Czech football legend Josef Masopust dies at 84

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Josef Masopust, who led Czechoslovakia into the 1962 World Cup final and was considered the country's greatest ever player, died on Monday after a long illness, his former club Dukla Prague announced. He was 84.

In perhaps the highlight of his career, Masopust put his country 1-0 ahead of holders Brazil after 15 minutes of the final.

"Well, for one minute at least that day we were champions of the world," Masopust told Reuters in a 2013 interview.

"But then Brazil equalised almost immediately when Amarildo scored and in the second half they scored two more from Zito and Vava and beat us 3-1. It was disappointing to lose, of course, but the legacy from that time has lasted all these years."

The diminutive midfielder was born in 1931, one of six children in a miner's family. His early years were spent under the shadow of Nazi occupation, when football was banned and he could only play in his northern Czech village.

After 1945, he played for Teplice and eventually for the armed forces team, which became known as Dukla Prague in 1956.

He was capped 63 times and scored 10 goals for the national team, which he led to third place in the 1960 European Championship.

Masopust's sportsmanship equalled his skill on the pitch. In a World Cup group game in 1962 against Brazil, the Czech instructed his teammates not to tackle an injured Pele.

"There were no substitutes in those days, and he played on but was clearly hurt, so I told my teammates that when Pele had the ball they were not to tackle him," Masopust said in the 2013 interview.

"It would have been easy, but it would not have been right to tackle an injured man. I saw it as a humanitarian gesture."

In 1962, he was the first eastern European to be named European Footballer of the Year. In 2004 Pele named Masopust in his list of the world's greatest 125 living players. In 2000, he was voted the Czech footballer of the century.

"Masopust was one of the greatest players I ever saw," Pele later remarked, according to "But it is not possible that he was born in Europe. With those explosive dribbles, he had to be Brazilian!"

Masopust, who moved into coaching after his playing career ended, was visited at his home in Prague over the weekend by European soccer chief Michel Platini, in the city for a UEFA meeting.

(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Michael Kahn and Andrew Roche)

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