Parking The Coach: Bela Guttmann

by | Mar 7, 2017

Bela Guttmann


If Bela Guttmann had never existed football would probably have needed to make him up: an individualist who nevertheless created one of the most iconic teams in European football history; a self-confessed mercenary who inspired and cajoled excellence wherever he pitched his wagon. He managed more than twenty club sides, in nine countries and on two continents, and was one of the architects of the rise to prominence of Brazilian football. He discovered, nurtured and unleashed the greatest African footballer of all time into the European game. As a player he insisted his jerseys be made from silk, yet as a manager was once paid in vegetables at his own insistence. He fell out with Puskas and turned down Port Vale. Maddening, inspiring, beguiling, unpredictable, successful and brilliant, Bela Guttmann had it all. What’s more he gave it all, to football.

Guttmann was born in Budapest, then a part of Austria-Hungary, in 1899. He managed to avoid seeing conflict in the Great War but could not similarly sidestep the social upheaval that came after it. Guttmann made his senior debut for MTK Hungaria in 1919 as an old-fashioned centre half, winning the league championship in 1920 and 1921. But he was Jewish and Miklos Horthy, the Admiral who had assumed control of Hungary after the war, was an unabashed antisemite. Budapest became a perilous place to be and Guttmann, never a man to stay around where he was not wanted, moved to Vienna in 1922 to join Hakoah Wien. Hakoah were the Viennese Jewish club and were coached at the time by Billy Hunter, a friend and former teammate at Bolton Wanderers of Jimmy Hogan, the Scottish coach whose ideas – particularly with regard to the passing game’s superiority to dribbling – had revolutionised the game in continental Europe.

Hakoah proved to be another success for Guttmann, winning the Austrian league title in 1925. In 1926 they sailed for the United States for a tour aiming to assist with the development of their nascent football league under the banner “The Unbeatable Jews. Unfortunately for the Austrians, their players soon noticed the disparity in wages with those of their US counterparts. Come the end of the tour, over half the playing squad had signed for American clubs. Naturally, Bela Guttmann was among their number, joining the New York Giants. Here the football was of a markedly lower standard but the living was good; at least, until the stock market crash of October 1929. To his credit, Guttmann stuck it out in New York until the league collapsed three years later, despite the increasingly straitened times.

This uncharacteristic display of loyalty from Guttmann was probably in no small part due to the growing virulence of antisemitic feeling on the other side of the Atlantic. When he returned, aged 33, it was to coach the unglamorous Enschede in the Dutch Eastern League. Typically, he immediately negotiated himself a handsome bonus should his side ever become national champions, to which the directors of the team who were in the relegation places of the regional leagues gladly acceded. It was to be football’s first experience of Bela Guttmann’s unmistakable whirlwind. By the end of the season, Enschede had been promoted. By the end of the next, they were chasing the title that would earn their manager a bonus that would have caused the club to go to the wall.

In the end, Enschede fell just short and their directors, breathing a sigh of relief, dispensed with the now in-demand Hungarian’s services. He moved back to manage Hakoah in 1937. Guttmann had a number of beneficial assets but timing, it seems, was rarely amongst them: within a year Germany had invaded Austria. For many Jews living in Austria at the time, the Anschluss was nothing less than a death sentence. It is unclear how Guttmann survived the Holocaust – his elder brother died in a Nazi concentration camp – but make it through he did. Some believe that he found passage, via contacts at Hakoah Wien, to neutral Switzerland. In his autobiography, Guttmann would only say that God helped him.

Following the Second World War, Guttmann found himself coaching in Romania. There, his contract demanded that he be paid in vegetables to guard against the ruinous inflation of the local currency (it is rumoured that Sam Allardyce thrashed out a similar deal with the FA to manage England in post-Brexit Britain). However, when a director tried to interfere in team matters he walked out, returning to his native Hungary. There he found employment at Kispest, filling the seat just vacated by Ferenc Puskas Senior. The club – who were soon to be renamed Honved – were at the epicentre of the explosion that was about to grip Hungarian soccer. His best player was the erstwhile manager’s son, Ferenc Junior, with whom he quickly found relations to be strained. After one particularly fraught first half, Guttmann insisted that his full back – who had been studiously ignoring his instructions – be withdrawn and that the team play the second period with only ten men. Puskas intervened and the team took to the field with their full complement of players. Guttmann took to the stands, read a racing paper for the next 45 minutes and then went home, never to return.

His next stop was Italy, via Argentina and Cyprus. By 1953 he had caught the attention of AC Milan. In his first half season he saw his team rally to finish 3rd in the league. After 19 games of the next, they were top of the league. However, Guttmann was in continual dispute with the directors of the club and was summarily dismissed. All of his future contracts would stipulate that his services may not be dispensed with as long as his club is leading the table. A memorable press conference followed, in which Guttmann baldly stated that he had been fired, “even though I am neither a criminal nor a homosexual. Goodbye.”

Milan’s loss was to be very much Brazil’s gain. Guttmann’s unlikely ticket to South America were Honved, who were looking for a coach to lead the team through a tour of Brazil. The country was in the process of building a dynasty that would culminate in five World Cup titles and some of the most electrifying football ever seen. Brazilian soccer of the time relied on a 3-4-3 formation, with a midfield diamond that gave the system its name – the diagonal. Guttmann, in company with a handful of other Hungarian coaches fleeing the grip of Soviet communism in their homeland, was central to its refinement to the Hungarian 4-2-4 formation.

Guttmann’s greatest gift to the Brazilian game, however, was less shape and more in style. Before Guttmann, Brazilian teams relied on dribblers and individualists to open up games and create opportunities. It was Guttmann, ironically one of the most marked individualists in the history of professional soccer, who would stress the importance of passing and teamwork. Moving the ball quickly and directly became the order of the day. His training ground catchphrases: “tat-tat-tat” and “ping-pang-pong” became mantras. Brazilian formations were naturally evolving towards 4-2-4 even without the Hungarian influence. However, without Guttmann, their game may never have fully harnessed the excesses of the traditional Brazilian running game that threatened to hold back their development on the global stage. It is arguable that Guttmann laid the foundation for the transcendence of the 1970 World Cup-winning team.

Guttmann had one more masterstroke left in him and it is the one for which he is still best remembered in Europe. In 1958 he returned from Sao Paulo to take control of FC Porto. In his one season there he made them national champions, overhauling Benfica in spite of the Lisbon side at one stage holding a five point lead in the table. Benfica’s response was to immediately hire him. It began a legendary partnership: as well as being enormously successful it was also marked for its longevity – Guttmann, whose avowed position was that “the third season is fatal”, stayed in place for three years before an argument about prize money saw the two parties go their separate ways.

Guttmann’s first act as Benfica coach was to sack 20 senior players and promote youth team products in their place. They immediately won the next two Portuguese league championship titles. However, their greatest triumph came in Bern on 31st May 1961. There, they defeated Barcelona 3-2 in the European Cup Final, becoming the first team to break Real Madrid’s monopoly on the title. Resting on one’s laurels was never in Guttmann’s make up and his continual striving for improvement saw him give a full senior debut, the day after, to a Mozambiquean teenager that his scouting team had uncovered playing for Benfica’s feeder team in Maputo. The following season, with the now 20-year old Eusebio leading the line, Benfica retained the title in Amsterdam defeating Real Madrid 5-3. Madrid’s goals on the night were all scored by Guttmann’s former charge Ferenc Puskas, who sought out Eusebio at the end of the game to give him his shirt.

It was after the 1962 European Cup final victory that things turned sour. Benfica, who had only finished 3rd in that season’s Portuguese league in spite of being its top scorers, refused to pay Guttmann the bonus that he requested for the retention of their European crown. It was not, they argued, in his contract. Guttmann walked and Benfica are yet to win another European trophy. The Curse of Bela Guttmann is perhaps how their greatest coach is still best known to this day. It is a romantic and unlikely tale and one which probably sums up his dazzling career to a nicety.

Following his departure from Portugal, Guttmann’s career started to wind down. He turned down an offer to manage Port Vale to go to Uruguay for a year at Penarol, before similarly brief spells in charge at Servette, PAO, Austria Vienna and a return to FC Porto, as well as a spell in charge of the Austrian national team. He retired in 1973 aged 74, to Vienna. It was there that he died, aged 82, on 28th August 1981. A player and a manager; a mercenary and a innovator; a blessing and a curse. Bela Guttmann’s remains one of football’s most fascinating stories.

Edward Carter is twohundredpercent’s artist-in-residence, podcast host and contributor to the site. He is a cartoonist by trade, and if you’re interested in hiring him, you can find him on Twitter, where he plies his name under the username of @dotmund. He wishes to remind all those reading this that he is both extremely cheap, very suggestible, and available for commission work.

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