Arpad Weisz: the Auschwitz victim who helped shape the idea of modern football

Arpad Weisz: the Auschwitz victim who helped shape the idea of modern football

IF HISTORY CROSSES its path, a good story can become a tragic one. This was the case for the story of Arpad Weisz. At the beginning of the 1937/38 season, this Hungarian gentleman was revered as the best manager in Europe. In the previous eight years, he had won three Scudetti and, just a year earlier, had beaten Chelsea in Paris, winning the equivalent of today’s Champions League. His story was at its peak. Unfortunately, history was at its lowest.

That same year, 1938, Benito Mussolini proclaimed a number of controversial racial laws throughout Italy. All Jews living in the country were forced to leave. Weisz and his family were among them. From that moment began a spiral of events that no individual could have ever hoped to stop. The Second World War broke out and Arpad Weisz met the same fate as six million other Jews.

The brutality of history could have erased this story altogether were it not for the efforts of an Italian journalist, Matteo Marani, who spent years researching and digging in the past, trying to resuscitate this old figure. His book, From the Scudetto to Auschwitz, contains everything the world knows about Weisz.

He was born in 1896 in the Hungarian town of Solt, near the border with Austria. At the beginning of the 20th century, the area along the Danube between Budapest and Vienna became one of the cradles of football in Europe. The Hungary national team rose to become one of the finest of that era, pioneering a new style of play. At the 1924 Olympics, they were among the favourite. The captain of that team was Béla Guttman, a Jew who later survived Auschwitz and went on to become the manager of the great Benfica of Eusébio, winning the European Cup twice along the way. Arpad Weisz was the left winger.

The exposure granted by caps in the national team brought him to what would become his second home: Italy. He was first scouted and signed by Padova in 1925, playing there for a year before moving to Inter. A serious injury, however, cut short his career and forced him from the pitch to the bench. He spent one year in South America, between Argentina and Uruguay, probably to hone his skills in what was considered the best footballing countries in the world. When he came back to Italy, he was put at the helm of one of his old clubs: Inter.

From day one, Weisz fit perfectly within a club he already knew, and even more so within the city, which he loved. Milan, at that time, was a vibrant city, a hub for cultural exchanges and a cradle of progressive ideas. A well-spoken and educated man like Weisz was fascinated by that environment. Whenever he had the chance, he cherished the opportunity of engaging in discussions in one of the many cafés of the city. His favourite topic was of course football and. in Milan. he found many peers to talk with. As a result of his humble nature, however, Weisz probably never realised how much he himself had become the focus of those discussions.

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His idea of football was in line with the progressive spirit of the city. He was one of the first managers in Italy to personally lead the training sessions, wearing a tracksuit and joining his team. His main contribution was the adaptation in Italy of the so-called W-M format, developed in those years by Herbert Chapman, the much-vaunted manager of Arsenal. His tactical principles and philosophy were converted into a football manual in 1930, which at the time had enormous success. The preface was written by Vittorio Pozzo, the Italian legend who led Gli Azzurri to two consecutive World Cup wins in 1934 and 1938. Pozzo had an enormous amount respect for Weisz and treated him as a peer, if not an inspiration.

However, Weisz was not only a tactical innovator – he was also a keen scout. When he first came to Inter, he mentored Fulvio Bernardini, who later became the first Italian manager to win the Scudetto with two different teams – Fiorentina and Bologna. Together, they often stopped to watch the youth team train. Weisz immediately noticed a young man who was a prodigy with the ball at his feet but deemed too weak physically. Weisz, against common consensus of the time, took that 16-year-old into the first team. His name was Giuseppe Meazza, the future all-time scoring leader for Inter, double Wolrd Cup winner and one of the greatest Italian footballers of all time.

This mixture of tactical intelligence and an eye for talent propelled Weisz to his first major success – the Scudetto in 1930. It was a historic season, the first in which all clubs were grouped in a single table, moving away from the regional divides. It was also significant because Weisz became the youngest manager to win the title at the age of 34. It’s a record unbeaten to this day.

A change in ownership at Inter created frictions that forced Weisz to leave the Nerazzurri just one year after the title. He went on to coach\ Bari and Novara in two brief stints before landing, in 1935, in the city where he’d garner the most praise: Bologna. The northern city was less cosmopolitan than Milan but suited the necessity of familiar tranquillity that had become fundamental for Weisz. He and his wife Elena had two children, Roberto and Clara, who needed stability. Bologna provided exactly that.

From a footballing standing point, the club was on the up. Bologna had experienced success in the 1920s and the team had now been acquired by a new, enterprising owner in Renato Dall’Ara. He and Weisz established a fruitful working relationship, which equipped the manager with a squad strong enough to challenge Juventus, the dominant force in Italy over the previous five years.

These promises were fulfilled thanks to the usual discipline and acumen of Weisz. His understanding of the importance of the morale of his players meant that many of them performed far better under his leadership than they had ever done so before. And so, after a great first season, the title came down to the final day of the season. It was never in doubt, with Weisz’s super motivational skills seeing the Rossoblu home.

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The Scudetto cemented the confidence of a team primed to build a dynasty. The following year, the victory came much more easily in the league and the team was invited to participate in a football tournament organised during the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. The tournament also featured the rare appearance of an English club, which up until that point had had the aristocratic aura of invulnerability. After all, they were the inventors of the game.

Weisz’s team proved everyone wrong. The English club, Chelsea, were forced to admit their inferiority after a humiliating 4-1 defeat. The Italian and European press hailed the Hungarian manager and marked the birth of a team which would “make the world tremble”.

Bologna won two Scudetti over the next three years, however Weisz wasn’t there for those glories. He lost his team when his life story became intertwined with the history of the world. Weisz was a Jew, but not an orthodox. His religious zeal was more devoted to football than God. He had even christened his two children as Catholics. None of that mattered when Mussolini launched the racial laws in 1938.

The Weisz family was forced to leave the country they had called home for 15 years. They fled to Paris, stayed there for three months, before moving to the Netherlands where Weisz had found a coaching job in Dordrecht. It was a small town, a lot less lively than Bologna and with a team struggling to avoid relegation. The drop from the height of Europe’s best to a provincial club must have been vertiginous. But Weisz was a pragmatic man and considered security more important than ambition. In April 1939, the Netherlands seemed a much more secure and tolerant place than Italy. Unfortunately, it was not meant to last.

War broke out soon after and the Nazi’s blitzkrieg came and flooded Holland. The Jewish were the first to feel the repercussions, first through the discrimination, and later through deportations. One morning in August 1942, the Gestapo came knocking on Weisz’s front door. The family was first moved to a Dutch labour camp in Westerbork, and then, after a few months, loaded on a train to a new destination: Auschwitz. When they got there, they were immediately divided. Elena, Roberto and Clara were sent to Birkenau, the slaughterhouse where people were sent to die. Arpad, however, was kept alive and exploited as a worker. His body lasted another 18 months but his mind was long deceased without his family. He died in January 1944.

Arpad Weisz remains a victim of history. However, when it comes to football, he was a great protagonist. He helped develop the game into what we know today. Through his work and innovations, he turned his tragic story into an eternal one, cementing his legacy in the face of oppression and death. 

By Sostene Costantino  

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