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Born: Monday 9 February 1931, Střimice, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic)
Starting his career as a left-half, Czechoslovakian playmaker Josef Masopust developed into one of the finest 'box-to-box' midfielders of his era. Spending almost his entire club career at Dukla Prague, he was a pivotal figure in the Czechoslovakia team which reached the World Cup final in 1962. He was also the first Eastern European and the only player from his country to win the prestigious 'Ballon d'Or' award.
Masopust was born in Střimice, near the city of Most, on 9 February 1931. One of six children, his hero during his childhood was the great Czech striker Josef Bican. Shortly after the end of the Second World War he got the opportunity to pursue his ambitions in football when he joined the youth team of lower league side Uhlomost Most (now Banik Most). His talent lay not in scoring goals but rather using his great vision and stamina to quickly turn defence into attack.
Blessed with a remarkable reading of the game, he was a strong tackler and accurate passer and was able to switch the ball quickly between his feet when dribbling, allowing him to beat opponents on either side. Making his first team debut at the age of 17, two years later Masopust's performances earned him a move into top division football with Technomat Teplice. Playing in a mid-table side, it was never going to be long before top club made a move for him.
In 1952, with Masopust on military service, army club ATK Prague (later Dukla Prague) decided that they wanted to sign him and as was usual, got their way. Playing for a team who were largely despised due to their practice of cherry picking all the leading players, the move initially seemed to have backfired when ATK finished below his old Teplice side in the 1952 season. A year later however, with the team renamed UDA, he won his first league title.
Although UDA lost their title in 1954, Masopust earned international honours for the first time at the end of that year when he appeared in a 4-1 defeat to Hungary. Somewhat surprisingly, it was nearly 18 months before he won his second cap but having done so in a friendly against Brazil in April 1956 he went on to remain an indispensible member of the national team for almost a decade.
UDA had narrowly missed out on the league title in 1955, finishing behind Slovan Bratislava, but having been renamed Dukla managed to reverse those final positions and claim the championship again in 1956. Another title, the third of Masopust's career followed in 1957-58 and he also represented the club in their early forays into European football, losing to Manchester United's 'Busby Babes' just two months before the Munich Air Crash.
Masopust appeared in his first major international tournament in the summer of 1958 at the World Cup in Sweden, where Czechoslovakia gained an impressive draw with holders West Germany and also enjoyed a 6-1 thrashing of Argentina. They were undone however by two defeats to surprise package Northern Ireland, the second coming after they had led 1-0 in a play-off for a place in the quarter-finals.
Inspired by Masopust's ability to control matches from midfield, the national team made rapid improvements over the following years. He scored one of the goals in a 5-0 aggregate win over Romania that took them into the last four of the inaugural European Championship in 1960. They lost their semi-final to the Soviet Union but beat France to finish third, an achievement which Masopust hailed as remarkable due to the changes in the team since 1958.
The peak of Masopust's career came in the early 1960s. Dukla stormed to the league title in 1960-61 and beat Dynamo Zilina in the cup final to complete the double. They also travelled to the USA as one of the guest teams in the International Soccer League and beat English side Everton in the final. After adding another league title in 1962, Masopust really brought himself to international attention at the World Cup in Chile.
Czechoslovakia were expected to struggle, but the versatility of Masopust helped them to make a stunning impact. He created the winning goal for Josef Stibranyi in their opening game with Spain and marked playmaker Didi out of the game in the 0-0 draw with holders Brazil. Knowing they were through to the last eight, Czechoslovakia lost their last group game to Mexico but then recorded impressive wins over Hungary and Yugoslavia to reach the final.
Making a rare run into the opposing box, Masopust gave his team a shock lead after 15 minutes of the final, but Brazil levelled almost immediately. Two second half goals gave the South Americans a second consecutive title, but Masopust had made a real impression and was highly praised by many of the Brazilian team. He was named the second best player in the tournament and later in the year won the 'Ballon d'Or' as European Footballer of the Year.
Masopust remained a regular in the national team until 1964, by which time he had led Dukla to a run of four consecutive league titles. Despite their domestic dominance, they were however unable to break through beyond the quarter-finals in the European Cup. Masopust put that down to the fact that they could not sign new players for big transfer fees as many of their Western rivals could.
Dukla lost their title after an uncharacteristically poor season in 1964-65, although they did have the consolation of winning the cup after a penalty shoot-out against Slovan Bratislava. Masopust's international appearances were becoming rarer and he appeared just once in the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reach the 1966 World Cup, in a very costly 1-0 defeat in Romania. He won the last of his 63 caps against the Soviet Union in May 1966.
1966 also brought the eighth and last league title of Masopust's career, as Dukla came out on top after a remarkable fight with rivals Sparta and Slavia, all three finishing level on points. Dukla also retained the cup to complete another double, and the following season an ageing Masopust helped them finally to reach the European Cup semi-finals. Losing the first leg 3-1 to Celtic, they went out after a goalless draw at home and Masopust was so frustrated that he refused to shake his opponents' hands at full time, although he would later apologise.
One year later Masopust left Dukla at the age of 37. He brought his playing career to an end with a two year spell as player-coach at Belgian side Crossing Molenbeek, helping them to win promotion to the top flight in his first season. In 1973 Masopust returned to Dukla as manager, finishing second in the league in 1974. He was destined to win a championship as a coach, but not with Dukla. In 1976 he moved to Zbrojovka Brno, who he led to the title two years later.
After another spell in Belgium with KSC Hasselt, Masopust was named manager of Czechoslovakia in 1984. Failing to lead his country either to the 1986 World Cup or 1988 European Championship, he left the job after three years and went on to manage the Indonesian youth team, as well as a brief return to Zbrojovka Brno. Masopust's final coaching role was with Pelikán Děčín in the mid-1990s, after which he retired. He remains one of the most famous figures in Czech football.
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- Published on Thursday, 11 October 2012 12:57