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Born: Monday 3 December 1923, Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia)
Died: Sunday 22 August 2010, Belgrade, Serbia (aged 86)
Position: Inside Forward
All-time record goalscorer for the former Yugoslavia, Stjepan Bobek was one of the finest exponents of the inside-left position and was cited by the great Ferenc Puskás as an influence on his game. Spending the majority of his playing career with Partizan Belgrade, for whom he played from their foundation, Bobek represented his country in two world cups and was a key member of the team which reached two consecutive Olympic finals.
Born in Zagreb on 3 December 1923, Bobek's football career began with local side HŠK Derbi in 1936. Only 12 years old when he made his debut in the club's Most of his teenage years were spent with ŠK Zagreb, with the exception of a brief six-month loan to Admira Wacker in Austria during the Second World War. Bobek also played wartime football for HŠK Ličanin and Građanski Zagreb, at that stage in his career most commonly being used as a centre forward.
Having served in the Yugoslav army, at the end of the war Bobek was transferred to Belgrade as one of the army's star athletes and was picked for the army team which took part, alongside selections from each Yugoslav republic, in the first post-war football tournament. The army team reached the final, narrowly losing 1-0 to Serbia, but Bobek had scored eight goals in their previous two matches and ended the tournament as the leading goalscorer.
At the end of 1945, a new club was formed from the army's football section and given the name 'Partizan'. As one of the leading players from the army team, Bobek was signed on right from the beginning and spent the rest of his career with the club. He was also drafted into the national team for their first post-war international, a 2-0 win over Czechoslovakia in Prague. In the first proper Yugoslav league season after the war, he scored 24 goals in just 23 games as Partizan won a league and cup double, with the highlight being nine goals in one game against 14. Oktobar Niš, still a record for Yugoslavia or any of its successor states.
It was the arrival of Hungarian Illés Spitz as Partizan coach that really transformed Bobek's career, as Spitz saw the potential that he had to be an excellent inside forward. Bobek was moved to the inside-left position and one he was accustomed to his new role, showed himself to be a natural there. His dribbling ability and fast body swerve could take him past opponents with ease, so much so that Ferenc Puskás by his own admission tried to imitate the style. The powerful shot that he had developed while playing at centre forward meant that he remained a goalscoring threat wherever he played.
In the summer of 1948 Bobek was named in Yugoslavia's squad for the Olympic Games in London and went on to be one of the stars of the tournament. He scored in all four of Yugoslavia's games including a vital strike to put his team back in front in the quarter-final against Turkey and the opening goal in the semi-final win over Great Britain. In the final, Bobek pulled Yugoslavia level against Sweden shortly before half-time, but goals from Gunnar Nordahl and Gunnar Gren gave the Swedes a 3-1 win and Yugoslavia had to settle for silver.
After contributing 13 goals to another title success for Partizan in 1949, Bobek travelled with Yugoslavia to the World Cup in Brazil. They started the tournament well, with comfortable wins over Switzerland and Mexico, with Bobek opening the scoring against the Mexicans. Needing only a draw against Brazil to progress, Yugoslavia's hopes were dashed when inside-right Rajko Mitić cut his head on a steel girder before kick-off and missed part of the match. Yugoslavia ultimately lost 2-0 and went out of the tournament.
Despite a couple of disappointing league seasons, Partizan reached the Yugoslav Cup final in 1952 and it was there that Bobek won his next major honour, scoring Partizan's fifth goal in a crushing 6-0 win over rivals Red Star. Later that summer he went to his second Olympic Games, this time in Helsinki. After a crushing win over India in the preliminary round, Yugoslavia faced the Soviet Union during a time of great political tension between the countries.
Leading 3-0 at half-time, Bobek scored just after the restart to extend the lead to 4-0. Yugoslavia led 5-1 with 16 minutes to play, but incredibly let the lead slip and the Soviets forced a replay. In the replay, Yugoslavia trailed early on but quickly equalised and on the half-hour Bobek converted a penalty to put them ahead, a lead which this time they did not give up. He scored again in the quarter-final win over Denmark and Yugoslavia went on to reach a second consecutive final with victory over Germany, but as in 1948 fell at the final hurdle when they lost to Hungary's 'Magical Magyars'.
Shortly after the Olympics, Bobek scored his first international hat-trick in a 4-2 win over Austria. Two years later in 1954, he got a second chance to appear in the World Cup on the back of an excellent domestic season in which he finished as the league's leading goalscorer with 21 goals and helped Partizan to another big cup final win over Red Star. Yugoslavia won through to the quarter-finals where they played superbly for long periods of the match against West Germany but were unable to convert any chances and ended up suffering a very harsh 2-0 defeat.
Bobek retired from international football in 1956, with his 38 goals Yugoslavia, remaining a record for the rest of the country's existence. He won one more major honour with Partizan, with another cup success in 1957. His playing career finally came to an end in 1959, having scored 121 league goals for the club and 425 goals in total, still the club record. On his retirement Bobek moved into coaching with Legia Warsaw in Poland, before returning to Partizan in 1960 as manager.
In his first year as manager Partizan edged out Red Star to take the league title by a single point, before going on to claim a hat-trick of championships by the time Bobek left in 1963. He moved to Greece to take charge of Panathinaikos and led them to back-to-back championships to achieve the remarkable record of winning a league title in each of his first five full seasons as a coach, before also adding a cup win in 1967. After a brief return to Partizan, Bobek went on to coach Olympiacos, Turkish side Altay and Dinamo Zagreb, before a brief spell in Tunisia with Espérance. In 1979 he led Vardar Skopje to promotion into the Yugoslav First League, a feat he repeated three years later with Zemun.
On Partizan's 50th anniversary in 1995, Bobek was named as the club's greatest ever player. Although he remained in Belgrade in his later years, he still identified himself as a Croat and regularly visited his home city of Zagreb, including once at the invitation of friend and former Croatian president Franjo Tudjman who he had met many years earlier which coaching Partizan. He died on 22 August 2010 at the age of 85, having been the last survivor of the club's original 1945 team.
References (all accessed 8 March 2012):
- Published on Thursday, 08 March 2012 12:30