Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Book review on The Greatest Comeback: from genocide to football glory

From Genocide to Football Glory
David Bolchover 
Biteback Publishing £9.99 

This is a great biography about a great man. Hungarian born Bela Guttmann's life was dominated by football with both his playing and coaching career marked by considerable success across many countries and continents. 

His achievements though are even more remarkable as being Jewish they were set against the background of rampant anti-Semitism both before and after World War II plus, of course, the Holocaust and the systematic destruction of entire Jewish communities across many parts of Europe during the war. 

The story of how Guttmann survived the period 1939 to 1945 during which he often lived in hiding and later escaped from a forced labour camp would make it worth buying this book for that alone.

The book, which is meticulously researched and very well written, also reveals the part played by Jewish coaches and players and fans in the growth of football across Europe before 1945.

Hopefully this book will now be made into a film.

Budapest 1899 

Budapest in 1899 was a quarter Jewish. Unlike in many other parts of Eastern Europe, Jews were in the main accepted by the majority population and living free. Bela’s parents, like many of their generation had moved from a small rural town seeking employment in Hungary’s capital city. Although his father worked the pay was often poor. Bela went round as a youngster with a hungry stomach, which probably explains why during his footballing career he often moved from post to post seeking better contracts and financial security.

Guttmann stars for Jewish sides 

Just two years after his birth, the Hungarian league was formed and football immediately became  popular within Budapest. Guttmann’s age meant he missed having to fight in WWI and in 1918 he helped Torekves to third place in the Premier League. In 1921 he joined MTK, a club with strong Jewish origins, whose main rivals were Ferencvaros. MTK had benefitted from having Jimmy Hogan as club coach between 1916-1918. Hogan was decades ahead of his time and remains revered even today in Hungary. 

The MTK side was dominated by Jewish players and they strolled to the 1920/21 title. Guttmann scored as he won his first cap as Hungary beat Germany 3-0 in June 1921. 

In January 1922, Guttmann crossed the border to play for Hakoah Vienna FC, which wore a large Star of David on their shirts in a city where anti-semitism was rife and where Adolf Hitler was a citizen for many years. 

Playing in the USA

Playing before large Jewish crowds, Guttmann played his part in winning the title with Hakoah in 1926 but following a highly successful club tour of the USA in the summer of that year he, like many others, chose to leave behind the growing anti-semitism in Europe. He signed for New York Giants.  His wages increased considerably whilst his former club Hakoah subsequently declined. 

It is not well known but football was very popular in the 1920s in the USA, which also sent a national team to the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay in 1930. The Giants were an amalgam of central European Jews and native-born American and British players. Guttmann moved to newly formed New York Hakoah in 1928 and in what was his last success as a player he won the United States Open Cup in 1929 in a side containing Laszlo Sternberg, a Jew who later captained Hungary in their first World Cup Finals, in 1934. 

Coaches his side to the forerunner of the European Cup only weeks before WWII

Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and with the USA and many parts of the world in economic turmoil, Guttmann returned briefly to play and coach Hakoah Vienna before moving back to the USA in the year before WWII began. He clearly should have stayed there but such was his love for football, the popularity of which had collapsed in America, that he returned to Hungary to take over as coach in August 1938 at Upjest. Hungary had just passed laws imposing a quota system on how many Jews could be employed in a business. Although Hungary was not yet murderous it was certainly poisonous. 

Upjest had been formed by a Jewish industrialist Izsak Lowry and the side contained Gyula Zsengeller the goalscoring star of the Hungarian side that finished as runners up in the 1938 World Cup. Zsengeller netted 56 goals in 26 appearances as Guttmann’s side, playing the attacking style that all his sides did, won the 1939 Hungarian title. 

This put Upjest into the Mitropa Cup, the forerunner to the European Cup with two sides each from Hungary, Italy, the two times World Champions, and Czechoslovakia (World Cup finalists in 1934) plus one each from Romania and Yugoslavia. In July 1939, Upjest won the competition meaning as Europe descended into full-scale war the most prestigious European football club trophy was held by Guttmann which as Bolchover declares “was a fitting tribute to the continent’s jews who had played such a pivotal role in the development of the game.”

1939-45: Dodging death 

Guttmann was required to dodge death for the next six years. He was ironically helped by the fact that Hungary was on Germany’s side during the conflict. This meant the German’s didn’t move into the country until 1944. By then around 19,000 Jews had been deported to the Ukraine and where they were murdered. The remaining Hungarian Jews were crammed into ghettos with each Jewish house marked by a yellow star. 

The Holocaust that followed saw nearly half of the 250,000 Jewish Hungarian population murdered. Guttmann hid in small attic in the house of anti fascist Pal Moldovan, a Hungarian non-Jew. 

It later became obvious that if Guttmann was discovered during house-to-house searches being conducted by the Hungarian authorities this would leave Moldovan and his family open to persecution. Guttmann was forced to reveal himself and report for labour service, which he then escaped from in December 1944 amidst preparations being made to transport his labour company to concentration camps and certain death. 


When the war ended, Guttmann, aged 46, married his sweetheart Mariann, 13 years his junior, in November 1945. They stayed together until his death.

A globe-trotting coach 

Guttmann again became a football coach, this time at Vasas but he soon quit to take charge at Ciocanul Bucharest in February 1946. This role lasted a year and was his last personal association with a Jewish football club.

He moved back briefly to Upjest, coaching the side to the League Championship in 1946/47.

The Hungarian then set out as a globe-trotting coach with spells in Italy with Padova, Unione Triestina, Qualms in Argentina, Apoel Nicosia in Cyprus, AC Milan, where he should have gone to jail after he killed a young man whilst driving a car for which he had no licence, and Vicenza in Italy plus the army team Honved in Hungary in 1956-57. 

Portuguese successes 

Guttmann then enjoyed a successful short spell at Sao Paolo where he won the 1957 Brazilian title - the Campeonato Paulista - before leaving after Porto in Portugal offered him a larger salary. He then won the Portuguese title before leaving Porto to manage their hated rivals Benfica saying at the time “I sell my expertise to a club for a limited time.” Porto did not win the title again for 19 years. 

European Cup successes 

At the Stadium of Light, Guttmann successfully set about building an attacking Benfica side and the Lisbon club won the title in 1959/60 and 1960/61, which was also the season when they won the European Cup. After overcoming Double Winners Spurs in the semi-final Benfica beat Barcelona 3-2 in the final in Switzerland. 

In the summer of 1961, Guttmann was able to embed Eusebio into his side and the Mozambique black pearl was to become Portugal’s greatest player along with Ronaldo much later on. 3-2 down at half time in the 1962 European Cup Final in Amsterdam against Real Madrid, Benfica steamrolled their Spanish opponents in the second to win 5-3 with Eusebio netting two and later swapping shirts on the final whistle with Puskas, who had actually scored a hat-trick for the losing team. 

Like in the previous year, Benfica subsequently went on to lose in Intercontinental Cup (World Club Championship). Guttmann had by the time the games were played in September and October 1962 had again left at the height of his popularity after Uruguayan giants Penarol offered him a larger salary. Guttmann later quit just as Penarol were set to win the league title the following season. 

He was later offered the role as coach for Austria but amidst a constant background of antisemitic abuse and innuendo he soon quit. Now in this mid 60s, Guttmann’s powers were fading but having missed out on earning decent monies until he arrived in Milan in 1953 he was keen to cash in on his star status. He finally quit as a coach at aged 75 in 1974. 

He died in Vienna on 27 August 1981 and was buried the day after in a Jewish cemetery. The ceremony was presided over by Akiba Eisenberg, a Rabbi raised in the Hungarian town of Vac, where Guttmann had spent some time in a forced labour camp in 1944. 

Guttmann changed football forever. He was the first coach since Herbert Chapman at Huddersfield and Arsenal between the two wars, to define the role of manager or coach as it is known elsewhere. Others have followed since. 

Despite Guttmann’s achievements in the face or enormous adversity he remains little known and so bravo to David Bolchover for writing this book, which, to repeat I really hope will now be made into a film. 

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