Benfica and the curse of Béla Guttmann

Benfica and the curse of Béla Guttmann

In sport, especially within the often wildly unpredictable world of football, there is rarely anything like a guaranteed winning bet. The Europa League final on May 14 2014, was, however, probably as close to being a dead cert as almost anything ever is when the beautiful game is involved. Bet on Sevilla to beat Benfica and lift the trophy was the call. It’s as close to being brass in the bank as any bet can ever be.

On paper it appeared to be a close contest. Both clubs had enjoyed a reasonably successful season, and had deservedly reached the showpiece final in Turin. They were the facts, but it didn’t mean backing Sevilla wasn’t a good money shot.

As the game panned out it was a tight affair with 90 minutes, plus extra-time, failing to produce a goal and so, on it went to the inevitable penalty shoot-out. As could have been safely predicted, Sevilla prevailed, lifting the trophy that they were to retain twelve months later in a much less predictable contest. For Benfica, however, it was their second successive defeat in the final of the competition. The question then is, how, if the game was so tight between two such accomplished and apparently fairly evenly matched teams, was this such a certain, nailed-on, win for the Spaniards?

Firstly, let’s eliminate any notion of chicanery. There was no fix involved. In fact, if anything victory would probably have meant more – so much more – to Benfica than to the Andalusian club. Luisão, the Brazilian captain of Benfica, who had been with the club since 2003, was quick to make this clear after the game: “The players fought but they lacked a bit of luck again,” going on to add, “Once again, in a final, the ball just didn’t go in.” The phrasing used by the frustrated but resigned centre-back perhaps offers a clue as to why the result was a foregone conclusion.

“Lacked a bit of luck” and “the ball just didn’t go in”. It’s not a ‘well, the better team won’ sort of conclusion. Like many other, he probably thought something was else at play. Simply put, if one of the longest standing curses in football was to prove valid – yet again – the Eagles of Lisbon simply could not win the game. The result was decided before kick-off; a very long while before kick-off. In fact it was decided way back in 1962.

During the late 1950s, the nascent European club football competition – then termed the European Cup – was dominated by Real Madrid. For the first five years of the tournament, Los Blancos monopolised the trophy, defeating two French, two Italian and one German team in successive finals. In the 1960-61 tournament, however, their run came to a juddering halt when arch rivals Barcelona dispatched them from the competition in the first round. If the Catalans thought that this was the pretext for their opportunity to rule the European roost they came up short, losing in the final 3-2 to Benfica in Bern, Switzerland.

The following year, Real Madrid were keener than ever to regain their crown and fought through to the final to face reigning champions Benfica. Although a Ferenc Puskás hat-trick had the Spaniards ahead twice, Benfica outlasted their opponents and retained the status as the best club side in Europe. Here, however, is when it started to go wrong for the Portuguese club in Europe.

In such a situation you would think that the club was poised to cement a period of domination similar to that previously enjoyed by their Spanish counterparts. With players of the calibre of José Águas, António Simões, Mário Coluna and the burgeoning talent of Eusébio, the Eagles were very much the club of the moment. The fortunes of Benfica had been set on an upward trend since the arrival of a new manager who, in the 1958-59 season, had denied them the league title by guiding rivals Porto to overhaul a five point Benfica lead to steal the Portuguese championship from under their noses. After joining Benfica, he reprised the trick with them over the next two seasons, together with their European successes. It was a glorious period for the club.

When he arrived in Lisbon, in the most controversial of ways, the new manager stamped his authority on matters by disposing of no less than twenty first team squad members, promoting younger players through the ranks to support the few senior players remaining. He also secured the services of the outstanding Eusébio who, legend has it, he signed following a visit to a barber’s shop. His methods, although controversial, were eminently successful.

Previously, the manager had enjoyed a nomadic career, working at no less than 18 clubs throughout Europe and across the Americas, never staying anywhere for more than two seasons. This was no coincidence; he was firmly of the opinion that success only had a two-season window at any club. After that, decline was inevitable. In his words: “The third season is fatal.” At Benfica, however, he had eschewed his own golden rule and their second European triumph was the climax of his third season at the club. It was, however, to be his last.

Having usurped Real Madrid and established Benfica at the summit of European football, the triumphant man in charge considered it not unreasonable to have such success reflected in his remuneration from the club. Shortly after the defeat of Real Madrid in the 1962 final in Amsterdam’s Olympisch Stadion, he approached the directors of the club to discuss either a pay increase or some bonus for his success – sources differ on the precise detail.

In a move that they may have come to regret – and lament long and hard over – the request was flatly denied. Citing the terms of the existing contract, they were adamant that the agreement should stand and be honoured by both parties. In the modern day, it’s difficult to imagine such a scenario. These, however, were different times, and if they were calling their manager’s bluff, it was a serious error of judgement. Indignant, he decided that he should therefore quit his job. Before he left, however, he made a statement that has become infamous in the history of Benfica and wider European football.

“In the next 100 years,” he declared, “no Portuguese team will win two European titles, and Benfica will never be champions of Europe again without me.” It was a striking statement; this was at a time when they had just been crowned champions of Europe for the second successive year.

The first part of sentence is often ignored when quoted about Benfica’s fortunes, perhaps because Porto won the European title in 1987 and 2005, and also secured two UEFA Cups – hence rendering it invalid. The second part, however, has remained true. Benfica have played a total of eight European finals since that day – five in the elite competition of the European Cup (Champions League) and three in the UEFA Cup (Europa League). Each time they have failed to pick up the silverware.

It’s a debatable point as to whether the statement was indeed intended as a curse or, more prosaically, merely a prediction or threat born of petulance. Whatever the case, as each succeeding season passes without European glory for Benfica – we’re now at 55 and counting – if it was the former, it’s proving to be cruelly effective. If it was the latter, however, the growing belief – despite club statement’s to the contrary – around Benfica that the former was indeed the case, makes the latter more likely to be borne out. With this in mind, it’s difficult not to detect a hint of fatalism in Luisao’s remarks.

The manager’s name was Béla Guttmann, and any mention of Guttmann’s Curse is guaranteed to deliver a cold shiver at the Estádio da Luz.

Before the 2014 final against Sevilla, Benfica coach Jorge Jesus and several players publicly sought to laugh off all talk of any curse. The coach confidently declared, “he didn’t believe in any sort of hoodoo,” before adding, “most of the players don’t even know about these statistics”. Such bravado may merely have been whistling in the dark for the benefit of the fans – and perhaps some of the players as well. After the game, the expressions of both staff and players betrayed a more sanguine story. A reflective, Jesus stated: “The best team did not win the Europa League,” and said that his team had been “unlucky”. Nobody mentioned the curse. They didn’t need to.

Béla Guttmann was born into a Jewish family in a poor area of Budapest in 1899, and initially trained to become a member of his parents’ dance troupe, before realising that his feet would bring better fortune if they were used to waltz past opponents, rather than ‘tripping the light fantastic’ in some impoverished Hungarian backstreet.

As a young centre-half, apparently strong of physique, but with an elegant touch, he played for the MTK Hungaria and enjoyed immediate success, winning the national league title in both 1920 and 1921. Such days, however, were difficult for Jewish families in Hungary. The Horthy regime was part of a new wave of anti-Semitism that would later sweep many parts of central Europe, and the young Guttmann began his travels by exiling himself to Austria, joining Vienna’s Jewish club, Hakoah Wien, again winning the league title there. At this time, Austria was a much more liberal state than his homeland, and the relaxed and tolerant attitude that prevailed there suited the young Guttmann. He still played four times for Hungary in this period, however.

In the 1920s Hakoah undertook a tour to the USA, apparently with the aim of raising money to support the case for a Jewish state. Entranced by the bright lights of New York and the opportunities it offered for such an enterprise, Guttmann decided he would settle there, instead of travelling back to Europe where the political scenario was becoming increasingly difficult. Over the intervening years, through frugal living, Guttmann had accumulated a reasonable amount of money and, persuaded by others that it was a certain way to earn good interest, he invested in the stock market. As a result of his various investments, the Wall Street Crash in 1929 was a financial disaster for Guttmann, as for so many others. Virtually bankrupt, he was compelled to return to Europe and take up his career in football again.

After a brief stop back in Vienna to coach Hakoah, he then moved to the Netherlands to take control of the Dutch club, SC Enschede. By this time, the dreaded shadow of war was about to engulf Europe, and like so many others Guttmann was caught in the middle of it. This period of his life is shrouded by the mists of the unknown. Research suggests that Guttmann rarely spoke of these troubled times, but as a Jew living in occupied Europe, a reluctance to recall such times is perfectly understandable. I’ve seen articles that suggest although he survived – details on how vary from sketchy to non-existent – he lost many family members in the Holocaust, including a brother. Guttmann managed to escape to Switzerland where he was held until the war was over.

The next record has Guttmann serving a brief time back in Budapest before turning up in Romania, coaching at the Ciocanul club. During the post-war period in Romania, both financial strife and famine were prevalent, and the practical and astute Guttmann arranged to have his salary paid in vegetables. He had always displayed a steely determination to prosper; as he grew older this would only solidify. The walking-out at Benfica is but one example. At Ciocanul, although the vegetables were keeping his family fed, as soon as one of the club directors sought to intervene in team selection, he walked away.

Whether it was a capricious nature, a desire to see the world, or merely a search for a club where he believed he could develop his growing coaching skills, Guttmann moved around often in the following few years. Stops at Padova and Trietina in Italy proved brief, and a sojourn to South America to coach Boca Juniors and Quilmes were equally short-lived, before a return to Europe and coaching in Cyprus for Apoel Nicosia. In 1953, however, he landed at the San Siro with AC Milan.

After a first season growing the team as he wanted, 19 games into his second term with the club he had them sitting atop of Serie A. As had been and would continue to be the case, a consistent pattern of disruption reared its head. A disagreement with the board led to an angry confrontation and yet another storming out of the door. “I have been sacked,” he told a shocked press. “Even though I am neither a criminal nor a homosexual.” Culminating with a simple, “Goodbye.”

Such a history suggests a number of things about Guttmann. Yes, of course he was controversial, and the person that saw a relationship with a club as a ‘hairshirt’ scenario; necessary, but something not to be tolerated for any longer than absolutely necessary. He was also a successful and innovative coach, and promoted the use of the then novel 4-2-4 system of play. Guttman had seen the success of the great Hungarian team of the 1950s and noted that with the right players in place, it was a system that offered great fluidity. In six years, between 1950 and 1956, Hungary played a total of 50 games. Under coach Gusztáv Sebes, the Magical Magyars won 42 of them, drawing a further seven. Their only defeat came in the 1954 World Cup final when they were beaten by West Germany.

After leaving Milan, Guttmann briefly worked at Vicenza, Honvéd, and then went back to South America to coach São Paulo, where one source relates he introduced his system of play to the Brazilians, from where it was built on and developed to provide their pattern for the extended period of dominance they enjoyed through the ‘60s.

In 1958, however, he arrived in Portugal to coach Porto. By now, Guttmann had fully developed his system and was ready to deploy it in his own teams. A man of resolve, he had faith in his beliefs: “I never minded if the opposition scored, because I always thought we could score another.” After the success of taking Porto to the league championship, he was the hottest of properties, and someone that Benfica simply had to have if they were to achieve their aspirations. Arriving in Lisbon, with his philosophy well-honed, he knew the sort of players he required and, just as surely, the ones he didn’t. The cull of the twenty senior players reflected this. You can’t have sunshine without showers as the saying goes, and as the required success followed, controversy was its forever shadow.

Speaking to CNN, Portuguese football commentator Ben Shave has commented: “From the moment he arrived in Portugal, Béla Guttmann’s relationship with Benfica was destined to be complex. Indeed it was. After the second European Cup victory, Guttman approached the recently elected president António Carlos Cabral Fezas Vital with what seemed an eminently reasonable request: a pay rise. Vital chose to turn Guttmann down, whereupon the Hungarian departed with what has become a well-worn parting shot: a simple declaration that Benfica would not win another European Cup.”

Some have sought to compare Guttmann’s brief stay at clubs, the success he brings, and the seemingly inevitable controversies that lead to his fractious departures, as being a forerunner of José Mourinho’s approach. It’s a link Shave acknowledges: “Guttmann’s prickly personality and relentless pursuit of success have led to comparisons with Mourinho in some quarters. What is certainly true is that both left Benfica in unfortunate fashion, and both departures became matters of considerable regret for the club. The results of Guttmann’s curse have been well documented, whilst presidential candidate Manuel Vilarinho’s stated wish to replace Mourinho with club legend Toni following the 2000 elections led to the ‘Special One’ taking his talents elsewhere.

“In a similar scenario to that which led to Guttmann’s tenure coming to an end, Mourinho approached Vilarinho with a contract extension request shortly after his election – and a 3-0 win over Sporting – which was denied. Vilarinho’s opponents have dined out on that mistake since.”

Whatever the validity of such a comparison, it remains the case that Benfica have failed to win a European trophy since Guttmann left the club, with his fatalistic words forming a dark cloud hanging over the Estádio da Luz.

Béla Guttmann died in in 1981 and was buried in Vienna. His passing seemed to have little effect on the veracity of his statement, and although it’s unknown whether he drew any satisfaction from the fact that his words of 1962 were still redolent at the time of his death, apparently blighting the fortunes of his former club, for Benfica lifting the curse appears as far away as ever.

Legend has it that back in 1990 when Benfica were due to face AC Milan in the European Cup final, Eusebio, probably the most celebrated of Guttmann’s players, took the opportunity of the game being played in Vienna’s Praterstadion to visit Guttmann’s grave in the city. It’s said that the ex-player asked his old coach to absolve the club for any perceived wrong-doing and lift the curse. A few hours later, Eusébio watched forlornly as Benfica lost the final 1-0 to a Frank Rijkaard goal. If Guttmann had been listening, he appeared to have been unmoved.

“Every year when Benfica plays in Europe they try to get rid of the curse,” the Portuguese journalist José Carlos Soares told CNN. “Any time that Benfica play near Guttmann’s grave, somebody will take flowers. It hasn’t worked.” If Eusébio’s prayers at Guttmann’s grave didn’t work, perhaps a return visit to Amsterdam, where the curse was originally laid, may be what was required. In 2013, Benfica returned to the Dutch city to face Chelsea in the Europa League final. Things didn’t start well when. on the hour mark, Fernando Torres put the West London club ahead. Many Benfica fans must have thought that their luck was turning, however, when, just eight minutes later, an Eduardo Salvio header struck the hand of Chelsea full-back César Azpilicueta, and the referee awarded a penalty.

Such belief may even have grown when Óscar Cardozo comfortably netted from the spot. The game seemed destined for extra-time, but three minutes past the ninety, Chelsea were awarded a corner on the right. The ball was swung in and full-back Branislav Ivanović rose at the far post to nod a looping header into the net. There was no time for a comeback, and Benfica fans knew there wouldn’t be one. That’s just the way it’s been since 1962.

As if to make matters worse, the previous weekend, the Eagles had allowed the league title to slip through their fingers when Porto scored a late goal in the final league game of the season. Was Guttmann’s curse even blighting the club’s domestic fortunes now? “I can’t explain it,” Benfica goalkeeper Artur said. “How can we explain it? There’s no logical reason why we’ve lost two such big games right at the end. We did what we had to do against Chelsea and we just lacked that little bit of luck.”

And there you have it. The club may protest long and hard that nobody places any credence in the hoodoo, but, whenever the team loses, or comes up just short in a major game, there’s always somewhere to fall. It wasn’t us. We did everything right. We we were the better team. We were unlucky. They never say it’s the curse; simply because they don’t need to. Whether it is a curse, or merely a belief in one, the effect is the same.

In a managerial career spanning four decades, Béla Guttmann travelled the world and coached 23 clubs across a dozen different countries. He won countless league titles and cups, developing tactically along the way, learning and refining new approaches to the game. His innovative approach to how teams should play has left its mark across the globe. Strange to say then, that for all his success and influence, it is a single 25 word sentence that remains his longest-surviving legacy, only half of which remains true.

Benfica fans would dearly like to remember him for the success he brought to their club. Until a European trophy is lifted, however, and with it the curse, the name of Guttmann will surely carry a sense of dread. Alternatively, they could console themselves that there’s only 46 years more for it to run.

By All Blue Daze. Follow @All_Blue_daze

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