The coach who rose from the Holocaust’s ashes to dominate European soccer

LONDON — On May 23, 1990, Eusébio da Silva Ferreira — considered by many to be one of the greatest soccer players of all time — took a short trip to the Jewish section of Vienna’s central cemetery to pray by the grave of the late Béla Guttmann, a Hungarian Jew and soccer legend, buried there in 1981.

Eusébio, as he was known to fans, along with the rest of his Portuguese soccer squad, Benefica, were to take on Italian football giants AC Milan in Vienna’s Prater stadium later that day in the European Cup final.

The former Benfica player was hoping to break a losing streak that had supposedly cursed Benfica for nearly three decades.

In May 1962, with Guttmann as manager, Benfica had trounced the mighty Real Madrid 5-3 in the Olympic stadium in Amsterdam as the club claimed their second European Cup in a row.

But Benfica’s astounding success in Europe was short lived. Following his two consecutive European Cup victories with Benfica in ’61 and ’62, Guttmann walked out on the club when the board of directors rejected his demand for a pay rise.

Apparently Guttmann told those holding the purse strings of the club at the time that Benfica would not win another European Cup for another 100 years.

David Bolchover, author of 'The Greatest Comeback.' (Daniel Spellar Photography)

The story is most likely an urban myth, but since 1962 Benfica have appeared in eight European finals — and have lost every single one.

Whatever the real truth of this sporting mythology, there can be no denying that Guttmann was a born winner.

Guttmann holds an astounding record of success in European football that no other Jewish coach has even come close to before or after.

“I would say Guttmann is the the greatest Jewish coach, and probably the greatest Jew in the history of football,” says British writer David Bolchover, as we sit down to discuss his new biography on Guttmann entitled “The Greatest Comeback: From Genocide To Football Glory.”

“It would be very difficult to argue against that. No other Jewish coach has won the European Cup. And Gutmann won it twice,” he adds.

Guttmann was pretty typical of a Jewish sportsman of his time, living a peripatetic lifestyle with no loyalty to any club or state.

‘No other Jewish coach has won the European Cup. And Gutmann won it twice’

“There were a lot of Jews who moved around [in football] a bit before the war,” says Bolchover. “But nobody moved around quite like Guttmann. He crossed borders 21 times in his career. And he lived in 14 countries. He was the first to really push in a public way for the value of the football coach.”

“Whenever Gutmann was challenged at a club, he would just say, ‘Right, I’m off.’ He felt no loyalty to any country or any team. And felt no rootedness in that respect,” he says.

The stats from Guttmann’s career speak volumes. In addition to his two cups, his victories as a coach include three Hungarian league championships and three Portuguese league championships.

Bela Guttman's Vienna tombstone, with his Hebrew name, Baruch ben Moshe Avraham. (Courtesy)

He managed clubs across a number of countries, including positions at São Paulo, Ciocanul Bucharest, and AC Milan. Guttmann even coached the Austrian national team for a short time.

His brief stint in the world of international management ended in public controversy. Guttmann took on the role in 1964 and it was his first job in Austria since he had fled the Nazis there in 1938. The Austrian team recorded home victories against Hungary and the Soviet Union.

Pretty quickly, however, Guttmann sensed from both the Austrian Football Association, the press, and his own team, open feelings of anti-Semitism that were pretty typical of post war Austria. He was even accused by some as acting like a “wonder Rabbi” in training sessions.

Bela Guttman coaching in Austria. (Courtesy)

Guttmann gave a candid interview to an Austrian weekly shortly after his resignation, where he said, “I always thought that it doesn’t matter at all in sport if somebody is Catholic, Protestant or Jewish. But now, when I have to endure the exact opposite, I am really sad.”

Guttmann’s biographer says that while his latest book is one that documents the career of a European soccer legend, it’s also “ a story about Jewish history in Europe.”

Cover of 'The Greatest Comeback' by British writer David Bolchover. (courtesy)

“Guttmann suffered from discrimination and racism throughout his career,” says Bolchover.

“But he put these things aside and managed to conquer the demons in European society and achieve the success he did. The Guttmann story really mirrors the Jewish story as a whole in the 20th century,” he adds.

Guttmann’s achievements as a player, meanwhile, included a Hungarian league championship; an Austrian league championship; a United States Open Cup, and 4 international cups for Hungary.

And yet, in his native country — despite the fact he is the only Hungarian-born coach to lift the European Cup — Guttmann barely gets a passing footnote in the country’s sporting history.

Bela Guttman in his Milan uniform. (Courtesy)

“The communists took over Hungary [between 1947 and] 1949, and they set their own mythology,” says Bolchover. “The heroes of Hungarian football were the “Golden Team” of the 1950s because they were projected as this great football team that had these great communist values. And also the fact that Guttmann was a Jew.”

“Anti-Semitism was still very strong in Hungary at this time, and hence why he is not lionized throughout Hungary and indeed the world,” Bolchover says.

Bolchover claims understanding Guttmann’s Jewishness is central to the man’s life, achievements, and often forgotten legacy.

Moreover, to really understand the Guttmann story in all of its complexity, tragedy, and glory, one really needs to go back to Fin-de-Siècle, Budapest.

The central European city that Guttmann was born into on January 1899 was one bursting with a vibrant Jewish life. The city had even earned the nickname “Judapest” among some anti-Semites of the time — such was the domination of Jews amongst the urban chattering classes, in professions like law and journalism in particular.

In sports, Jews played a similar role too.

The Hakoah Vienna football club with the Star of David featuring prominently on their uniforms and flag. (Courtesy)

Guttmann played two seasons in the early 1920s with Hungarian club MTK, a football club that had Jewish origins. Jews dominated the MTK team during these golden years, where Gutmann helped the club stroll to the championship in 1920-21.

By 1922, at age 23, Guttmann would transfer to a football club called Hakoah Vienna, in the Austrian capital located just 250 kilometers (155 miles) away from Budapest.

Sporing the blue and white colors of the Jewish national movement, and with a large Star of David on their shirts, the team was more of a Jewish sporting movement than simply a football club.

Bela Guttmann. (Courtesy)

Bolchover says this was primarily because its political ethos was grounded in Zionism.

“There was more of a Zionist movement in the highly politically charged Vienna than there was in Budapest at that time,” he says.

“And that created this football club, Hakoah Vienna, who were founded in 1909, when Karl Lueger the anti-Semitic mayor in Vienna was in power, and when Adolf Hitler was living there too,” he adds.

The team inspired great passion and popularity among young Zionists and Jews in Vienna at the time. It inspired hatred from the local population, too.

Jews were very prominent in the world of football during this period of history. And Hakoah Vienna was a club that was leading the charge, Bolchover explains.

“Hakoah Vienna used to tour around the Jewish world and were hugely successful. They won the Austrian league, which was the first fully professional league in mainland Europe,” he says.

They broke the attendance records for soccer tours they played in the US. And when they arrived in Warsaw in 1924, for example, 10,000 people met them at the train station. There was this hysteria about Hakoah Vienna. And of course, Gutmann was one of the star players on that team.”

‘I hear Jews all the time saying, we make better accountants than sportspeople, don’t we?’

Bolchover says the more research he carried out for this book, the more surprised he became to learn that so few people know about the influence Jews had on prewar European football.

“I hear Jews all the time saying, ‘We make better accountants than sportspeople, don’t we?’ Well, that might be the case in Europe now, but that’s because there are not many Jews left. But that wasn’t the case before the war. Jews were at the forefront of the football world back then,” says Bolchover.

Principally, Jewish influence in European football ended because of the Holocaust.

Bolchover cites, for instance, how Dr. Löhner-Beda — the Jewish founder of Hakoah Vienna — was just one of many Hungarian Jews with a passionate interest in football who was later murdered in Auschwitz.

Bela Guttman with the Hakoah Vienna club. (Courtesy)

“The Jews who could have talked about this [great football era] were murdered. And the ones who did survive were scattered around the world and just wanted to get on with their lives,” says Bolchover.

Guttmann was one of those survivors. But how exactly he escaped the Holocaust is a narrative that up until recently has been clouded in rumor, half truth, and false facts.

‘The Jews who could have talked about this [great football era] were murdered’

Some accounts hitherto — including articles posted on CNN and the New York Times website — of Guttmann’s time during the war claim he escaped to Switzerland. But the truth is that Guttmann actually stayed in the Újpest district of Budapest, while his fellow Jews were being rounded up to be slaughtered.

“Guttmann survived the [Holocaust] by hiding in the attic of his girlfriend’s brother, who was a hairdresser. Later that year he was in a labor camp and he escaped,” says Bolchover.

When exactly Guttmann attempted to run from the Nazis in Budapest is hard to pinpoint. But Bolchover believes a good estimate places him going into hiding sometime in the weeks leading up to May 1944, just as the Hungarian Holocaust was about to reach its hellish apotheosis.

Guttmann’s survival tale is all the more remarkable when one considers that nearly half of the Jewish population in Budapest in 1944 — 250,000 — were all murdered in the Holocaust, and that conservative estimates put 600,000 Hungarian Jews total, among them Guttmann’s father and sister, murdered by the Nazis.

Bela Guttmann with a New York Hakoah banner in New York City. (Courtesy)

Guttmann’s life after the war continued to be one filled with drama, where the smell of death was never too far away.

On Saturday, April 2, 1955, six weeks after being sacked from a managerial position at AC Milan, Guttmann lost control of a car he was driving, killing one teenager and seriously injuring another.

The owner of the car, sitting in the passenger seat, was Dezso Solti, who was later involved in the biggest match fixing scandal in the history of football by bribing Italian referees on behalf of clubs in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Both Guttmann and Solti fled the scene,” says Bolchover.

“Eventually Guttmann was given a sentence of six months in prison. But he was given an immediate pardon of six months, and a fine. What is interesting is that very few people talked about it in the Italian press at the time,” Bolchover adds.

Bolchover claims Guttmann always lived life in the fast lane and close to the edge.
When living in New York as a player — for both the New York Giants and New York Hakoah — Guttmann became involved in an illegal speakeasy business that sold booze during the prohibition era. It earned him a substantial amount of money. And it was around this time too — in Las Vegas — that Guttmann developed a serious addiction to gambling.

It was a habit the Jewish player and coach would sustain right up until his death in Vienna in 1981.

“From the evidence that we have, I suspect that Guttmann was a big gambler. He lost a lot of his money. There might have been some left by the time he retired. He also worked until he was 75 in jobs that really didn’t make sense for such a great coach. So I suspect he might have needed the money,” Bolchover concludes.

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