Cult Heroes: Bela Guttmann

When one thinks of legends of Hungarian football, they generally look to those who inflicted the most damage on England in those two devastating displays of attacking football in 1953 and 1954, where England were humiliated 6-3 at Wembley and 7-1 at the return in Hungary.

Real Madrid legend Ferenc Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti, who hit in a hat-trick in the Wembley match, are widely considered to be the best ever players from the eastern European nation. However, the pre-eminence of the great defender Bela Guttmann has primarily been isolated within Hungary’s footballing folklore.

Jonathan Wilson, author of the excellent ‘Inverting the Pyramid’, regards him as an astonishingly elegant centre-half, a pioneer of Zionist football, and a managing legend who placed a supposed curse on the fortunes of S.L. Benfica. High praise indeed.

Indeed, without Bela Guttmann, the Lisbon club may never have won the European Cup, Brazil may have never played 4-2-4 and Hungary may have never humbled England. This Hungarian legend led a nomadic yet extraordinary life, becoming one of the greatest influences on twentieth century football.

Born in Budapest in 1899 to a family of dance instructors, Guttmann became a qualified coach at the age of 16, leading to his graceful style of play on the football pitch. He began his career at the small first division side Torekves, before joining MTK in 1920 and winning a Championship medal in 1921.

Guttmann eventually signed for the Austrian Zionist team Hakoah late in 1921, supplementing his small income from the all-Jewish side by setting up his own dancing school. Hakoah turned professional in 1924, winning the inaugural Austrian championship the next year, as Guttmann showed himself to be one of the finest defenders in Europe.

Hakoah promoted the idea of a Jewish state through footballing tours, including a 1-1 draw against a visiting West Ham side, which reopened footballing relations between Austria and England. Hakoah then travelled to England in September 1923, winning 5-0 against the Hammers.

Such tours led to Hakoah’s downfall. Labelling themselves as the ‘unbeatable Jews’, they toured the USA (despite losing 2 of their 13 games), raising significant sums for the Zionist cause. Many of the East Coast sides were Jewish-led and had greater financial resources than the Austrian side, signing several of their players.

Guttmann signed for the New York Giants, winning the US Cup in 1929, but was almost bankrupted after the Wall Street Crash in the same year. He remained with the Giants until the US Soccer League collapsed in 1932. Returning to Europe, Guttmann began a coaching career that would last some 41 years.

Recommended by the great Austrian tactician Hugo Meisl, he signed for Dutch side SC Enschede, returning to Hakoah, now in the second division, after two seasons. A year later, the Zionist side disbanded after the Nazis annexed Austria. Returning to Hungary, Guttmann won the league and Mitropa Cup with Ujpest, before getting sacked and joining second division side Salgotarjan BTC. World War Two subsequently broke out, jeopardising his career and putting his life at risk.

Guttmann was known to be unwilling to talk about this most terrible period of his life, devoting only a paragraph to it in his 1964 autobiography. His elder brother died in a concentration camp, while rumours suggest that some Hakoah contacts helped the Hungarian to flee to Switzerland, where he spent the war in an internment camp, where he met his wife.

Guttmann returned to football in autumn 1945, working in Hungary and then later in Romania. He soon joined Kispest, replacing Ferenc Puskas’ father as coach. The future Real Madrid star was used to preferential treatment under his father’s reign as coach, but such notions of player power did not sit well with Guttmann.

In one game versus Gyor, one of the players was so poor that Guttmann ordered him not to play in the second half, preferring to play with 10 men, given substitutes weren’t allowed in those days.

Puskas disagreed, persuading the player to take to the field. Guttmann, disgusted at this, spent the second half reading a racing paper in the stands and took the tram home, never to return to the club.

The nomadic existence continued as Guttmann managed in Italy, Argentina and Cyprus, while leading a side of Hungarian exiles on tours to Venezuela and Brazil. He remained in Brazil for a while, popularising the 4-2-4 formation and winning the Paulista championship with Sao Paulo in 1958, before leaving for Portugal, six matches into the 1958/59 season.

He overhauled a five point deficit to pip Benfica to the title with Porto, at which point Benfica signed the Hungarian tactician themselves. Guttmann sacked 20 players on arrival, but won the league in 1960 and 1961 and European Cup in 1961 with a team of youngsters. A week after the 1961 final in a 3-2 defeat of Barcelona in Berne, Guttmann gave a debut to a promising young Mozambiquan attacker called Eusebio.

Then, in 1962, there was a passing of the torch. The European Cup final in Amsterdam saw Benfica defeat Real Madrid 5-3 in the grand attacking manner Madrid prided themselves on. Puskas, now at Real forming one of the greatest attacking partnerships ever with Alfredo Di Stefano, winning several European Cups, saw his old manager end the trophy haul.

The ‘fat little Hungarian chap’, as one England player described Puskas in 1953, sought Eusebio’s shirt, in a moment symbolising the passing of the mantle of the greatest side of one era to the greatest side of another era. Benfica fans were delirious and were dreaming of future European triumphs. That is, until, Guttmann resigned:

“I got $4000 less for winning the European Cup than the Portuguese championship. No attempt was made by the directors to change the situation, so I began to think about moving on.”

It was said that Guttmann cursed Benfica, who have since been in five European finals and lost them all. What followed were typically short stints at various clubs from Penarol in Uruguay, Swiss side Servette, Panathinakos, Porto to Austria Vienna and even a failed attempt by English Divison Three side Port Vale to sign him. He even entered joint-management of the Austrian national side with Josef Walter, but was forced out by anti-Semitic factions after six games.

Bela Guttmann retired in 1975, returning to Vienna in an apartment, in Walfischgasse, near the opera. The Hungarian legend died six years later, but his legacy hasn’t and won’t be forgotten for a long time yet.


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