Bela Guttmann was the first of the great superstar football coaches – but the man who paved the way for Mourinho and Guardiola was also a Holocaust survivor whose family was murdered by the Nazis, making his one of the most remarkable stories in sport. From escaping the gas chambers by hiding in a friend’s attic to being tortured in a labour camp, he came through to become a legend, enjoying a golden period in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the cult of the coach had not been established. His fearless brand of attacking football lit up packed stadiums throughout Europe and South America, bringing title after title, including two European Cups. His tactical acumen, his ideas on diet and fitness, his approach to man management, the way he handled the media to gain advantage – all these would be considered standard among top coaches now. Back then, they were ground-breaking.
From escaping the gas chambers by hiding in a friend’s attic to being tortured in a labour camp, Bela Guttmann came through to become a legend, enjoying a golden period in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the cult of the coach had not been established
“He was ahead of his time,” says Portuguese international Antonio Simoes, who Guttmann coached. “Mourinho says the same things today that Guttmann did more than 50 years ago.” To be such a pivotal figure in the development of the world’s most popular sport is in itself a massive achievement. But what Guttmann, born in 1899, survived to get to that position was horrific. From 1919 to 1921, up to 3,000 of his fellow Hungarian Jews, many of whom had only recently returned from fighting in the First World War, were murdered in a bloody campaign known as the White Terror, orchestrated by the nationalist government. In 1920, just as he was starting out as a football player, Guttmann fled with his brother from Budapest to Yugoslavia. One year later, he had returned to secure the first of his many titles, winning the Hungarian league at MTK Budapest, and his first cap for the national team.
Benfica coach Bela Guttmann jogs alongside his players as they lap the White Hart Lane track
(Image: EMPICS Sport)
Bela Guttmann was the first of the great superstar football coach
(Image: EMPICS Sport)
His talent was spotted by Hakoah Vienna, and his experience there in many ways shaped his bullish and fiercely independent character on and off the pitch for decades to come. At that time, Austria and Hungary were not the footballing backwaters they are today. In the 1920 and 1930s, and in Hungary’s case right through to the 1950s, they were powerhouses in world football. Hakoah, meanwhile, were the greatest of the many proudly all-Jewish teams in pre-Holocaust Europe. For their shirts, they wore the blue and white of the Zionist national movement, and a large star of David was their badge. Just as their players were feted throughout the Jewish world, so too were they subjected to a constant torrent of racist abuse. Yet Hakoah withstood this fanatical hostility to win the Austrian league in 1925, with Guttmann as centre-half and fulcrum of the team. It gave Guttmann such a sense of defiance that, as a coach, he resolved to always be in full control, and to walk out if ever undermined. In one game, in 1948, as coach of Kispest in Hungary, he crossed swords with a young Ferenc Puskas, already establishing himself as one of the greatest players of all time.
Aguas, the captain of Benfica, holds up the European Cup trophy in 1961
Angered by the aggressive antics of one of his defenders, an exasperated Guttmann called for him to come off the pitch. When Puskas ordered his team-mate to stay on, Guttmann quit on the spot. Many years later, he was to get his sweet revenge on Puskas. Guttmann turned to coaching immediately after hanging up his boots. In 1939, his Ujpest team won the Hungarian league and the Mitropa Cup, the precursor to the European Cup. However, anti-Jewish laws introduced by the Hungarian government ensured he lost his job shortly after these successes, consigning him first to poverty and then to hiding and captivity. He at first got by as an unofficial scout to a team owned by a wealthy Jewish businessman, but everything changed when the Nazis occupied Hungary in March 1944. In the 54 days between May 15 and July 8, a total of 437,402 Jews were deported from Hungary, almost all of them to the gas chambers of the Auschwitz death camp. Some 8,000 Jews a day – on average one Jew every 11 seconds – were sent to their deaths. Many football histories say Guttmann missed this unimaginable slaughter by escaping to neutral Switzerland.
Bela Guttmann with Mario Coluna during training on the snow-covered lawn of the Nürnberger Stadium in 1962
But I discovered he actually spent much of 1944 hiding in a dingy attic above a hairdresser’s salon on the outskirts of the Jewish ghetto of Ujpest near his native Budapest, his constant terror heightened by the sound of screaming children and their pleading mothers being rounded up for deportation. Crucially for Guttmann, his then girlfriend and future wife Mariann was a Christian, who opened up contacts beyond the reach of many Jews. It was her brother Pal Moldovan who risked his life by offering his attic as a refuge. The danger didn’t end there. Later in 1944, Guttmann found himself in a slave labour camp, primarily for Jewish men. In an interview shortly before his death in 1981, he spoke about his experiences in this camp for the first time. He said: “Our sergeant had been in the foreign legion. That’s where he learned how to torture people. If he was in a good mood, he only made us carry tarred stones to his bunker and we had to keep shouting these words in the meantime, ‘We are s***, we are s***’. “Was I a footballer from the national team, was I a successful coach? “Was I even a man? Who cared, you had to forget all about it.” In the last days of the war, in the depths of winter, he got wind that his slave labour battalion was about to be deported to Nazi Austria. Facing almost inevitable death, he and four others escaped by jumping from a first floor window. Many others were not so fortunate. His 78-year-old widowed father, Abraham, was murdered, as were his older sister Szeren, his wider family, his friends, his former team-mates.
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His natural habitat, the Jewish world of Central and Eastern Europe, had been obliterated. Guttmann left Hungary for good in 1949, getting out just before the Iron Curtain of communism came down. At first, he tried his luck in Italy. AC Milan took him on, only to sack him in 1955 when the team looked set to win the league. Worse, a few weeks later he was driving in the city at high speed and without a licence when he hit two students, killing one and severely injuring another. He and a friend fled the scene and concocted stories to evade justice, but eyewitnesses identified Guttmann as the guilty party. The tortuous Italian legal process failed to reach a conclusion until 1960, when he was ordered to pay easily affordable damages to the families and his reputation survived intact. By then, Guttmann had decamped to Brazil, where his one-year spell at Sao Paulo was as influential as it was successful. Aided by his assistant, Vicente Feola, he guided the team to the championship in 1957. A year later, Feola was coach of the first Brazilian national team to be crowned world champions. He admitted that “this victory is 50 per cent down to Guttmann, since I copied his method”. By now, Guttmann was unstoppable. At Porto, he again won the league in his first season, before rivals Benfica tempted him away with a higher salary. Within three years, they had won the domestic league twice and retained the European Cup. Their first European final under Guttmann was a 3-2 victory against Barcelona in Bern. The second triumph might not have happened without a chance meeting in a barber’s shop in Lisbon. Guttmann recalled bumping into Jose Carlos Bauer, a former Brazilian international. He asked him if he could recommend any players. Bauer said, “I saw a black lad in Mozambique… I wanted to get him… but those fools are asking for $20,000.” “What’s the lad called?” His face was being lathered as he blurted out: “Eusébio.” In the final in Amsterdam in 1962, the great Eusébio, a perfect attacking partner for captain Mario Coluna, overpowered Real Madrid in a 5-3 victory, with Real’s star player Puskas losing out to Guttmann this time – despite scoring a hat-trick. In 16 years, Guttmann had risen from the death pits to champion of Europe. After the match, he approached his board of directors asking for more money. When they refused, he resigned and declared Benfica would not win another European trophy for 100 years. Since the 1962 Guttmann curse, Benfica have appeared in eight European finals and lost every single one. Guttmann was then 63, but retirement had no appeal. He couldn’t live without football and he and his wife had gambling addictions to fund. He finally bowed out in 1974, aged 75, and died, aged 82, in 1981. Having lived and worked in 14 countries and coached 20 clubs, Guttmann was not just the ultimate survivor but very much the founding father of a now globalised game. David Bolchover is the author of The Greatest Comeback: From Genocide to Football Glory. The Story of Bela Guttmann, published by Biteback Publishing.