Béla Guttmann: the mastermind who was more than just a curse

Béla Guttmann: the mastermind who was more than just a curse

This feature is part of The Masterminds

When one thinks of the Mighty Magyars, thoughts often run to The Galloping Major Ferenc Puskás, the powerful army side Honvéd and England’s first defeat to continental opposition on home soil. Jimmy Hogan – the Englishman whose name “should be written in gold letters when our history is told” according to Gustáv Sebes, the managerial mastermind of that famous Wembley night – certainly deserves remembrance for his indelible influence on Hungary’s revolutionary playing style.

There is one name that often gets lost in the nation’s debate over greatness, however, remembered more prominently for a fabled curse that has stood for over half a century than for his pioneering career that spanned decades and continents. That name is Béla Guttmann.

Nowadays the tale of his furious retort to being denied a salary bonus for winning the European Cup with Benfica, condemning them to never again be crowned European Champions, is so well told that you might think that was all he had ever achieved. After his dramatic statement, Guttmann stormed out of the club to South American heavyweights Peñarol, and although he would return for a season later in the decade, his story belongs to far more than a financial dispute.

Money was an important matter to him, and it directed the course of his career to some degree. He was said to have negotiated a contract in vegetables rather than money when managing in Romania due to food shortages, and almost bankrupted FC Enchende in his second management role by negotiating a ludicrously high bonus into his contract renewal for winning the league. Given that the club were battling relegation at the time, it seemed a safe bet for the owners, but they had reckoned without the most single-minded of men. Such was the young Guttmann’s influence and determination that they narrowly missed out on the title, and it wouldn’t be the last time he would make a club board anxious.

Born in 1899 in the newly-formed metropolis of Budapest amidst a period of economic modernisation, Guttmann was not initially drawn to football. One of the earliest records of the sport being played internationally in Hungary was between the navy and their British counterparts in 1895, and although some clubs had been established before the turn of the century, the league was only established two years after his birth, so its widespread popularity was still some way off.

His athletic agility was evident in his training as a dancer though, and by his teens he had begun playing regularly for a youth team before being spotted by the predominantly Jewish club Magyar Testgyakorlók Köre – or MTK for short – whose name roughly translates as Circle of Hungarian Fitness Enthusiasts.

As the name suggests, their life as an organisation began with a broad sporting spectrum; it was only in 1901, the same year the national league was established, that football was added to the program of activities. Within three years their football side had been promoted to the top flight and had won the national championship, and by the time Guttmann joined in 1919 they had added five more titles.

In fact they would go on to complete a run of nine consecutive league titles until 1925, but by then Guttmann was long gone. This would become a pattern of his life – never settling for long in one place, always restless to prove himself afresh or simply rid himself of the superfluous paraphernalia that cluttered up his way of operating.

When one thinks of the great masterminds of football, there is usual an empire they have built that stands as a symbol of their work. The Ajax of Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels; the Dynamo Kyiv of Valeriy Lobanovskyi; the Manchester United of Sir Alex Ferguson. Guttmann was not interested in tying his name to one club, however. His effect on global football was broader than it was deep, and very few have match the sheer reach of his influence.

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He had fled his home country in 1922 for a very legitimate reason that had nothing to do with football or legacy. Four years earlier, a socialist revolution brought the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and installed Mihály Károlyi as Prime Minister, but the new leader dismantled the armed forces leaving the fragile democratic government exposed.

Béla Kun, who had been active in the Russian Revolution and Russian Civil War after being captured as a prisoner of war and imprisoned in the Urals, where his communist beliefs were strengthened, led a violently left-wing coup in early 1919. His attempts to restore Hungary’s former glory were founded on a savage campaign of political persecution known as the Red Terror – a model Kun later repeated in Crimea – and within a couple of months an opposing counter-revolutionary government was established outside the capital.

Miklós Horthy, former Commander-in-Chief of the Austro-Hungarian navy, was appointed Minister of War within the newly formed right-wing shadow system, and by August French-backed troops had reclaimed Budapest from Kun’s power. The backlash to the previous few months of oppression against opponents to the communist regime became known as the White Terror, led by members of Horthy’s National Army, which targeted primarily communists and Jews. The young Jewish intelligentsia had formed part of the leadership of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, but the recriminations swiftly merged into broad anti-Semitism.

The atmosphere in the country was now brutally unstable. The people had gone from imperial subjects to being run by aggressively communist and then viciously right-wing regimes within a matter of 18 months, and Guttmann began to realise his safety, yet alone his career, lay elsewhere. Horthy’s right-hand officer Pál Prónay was reportedly the driving force behind the brutality of the attacks that took place, as Horthy himself was anxious not to offer an image of extremism to the outside world.

“This, [Horthy] emphasised, gave the foreign press ammunition against us,” Prónay wrote in his diary of the discussions over their approach. “He told me we should stop harassing small Jews. In vain I tried to convince him that the liberal papers would be against us anyway, and it did not matter that we only one Jew or we killed them all.”

It is unlikely that Guttmann personally featured on the list of significant members of the Jewish community, especially as the military leader was not a particularly keen follower of football, nor did he use it as a propaganda tool. Horthy was delighted to be visited by the Hungarian team, including Puskás, while in exile in the Portuguese town of Estoril in 1956, although it was more than likely he was simply glad to be greeted by such prominent and popular figures as he wistfully asked about how Budapest was without him. He was present as Italy destroyed Hungary 5-0 in 1930, and when England lost in Budapest four years later, but in 1920 he was yet to show a particular interest, despite having played in the 1895 match against British counterparts while in the navy.

After two years of the White Terror, Guttmann moved to Vienna where he found an atmosphere much more to his liking. A society without suffocating oppression where free thinking was widespread would give birth to one of the greatest European international sides ever a decade later, the Wunderteam of Hugo Meisl. One key figure behind the success of that side of the 1930s was a certain Jimmy Hogan, who had been in charge of Guttmann’s future club MTK until the end of the First World War and would develop a healthy relationship with the like-minded Meisl.

Hogan’s famed deference to the Scottish passing game had shaped the success of MTK, and couldn’t have failed to inspire a young and determined Guttmann. In later years as a manager the Hungarian would develop a fondness for wingers which deviated from the Englishman’s more fluid concept of independent thinkers on the pitch, but his dedication to systems and intelligence to adapt to them was an imprint left on Guttmann’s mind.

Upon arrival in the Austrian capital he joined Hakoah Vienna, then a prominent Jewish team who swept all before them. They were made up of Jewish players from many Eastern European countries that had fled regimes such as Horthy’s, and their pioneering spirit lead them to push and break boundaries. In 1925 they became the first side to beat an English club side in England when they thrashed a weakened West Ham side 5-1, but a year later they made perhaps their most significant tour when they crossed the Atlantic to New York.

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Amid all the razzmatazz of stellar marquee signings, worldwide broadcasting deals and multi-million dollar franchises, one can be forgiven for thinking Major League Soccer is a beast of its own creation. Links are often drawn between the approach of the league attracting big-name players, some perhaps past their prime, and the NASL during the 1970s when the likes of Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia, George Best and co rubbed shoulders with Hollywood royalty in baseball and American football stadia. But the true origins of the organisation of the world game in the States lie much earlier in the inter-war period with the 1921 birth of the American Soccer League.

Then, as now, foreigners played an intrinsic part in the development and success of the increasingly powerful set up. Many Eastern European federations attempted to have US Soccer expelled from FIFA because of the unstoppable drain of talent pouring across the Atlantic, while the Scottish FA branded the practice of enticing still-contracted players to the burgeoning ASL as “The American Menace”. At the forefront of this revolution were a few teams founded by mostly European expatriates, including some Jewish collectives, who would exploit their rude health to go on globetrotting tours to take on some of the most famous teams around the world.

Five years after the creation of the ASL, Hakoah Vienna spawned one such club when a number of their touring party, including Guttmann, decided to remain in the States after their successful tour. This was a time when expressionism and sport went hand in hand; the Roaring Twenties were in full swing, illegal speakeasies were dangerously glamorous – Guttmann allegedly even bought into one – and a few hundred miles away the greatest touring side in sporting history was born.

Back then, the NBA was still two decades away, and professional basketball was dictated mostly by money-spinning exhibition matches. In Chicago a group of African-American high school students decided they would form their own team that would go on to become the Harlem Globetrotters, mirroring the sheer style and swagger of Hakoah. The fact that in the first few seasons there was not a single black player in the nascent NBA demonstrates another factor the Globetrotters shared with Guttmann and his team-mates; a struggle against oppression.

Hakoah were professional in every sense though. Before their team arrived on tours, they sent representatives of the club ahead to prepare the ground and publicise the prowess of Hakoah and their Zionist message, making sure that by the time the stars arrived they were well received. They attracted a record crowd of 46,000 to one match on the 1926 US tour against a representative XI from the ASL, and swayed by the delights of the Big Apple, the higher salaries and quality of life, many of the players forged a new career for themselves by remaining in America to join the ASL.

Once there were a significant number of the Hakoah Vienna side settled in New York, where many of the clubs in the early ASL were based, they joined together to form a reincarnation of their former club. Fitting to Guttmann’s instincts, Hakoah New York – as the new club became known – went on a number of global tours themselves, spreading their brand of attacking football to Brazil among other countries. The appeal of representing Hakoah – ‘strength’ in Hebrew – was far more than pure entertainment though, as US Soccer historian and author Ted Westervelt explains: “Vienna Hakoah had a remarkable effect on American soccer. Their 1926 tour shattered all attendance records for American Soccer, filling baseball stadia from New York to Chicago.”

It would not be until the end of the century when the majority of professional teams would have their own soccer-specific grounds, so to create such interest in incongruous venues was quite some achievement. One major advantage they had compared to their Austrian incarnation was that there was an even more tolerant lack of anti-Semitism in the States, which allowed their message to gain greater traction than it could have done in the unstable atmosphere of Eastern Europe.

“Jewish influence went beyond the game; sides like Hapoel Tel Aviv (reformed by fiercely Zionist members of Hakoah Vienna who returned to Europe after the 1926 tour) were drawing huge crowds in the post war period, and the games were often used to raise funds and awareness for the cause of Israeli statehood,” continues Westervelt. “Marilyn Monroe herself was enlisted in these efforts in 1957 in a packed New York baseball stadium against an ASL 2 all-star side.”

Global celebrities, New York, and football were a mix that would be repeated in the future.

The Wall Street Crash precipitated the beginning of the end for the glamour and success of the ASL – it folded in 1933 – and while Guttmann returned to play briefly for his old club Hakoah Vienna a year earlier, he was preparing for a life beyond playing. Leaving the ASL just before it collapsed was a classic example of him escaping a sinking ship, which became something of as speciality for him. Whether it was a sense of what was to come, or simply restlessness, the nomadic lifestyle that circumstance required suited Guttmann.

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After taking the reigns at Hakoah when he hung up his boots in 1933, he began a 40-year managerial trek taking in 20 clubs from 12 countries across two continents without spending more than three years in any one spell. His idiosyncratic individuality that drove his success was shaped in part by his surroundings; after all he was, in the words of Jonathan Wilson, “chewed up by circumstance and distrustful and dismissive of authority”. Long before Roy Keane aggressively attacked the shocking preparations of the Republic of Ireland’s 2002 World Cup, Guttmann had staged his own protest with equally serious consequences.

When the officials of the highly fancied Hungarian team, who outnumbered the players, chose a hotel in the centre of Paris to suit their socialising needs at the 1924 Olympics, the firebrand centre-half pinned dead rats to their doors on the suggestion of his team-mates, the Fogl brothers. However hard the precise details of the episode may be to ascertain, he never played again for his country despite being one of its most promising players and a double league champion.

Mátyás Szeli is a journalist for Nemzeti Sport, and suggests there may have been a simpler answer to his curtailed international playing career: “Hungary was the main contender to win the Olympics, but to a huge surprise and disappointment the team lost 3-0 against Egypt and was eliminated. If anything the following outrage might have prompted him not to play for Hungary anymore.”

His relationship with his homeland was a strained one throughout his life. In over half a century in the professional game, he only spent five seasons in Hungary, and while the political environment was certainly a significant cause, his priorities of having his way played their part too.

Having won the Hungarian league with Újpest in 1947, he replaced Ferenc Puskás’s father as coach of Kispest – who would later become the famous team of the army, Honvéd – and once became embroiled in a fiery dispute at half-time of a match with the young forward. Guttmann was enraged at the aggressive style of Mihály Patyi and ordered the full-back to remain in the dressing room at half time, but Puskás persuaded his team-mate to defy his manager – Guttmann promptly walked out and wouldn’t return to Hungary for almost a decade.

When he did, however, Puskás was still there, along with József Bozsik, Sándor Kocsis and Gyula Grosics. In 1956 Honvéd had been drawn against Athletic Bilbao in the European Cup, but while the team were still in Spain, Soviet troops had invaded Budapest and crushed the Hungarian uprising, leaving the players anxious about returning to their homeland. After the return leg was played in Belgium, Guttmann was invited to take charge of a lucrative worldwide tour which saw the exiles draw 5-5 with Real Madrid – for whom Puskás would famously go on to represent with distinction – and make their way to Brazil.

Either way, his refusal to accept the status quo or be dictated to was deeply ingrained in his psyche, and would lead to further clashes in his life in football. “Guttmann lived life like the world’s rejected guest, always on the lookout for a flounce, irritating and irritated in equal measure,” wrote Wilson in Inverting the Pyramid. Before his return to Honvéd, he had led AC Milan to the top of Serie A before his abrasive style was too much for the directors and he was dismissed – not before infamously describing the split. “I have been sacked even though I am neither a criminal nor a homosexual. Goodbye.”

Once the tour had concluded in Brazil, the Honvéd squad broke up. Puskás would join Real, Kocsis joined Young Fellows Zürich while Grosics moved to Tatabánya Bányász SC, while Guttmann himself remained to take charge of São Paulo. He was not welcomed by some of the more senior players in the squad who would take advantage of the fact that he struggled to adapt to coaching without direct communication with his players, and although his reign was short-lived he left with a Paulista State Championship.

His legacy was more than a regional title. Twenty years earlier Izidor “Dori” Kürschner, a player under Hogan at MTK, had brought a systematic tactical approach to Flamengo based largely around the W-M formation that Herbert Chapman had used to great success in England. Leônidas da Silva, ‘The Black Diamond’ who scored over 500 career goals, was the majestic creative spark that shone brightly in his team, but his intuitive flair could have been even better suited to a more spontaneous philosophy of play.

eusebio benfica

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Guttmann was also adamant on preparation and tactical intelligence as Kürschner had been, but his prevalence for a more expansive formation that made powerful and versatile wingers a crucial aspect brought a variation to the setup of teams. In Guttmann’s system, a further midfielder was dropped back to offer more protection in defence while the centre forward was withdrawn tfrom the frontline, much as Sebes had done at Wembley a few years earlier to devastating effect with Nándor Hidegkuti. Martón Bukovi had begun experimenting with a withdrawn centre forward in the late 1940s at MTK, and now Guttmann was spreading it to Brazil.

Perhaps the evolution of football would have precipitated the change that Guttmann claimed credit for anyway; without question he was instrumental in implementing it. He advised the Brazilian FA about the European teams they would face in Sweden at the 1958 World Cup, but despite the triumph that summer, he returned to Europe after a single season. Had he stayed, his reputation would surely have been secured as the mastermind behind Brazilian football’s most successful period; legacy was not what he craved though.

His reputation for rapid results was growing, and FC Porto’s board were desperate to attract the best manager to build a challenge to Benfica. They had won their first title in 16 years when Guttmann had left on Honvéd’s tour and were convinced he was the man for the task. With an attractive salary in his pocket, he guided them to the title in his first season, but when Benfica offered an even bigger financial reward, he simply switched his services to the Lisbon giants.

His first act was to rip up the playing squad, making 20 senior professionals redundant and promoting from the youth system. His new bosses must have been horrified at what was happening having made such a sizeable outlay to land Guttmann’s signature, but undeterred he went on to complete a personal hat-trick of Portuguese titles by winning the next two league championships in the capital. His free-flowing side swept all before them on the continent, winning their first European Cup in 1961, after which he made the most momentous signing in the club’s history.

Allegedly it came about via a chance meeting in the a barber shop with a former player of Guttmann’s from his time in São Paulo, Carlos Bauer, who was due to go on at tour of Africa with a Brazilian side. When he returned, he met Guttmann again to tell him about a phenomenal prospect playing at Sporting’s feeder club in Mozambique who was set to sign for Benfica’s Lisbon rivals. Within a couple of days Eusébio had signed for Guttmann, and would go on to score more than a goal a game over a glittering 15-year spell.

The fast-paced frontline reached the 1962 European Cup final where they faced Puskás and Real Madrid, the only other club to have won the trophy and still considered the greatest club side in the world. Guttmann, renowned for his attacking philosophy – “I never minded if the opposition scored because I always thought we could score more” – was vindicated as his men came back from 2-0 and 3-2 down to win a pulsating final 5-3, despite Puskás scoring a first-half hat-trick.

Understandably proud of his remarkable achievements at the club, he demanded a bonus that matched his record, but was rebuffed by the board and issued his now-infamous curse in yet another angry exchange with authority. “Fans and even former players look up to Guttmann with respect,” António Amorim, an Oporto resident and Porto fan told me. “Although he was a complicated man to deal with, football fans in general acknowledge his talent and are aware he made an enormous contribution to Portuguese football.”

His reputation is very different back in his homeland. He managed for another decade in Europe and South America, but when he settled into retirement, he did so in Vienna where he died in 1981. “For most people [in Hungary] he is virtually unknown,” Szeli concluded. “Of course the hardcore football fans and within the footballing community he is known, but he is not appreciated as much as he deserves.”

Not many managers have had such impact in so many countries in so many ways as he did. Jimmy Hogan was one of a breed of British managers who made their names and careers abroad, but very few could lay as legitimate a claim as Guttmann to influencing the tactics and mentality of clubs and national teams across so many arenas. From the United States to Brazil, Austria to Italy, players, fans and clubs should immortalise his footballing intelligence, but somehow one feels he will never quite get the recognition he deserves. Some have compared his effect to that of José Mourinho with the new Manchester United manager’s driven personality and impressive record, but that is where the realistic comparisons end.

It is hard to imagine what would have truly given Béla Guttmann peace, but Hardy Grüne may have reached the answer when he wrote that “he would often sit in São Paulo, New York or Lisbon and dream of enjoying a Melange in a Viennese cafe and chatting with friends about football.”

In his lifetime he wandered across the world without ever settling, and in death his legacy is disjointed at best, but his effect on not just the game of football but his Jewish heritage cannot be understated. To have held the unshakeable determination and self-belief to cross borders long before it became convenient or popular and impose a clear system on another footballing culture took both incredible mental agility and courage. To have faced him as an opponent took the same qualities, and not many had them quite like Guttmann.

By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint

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