When Josef Masopust checked into a Chilean hotel in May 1962, his forename and surname were both misspelled. But if the Czechoslovakia midfielder landed at the FIFA World Cup™ with an alien identity, everyone knew who he was by the time he boarded his squad's return flight to Prague.
For, by then, Masopust had managed to transform himself from a national villain – a consequence of his enforced presence in the sovereign state’s communist-incepted army team - into an eternal Czech icon; to inconceivably thrust Rudolf Vytlacil’s underdogs into the Final; and to threaten a gargantuan upset by opening the scoring against the seemingly insuperable Brazilians.
Goals from Amarildo, Zito and Vava denied Czechoslovakia a triumphant final chapter to their enrapturing fairytale. ‘The Knight’ had, nevertheless, done enough to erase the existence of Joseph Masapost. Josef Masopust, by contrast, was a name that would be waxed lyrical over by Ferenc Puskas, Djalma Santos and Pele and finish the year inscribed on the Ballon d'Or ahead of the great Eusebio.
1962 was, however, merely the annus mirabilis of his exceptional career. The eldest of six siblings born in 1931, into a humble family in Strimice, a village located close to the West German border, Masopust became impassioned by the sport while kicking a ball around amid the backdrop of two picturesque mountain ranges. And while he initially harboured lofty dreams of emulating Josef Bican, the Czech goal king of the era his father, a miner, would enthuse about, it appeared an ill-fated ambition when Hitler seized the Sudetenland in 1938.
The cessation of World War II nonetheless afforded Masopust the chance to pursue his ambition, which he did by joining the youth ranks of local minnows Uhlomost Most (now Banik Most) in 1945. Indefatigable, an insightful reader of the game and a masterful tackler, Masopust was also a genius on the ball, where his penchant for side-stepping opponents at pace and executing sumptuously-weighted through-balls prompted one of his coaches to recommend him to Teplice, who had just been promoted into the Czech top flight and duly sent a scout to run the rule over the non-assuming 18-year-old. Masopust coveted a trial. He got one better: a contract.
Masopust didn’t last long at Teplice. ATK (who became Dukla Prague in 1956), the communist-incepted army club, decided they wanted Czech football’s golden boy. And what ATK wanted, ATK got. Clubs at the time had to work their way up to the upper tier from the lower leagues, yet ATK were immediately housed among the elite upon their 1948 inauguration. Furthermore, they cherry-picked whichever soldiers they fancied, with rivals instructed to release their star players at ATK’s demand.
This caused outrage among the Czech football community. Naturally, fans of Sparta and Slavia, the country’s best-supported clubs, despised ATK. Consequentially, Masopust became something of a public enemy. Except, that is, to ATK followers. Indeed, with Masopust, who was forbidden from playing abroad until he went to Belgium outfit Crossing as a 37-year-old, revelling in an irresistible engine-room tandem alongside Svatopluk Pluskal, the club seized eight Czech First League crowns between 1953 and ’66.
Dukla also transcended their success on to the international stage, albeit under minimal scrutiny. Indeed, they beat the likes of Red Star Belgrade, Rapid Vienna, Monaco and Espanyol en route to 1961 International Soccer League final, where they overwhelmed Everton 9-2 on aggregate to qualify for the following year’s American Challenge Cup, which they lifted the following three years in succession. Moreover, Masopust outshone Pele as Dukla edged Santos 4-3 in a 1959 friendly, terrorising the South Americans’ with his slaloming dribbles and scoring twice in Mexico.
“It didn’t matter who the opposition was, he always stood out,” said Pluskal. “He would never give the ball away, playing short passes or one-twos until space opened up, and then he would set off… past one, two, three, breezing past opponents, one way then the other, as if they were flags on a training pitch. He was just an incredible player.”
But although Dukla’s success made Masopust a celebrity in his homeland, he remained little-known elsewhere. That categorically changed in Chile. Czechoslovakia had fallen at the first hurdle at Sweden 1958 and were in considerably more examining company this time around: the defending world champions had Garrincha and Pele in their extraordinary pomp, while a Spain side coached by the tactical magician Helenio Herrera boasted Jose Santamaria, Francisco Gento, Luis Suarez and Ferenc Puskas.
“They told us not to bother unpacking our suitcases, that we’d be going home after the first round,” Masopust recalled. Unpack his suitcase he didn’t. Unlock the Spanish defence in their curtain-raiser he did. And from one of Masopust’s sumptuously weighted through-balls, Josef Stibranyi slotted home the only goal.
“I was surprised by how complete he was,” Puskas admitted. “Luis [Del Sol] was one of the best midfielders there was at breaking up attacks, Suarez was a genius with his through-balls and Paco [Gento] was fantastic when running at fullbacks. But Masopust could do it all: win the ball, pass, dribble and break into the box. He was an outstanding player.”
Masopust then kept the irresistible Didi quiet as Czechoslovakia held Brazil to a shock 0-0 draw. It was a match in which his class showed both professionally and personally. Pele sustained an injury but in the pre-substitution era, was forced to hobble helplessly around the field. When the ball went towards him, the Seleção No10’s immobility afforded Masopust a free ticket to make it his own. Nobly, the elegant No6 refused to challenge his opponent.
“It was a gesture I will never forget,” said Pele afterwards. Djalma Santos remarked: “It was moving to see the respect with which he treat the situation. It was not just respect for Pele but for the entire Seleção. He was a great player and, moreover, a gentleman.”
Despite a 3-1 loss to Mexico in their final Group 3 outing, the Central Europeans progressed to the knockout phase, where Masopust proved the catalyst in a 3-1 defeat of reigning UEFA European Championship runners-up Yugoslavia. Hungary were next to fall victim to the Czech spell, propelling Czechoslovakia into a Final against Brazil. And though Masopust broke the deadlock for David, Goliath instantaneously responded and ultimately emerged 3-1 winners.
“Masopust was one of the greatest players I ever saw," Pele later remarked. "But it is not possible that he was born in Europe. With those explosive dribbles, he had to be Brazilian!”
And on that Santiago showpiece, O Rei added: “Brazil were the better team that day, but Masopust certainly didn’t deserve to be on the losing side.” Individually, ‘The Knight’ also had to settle for silver, with Garrincha pipping him to the tournament’s best player award.
Gold would, fittingly, grace Masopust’s hands thereafter though. The Ballon d'Or was just reward for his phenomenal 1962; the UEFA Golden Player gong the recognition of his status as Czechoslovakia’s finest performer of the 20th century. And by the time those prestigious honours were awarded, the engravers didn’t need to ask how to spell Josef Masopust.
Date of birth: 9 February 1931
Place of birth: Strimice, Czechoslovakia
Teplice (1949-51), Dukla Prague (1951-68), Crossing Molenbeek (1968-70)
63 appearances, 10 goals (1954-66)
1 FIFA World Cup runner-up (1962)
8 Czechoslovak Championships (1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1966)
4 Czechoslovak Cups (1952, 1961, 1965, 1966)
1 International Soccer League (1961)
3 America Challenge Cups (1962, 1963, 1964)
1 Ballon d'Or (1962)
1 UEFA Golden Player (Czechoslovakia’s player of the 20th century)
Eusebio attended Masopust's 80th birthday reception in February 2011. The Portuguese idol said: “When I heard it was going to be Josef’s 80th birthday, I decided to come here in person. I have such admiration for him. I think he was a much better footballer than me.”
Dukla Prague erected a life-size statue of their iconic former midfielder in early 2011, while plans are afoot for a similar exhibition at the National Museum. Masopust commented: “I was just one of thousands of players to wear the Czechoslovakia jersey. I think it’s way too big an honour.”
After leaving Czechoslovakia, Masopust became player/coach of Crossing in Belgium, and later assumed the reins of Dukla and his country. His biggest achievement was guiding Zbrojovka Brno to their only Czechoslovak top-flight title in 1976.
Masopust made his international debut in 1954 and scored ten goals in 63 appearances for his country over the next 12 years. He is Czechoslovakia’s joint-sixth most-capped player.
‘The Masopustovsky slalom’ is a technical term used to describe Masopust-esque dribbles in what is the former Czechoslovakia.