His name might have been mentioned in the same breath as Cruyff, Beckenbauer or Masopust. He was probably the most talented footballer in post-war Czechoslovakia. Yet very few people have heard Rudolf Kučera. A single blow to his head ended his career when he was 23 years old. 

He did taste success and recognition. In June 1961, a New York crowd, composed predominantly of Czechoslovak ex-pats, chaired him from the field and stuffed dollar bills inside his shirt. Kučera had the world at his feet: he had scored four goals in two games against Everton, games Dukla Prague had won 2-0 and 7-2, to become the hero of the city that never sleeps. Or at least of the part of its population that cared about soccer.

In 1961, Dukla broke all kinds of records in the short-lived annual US International Soccer League which that year included the likes of Crvena Zvezda, Rapid Vienna, Shamrock Rovers and Espanyol as well as Dukla and Everton. The 21-year-old forward scored 15 goals in eight group games before tormenting English opposition in a two-legged final. He was so impressive that the US press dubbed the team from Prague ‘Kučera and his Boys’ — and that was a squad that included Josef Masopust, Svatopluk Pluskal and Ladislav Novák, all heroes of the Czechoslovakia national team that reached the final of the 1962 World Cup.

Kučera, then several years younger than most of his teammates, outshone them all. “He was one of the finest young players in Europe at that time, the greatest talent of post-war Czechoslovak football,” said Miloslav Jícha, the Dukla secretary and a font of knowledge about the army club. “The tournament in New York was his amazing display,” agreed Josef Vacenovský, Kučera’s teammate.

He was so dominant on the pitch that it irritated opponents beyond just the goals he scored. He relished the games and the grateful cheers of the crowd, and he fuelled them. When Dukla were 4-1 up with only a few minutes to go against Espanyol in the group stage, Kučera nutmegged a defender in the box — then he turned and nutmegged him again. “Zamora, the Espanyol head coach, was furious. He started jumping in front of the substitutes’ bench and shouted to our coaches that we were making fun of them,” said Josef Jelínek, who played alongside Kučera in Dukla’s attacking quintet.

Kučera was a magnificent talent. People who saw him play regarded him as one of the best they’d ever seen. He was a subtle striker with a low work-rate but astonishing speed of thought and execution. He was no sprinter, but when he got the ball in the box there was no stopping him. He would dribble past three defenders in a phone-box rather than let the phone ring twice. “His movement in the first three meters was unrivalled. He would push the ball to the right, to the left and the defender was behind him. He was also a great finisher,” said Jelínek. “He didn’t run much but in the box he was deadly. [Jaroslav] Borovička, our teammate who was ten years older than Kučera, would tell him, ‘Rudy, you can stand in the box all the time, we’ll do your running for you. We know you will score the goals.’” 

“When I later saw Johan Cruyff, he reminded me of Rudy very much,” said Vacenovský. “And if I picked anyone from the current crop, I would point at Robin van Persie.” But, according to him, Kučera could have been better than the Manchester United striker.

The fans loved Kučera. Not only because of the goals, but also for his carefree attitude — so atypical for the army club — and his ever-present smile. While the other players were afraid of Jaroslav Vejvoda, the head coach who shaped the famous Dukla in the sixties, Kučera didn’t mind the strict disciplinarian’s methods and anger.

He was almost a childish character: a boy among men, an open, playful and phlegmatic soul in the military environment. His blond hair only added to the youthful image. “I remember clearly the day in 1959 when he enrolled for military service,” recalled Vacenovský, the day when Kučera left his home in Moravia and came to Prague to fulfil his duties. “I was at the gate — I don’t remember whether it was my turn on guard duty there or whether I was just hanging around. Suddenly, a boyish figure came with a tiny bag in which he could have carried only a toothbrush and a toothpaste. He looked shy, eyes down into the ground. I asked him what he was doing there and he said softly: ‘I’m supposed to enrol here.’” 

An excellent example of Kučera’s attitude —and talent — was the game against Tatran Prešov in the autumn of 1960. With the score goalless in the first half, Dukla were awarded a penalty. Kučera took the ball although Vacenovský was the designated penalty taker. And Kučera missed. “Vejvoda was furious,” said Vacenovský. “He screamed at us in the dressing room. He was angry.” In the second half, Dukla were awarded another penalty. Vejvoda had clearly told his players at half-time to respect the order of penalty takers... “... but Rudy took the ball again!” Vacenovský remembered. “He said, ‘I have to correct my error. I never was one for fights and arguments so I let him take it,” Vacenovský rolled his eyes. Kučera missed again. “We all thought Vejvoda would have a heart attack,” Vacenovský said. “We were scared even to look in the direction of the bench.” Vacenovský put a hand to his forehead. In the end, Kučera scored two goals — and Dukla won 5-0. “Of course Vejvoda was furious — but at me! He gave me a proper hairdryer, but didn’t say a word to Rudy.”

Kučera’s personality only underlined his enormous talent. He was a revelation in a team full of disciplined soldiers. “He was a child off the pitch as well as on it. He never took the coaches’ instructions seriously,” said Jícha. He could not have been more different from the ascetic Dukla captain Ladislav Novák. “When the coaches asked Novák to perform ten somersaults, he would do twenty. When they told Kučera to do five, he would roll over four times and smile,” said Jícha.

On the one hand, Kučera looked out of place; on the other, he was an unpredictable match-winner. Defenders could not have dealt with him even if they had known what he was going to do. “He had a gift from God,” said Jelínek. In 1960-61 Kučera was the joint top-scorer in the Czechoslovak league, hitting the target 17 times. At that time, there were only 26 games in a season. Over his career, he totalled 44 goals in 121 league games.

Off the pitch, Kučera loved life. As a young man from southern Moravia, he liked wine. However, he was not out of control; he never arrived drunk at training. “That would have been unthinkable at Dukla,” said Jelínek, “but Rudy was always smiling. I shared a room with him all the time — with the club, with the Olympic team, with the senior national team; we were friends. He always liked fun, joined in the jokes...”

However, Kučera was far from happy-go-lucky. He might have become a star at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, where Czechoslovakia lost in the final, but missed the tournament because of a knee injury. “It happened in a friendly game with Jiskra Otrokovice from the lower division,” said Jícha. “We won 15-1 but he tore his cartilage and had to have surgery.”

Kučera had been eager to show his talents to the world and missing the tournament came as a severe blow. The significance of loss was emphasised when Czechoslovakia played Austria in a friendly shortly after the World Cup. The team around Masopust, who won the Ballon d’Or that year, beat their opponents 6-0 at Praterstadion in Vienna, with both Masopust and Kučera scoring twice. “That was Kučera’s best game in the national team. He was unstoppable,” Jícha said, shaking his head sadly.

Things returned to normal for Kučera. Dukla were dominating the league, he was back at his best and the disappointment of missing the World Cup started to fade. There were successful runs in Europe, too. Bit it was one of the European matches that ended Kučera’s prolific career.

Dukla were cruising in the return leg of the second round of the European Champions’ Cup on 21 November 1963 against Górnik Zabrze. They had lost the first leg 2-0 in Poland, but in Prague they were demolishing the opposition 4-1 up with eight minutes to go, with Kučera having scored twice. The Juliska stadium was getting ready to celebrate.

A long ball was hoofed towards the Górnik box to waste some seconds and prevent the Polish side building up any pressure. Kučera, perhaps over-euphoric after his stellar 80 minutes, chased the ball. He jumped to head it, but in the air, his temple connected with the elbow of Stanislaw Oslizlo, a hard man in the centre of the Górnik defence. The stadium fell silent as Kučera was knocked unconscious in the air. His limp body fell to the frozen turf. “It was as if a bag of sand had fallen down,” said Jelínek, who was standing just a few metres from the incident. Hubert Topinka, the Dukla team doctor, later claimed the fall was worse than the initial blow to the temple.

Kučera was carried off the pitch and into an ambulance. While the rest of Dukla squad were nervously relishing the victory that meant progress to the third round, he was undergoing scans in the military hospital in Střešovice. “We hardly celebrated,” said Vacenovský. “We were sitting in the dressing room in grave silence. We felt something serious had happened, although I believed it would be a normal injury.”

It wasn’t. Kučera didn’t wake up until the following morning. His long unconsciousness had had a devastating effect: bleeding into his brain had damaged his movement and coordination. That would have been a severe blow for anybody, but for a top footballer, it was the end. Kučera had treatment and underwent a programme of rehabilitation. He went to a spa town to work on recovery but it didn’t help. When he returned, he was a different man. At training sessions, it was obvious to everybody that he would never return to the pitch. His tricks and dribbles were gone and he struggled to stay on his feet every time he changed direction. His left knee hurt terribly. “We saw some things that a footballer would never do,” said Jelínek with sadness in his voice. “If we had built a concrete wall in front of him, he would have run into it.” 

“It was a terrible sight,” said Vacenovský. “We were all friends; he and I came from the same region. It was incredibly cruel for him and for the team. He could have been at the top level for at least eight more years.”

Kučera loved wine. He smoked. The doctors reproached him for loving such things too much. “He was given perfect care,” said Jícha. “The military hospital is still state-of-the-art today. Maybe... just maybe he could have returned to the pitch.” 

It was always unlikely, though. “It was heavy damage to his brain,” said Miloš Trubl, then Dukla’s head doctor. “It was absolutely unthinkable that anyone could have returned to top-level football with such an injury.”

Kučera tried his luck with the army club’s reserves and then Slavia’s for a short time, but within a year of his injury, it was clear that he would never kick a ball again. Even later, when his compassionate former teammates tried to get him to play for a Dukla over-35 team, it was to no avail. He only could run in a straight line, nothing else.

It was not only his tragedy, but a loss for Dukla and the national team. “If it wasn’t for his injury, he would have become the best player in Europe,” said Masopust. Some claim Kučera was even better than the legendary midfielder. That is hard to compare, but he definitely matured earlier. While Masopust made his debut for the national team aged 23 and fully broke into the squad at 25, Kučera pulled on the shirt with a lion on the chest for the first time at the age of 21. “Josef’s peak came when he was 33,” said Vacenovský. “Rudy was the finished article at 20.”

The injury not only ended Kučera’s career, it also changed his character. “Of course it scarred him,” said Jícha. “Football was his job and to finish at such an age and in such a way... It was a catastrophe for him.” Kučera became a sad, lethargic man. Ota Pavel, a legendary sports journalist, wrote a melancholic short story about him. It is about a taxi driver who picks up a Czech-American tourist at Prague airport. The traveller talks to him euphorically about a soccer player who had beguiled New York. The taxi driver stares at the road in silence and denies any knowledge of the player. When the customer hands him two five-dollar bills, he drives away from him. Then he stops, turns on the light in the car and puts the money into a fine leather wallet with a name stamped on it: Rudolf Kučera.

The story shows in Pavel’s typically lyrical manner how Kučera’s life turned out after his career ended. He started a family, worked as a taxi driver and a garage keeper. For a long time, he looked after the Dukla tennis courts in the Prague quarter of Dejvice. He never played football again, but one can meet him to this day in the VIP box at the Juliska stadium, where he watches Dukla matches. He has a look in his eye, the look of what might have been.

When you meet Rudolf Kučera today, you still can see what his teammates mean when they jokingly grumble about his attitude. While the members of the golden generation of Dukla hold meetings regularly, their younger mate comes only when he feels like it. When they presented him with a mobile phone for his birthday, he hardly turned it on and placed it in a cupboard in his kitchen. He smiles a lot, but his smile is a sad one. He lights a cigarette and sits on a park bench quietly. When you see him like that you cannot but wonder whether he is thinking about the glory days.

How do you remember your career?

It was a short one, but there was quite a lot of it. I like to remember those times, they were happy. We had a good team, a good collective. We played good football and were successful. I think I can be satisfied with my career.

When you came to Dukla, it already was a big club with players like Masopust and Pluskal. What was it like to come as a young boy from Moravia and meet such stars?

It was a massive honour. They meant something in Czechoslovak and international football. They accepted me — I remember that when I came, I called everyone, “Sir.” Josef Masopust told me to stop doing that, that I was now one of them, their friend.

Was getting used to military discipline difficult?

No, it wasn’t. I didn’t take football so seriously in Moravia, not professionally: it was fun for us. At Dukla, we had to work harder, but I enjoyed doing that — maybe because I was pretty good at it. [Smiles] I was satisfied.

However, you were not a typical disciplined soldier, were you?

No, I wasn’t. I didn’t want to feel tied, I wanted to be free. But I think the military environment and the discipline helped me grow up a bit. You started to take football, life and obligations differently.

They told me that if Ladislav Novák had been told to perform ten somersaults, he would have done twenty. If you’d been told to do five, you would have rolled over four times. Is that right?

I would have done three. [Laughing] Such things were not enjoyable for me: I loved playing with the ball.

And there was a game against Prešov and your penalties...

Some of the things are myths, but this one is right. I hit the post with the first spot kick and when we were awarded another one, Vacenovský or Šafránek wanted to take it. I stopped them and said I had to redeem my previous error. But I hit the goalkeeper’s hand. Vejvoda told me to stay away from the penalties, but in the end we won so there was no problem.

How did you get on with Vejvoda? He was a strict coach: he must have had some problems with your attitude...

I got on well with him. I never lied to him, I always told him what I thought. Yes, sometimes there were problems with me, but I was no rebel. I just needed some fun with football.

Was the fun in football essential for you?

It’s a game, isn’t it? I was satisfied when the fans enjoyed my performance. When they applauded and left the stadium in a happy mood. They liked me. I remember fondly the moments when I was leaving the stadium after a match wearing a uniform and I heard those old men talking about me: “Damn, that was his day again, he played well...”

Did you feel that you were an extraordinarily talented player?

I didn’t think about it. It was nice when I played well and it was sad when I didn’t. Those were all my feelings about football.

How did more disciplined teammates react to your easy-going attitude?

Borovička knew how to pass the ball. When he set up a chance for me and I did not convert it, he would shout at me, “Rudy, what’s going on? We are running our socks off and you are walking around? I need you to score some goals!” He was a coach on the pitch, a strategist. Maybe sometimes I should have been more responsible, too...

You were a star of the US International Soccer League in 1961. Were those the matches when you enjoyed football the most?

I played quite well there, scored some goals... The fans were satisfied, only the coach wanted yet more from me. Our ex-pats were very grateful: they visited us at the hotel, walked with us through the city. I think they were proud because of us: they gained some confidence from the fact that the boys from Czechoslovakia were playing so well.

Ricardo Zamora was not that grateful though...

That was a good game. We scored some goals and started to enjoy the football. The lads passed the ball between each other, the Spaniards were running among us hopelessly. There was a forward in their team who looked like a bull. He was strong, extremely motivated... We took him into a triangle, he was the pig-in-the-middle. In the end, Jaroslav Borovička showed him the muleta, let him run past himself and shouted ‘Olé!’. The striker stood like a confused bull, he didn’t know what was going on. [Laughing] He started chasing Borovička, there was a bit of argument on the pitch.

The fans in New York carried you above their heads and dubbed Dukla “Kučera and His Boys”...

...and the boys would throw it back at me. My teammates would say, “We played football when he was running around somewhere in Moravia. And now they call us ‘His Boys’.” [Laughing] I enjoyed it. We played well, we were winning, there were no problems. It was a beautiful experience.

A year later, you missed the World Cup because of a cartilage injury. How tough a blow was that? You were at the peak of your powers.

Blow... I had to take it as it came. A defender hit me hard in a friendly game: it was unlucky. [He pauses, thinking] Unlucky, like all my career. After that point, the injuries started to come more often.

Was it just bad luck?

The truth is, my playing style helped that. I was a player who kept the ball, dribbled... I did tricks, provoked the defenders and sometimes they were angry with me. They tackled me hard. Sometimes it was my fault.

Should the referees have protected you more?

I don’t think so. Nowadays football is harder. In my day the players were more respectful towards each other. Sometimes the tackles were unfair, but mostly they just tried to scare me off my tricks.

Did you watch the 1962 World Cup at which Czechoslovakia reached the final?

I was at the spa after the cartilage surgery. I saw some games there. I wished my teammates all the best. At that time I was young and thought my chance would come later. If I had known... Maybe I would feel sorry for not being able to take part.

How do you remember the journeys into Europe with Dukla at that time? In the home game against Tottenham Hotspur in the European Cup in 1961-62, you showed the best form of your life.

We had a disadvantage: the games were played in the winter, at a time when we were not able to train properly. We would go into the games directly from the physical preparation.

Do you remember anything from the game against Górnik Zabrze, in which you were injured?

No. No details. It’s all such a long time ago... We lost the first game in Poland and I can remember we played much better at home in the return leg, I scored some goals... And then it all went dark.

Do you remember the header with Stanislaw Oslizlo?

I remember roughly where the duel took place. I recall how we jumped and then nothing. I was later told he hit me with an elbow, but I don’t know. I can’t even tell whether it was a foul or an accident. I had my back turned towards him and couldn’t see him coming.

Was the heading duel unnecessary? It was deep into the attacking half, you were 4-1 up and you were no keen header.

It is fate, an accident. I jumped and thought I’d got the ball. He came from the back, but I do not know how he hit me.

What is your first memory from the moment you woke up?

I woke up the next day. I asked about the result. I remember myself thinking it was a normal injury and that I would be back soon. I thought everything would be all right. However, I stayed in the hospital for quite a long time, then I had some rehabilitation and before the next season I tried to get back onto the pitch. However, there were complications all the time and in the end it meant my career was over.

What were the comeback attempts like? How did it feel not being able to control the ball and your legs any more?

I can hardly judge it. I just felt it was not my old self. Suddenly, the inspiration would not come and I could not turn my ideas into action as quickly as before. There were limitations.

How did it feel?

Strange. I had an idea, but my legs could not turn it into reality. In addition to that, my knee hurt. The cartilage surgery did its part and also, the left part of my body was partially paralysed.

You were desperate to get back onto the pitch, weren’t you? You tried it in Dukla reserves, then Slavia reserves too...

Yes, I thought I could get a new impulse with the change of environment. Some new energy. But the complications suffocated the energy in me.

Some people say that your carefree attitude hurt you — that you should have worked harder and you might have come back.

I don’t know. Work harder, work harder... [shakes his head] When you really try, practise hard, run properly and for a while, for two or three days it is ok... And then something happens on the pitch — you slip, fall down and your leg swells... I can’t say I could have done more. When you are not able to run, what can you do?

How much did it change your life?

Hard to answer that. I didn’t take it as a tragedy, that is for sure. What happened, happened; I could not do anything about it. I was not dead. I could live properly without any serious permanent damage. Life has dealt with it on its own.

What did you do?

After I had left Dukla and Slavia, I went back to normal life. It was different... It was quite difficult to find a good job, for example. I could not do much. I’m a qualified electrician, but when you hadn’t done that for years, you hadn’t kept up to date with progress. I worked in an office, then I was a garage keeper, a taxi driver, then I was a caretaker at some tennis courts.

Have you read the short story that Ota Pavel wrote about you?

Yes, I have.

It’s a very sad story. Your character is depicted as a melancholic man who turned away from football completely. Was it that way?

Yes. It was at the time when I worked as a taxi driver. I didn’t turn my back on football — I just didn’t care. There was no sense in it, no reason. I could not play, just went to run a bit with my mates.

Did you really stop watching football? Nowadays, I see you at the Dukla games occasionally.

I had no time, either. And I understood completely that there was no way back onto the pitch for me.

Was it hard to take?

Time has healed it. It was a sad time, though. I had no depression, no moods when I wanted to end it all. I found the new meaning in life — I got married and I have a nice and good wife, two clever kids, a boy and a girl... I live a happy life.

Did the injury change your character?

Yes, definitely. I used to be very carefree, taking everything for granted. Then I suddenly got back into life. I had to take care of a family, the children...

Do you sometimes look back on your career with regret?

No, I would not say that. It was a short career, but even now, some people, some older people recognise me. That makes me feel proud — I think that it was not all in vain, for nothing.