Category Archives: Player Profiles

Müller v Lewandowski

If, as a famous showbiz celebrity once said, “points make prizes” in TV game shows, in football it’s goals that deliver trophies. That’s why so many of the clubs to have dominated European football across the decades have numbered a top marksman among their players as they accumulated silverware. These are the players that make the difference. In the biggest games, they score the important goals, and plenty of them. The great Real Madrid sides of the late 1950s had Di Stefano, Benfica had Eusebio, Ajax had Cruyff and Milan had Van Basten.

Very few clubs, though, can look back over their history and celebrate two occasions where their domestic and European dominance has been powered by the potent force of one of the world’s most efficient goal scorers. Bayern Munich however, can claim membership to that most exclusive of clubs. In the late 1960s and across the following decade, Gerd Müller, ‘Der Bomber’, was the sharpest of cutting edges that saw the club slice through opposition defences with merciless efficiency.

Thirty years after Müller hung up his boots, another striker, albeit of a different type took up the mantle when Polish striker Robert Lewandowski joined Die Roten from Borussia Dortmund. As fate would have it, neither striker cost the club a fee. Müller moved to the Bavarian club from minor club 1861 Nördlingen in 1964 and Lewandowski joined on a free transfer after his contract at Dortmund had expired. The old saying that anything that costs nowt is worth nowt, could hardly ever have been wider of the mark as both players would go on to achieve legendary status with Bayern Munich!

When a club has had two such globally acclaimed marksmen in their squads, over the years, inevitably debate ensues as to which of these outstanding talents best served the club. While such things are often useful topics for discussion over a few beers with diverse opinions flowing as freely as the alcohol, undisputed conclusions may be less easy to reach. Pursuing a definitive answer is as elusive as a clean sheet attained against either of these forwards but, let’s see take a look at each of their records and see what we think. There are many similarities and just as many differences between the two forwards to clarify and, also perhaps, confuse, the issue. At the end of this, you may not agree with my conclusion, but at least it’ll feed into the debate.   

Somewhat fittingly for a player who would become a legend with region’s most famous club, Gerd Müller was born in Bavaria, just over a couple of months after the end of World War Two. He was born and raised in the town of Nördlingen, part of the Donau-Ries district, in Swabia, and joined Bayern after playing with local club, TSV 1861 Nördlingen in the Bezirksliga Schwaben league.

Scoring more than 50 goals in a shade over 30 games was enough to bring the teenager to the attention of Bayern, who were then playing in the second tier Regionalliga Süd of the German league pyramid. There had also been an opportunity at the time to sign for 1860 Munich, who were in the Bundesliga, and the top club in Munich at the time. Instead, the youngster opted for red, rather than blue, as joining the lower league club would give him a greater opportunity of breaking into the first team. It was a momentous decision for all concerned and, across the next 15 years, his goals would take the club from the relative obscurity of second tier domestic competition, to the pinnacle of European club football domination.

Bayern already had the nucleus of the team who would later deliver Bayern’s their most successful era. When Müller, Sepp Maier and Franz Beckenbauer were already at the club and the newcomer’s goals would light the blue touchpaper, igniting the legendary period of success. In his first term, Müller scored 33 league goals in just 26 appearances, as Bayern powered to the top of the table scoring 146 times in the process. The next highest total was 87. They then topped their Promotion Play-Off group to achieve promotion to the Bundesliga. The German top tier didn’t know what was about to hit them.

Despite what would later seem like a restrained goal tally of 16 across all competitions, in his first season at German domestic football’s highest level Müller and team-mates lifted the DFB-Pokel to announce their arrival, and then retained the trophy the following year as Müller’s goals total rose to 43 in 45 appearances. Across the next couple of seasons, those goal tallies were 30 and then 37 as Bayern first took the league title and then lifted the DFB-Pokel again.

The 1969-70 was a rare trophy-less season for Die Roten but, when Müller returned from the 1970 World Cup in Mexico where he had underscored his ability by winning the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer with ten strikes, three ahead of Brazil’s Jairzinho, the next few seasons would see a stratospheric level of success for the club and goalscoring by Müller. Thirty-nine goals and another DFB-Pokel triumph in the next season were merely the hors d’oeuvres for what would follow.

In 1971-72, Bayern would win the first of three successive Bundesliga trophies, and Müller would break the Bundesliga single season scoring record, netting 40 times in 34 games. It’s a record that stood for almost 50 years, until a certain Polish striker, playing for the same club, usurped it in the 2020-21 season. If goals were the most precious of footballing currencies, Müller’s bank was overflowing the following year. He scored 66 goals across all competitions in 49 games for the club. Eleven of those strikes came in the European Cup when, despite Müller being the competitions top scorer with 11 goals. They would count for nothing in the end though. Bayern fell to reigning champions Ajax after a humbling 4-0 defeat in Amsterdam. The club would only have to endure a brief wait to reach Europe’s top table though.

If volume was the key in that season, during the one that followed it would be the value of each strike that was just as important. Once more the Bundesliga title was secured and this time, with Ajax’s reign crumbling as they were eliminated from the European Cup by the Bulgarians of CSKA, the throne as kings of Europe was vacated. Bayern would claim that seat by defeating Atlético Madrid in Brussels Heysel Stadium. Müller would score twice in the 4-0 victory, taking his tournament total to eight, and become top scorer once again.

It was a season of great triumph for Müller on the international scene as well. That summer West Germany would win the World Cup, defeating the brilliant Oranje side of Cruyff, et al in the final played at Bayern’s own Olympiastadion and it was the Bayern striker who scored the winning goal. It took his total of goals in World Cup Finals to 14, a record at the time and was the last of 68 goals for the Mannschaft, accumulated in just 62 games in the national team across eight years.

He would again be top scorer in the European Cup the following season, scoring five goals as the trophy was retained and would be again in 1975-76. There was one more step for Bayern to take in order to establish themselves as the top football club on the planet and they achieved that the following season, defeating South American champions Cruzeiro of Brazil. It was, of course, Müller who broke the resistance of the Brazilians in the home leg, scoring after 80 minutes before a second goal rounded out the win. A goalless draw in Brazil confirmed Bayern’s status. It would be Der Bomber’s final trophy with the club, before retiring after the 1979-80 season.

Some would argue that Müller was fortunate that for much of his time with the club, Bayern were the dominant force not only in German football, but also in European competition, and that much of his success was due to that. It’s perhaps an argument that has some merit, but also many flaws. The counter logic is that it was very much the case that Müller’s goals fuelled the success and, had he not have been there, perhaps that era may not have materialised. That same argument however, may apply more to the success that Robert Lewandowski achieved with Bayern.

In contrast to Müller’s arrival at Bayern as a promising but unproven teenager, Lewandowski was very much the finished article when he joined the club. The Pole had played for five years in his native league, before his Lech Poznań haul of 24 goals in 34 games across the 2009-10 season convinced Borussia Dortmund to lay out the relatively meagre fee of €4.5 million to take him to the Bundesliga.

In four seasons at the Westfalenstadion a haul of 103 goals in 107 games would make him the hottest of hot properties among Europe’s elite goal scorers and his decision to allow the contract with the club to run down meant that he could sign a pre-contract agreement with Bayern in January 2014 and join the club at the end of the2014-15 season. Bayern had acquired another legendary striker without having to lay out the millions of euros that their talents surely would deserve.

Whereas Müller had joined a club that couldn’t claim to be the best in Munich, let alone in Germany or across Europe, when Lewandowski moved, the club were not only the reigning German champions and cup holders, but had won the Bundesliga title in nine of the seasons since the turn of the century and lifted eight DFB-Pokels in the same period and won the Champions League two seasons earlier. It’s an arguable point that Lewandowski had the easier task assuming iconic status with a dominant Bayern than Müller did with a struggling one. Equally however, it could be argued that it was far easier for Müller to establish himself in a second-tier team, and remember, he purposely chose Bayern on over 1960 Munich for that precise reason, than for Lewandowski to risk his growing reputation by joining a club where his inclusion in the team would be put to the sternest of tests.

Sure enough, much as was the case with Müller, the Polish striker’s first season with the club was probably best described as a steady start, rather than a spectacular one, but it would provide a solid base to build outstanding success upon. From that season onwards, Bayern would retain the German league title every year, up to and including the recently completed 2020-21 season, with precious little suggestion of that situation changing any time soon.

Lewandowski’s goals would be a key element in that success and, after his initial season brought a mere 17 Bundesliga goals in 31 appearances, 186 goals in 189 Bundesliga appearances made him the most prolific striker in Germany. Three DFB-Pokels were also secured, together with four DFL-Supercup, a UEFA Super cup and FIFA Club World Cup. In 2019-20 season though as the Covid pandemic forced a radically different conclusion to the format of the Champions League conclusion, Bayern reclaimed their crown as the best club in Europe winning the trophy in splendid isolation at an empty Estádio da Luz, Lisbon against Paris Saint-Germain. To echo, or arguably surpass, Müller previous exploits in the same competition, Lewandowski was the tournament’s top scorer, and his total of 14 topped any of Müller’s in previous seasons.

Last season, Lewandowski also lowered the flag on another of Müller’s achievements. The record of 40 Bundesliga goals in a season had stood unchallenged for almost half a century but, when Bayern achieved their 51st league title last season, Lewandowski contribution of 41 goals in just 29 Bundesliga outings finally eclipsed that mark. To have achieved such a tally at all is truly remarkable. To have done in a mere 29 games, when it had taken Müller five games more to score one goal less, elevates it to the level of legendary status, as the player himself acknowledged. “I don’t fully realize it yet. Of course, I am very proud and happy but I think it will only get through to me with time … I must admit that I thought it was impossible to do.”

To look back on the Bayern careers of the two strikers is both illuminating, and provides conclusive evidence that each was an outstanding striker and yet, perhaps due to the differing eras in which they played, less than fully helpful, and a more prosaic analysis looking at broad statistics may be more productive.

Gerd Müller was a one-club man once he had left his home town club and played in Bayern red for 15 years. In that time, he scored 563 goals for the club, averaging 37.53 per year. Comparing goals to games ratios, those 563 goals came in 605 appearances, equating to 0.93 per game. It’s a highly impressive series of statistics, especially when considering that many of those goals were scored in European football’s premier club competition, but Lewandowski’s figures hardly pale by comparison.

The Polish striker will be 33 by the time the new season gets under and may still have a few years – and goals – remaining at the height of his goalscoring powers but, looking at the statistics to date, the difference to those of Müller, albeit over a much shorter period of time are also highly impressive. In seven seasons with the club, Lewandowski has netted 294 goals, averaging 34.57 strikes per twelve months’ period. It’s a total that stacks up slightly behind that of Müller, but not by a wide margin. Looking at goals per game, the difference is even smaller. Across appearances, those 294 goals average out at 0.89. In purely ‘goals as gold’ Müller’s record therefore shines slightly brighter, but Lewandowski has won more tournaments than his predecessor.

Seven Bundesliga titles, three DFB-Pokels and four DFL-Supercups means he has won 14 domestic trophies and single triumphs in the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup raise that tally to 17. Plus, of course, these have been achieved in less than half the number of seasons that Müller was with the club. On the other hand, while Müller’s total of four Bundesliga titles and the same number of DFB-Pokel’s, totalling eight, is behind Lewandowski’s domestic haul, his three European Cups and Intercontinental Cup win outstrip the Pole’s wider titles. Plus, of course, if due weight is given to those European trophies, Müller’s record perhaps even comes out on top, albeit that they took eight seasons more to accumulate. 

their levels of success, depending on how they are considered, may suggest a great number of similarities between Gerd Müller and Robert Lewandowski, but perhaps their greatest difference, is in the style of play. Der Bomber was the consummate penalty area predator. He was short, with that low centre of gravity often gifted to the world’s outstanding footballers and an exquisite sense of balance, speed of thought and action that allowed him to maintain poise and position where others would have fallen away. Added to that, he had that quintessential instinct to be in the right place at the right time to finish of a move. So many of his goals were tap ins, or finishes from inside the six-yard box, that could suggest a large slice of fortune consistently favoured him, but that would be to ignore the skill that put him in such deadly scenarios.

Contrastingly, Lewandowski is probably the better all-round footballer, with all the attributes required to successfully lead an attack. He’s tall, strong, quick enough, with the game intelligence to seek out opportunities and proficiency with both feet and head to execute them efficiently. Where he perhaps eclipses Müller is in his ability to also be a link for his team-mates, using his physical presence to hold up play and bring team-mates into the game. There aren’t any definitive statistics to support the assertion, but it isn’t difficult to assume that Lewandowski would seriously outweigh any numbers of Müller, when it comes to assessing the ‘assists’ provided to team-mates for their goals.

Comparing players across eras when they played with different team-mates, against different opponents often in different competitions and at different times of a club’s development is akin to the Labours of Sisyphus. Just when you think you have one point established, it’s called into question, and the boulder rolls back down the hill. Both Müller and Lewandowski were, and are, outstanding exponents of the art of goalscoring, albeit in different ways, but it would be shallow and somewhat callow to leave the argument there, without pinning my colours to the mast.

So, in the interest of setting myself up for contradiction, I’m going to say that the exploits of Gerd Müller, joining a club in the second tier, firing them to promotion, and then on to domestic and continental domination outweighs the achievements of Robert Lewandowski, albeit by a small margin, and that’s not taking into account his exploits on the international stage where Lewandowski’s aspirations have perhaps been compromised by playing for a less competitive country in football’s major competitions. So, there we go, I’d put Müller, slightly ahead. But, what do I know?  Over to you.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘Bayern Munich’ magazine from These Football Times).

Les Ferdinand – The Toon’s instant hero.

Sometimes achieving hero status at a club can take a while. You labour long and hard for a club, offering dedicated service, often playing through injury, and never giving less than 100% effort for the cause. For others, however, there’s an aura that they bring with them, they fit perfectly into the template that the club – and the fans – are looking for. When Les Ferdinand joined Newcastle United in 1995 as the St James Park club paid QPR £6million for his services, he was already an established star, an England international and the complete article as a centre forward. The famous Newcastle United number nine shirt fitted him like a glove.

In his first term with the club, Ferdinand’s goals and powerful presence leading the Magpies’ line convinced, many on the Gallowgate decided that here was the next true Geordie hero in that famous striped shirt. Heir the likes of Milburn, under the tutelage and rampaging ethos of Kevin Keegan, Ferdinand delivered from the off.

Netting 25 times in just 37 league outings, Ferdinand’s arrival and contribution was one of the main reasons that Newcastle were to come oh-so-close to lifting the Premier League title. At one stage, they were twelve points clear of rivals Manchester United, but Ferguson’s team’s relentless pursuit eventually wore down Keagan’s entertainers, being crowned champions by four clear points. A disastrous run from the end of February saw four defeats and a draw in six games, as the wheels came off and Ferguson eased his team over the line.

It was a time when what was truly an outstanding season for the club felt so much like a loss. Newcastle had come closer than any of the Toon Army had dared hope to that title, and in the wake of that disappointing run, Keagan felt that further team strengthening was required. For Ferdinand however, the season was a personal triumph. As well as his goal haul, he was named as Player of the Season, and given a place in the Premier League Team of the Season. Of all the positions in Keagan’s squad, it seemed that the one least likely in need of added strength was the strike force. The manager though had other ideas.  Ferdinand’s strike partner in that fantasy line up – Alan Shearer of Blackburn Rovers – would be the surprise addition to the Newcastle squad, with a world record price tag hanging around him.

When the home town hero returned to his native Newcastle, Ferdinand was persuaded to hand over the number nine short to the new arrival, and although it was probably never said in such frank terms, the position of the club’s key striker was also passed on at the same time. To his credit, Ferdinand accepted the move with good grace. Whilst many others would have been tempted to stamp their feet petulantly at such a perceived insult, and demand a transfer, Ferdinand merely buckled down, continuing to give of his best in the interests of the club. 

The following term, with Shearer now positioned alongside him, although perhaps the reverse description would be more accurate, Ferdinand played both goalscorer and provider. Still managing to notch an impressive 21 strikes across all competitions, he also provided the muscle and power as Shearer’s side-kick; a role that hugely contributed to the club skipper scoring 25 league goals and topping the Premier League scoring charts. At the end of the term, Newcastle would again fill the runners-up spot to Manchester United, but this time, the yawning gap of seven points reflected a more season-long forlorn quest to topple the champions, rather than any late calamitous fall. It was a pursuit hardly helped when Kegan surprisingly decided to quit the manager’s chair midway through the season, being replaced by Kenny Dalglish. The move also heralded the end of Ferdinand’s time at St James Park.

Despite Keegan’s avowed adherence to ‘cavalry charge’ football, with the two-pronged forward line of Shearer and Ferdinand, Dalglish had other ideas. By the end of the season, it was clear that one of the two strikers would be moved on to raise funds for other purchases. There was no way the onus would fall on Shearer, Ferdinand was inevitably the fall guy.

It seems likely that, in an ideal world, Dalglish would have preferred to keep both his star strikers, but with Shearer the established and undoubted number one choice, it would have meant an extended time out of the team for Ferdinand, and at that time of his career, it was never going to be a viable proposition. When Spurs came in with a bid that would give Newcastle the money back that they had paid to QPR for Ferdinand’s services two years previously, the club accepted the bid, and Ferdinand took a ‘Shearer-esque’ move himself – also returning to the club he had followed as boy.

Some moves work out better than others however, and often emotion can cloud judgement. Although the striker would stay at White Hart Lane for some five seasons, he never hit the heights of goalscoring prowess that he had achieved in black and white stripes. His 33 league goals for Spurs across those five seasons compares unfavourably compared to 42 strikes in just two years at St James Park. Ferdinand too, later regretted the move. Saying later to Sky that he had wanted to “stay at Newcastle for the rest his career.”

Two years is a short time to endear yourself to a group of fans, but there was an undoubted affection between Les Ferdinand and the fans on the Gallowgate and around St James Park. In 1997, during his first game back at the ground wearing Spurs colours, Ferdinand was moved by the fans’ reaction to him. Talking to the Newcastle Chronicle, he related that, “At the end of the game, as soon as the whistle went, all the supporters started singing my name. Jesus,” he added. “I didn’t expect that. It was unreal. When I speak to people now and say I was only in Newcastle for two years, they cannot believe it.

(This article was originally produced for the Pundit feed website).

Josef Masopust – A golden career and 100 seconds of immortality.

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.

Papin!

papin

“If we had had Jean-Pierre Papin  up front, we would have won the World Cup in 1982!” It was a plaintive lament from, Michel Hidalgo, a frustrated coach, looking back. He had seen his team entertain and entrance, but lack that killer instinct, bereft of a striker with the gift of scoring, someone who would convert the footballing domination of his team into goals. He knew who the perfect fit would have been but, unfortunately for Hidalgo, Papin was still in the ranks of junior football at the time, with INF Vichy. Continue reading →

Ali Daei – International goalscorer extraordinaire!

Ali Daei

So, here’s a question for you? Who do you think had scored the most goals in international football? Pelé? Nope, not even close. Ronaldo? Closer, but no cigar. Ferenc Puskás I hear some of the more ‘mature’ voices claim. Well, not quite, although he was the record holder until 2003. Continue reading →

Steed Malbranque – One of Tony Blair’s ‘favourite’ footballers.

Steed Malbranque

 For reasons surpassing normal logic, former prime minister Tony Blair was invited onto the BBC’s Football Focus programme in 2005 to discuss his supposed love of the beautiful game. When asked to name his favourite players, the politician apparently went with Teddy Sheringham, Arjan de Zeeuw, and Steed Malbranque. Continue reading →

Carlos Kaiser – The ‘real’ (well not quite) False Nine.

Carlos Kaiser

The title may be a little misleading. If you don’t know the story, let’s make something clear from the start. It’s questionable if there was anything genuinely ‘real’ about the footballing career of Carlos Kaiser. To begin with, Kaiser isn’t really his name. Brazilian footballers often get tagged with a nickname, or a derivation of their real name, that then becomes known the world over as their official footballing nomme de guerre. Pelé being a prime example, although Edson Arantes do Nascimento is a bit of a mouthful anyway. Continue reading →

Giuliano Sarti – The ‘Ice Goalkeeper’.

Sarti

 On 5 June 2017, in the Italian city of Florence, Giuliano Sarti, one of the most decorated goalkeepers in the history of Italian football passed away following a brief illness, aged 85. Sarti had been a prominent member in two of the country’s greatest club sides. In the fifties, he played under Fulvio Bernardini at Fiorentina as I Viola topped Italian football securing the Scudetto in 1955-56, and losing controversially to Real Madrid in the second European Cup tournament. The Coppa Italia and European Cup Winners Cup were later added with legendary Hungarian Nándor Hidegkuti in charge. After almost a decade in Florence, he would join Inter Milan in 1963, becoming a key element in the success of Helenio Herrera’s ‘Grande Inter’ team, winning a further two Scudetti, successive European Cups and Intercontinental Cups. On the way, he would also become the only Italian goalkeeper to appear in four European Cup Finals. Continue reading →

Dancing shoes and explosive goals – The varied career of ‘Dinamita!’ Joffre Guerrón.

Dinamita

If asked to suggest the greatest players to emerge from South America this century, very few, if any, would raise a hand to make a case for Joffre Guerrón. Perhaps however such lack of recognition would be inappropriate. Despite often being regarded as merely one of the better, rather than greats, of his era, he was twice lauded as the MVP of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club tournament. Such rare accolades that fall to very few once, let alone twice. Continue reading →

Xabi Alonso – Liverpool’s Pass Master.

On 1 June 2018, the man who, less than a week later, would be appointed as manager of Segunda División B club Real Sociedad B, quietly settled into his seat at Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium. He was there to watch former club, at which he collected a Champions League winner’s medal, and the words inevitably playing through his mind were of a different song, one that asserted no-one who was part of that footballing family – one he felt strongly that he belonged to – should ever feel alone.  Xabi Alonso, was there to watch Liverpool win their sixth title as Champions of Europe. Continue reading →