The history of the World Cup is replete with tales of epic encounters. In 1950, Uruguay drove an ice-cold dagger into the footballing heart of Brazil when they lifted the trophy after beating the Seleção in the infamous Maracanazo. Twenty years later West Germany faced Italy in the 1970 semi-final as the two teams slugged it out like exhausted heavyweight boxers across a merciless 30 minutes of extra-time under the relentless Mexican sun. A dozen years later, the Azzurri featured in that epic contest against the Brazil of Socrates and Zico. In the same competition the gloriously artistic French team of Platini, Girese, Tigana et al, were denied by the Teutonic efficiency of West Germany, aided by the scurrilously unpunished aggression of Toni Schumacher.
Few of those games can, however, match up to the star billing that lit up the game when the World Champions, and undefeated holders of the crown for some 24 years, faced up to the 1952 Olympic Champions, a team on an unbeaten run of three-and-half years, almost 50 games and averaging four goals per game. It wasn’t Superman v Batman, or the Avengers Civil War, but it was getting there when, in the 1954 World Cup, Uruguay faced Hungary.
The early stages of the tournament had already indicated the sort of form that the Hungarians, so many people’s strong favourites to lift the trophy, were in. The previous year, they had visited Wembley and inflicted that humbling 3-6 defeat on the team that considered itself invulnerable to foreign opposition when playing at home. Then, in the final game before the tournament began, the Hungarians franked that form and underscored the new world order by thrashing England 7-1 in Budapest. It was the sort of form they carried into the tournament. In just two group games they amassed no less than 17 goals, defeating South Korea 9-0 and then West Germany 8-3, although the Germans would take revenge later.
Uruguay had suffered the relative humiliation of finishing in third place in the 1953 Copa America, when an unexpected defeat to Chile had cost them a place in the final. They still retained many of the players who had been successful in retaining their crown in Brazil four years earlier though, including forward Juan Alberto Schiaffino, soon to become subject of a world record transfer fee when moving from Peñarol to AC Milan following the tournament’s end, and their dominating centre half and captain, Obdulio Varela. The World Cup offered Uruguay an opportunity to reassert their global supremacy. The South Americans had been a little recalcitrant in comparison to the goal glut of the Hungarians, amassing just the nine goals in their couple of group games. Scotland felt the sharp edge of the South Americans’ frustration, conceding seven times without reply after Czechoslovakia had restricted La Celeste to a mere two strikes.
In the quarter-finals, the Hungarians scored another four goals, conceding two in reply against Brazil in the infamous Battle of Bern, and the Uruguayans matched the Magical Magyars toll when facing England in their last eight tie, albeit in much less rancorous circumstances. It meant that when the two teams faced off with each of their pedigrees looking like a CV that any team would die for, Hungary had won their three games by scoring 21 goals, an average of seven per game, and conceded five, two of which had been late goals by the Germans when trailing 7-1 and 8-2. The World Cup holders had scored 13 times in their three games and conceded just three times. In fairness though, this World Cup tournament was hardly a study in defensive expertise, with goals flowing. In the quarter-finals, Austria defeated Switzerland 7-5, after being three goals down, before losing to West Germany 6-1 in the semi-finals. By the time the two behemoths met in Lausanne’s Stade Olympique de la Pontaise, on 30 June, the 45,000 spectators were expecting to be royally entertained. They wouldn’t be disappointed.
As well as a contrast between two teams, each with arguably logical claims to being the planet’s foremost footballing power, the game would also inevitably feature a clash of cultures as the South American pattern of play rubbed up against the dynamic Hungarian system. At the time, with intercontinental travel still a major problem there was precious little interaction between teams from the different continents and World Cups were serially won by teams from the host hemisphere. Brazil’s victory in Sweden at the 1958 tournament was the only time this trend was bucked, arguably until Brazil’s 2002 victory in Japan. There was therefore still a measure of mystery when teams clashed in this manner.
The Hungarian pattern, playing with what has latterly been termed as a ‘False Nine’ usually in the guise of the astute Nándor Hidegkuti, predating any kind of assumed tactical genius of Guardiola’s Barcelona around fifty years later, was a key innovation. The ploy created space in the midfield and fluid attacking options. Although the tactic invariably provoked problems for opponents – not least England whose defence had been torn asunder by the rampant Hungarians – the Uruguayans had the players with flexibility to counter the move. Varela would be absent through injury, and replaced by Néstor Carballo who, similar to his captain would not feel out of place advancing to close down a deep-lying opponent.
Hungary were also denied the services of their captain, with Ferenc Puskás also on the injured list. His absence however did allow coach Gusztav Sebes to bring in Peter Palotás, who had played in the Hidegkuti role. As the two dropped deeper, space was opened in the middle for the likes of Zoltán Czibor to exploit, with the Uruguayan centre half drawn out of position. It would lead to the opening goal of the game, as the rain poured down, slicking up the playing surface.
In their previous three games, Hungary had been quick out of the blocks to try and establish a domination of the game and an early lead. Against South Korea, Puskás had scored after a dozen minutes, Consequential games would make that strike appear tardy. Against West Germany Sándor Kocsis had netted the first of his four goals of the game with just three minutes on the clock. The early strike rate was then maintained against Brazil as Hidegkuti gave the cherry-shirted Europeans the lead after four minutes. It was a ploy that Sebes insisted on against Uruguay as well.
In the Uruguayan goal, Roque Máspoli, was in for a busy first dozen minutes or so. First Palotás tested the vastly experienced Peñarol goalkeeper drawing a sharp save from the 36- year-old, and then Jozsef Bozsik, standing in as skipper for the absent Puskás, and somewhat controversially allowed to play in this game despite being dismissed in the battle against Brazil, fired narrowly wide. The nearest to an early goal came from Hidegkuti. Shooting from a tight angle, his effort scraped past the post with Máspoli beaten and Czibor in presumptuously celebratory mode, before reality and anguish subdued his ardour.
When the twelfth minute arrived without a breakthrough for the Europeans, Uruguayan coach Juan Lopez may well have been relieved as his side eased their way into the game, but a goal was imminent. The deep-lying Hidegkuti had found his usual parcel of space in midfield and picked out Kocsis with a neat lofted pass. Spotting the penetrating run of Czibor, the Honvéd forward who would later escape the invasion of his country by the Soviet Union to achieve legendary status in Barcelona, nodded the ball into the Uruguay penalty area for his team-mate to run onto. With his marker befuddled by the move, Czibor collected and shot from around 12 yards. His effort was scuffed however and surely should have been saved, but somehow Máspoli contrived to allow the ball to bobble past his outstretched hand and into the net. The Hungarians were ahead.
Perhaps sated by the strike or lulled into a false sense of security by the memory of how so many of their opponents had folded after falling behind to an early goal, and undoubtably to Sebes’s great chagrin, the Hungarians seemed to ease off from their busy start and Uruguay found a way back into the game. In contrast to the Hungarians fluid play, the South Americans sought to open up their opponents’ back line with astute passes and runs into space. Now with more possession than in the opening period, Uruguayan compelled the defensive pairing of Mihály Lantos and Gyula Lóránt to demonstrate their calm assurance, although they were often compelled to merely hack clear under pressure, and goalkeeper Gyula Grosics was frequently required to advance from his line to follow suit when passes evaded the duo. Probably the best chance to equalise fell to Schiaffino when he managed to go around Grosics in the area, but then failed to get off an effective shot.
After the ebullient opening from Hungary, the game was now fairly even as Uruguay pressed to level. The Hungarians lacked little in comparison though and their intricate play opened up chances as well. A goal for either side would be crucial in the way the fortunes of the game swayed back and forth. It nearly came when a cross from the left found Kocsis unmarked around ten yards from goal. His header was powerful but poorly directed towards the centre of the goal, and Máspoli leapt to divert it over the bar with his left hand. There were no more goals before the break and both teams retired to their dressing rooms to take on board the words of wisdom from the respective coaches.
Uruguay began the second-half, but if Lopez had emphasised the importance of not conceding early again, the advice was not heeded. Honvéd winger László Budai had been selected to play in place of the injured József Tóth, and during the first period, his pacey and tricky runs down the flank had been a thorn in the side of the Uruguayans, but inside 60 seconds of the restart, his play brought some tangible reward. A cross to the far post found
Hidegkuti hurling himself forwards to head powerfully past Máspoli and double the lead. Clearly shaken by the setback, Uruguay were like a dazed boxer on the ropes as Hungary pressed for another goal that would surely kill off the game. Shots rained in, but in contrast to his early error for the opening goal, Máspoli defied all of their efforts, and kept his team clinging on to a fingertip hold in the game. A penalty claim for a clumsy challenge on Hidegkuti looked to have merit, but Welsh referee Benjamin Griffiths was unconvinced.
Slowly clearing their heads, Uruguay demonstrated the resilience and refusal to bend the knee under the severest pressure that had seen them come back from a goal down in front of nearly 200,000 wildly partisan Brazilians in the Estádio do Maracanã four years earlier. Even without the driving force of their absent skipper and totemic leader, Varela, this was a team of character and no little ability. They were undefeated reigning champions of the world. With the elusive and slippery skills of Schiaffino becoming more of a factor as the game progressed and energy levels dropped, Uruguay showed they were anything but a beaten team, and with 15 minutes remaining, a Javier Ambrois pass eventually found chink in the Hungarian back line and Juan Hohberg strode forward to coolly slot home and bring his team right back into the game. Although born in Córdoba, Argentina, Hohberg was a naturalised Uruguayan and as his shot rolled past Groscis’s left hand and into the net, the whole nation celebrated that fact.
It was now game on, and for the remaining minutes, the Hungarian defence would be put under increasing amounts of pressure. Despite their flowing forward play, defence was often the disguised Achille’s Heel of the Magyar team. Usually their forwards would score more than they conceded to minimise the effect of the less than perfect back line, but in Uruguay, they were playing against anything other than ‘usual’ opponents. Schiaffino was now in his pomp, prodding and probing for any other gap that could be exploited as the Hungarian defence battled to retain what had looked like a comfortable winning position.
With just four minutes remaining, the dam finally broke as Hohberg again found space to break into the area and dribble around Groscis. Racing back to defend however, both Lantos and Jenő Buzansky had took advantage of the delay caused by the goalkeeper’s challenge to drop back onto the line. Calmness personified, Hohberg merely paused before picking his spot high into the net beyond any despairing challenge. Hungarian head in hands. Uruguayan arms raised in both relief and celebration. It would surely be extra-time now with the South American wave of momentum poised to wash Hungarian dreams away.
With both teams comfortably winning their earlier games, albeit somewhat violently for the Europeans in their game against Brazil, neither team were used to being extended into an extra thirty minutes to decide a game. In such circumstances it is often resilience and resolve that decides the issue, rather than any particular outstanding piece of skill. With the reigining champions feeling that the game was there for the taking, they continued to press and Hohberg nearly completed a hat-trick when his shot deceived Groscis before striking the post. Even then, the goalkeeper was compelled to recover and throw himself forward to block a Schiaffino follow-up and divert the ball for a corner with his feet. Hungary were forced to replicate the application that Uruguay had shown when two goals down and the game seemingly slipping away from them. There’s a time for effervescent forward paly, and there’s a time to lock down and reassess. For the remainder of the first period of extra-time, Hungary opted for the latter. The decision would serve them well.
To be considered an iconic presence at any club is, by definition, a rare distinction. To do so at one of the world’s leading clubs is another step or three beyond that. It requires not only a dedication to the club and its fans, a longevity and history of success in a number of roles, but also that quintessential affinity with what the club represents. Few achieve such hallowed status. Without fear of contradiction however, it’s safe to say that Daniel Passarella has such a presence at River Plate.
The player who would become known as “El Gran Capitán” and spend ten years wearing River Plate’s famous colours, another six as coach and then serve as president of the club, as well as being a World Cup winning captain and coach of the national team, was born in the Buenos Aires province of Chacabuco on 25 May 1973. His footballing career began with Club Atlético Sarmiento, then in the third-tier of the Argentine league structure. Given how his future would pan out, it’s strange to note that Passarella’s family was very much Boca-orientated and, legend has it, he once assured his Boca supporting grandmother that he would be part of a team that would destroy Las Gallinas –a nickname meaning ‘hens’ and often used as a derogatory term for River Plate. Nevertheless, in 1974, he left Club Atlético Sarmiento, and entered the Estadio Monumental as a River Plate player, beginning an association that would span four decades and see him achieve legendary status.
Passarella’s talent had been spotted by River’s network of scouts and brought to the attention of the then coach Néstor Rossi. Suitably impressed by both his organised and no-holds-barred defending, plus an ability to drive forward from the back and score, Rossi persuaded the young Passarella to put aside youthful enmities and join River. The blandishments of the coach endured, and a 20-year-old Passarella crossed the Rubicon. As if to underscore the break with previously held emotional attachments, his debut in a pre-season game would be against none other than Boca Juniors. It’s not known what his grandmother thought of the occasion.
Although making his league debut that same season, Passarella would quickly become a regular starter, and begin the climb to greatness, when River’s record goalscorer, Ángel Labruna replaced Rossi for the following season. With Passarella inserted into the spine of the team, along with signings brought in by the new coach, the club was set for a golden period. River had last won the Metropolitano title in 1957, the year after Passarella had been born. It had been the club’s 13th and, some considered, ill-fated title, but all of that was about to change. Playing from centre- back, Passarella would appear in 29 league games that term, scoring an impressive nine goals, as River secured the title, four points clear of Huracán, with Boca a point further back. Although far from being the league’s top scorers, River’s defensive efficiency with Passarella at the heart of things returned the best record, conceding just 38 times, and losing a mere six of the 38 fixtures. The stage was set.
Despite standing a mere 1.73metres, much as with so many other great defenders of the era, he played as if he was two metres tall. Short in stature, but still a giant in the air, he seemed to defy the limits imposed by his short frame, consistently dominating forwards despite conceding height to them. Professional to the core, he would deploy all legitimate means to prevent his team conceding, and never shirk from indulging in the darker arts of the game if the situation required such things.
Strong and dominant with pace aplenty, his determined attitude saw him rarely lose out in the intensely physical battles of the Argentine league. As if that were not sufficient upon which to build a reputation however, his early ability to score goals would hardly diminish as his career progressed. Across his two terms with the club, developing a polished technique from the penalty spot and dead ball scenarios, he would score 99 league goals for River across 298 games. An average better than a goal every three games is a decent return for many strikers, but here was the most consummate of defenders offering up the most productive of bonuses. His talent received due reward when he was named Argentina’s Footballer of the Year in 1976. He was still only 23 years old.
Very much in the way of Passarella, River were elbowing their way back towards the top table of Argentine domestic football and when the squad for the home World Cup in 1978 was announced, alongside club mates Ubaldo Fillol, Roberto Perfumo, Reinaldo Merlo and Leopoldo Luque, the name of Daniel Passarella was at the top of the list, with the captain of River Plate also granted the honour of leading the national team. His debut had come during a 1-0 victory over the Soviet Union in a friendly in Kiev on March 20, 1976, and a little over two years later, on 25 June 1978, in River’s own Estadio Monumental, more than 70,000 celebrating Argentines saw Passarella become the first Argentine to list the World Cup.
The trophy was handed to Passarella by General Jorge Rafael Videla, head of the military junta ruling the country. The regime was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths during the years of harsh military repression, and the Argentine captain would later lament that, “If I’d known then what was happening, I wouldn’t have played at all.” Cynically perhaps, some would argue that it’s easy to say that in retrospect, but sitting in the comfort of a democratically run country, such superior opinions can come too easily.
Domestic success continued. The Nacional title was won in 1975, 1979 and 1981, along with other Metropolitano successes in 1977, 1979 and 1980. The goals also continued to flow. In 1976, he scored a staggering 24 goals in just 35 league games. Despite River’s success and playing for one of the country’s top teams, it was still a phenomenal scoring record for a defender. Despite his goals, frustratingly, it was Boca who picked up both the Nacional and Metropolitano titles that term.
By the time of the 1982 World Cup, Passarella was a prime target for the top clubs of Serie A and after Argentina were eliminated from the tournament, Fiorentina moved in with a bid to take the River Plate legend to Tuscany. He would be joined by Brazilian legend and skipper Sócrates, although reports suggest that the pair were anything but close. Given the traditional rivalry between the national teams of Brazil and Argentina, it’s perhaps little surprise that the captains of each of those sides were hardly the best of friends.
Across the next four seasons, Passarella would average 35 games a season with I Viola, scoring first three, then eight, followed by nine and, in his final term there, 15 goals. Although never good enough to challenge for the Scudetto in any consistent way, Fiorentina did qualify for UEFA Cup competition in 1983-84 and 1985-86. In the latter of those seasons, his last with the club, Passarella’s return of 15 goals is made even more remarkable by the fact that the total was more than half of the club’s entire haul of league goals. He would leave Tuscany after the 1986 World Cup, having played 109 games for Fiorentina.
Although a triumph for his country, the 1986 World Cup constituted a personal disappointment for Passarella. Chosen for the squad, a bout of enterocolitis saw him miss the tournament’s action. He was replaced by José Luis Brown who scored the opening goal in the World Cup Final. After the tournament, rumours broke out of a rift between Passarella and Diego Maradona. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, coach Carlos Bilardo sided with his star player and Passarella felt that the two combined to keep him out of the action.
Whatever the truth of that, or otherwise, it illustrated the undiminished burning ambition of Passarella to play, and win, at the highest level of the game. Despite not kicking a ball in the tournament, his presence in the squad ensured him of the exclusive honour of being the only Argentine to feature in both of his country’s World Cup victories. As with 1982, the end of the World Cup saw another move, and Passarella left Tuscany journeying north to Lombardy, and joining I Nerazzurri of Internazionale.
His first term at the San Siro saw Inter hit a third-place finish in Serie A, a point behind runners-up Juventus and four astray of the champions, a Diego Maradona inspired Napoli. The rivalry between the two Argentines, added to by the discomfort of relations at the 1986 World Cup, would only have made losing out to his compatriot’s club even more bitter for the defender with the burning desire to win. Nineteen eighty-six, also saw Passarella play his last game for Argentina, after 70 caps and a highly impressive 22 goals. It’s a goal ratio better than that of Spain’s Fernando Torres! The following season would see Inter trail off into fifth place and despite Passarella delivering his customary goals there seemed little chance of the club enjoying league success, as stadium-sharing rivals AC Milan took on the mantle of Italy’s top club.
Passarella was now 35 and with the remaining years of his career slipping away, he sought a way home, returning to Buenos Aries and the Estadio Monumental. He would play just one further season with River, finishing a disappointing fifth in the league, some 17 points adrift of champions, Independiente. In December 1989 though, another chapter in the career of Daniel Passarella would open when former team-mate, and now River Plate coach, Reinaldo Merlo resigned his post. With their legendary captain and national hero now back home, there was an irresistible clamour for Passarella to inherit the job, and El Gran Capitán swapped the white shirt with the red sash for a tracksuit and position on the bench. If Passarella’s ascent to the realms of playing for River had brought success to the club, his time sitting in the coach’s dugout would hardly suffer by comparison.
The 1989-90 Primera División season had hardly been an encouraging one for River, hence Merlo’s departure. When Passarella assumed charge of the team’s affairs, the club were languishing, comfortably adrift of table-topping Independiente. By the time the last game had been played though, River had eaten away at the deficit and built a seven-point cushion to the club from Avellaneda. River had won the title and conceded a miserly 20 goals in the 38-game league programme. Passarella organised his team to play in the same way he had when wearing the shirt. Cold-eyed and determined, win at all costs and tolerate nothing less than success. It was immensely successful and as the Argentine league system was split into two halves, the club secured two more titles. River Plate was now on an upward trajectory, but Passarella wouldn’t be there to enjoy the full fruits of his labours. A string of other coaches would reap the benefit as the club added a further three Aperturas and four Clausura titles. Somewhat ironically, the success that he helped to create that meant that, after he left the national team four years later, an immediate return to River was hardly possible.
The 1994 World Cup was staged in the USA and, much as with the fate of Merlo at River Plate, the downfall of another hero would herald a call for Passarella. Argentina were eliminated by Romania and a failed drugs test also brought the international career of Diego Maradona to an end. Coach Alfie Basilo was moved out and when the question was asked as to who should be invited to take over as coach of the La Albiceleste, there were few dissenting voice from the acclaim for it to be former World Cup winning skipper and the man at the heart of River Plate’s revival, Daniel Passarella.
His first game in charge saw an upturn in fortunes with a 3-0 victory over Chile, and Passarella’s disciplinarian and demanding ethos brought similar results to those enjoyed at the Estadio Monumental. In 1995, Argentina reached the quarter-finals of the Copa America held in Uruguay, before being unluckily eliminated by Brazil on penalties, following a 2-2 draw. The following year, he guided the team to the Olympic Final, but lost 3-2 to Nigeria after twice being in front, and Argentina had to settle for silver medals.
In February 1997 Passarella’s disciplinary approach both off the field – no long hair, and on the field – adherence to positions led Fernando Redondo to announce that he would never play for the country again whilst Passarella was coach. It’s easy, of course, to find a coach’s approach unacceptable when the results are falling just short, but it’s interesting to contemplate whether, had the Brazil and Nigeria results gone the other way – which they so easily could have done – would Redondo have been happy to visit the barbers and stick to his allotted role in the team? Passarella had little time for regret anyway, declaring after Redondo’s announcement that, “If I select a player who thinks he’s doing the team a favour by joining us, then I not only irritate myself but my players, as well.”
Five months later, Argentina again fell at the last eight stage of the Copa America, this time, somewhat embarrassingly to Bolivia, although Passarella had selected a number of back up players. There was redemption later in the year, as qualification was achieved for the 1998 World Cup to be held in France. The following April, Passarella finally managed a victory over Brazil after 20 years of trying, returning to Argentina with a 0-1 win gained at the Maracana. It’s the sort of victory that adds lustre to the reputation of any coach. Two months later, Argentina were eliminated from the World Cup by Holland, and Passarella resigned.
At the time, River were still enjoying success and, had there been any thoughts of returning to coach the club he had served for so many years, they had to be shelved. Instead, he took up the job of coaching Uruguay in 1999, but only stayed there briefly, leaving after a mixed bag of World Cup qualifying results early in 2001, and frustration over not being able to gain the release of players from Uruguayan clubs. In November, he returned to Italy and took over at Parma, but it was both a disastrous, and mercifully short tenure. Five games and five defeats led to him getting the sack before Santa Claus had even thought about setting to work on his. Two years in Mexico with Monterrey brought a Mexican league title before a short stay in Brazil coaching Corinthians. As with Parma however, the results were poor and the sack followed in a matter of a few months, before the almost inevitable return to River.
On 9 January 2006, he returned to the Estadio Monumental, once again replacing Reinaldo Merlo. His earlier success however was not easy to repeat and on 15 November of the following year, he resigned after losing a semi-final of the Copa Sudamericana to local rivals, but always seen as an inferior club, Arsenal de Sarandí. The following summer there was wide expectation that Passarella would return to Monterrey after his success there, but the job went to Diego Alonso, and the former River player and coach had eyes on a bigger prize.
With River enduring a financial crisis and results sliding Passarella stood for election as president of the club, and swept to victory, comfortably unseating José María Aguilar in 2009. Success would not follow this appointment though. River’s on-field fortunes continued to decline, and the club endured the previously unthinkable humiliation of relegation to the Primera B Nacional. The pain of relegation was clear in Passarella’s words. “I never imagined that we would play in the Second Division. But the only person responsible is José María Aguilar,” he explained in an interview with ESPN Rivadavia radio. “My glorious and beloved River Plate … This is the second greatest pain of my life,” he declared, offering an emotional reference to the death of one of his sons in 1995. Unsurprisingly, coach Juan José López was hastily ushered out of the door and replaced by Leonardo Ponzio, who guided the club back to the top tier at the first attempt in 2012-13.
At first, it looked as if the Passarella magic had retained its power. After taking over a club in decline, things were heading in the right direction again, but a storm was brewing. In 2013, a financial investigation suggested an involvement in irregularities and alleged illegal payments. With River almost 400million pesos in debt and running at a substantial loss, the buck stopped with the president, and Passarella declined to stand for re-election. Too many, it seemed a sad end to his association with the club, but perhaps doing whatever it took to achieve success at River was just something that Daniel Passarella was destined to do.
Did the last few years of Passarella’s association with River Plate diminish his standing with the club’s fans. It hardly seems likely. Football fans can forgive many sins, especially those that appear to have been committed in the best interests of the club, no matter the folly of them. The enduring image of the man who gave so much to the club instead will surely be that of the player and coach who delivered success. The legacy of El Gran Capitán.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times’ – ‘River Plate’ magazine).
Santiago, the capital of Chile was enjoying a balmy summer afternoon on 17 June 1962. The hot sun beat down, precluding almost all strenuous activity and everything was quiet and relaxed. Except that is for the area within and surrounding the Estadio Nacional, where the World Cup Final was being played between Brazil and Czechoslovakia. The game had started fairly evenly, with the Europeans pressing eagerly, but Brazil, even without the injured Pelé – ironically injured in a group game against the same opponents a dozen days earlier, looked dangerous. As the clock clicked around to 2.45pm local time though, the first goal was scored. Despite the reigning champions being widely favoured to retain the trophy, the strike came at the other end of the field.
Collecting the ball inside the opponents’ half, Sokol OKD Ostrava outside right, Tomáš Pospíchal ran forward across field before jinking right towards the Brazil area around 25 yards from goal. Looking up, he noticed the run of a team-mate towards the Brazil box. Stabbing the ball into the gap, soon to be filled by his team-mate, he paused as the white-shirted player reached the ball ahead of Gilmar and central defender Zózimo, before driving home right-footed under the diving goalkeeper and into the corner of the net. As the defender and goalkeeper fell into each other in a crumpled heap, Josef Masopust spun away, arms aloft in joyous celebration, soon to be engulfed by Pospíchal and his other team-mates. On that June day, at that moment, Czechoslovakia were ahead, and on their way to becoming champions of the world. Sadly, for the Czechs, the dream would only last around 100 or so seconds before a speculative shot from a tight angle on the left-hand side by Amarildo somehow deceived the previously excellent goalkeeper Viliam Schrojf at the near post to bring the scores level.
Ahead of the final, Schrojf had conceded a mere four goals, three of them in a dead rubber of a group game against Mexico when qualification had already been secured. His error however all but doused the Europeans’ aspirations, as Brazil would contain any further thrusts from them and go on to score further goals from Zito and Vavá to ensure that the Seleção would become only the second team in history to retain the Jules Rimet trophy, following the successes of Italy in 1934 and 1938. Masopust’s goal was relegated to being a footnote in the history of football but, for those 100 seconds, the country’s greatest player had offered up the dream of the most unlikely of victories. Later, he would relate that, “When we qualified in 1962 people were telling us, ‘When you get there, don’t even bother unpacking because you’ll be coming back straight away.’ Even when we were leaving for Chile, no one came to wish us good luck or anything.” For those one hundred seconds though, such thoughts were put aside, and anything was possible, and Josef Masopust touched immortality.
Born in Střimická, then Czechoslovakia, but in an area now part of the Czech Republic, on 9 February 1931, the fourth of six children in the family. The village no longer exists, as it was demolished to allow extraction of coal in the 1950s. The young Josef Masupost though would endure the torrid times of German occupation as a young child though, when the village, part of the Most district in the Ústí nad Labem region was used as a forced labour camp by the invaders to extract the precious fuel from the ground.
At the end of the hostilities though, the now teenage Masupost began his career in football by joining the nearby ZSJ Uhlomost Most club, playing in a local league where he spent five years in the backwater of the burgeoning country’s sporting regeneration learning his trade. By 1950, now an accomplished 19-year-old midfielder player, he was ready for the step up to the big time as he joined first division club ZSJ Technomat Teplice. At the time, conscription into the armed forces was in force and after completing his term, he joined the club that would later find European fame as Dukla Prague, but were then known as ATK Praha. He would play for the club for 16 years winning eight league titles and three national cups. Dukla Prague also reached the semi-finals of the 1966–67 European Cup, before losing out to Celtic, who went on to win the competition.
Before that though, there was a prestigious game played in Mexico in 1959 that, although no one knew at the time would serve as a dress rehearsal for that World Cup final three years later. Dukla Prague were on a tour of Latin America and one of their scheduled game was against Santos in Mexico City. Rudolf Kocek, the former chairman of the club and the Czech football association, would describe it as his “most memorable match.” The previous year, a teenage Pelé had led Brazil to World cup triumph in Sweden and Santos were widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading clubs.
All conditions seemed to favour a South American triumph. The game as played at noon as, the story goes, fans could not only take in the game but also move on to watch the bullfighting in the cool of the evening. The crowd of some 90,000 seemed to bear out the theory. Unsurprisingly, the Brazilians felt more at home in the heat and were quickly two goals clear, but Masopust would drive his team forwards, not only subduing the prodigious skills of the player destined to become lauded as the greatest on the planet, but also notching two goals as the Czechs fought back to win 4-3. It was a titanic achievement and put down a marker for the future had it only been recognised.
It’s true to say of course that while Pelé was still a teenager Masopust was now entering the prime years of his career. He had a natural athleticism that, coupled to a unique dribbling style of swaying past opponents, often described by fans as ‘the slalom’ made him the almost complete midfield player, and yet he also had a feverish appetite for work. Many, at the time, compared his style to that of József Bozsik, a star of the Magical Magyar Hungarian side that dominated so much of international football in the 1950s. Some criticised an apparent lack of ability to win the ball in tackles when defending, but an innate ability to read the game, more often than not, allowed him to anticipate opponents’ passes, cutting off attempted moves and springing his team forward with dribbling or accurate passing. His value to Dukla Prague is illustrated by the fact he played almost 400 games for the club, scoring 79 times and creating many others. Although as he later lamented, “We didn’t get paid as such, just our army wages.”
Czechoslovakia had qualified for the 1958 World Cup, but had failed to escape from the group stages, eventually losing out on a play-off against Northern Ireland. Despite the progress of Masopust and Dukla Prague in the intervening years therefore, and a third-place finish in the first European Championships in 1960, the low level of expectation as the squad left for South America was probably entirely reasonable.
The Czechs were based in the Pacific coastal city of Viña del Mar in the Valparaíso Region and would play all of their games at the compact Estadio Sausalito, where the crowd attendance never topped 15,000 for any of their games. On the last day of May 1962, they began their campaign with a game against the fancied Spain team featuring the likes of Luis del Sol, Ferenc Puskás, Luis Suárez and Francisco Gento. Brazil had already comfortably beaten Mexico 2-0 the previous day, with Zagallo and Pelé getting the goals. It was likely that all of the other teams would be playing for second place in the group.
If the Brazil game had been one of open flowing football, this one would never reach such heights. In a physical encounter, with excesses from both sides, a goalless draw seemed the likeliest of outcomes until, with just ten minutes remaining an error, and squandered possession, saw Jozef Štibrányi break clear to score the winner. It had been the sort of encounter where the dynamic play of Masopust would excel and he did as much as anyone in the team to guide the Czechs to victory. There was just a couple of days break before the game with Brazil. The South Americans had enjoyed an extra day’s rest, but that wasn’t the main difference between the teams.
The game, as a contest was probably ruined midway through the first half when Pelé tore a thigh muscle. In these days, substitutes weren’t allowed and Brazil were compelled to place the limping star player out on the flank as a passenger to the team. It meant that the game fizzled out a goalless draw, but Masopust remembered a specific incident in the game, when facing the limping Brazil number ten. “At one point, he had the ball on the wing. I ran to close him down. I was going to finish him off but when I was about a metre and a half away, I saw he was injured so I pulled up so I wouldn’t make things worse for him. When he saw this, he kicked the ball out of play.”
In the other game, Spain defeated Mexico, and would face Brazil in their final game. On 6 June, even without Pelé, Brazil overcame the Spaniards 2-1. It meant that Czechoslovakia were guaranteed qualification, and despite Václav Mašek scoring the fastest goal in World cup history, netting after just 15 seconds, the Mexicans rallied to restore a bit of pride and won 3-1.
The quarter-finals pitched Masopust and his team against fellow East Europeans, Hungary. Despite the flowering talent of Flórián Albert, this was no vintage Hungary team, and certainly a pale shade of the cherry red shirted players who were now scattered around Europe following the Soviet Union invasion of their country. That said, they had still topped their group, forcing England into second place. In a tense and close game, it was Masopust’s first-half precise through ball that deceived the Hungarian defence and set up Adolf Scherer to score the only goal of the game. Although Hungary pressed for much of the second period, even striking the bar on one occasion, Schrojf and his back line held out to send Czechoslovakia into the last four.
The quarter-final had seen the Czechs travel to the Estadio El Teniente in Rancagua, but the semi-final, again facing another Ease European team, would be back at the Estadio Sausalito in Viña del Mar. On 13 June at the Estadio Nacional, Santiago Brazil defeated hosts Chile 4-2 in front of more that 76,000 fans. At the same time, Czechoslovakia faced Yugoslavia with less than 6,000 fans watching for the right to play the holders and reigning champions in the World Cup Final. The game was refereed by Swiss official Gottfried Dienst who, four years later would be in charge of the World cup Final at Wembley and decide that Geoff Hurst’s shot had crossed the line to give England a 3-2 lead. This game had far less controversy with the fist period being goalless before Josef Kadraba gave Masopust’s team the lead three minutes after the restart. Dražan Jerković equalised with 20 minutes to play, but two goals inside the last ten minutes, the second a penalty from Scherer saw the unlikely Czechs bounce into the final.
The game would be played on 17 June, a special date for Masopust. “The day of the final was special for me,” he recalled. “Not only because I was about to play in the World cup final, but also because it was my wife’s birthday. So I would have the chance to celebrate two things that day if it had worked out differently.” Sad to say however, that even if the Czechs had prevailed, celebrating his wife’s birthday would have been a long-distance affair. Whenever the team travelled abroad, at least one family member of each player was required to stay at home to ensure that the other didn’t defect. It was a fuel and heartless, but hardly unusual, display of paranoia by the Eastern Bloc regimes, and would hardly have been inspiring for the squad, but it was just the way of things at that time, and there was little point in questioning it.
Whilst Brazil were overwhelming favourites to win the game, even with Pelé merely a massively interested spectator, the Czechs knew their place in the great scheme of things. “I have to be honest,” Masopust confessed. “And say that we didn’t really believe we could win against brazil. We knew the quality of their squad and we didn’t really believe it.” Their preparation was hardly helped by a pre-game presentation to Schrojf for being the tournament’s outstanding goalkeeper. It was more than a little ironic given the error in the game that cost so much.
Having played in front of small crowds in compact stadiums, going out into the bowl of the Estadio Nacional with nearly 60,000 people jammed in was an entirely different experience. “Only when we went out in the tunnel, did we hear the noise and the atmosphere ahead,” Masopust recalled. Fifteen minutes later, his name was briefly written into World Cup history. Understandably, he remembered the event clearly. “We were attacking down the left wing. I was running into the box and I saw a gap in the defence. I got the ball, so I just hit it in the net.” And then the understatement. “I was happy.” As mentioned though, that elation was fleeting. The hundred seconds were already ticking away. “But before I could comprehend the joy I should have been feeling, they scored and ruined it for me.
The game ended 3-1 and the Czechs accepted their fate with all due humility. “We felt we’d done our best, but Brazil were just the better team. We really had no grudges after the match.” The team that had slipped out of their country to head to chile with barely an echo of support were greeted back home as heroes when they returned though. “It had changed 100%,” Masopust recalled. “We could hardly get through customs. It was crazy.” Much as with his goal though, the fame and celebrity were fleeting. “After that, though, I think our lifestyle was pretty much the same as before. From the fans’ point of view, it was a huge success, but officially not really. We only got 5,000 Czech crowns (equivalent at the time to around 180$), from which they wanted taxes. We were quite disappointed.” Despite that period of disillusionment, the successes of Josef Masopust were recognised when he was awarded the Ballon d’Or later the same year.
Four years later, after Czechoslovakia failed to qualify for the 1966 World cup, Masopust retired from international football. As a reward for his services to his country, he was allowed to move abroad working as coach, first in Indonesia, and then latterly back in Europe, in Belgium. Prague was his adopted home city though and he later returned to live in his old army flat overlooking the Dukla Prague stadium, where he died in 2015.