Wednesday 30 October 2019

Dukla Praha in the Sixties: Four League Titles in a Row, a European Cup Semi Final, and a European Footballer of the Year, All for the Club Nobody Loved

For a large part of the 1960s, Dukla Praha were a dominant force in Czechoslovakian football. As well as several domestic titles the club regularly competed against the continent's elite in the European Cup and even reached the semi finals in 1967. There was also success in the short lived International Soccer League, a competition which saw sides from Europe and South America face off against each other during the off season. Despite this success, however, as a club run by the much disliked Czechoslovak Army, Dukla were mostly unloved in their homeland. It seemed no matter how many titles they won they would never regularly draw the huge crowds that some of their rivals did.

Formed as ATK Praha in 1948 and based in the Praha 6 district of the Czechoslovakian capital Prague, being run by the army allowed them to be thrust straight into the top division and acquire the country's best players. In 1953 the club was renamed Dukla Praha in honour of those killed during the Battle of Dukla Pass in 1944, a conflict fought between the Soviet Red Army and Nazi forces on the border between Poland and what is now Slovakia. Alexej Čepička who would later become Minister of Defence was largely behind this creation of what was a club intended to dominate Czechoslovakian football, and although it was for an all too brief period they did for a time do exactly that.

1953 was the year Dukla won their first ever league title with further titles following in 1956 and 58, but it was the 1960s when the club really took off and made a name for itself. Dukla entered the decade in a brand new stadium and a run of four successive league titles started in 1961 with a league and cup double under new head coach Jaroslav Vejvoda. Dukla's 21 year old forward Rudolf Kučera was the league's joint top scorer scoring 17 goals over the course of the 22 game season as Dukla won the championship finishing seven points ahead of their nearest rivals. To complete the double they beat Dynamo Žilina 3-0 in the cup final. The first of those four titles was the only one to include a cup triumph and that seven point margin was Dukla's largest over those four seasons. Dukla did, however, consistently score more goals than anyone else during that period, and in fact, in 1961-62 they scored a whopping 81 goals in 26 games, just over three a game. 

Being the team of the communist regime was something that helped Dukla sign the country's best players with other clubs instructed to offer up their top stars for the Dukla cause. Dukla had a star studded squad with no fewer than seven of their players in the Czechoslovakia squad that reached the 1962 World Cup final in Chile. Undoubtedly the clubs star player during this period was Josef Masopust, the son of a miner and the fourth of six children. Masopust made 386 appearances for Dukla between 1952 and 1968 and would go on to be crowned European Footballer of the Year in 1962, becoming the first ever Eastern European player to win the coveted award. In the World Cup final, he scored to put Czechoslovakia in front against Brazil but sadly for the Czech's, though, they lost 3-1. 

Named by Pelé as one of his top 125 greatest living footballers in March 2004, Masopust was comfortable using either foot and was considered a fantastic passer of the ball with excellent control and sublime vision. Despite featuring often in a defensive role he scored 79 times for Dukla and found the net 10 times for the national team. In 1968 he left to become player coach at Crossing Molenbeek in Belgium. 

Taking a central role in midfield or defence (and occasionally on the left) for Czechoslovakia, Masopust played alongside fellow Dukla defender Ladislav Novák who was captain of the national team in 1962. Another Dukla player considered to have played an important role in Chile was defender Svatopluk Pluskal who along with Novak was playing in his third World Cup. The trio played in all six World Cup matches whilst fellow Dukla stars Josef Jelínek and Jozef Adamec played in five and three matches respectively.

Winning league titles meant Dukla would appear in the European Cup, and starting in 1961-62 they would find themselves knocked out at the quarter final stage of the competition three seasons running. 

Having beaten Bulgaria's CDNA Sofia and Switzerland's Servette 6-5 and 5-4 on aggregate respectively, they faced in the first of those quarter finals Tottenham Hotspur. Managed by the respected Bill Nicholson, Tottenham like Dukla had themselves completed the double the previous season. Spurs had won the First Division and the FA Cup to become the first team in England to complete a twentieth century double.
Dukla entertained Tottenham on a snow covered pitch on Valentines Day 1962 and a larger than usual home crowd for the somewhat unpopular club saw them run out 1-0 winners thanks to Kučera who slotted home late on. Kučera would score in total 11 goals in fourteen European Cup appearances. He had already scored twice in the second leg against Sevette in the previous round and one in each of the two games with CDNA and this took his total to five in that season's competition. In the second leg where the cold weather across the continent also saw a snow covered pitch at White Hart Lane, Bobby Smith and Dave Mackay scored twice each as Tottenham won the match 4-1 and progressed through to the semi finals at Dukla's expense. The Czech's were no match for the North London side and Mackay's first to make it 2-0 saw him control the ball beautifully before lifting the ball home on the half volley, a goal worthy of winning any tie.

Straightforward aggregate victories over Vorwärts Berlin and Esbjerg IB of East Germany and Denmark respectively saw Dukla face SL Benfica in the following season's quarter finals. Benfica were reigning European champions having defeated Real Madrid in the previous seasons final, that after overcoming Dukla's quarter final conquerors Spurs in the semis. Benfica had in their ranks the great Eusébio at the time considered one of the best players on the planet but it was a midfielder called Mário Coluna who was the star of the show in the first leg at the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon. Coluna scored twice in the second half to seal a 2-1 win for the hosts with Dukla's Josef Vacenovský scoring in between those two goals. The second leg in Prague ended in a 0-0 draw to send Dukla crashing out at the same stage again.

Having beaten Malta's Valletta 8-0 on aggregate in the preliminary round of the 1963-64 European Cup, Dukla then lost the first leg away at Górnik Zabrze in round one before a 4-1 second leg victory saw them progress 4-3 on aggregate and reach the quarter finals again. This time Dukla would face Borussia Dortmund. Dukla were hammered 4-0 at home in the first leg and went 1-0 down away from home in the second, but pulled three back to lose 5-3 on aggregate. Out at the quarter final stage yet again.

After those three quarter finals, Dukla in 1964-65 lost 6-2 on aggregate to a very strong Real Madrid side in the first round. This came after having drawn 4-4 with Górnik Zabrze over two legs in the preliminary round where they progressed via a coin toss after drawing a third match 0-0.

As well as forays into Europe through the European Cup, Dukla also competed in a shortlived competition in the USA called the International Soccer League (ISL). The ISL saw various European clubs join teams from South America during the off season to participate in a series of league matches against each other followed by a championship final. In America, Dukla would impress the crowds and make a real name for themselves.

Entering in the competition's second season in 1961, Dukla beat the likes of Monaco, Crvena Zvezda, Espanyol, and Rapid Wien to finish top of one of two groups with six wins and a draw before a championship final in which they defeated Everton of England. The competition featured different sides each year until it was disbanded in 1965, but as winners in '61 Dukla were invited to return the following year and face off against that season's champions in a match called the American Challenge Cup. Dukla went on to win the Challenge Cup three years running defeating amongst others West Ham United.

After four league titles in a row, Dukla finished eighth in 1964-65. By this point, some of the club's star players were starting to leave. Jozef Adamec, for example, had actually left as early as 1963 and Rudolf Kučera's career was ended through injury the same year whilst Svatopluk Pluskal and Ladislav Novák were both on their way out three years after. Although there had been several new arrivals many felt the team did not have the quality it had previously when some of its earlier stars were in their prime. Some even claimed the club had lost their ability to poach the leagues best players. Was this the decline of Dukla? In the long run yes, in the short term no. 1965-66 would see another league and cup double for the men from Praha 6 and then another European adventure, one that would turn out to be their best to date.

Whilst Prague's big two Slavia and Sparta set a league record with an attendance of 50,105 when they faced each other at Sparta's Stadion Letná it was Dukla who were league champions come the end of the season. This despite head coach Vejvoda leaving halfway through the campaign. Incredibly all three of those Prague sides finished the season level on points but Dukla had the best head to head record in matches between the three and that statistic was used to award them the title. Dukla then completed the league and cup double by beating Tatran Prešov over two legs in the cup final.

Despite all their success, Dukla always struggled to draw in the crowds. Being the team of the regime and a club who had pretty much stolen all the other sides' best players was a large part of the reason they were disliked by many. Even when they were winning league titles their attendances were sometimes amongst the lowest in the league, whilst at best they were half what their two main Prague rivals were getting. The only time they could manage to draw large crowds was for big European nights when the people of Prague would happily turn up to watch some of Europe's top stars. This was certainly the case in the 1966-67 season when Dukla made it all the way to the semi finals of the European Cup.

In the first round of the 1966-67 European Cup with a new head coach in the form of Bohumil Musil, Esbjerg, a club Dukla had faced four years earlier were defeated 6-0 on aggregate. Masopust opened the scoring when Dukla beat Anderlecht of Belgium 4-1 at home in the first leg of their second round tie. Two goals from Josef Nedorost who had joined the club as a sixteen year old in 1959 and one from Ivan Mráz who'd joined the club earlier that year completed the thumping victory. Nedorost and Mráz were both on the scoresheet in the second leg as Dukla won 2-1 away from home to reach the quarter finals where they would face Ajax of Amsterdam.

Dutch football would come to prominence in the coming years but Ajax who would go on to win the European Cup three seasons running in the near future were still seen as a bit of an unknown quantity when they faced Bill Shankley's Liverpool in the previous round. The Amsterdammers, however, stunned a strong English side by beating them 7-3 on aggregate. After a 5-1 defeat in Amsterdam, Shankley had believed the result to be a fluke and blamed heavy fog on the night. Ajax, though, showed the result was no fluke by drawing 2-2 at Anfield in the second leg. 
Bearing in mind events in the previous round with Liverpool, in facing Ajax, Dukla must have expected a very tough task ahead of them. Dukla more than held their own though and it wasn't until 50 minutes when they eventually went behind. The goal came from Sjaak Swart who slotted home from close range. The emphatic Ajax victory that some may have envisaged, however, did not materialise, one player made sure of that. As well as scoring in both legs against Anderlecht, Mráz had also scored in the second leg against Esbjerg and would also score in that first leg of the quarter finals. 11 minutes after Ajax had taken the lead Mráz got his goal to draw the sides level when he smashed home from the right hand side of the box.

As mentioned, Dukla's lack of support was well known, less than 2000 turned had up to watch them at home in the first round. However, as football fans in Prague liked to watch the big name European clubs and their stars that figure had increased to 7917 when Anderlecht visited in round two and was then more than doubled again when 18419 were present for the quarter final second leg against Ajax. 

Again all the goals came in the second half and again Swart gave Ajax the lead, this time scoring with 56 minutes on the clock. Dukla equalised from the penalty spot seven minutes later to level the tie whilst on 87 minutes Frits Soetekouw, trying to clear the ball ended hitting it back over his head and lobbing his own keeper for an unusual own goal that won the tie for Dukla. Dukla Praha had made it through to the semi finals of the European Cup.
In the semi finals, Dukla faced Glasgow Celtic of Scotland. Over 74000 spectators crammed into Celtic Park for the first leg and although Dukla had chances early on it was the home side that opened the scoring. The goal came from Jimmy Johnstone who volleyed the ball home on 27 minutes, this coming after an earlier Celtic goal had been disallowed. Dukla would hit back before the break, however. Stanislav Štrunc, another Dukla player signed in more recent times, picked up the ball on the edge of the box in the 45th minute and dribbled it forward before knocking it past the 'keeper to draw the sides level. In the second half, Celtic were on top form. A long ball forward towards the Dukla goal saw them unable to properly head clear and the ball fell to Willie Wallace inside the box who volleyed home to put the Glaswegians back in front. 2-1. That second goal came on 59 minutes and seven minutes later 2-1 became 3-1. A raucous crowd were shouting 'Celtic! Celtic!' at the moment Bertie Auld took an indirect free-kick and knocked the ball across to Wilie Wallace. Wallace fired home to send the crowd wild. Celtic dominated the match but despite further chances could not find the net again and the game finished 3-1. 

'A contrast in styles where Czech technique was overpowered by the work and ceaseless effort of a well-drilled Celtic team,' wrote Geoffrey Green in The Times newspaper. It was clear Dukla would have a huge task on their hands in the second leg if they wanted to make the final. Having said that not everyone had been impressed by Celtic. Many years later Masopust, then well into his seventies, sparked fury amongst surviving members of that Celtic side by saying in an interview he thought Celtic's second and third goals were 'lucky'. 

19157 were in attendance for the second leg, again a figure far in excess of what a poorly supported Dukla team were used to for domestic matches. Those football fans in Prague who turned up would no memorable match, however, as a 0-0 draw saw the competitions eventual winners Celtic through to the European Cup final and Dukla knocked out the competition. Distraught at the final whistle Masopust sulked and refused to shake any Celtic players hands only to later come into the visitors' dressing room and apologise. It had been a tough tie for Masopust but he might have been a bit aggrieved at Green, again writing in The Times, saying he was a 'spent force'.

Sadly, another thrilling European run came to an earlier end than those in Prague would have liked, but this time they had gone one further than they ever had previously as they finally made it past the quarter finals.

That semi final defeat brought an end to Dukla's dominance at home and also to any hint that there might be any success in Europe. Whatever the army's influence, the club never managed to dominate in the way other state run clubs would go on to do such as Dynamo Berlin in East Germany. Although Dukla won the Czechoslovak Cup again in 1969 they were defeated in the first round of the following season's UEFA Cup Winners' Cup. The club did not win a league title again until 1976-77 and apart from a couple of unsuccessful UEFA Cup appearances they had rarely ventured onto the European stage. This was a far cry from the team that supplied so many players to the Czechoslovak squad that reached the 1962 World Cup final or the slightly changed side that reached to the European Cup semi finals some five years later.

There were further league titles in 1978-79 and 1981-82, and three further Czechoslovak Cup triumphs in the 1980s, whilst in the 1985-86 season they managed to make a European semi final for the second time in their history, this time in the Cup Winners' Cup. Sadly Dukla were again on the losing side, this time losing 4-1 on aggregate to Dynamo Kyiv. After the break up of Czechoslovakia, very few football fans were interested in following a club essentially considered a communist relic and Dukla really began to struggle. After a merger in the mid 1990s, the club for a little while actually disappeared from football, but a since revived club found their way back to the Czech Republic's top tier where last season they were relegated after a dismal season.  

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