never liked Dukla Prague because when you look at the attendances, for example, they never had the gate of the other clubs. Sometimes they won the league but still had the lowest attendance. For example for the season 1965-1966 they won the league but their average gate was 9,000 while the likes of Sparta or Slavia was 24,000 and the average was 12,000-13,000. So they had the lowest attendance. They were winning titles in the 1980’s with an average gate of 1,500.”

For many officially backed organisations, the Velvet Revolution that toppled communism bought a sea change in fortunes. The club was relegated from the top league in the 1993-1994 season. The club was bought by a Slovak businessman, merged with another club, bounced back temporarily to the top flight, and then was involved in a long drawn out battle over the Dukla name and heritage. According to Mr. Jelínek much of the club’s valuable sporting heritage including cups and sport memorabilia has disappeared during these disputes. Dukla now tops the Czech second division with a real chance of making it back into the top flight. What aspects of the club’s mixed history might follow it back remains to be seen.