The Europa League defeat to Sevilla meant that Benfica have lost eight European finals in a row. Will the curse of Bela Guttman ever be lifted?

A man kneels by a gravestone, hands clasped together he implores the heavens. Tears roll down his face and into the Austrian soil where his great mentor now rests. But this visit is not a chance to pay respects to an old friend; it is a heartfelt plea for mercy. The man kneeling is none other than Eusébio, and the grave is that of his former manager, the legendary Béla Guttmann.

Eusébio’s voice breaks, he chokes back the lump in his throat and begs the departed to release his beloved team from the curse that had cast a shadow over the club for thirty years. There is no reply and the next day Milan defeat Benfica 1-0 in the European Cup Final. Guttmann has not relented, Benfica remain cursed.

Now admittedly there was a little artistic embellishment there, but the salient points are all true. On the eve of Benfica’s match against Milan Eusébio really did visit the grave of Béla Guttmann and beg him to release Benfica from the curse the Hungarian placed upon the club in 1962, when Eusébio was still in his early days with the Portuguese giants.

The life of the itinerant Guttmann is a story of a man who foreshadowed modern football while living a life that would seem implausible in fiction. A nomad, a journeyman, a wanderer his career spanned three continents and embedded his name in footballing history.

Béla Guttmann was born in Budapest on the cusp of the 20th century to two Austro-Hungarian Jews, Abraham and Ester. His early life looked to mirror that of his parents, both of who were dancing instructors and during his early teens the young Béla embarked upon the same career. By age 16 he was already qualified instructor.

At the time Hungary were a footballing giant and Guttmann, no doubt captivated by the early stages of the golden era of Hungarian football changed the course of his life by signing with Torekvas, a small side in the lower tier of Hungarian football. In 1919 Jewish owned Nemzeti Bajnokság (Hungarian first division) side MTK Budapest signed him and it was here that he won his first piece of silverware – the league title – in 1921. It was a good year for Guttmann, as his performances for MTK resulted in a call up to the Hungarian National Team. It was playing for his country where we get our first taste of Guttmann’s fiery personality.

Picked for the 1924 Olympic football team, Guttmann was disgusted by the team selection and state of his accommodation. He was angered that the number of travelling Hungarian officials was far greater than the amount of players, and that the hotel was better suited to partying that quiet sporting preparation. In order to air his displeasure he hung dead rats from the doors of the travelling Hungarian officials. His protest was not well received and it was to be the last time Béla Guttmann appeared for his country.

It was during the early twenties that Miklós Horthy attained power in Hungary and his anti-Semitic regime pushed Guttmann to leave his home in 1922 and move to the now defunct Hakoah (Hakoah meaning ‘strength’ or ‘power’ in Hebrew) Wien football club in Vienna. The Jewish club was in itself a fascinating organisation. They were one of the original clubs to organise world tours, attracting thousands of Jewish fans to matches in places as far away as London and New York. It’s almost certain that his travels with Hakoah Wien were the catalyst for his constant wanderlust.

No doubt captivated by the USA following his visits with Wien he moved to the States in 1926, where he spent the majority of his playing career. His time in the American league consisted of two stints at New York based Jewish club New York Hakoah and three seasons at the New York Giants. He also spent a season as part of the Hakoah All-Stars, a merger of Brooklyn Hakoah and New York Hakoah who featured a number of players from his old club Hakoah Wien.

Away from the pitch the roguish Guttmann enjoyed a wild lifestyle in the Big Apple, among his pleasures was frequenting a speakeasy, which he part owned. However his hedonistic lifestyle was cut short by the Wall Street crash of 1929, which cost him most of his fortune. Despite this he stayed on in America until the collapse of the US Soccer League in 1932, when he returned to Europe.

Guttmann’s style of play was often described as elegant or graceful, no doubt thanks to his dancing roots, and his abilities on the pitch has been much applauded. He retired from playing with four titles under his belt and embarked on a career on coaching. It was during his 40 years as a coach that the world was fully exposed to his spectacular self-confidence and unique character.

His first coaching role was at his old club Hakoah Wien where he had two spells 33-35 and 37-38 with two years at FC Twente (known as Twente Enschede then) sandwiched in between. The spell at Twente was a taste of things to come; during the contact talks the wily Hungarian negotiated himself a huge bonus should Twente win the league. The clubs Chairman knew it would bankrupt the club but as relegation contenders he felt safe agreeing the terms. In his first season Twente stunningly avoided relegation and won the Eerste Klasse East, qualifying for the Championship playoff, where they ultimately finished 3rd, just two points off winners Feyenoord, much to the Chairman’s relief…

Following his remarkable achievements at Twente Guttmann had his first major coaching success at Újpest where he led the side to the Hungarian title and won the Mitropa Cup in the same season, before being sacked. In America his title success had quickly been followed by the loss of his fortune, and again misfortune struck Guttmann shortly after his triumph at Újpest. World War 2 broke out and due to his Jewish ancestry he was forced to flee Austria.

The exact details of his experiences were never divulged. What is known is that he somehow made it safely to Switzerland, where he lived out the war in an internment camp. Sadly for Guttmann many of his family, including his brother died at the hands of the Nazi’s. As the facts around his life at the time remain a mystery many have speculated on the impact WW2 had on Guttmann, particularly in exacerbating his somewhat nomadic and erratic behaviour. If ever asked about his survival he would simply reply with, “god helped me.”

After the war Guttmann returned to football, as strong willed and determined as ever. His restarted his career at Vasas SC where he famously asked for his wages to be paid in vegetables, due to the food shortages of the time. His time there was naturally limited after walking out of the Romanian side when the clubs president attempted to influence team selection. After Vasas he moved to Jewish run Maccabi Bucuresti and then to Kispest, who exist today as Budapest Honvéd FC.

Guttmann and Honvéd had the makings of a beautiful partnership, the team was home to four of the legendary Hungarian players who would later make up the core of Hungary’s Golden Team of the 50’s – Sándor Kocsis, József Bozsik, Zoltán Czibor and Ferenc Puskás. Guttmann had replaced Puskás’s father, Ferenc Puskás Senior and the two frequently butted egos over footballing matters, with Puskás frequently questioning the manager’s approach. Guttmann’s reign at Honvéd was already strained and his temper was finally pushed to breaking point during a match vs. Gyor. Guttmann became so irate by the performance of defender Mihaly Patyi that during the half time team talk he ordered Patyi to remain in the locker room, meaning Honvéd would play out the second half with a self imposed player deficit. Puskás was (justifiably) outraged and persuaded his teammate to return to the pitch with the others. Guttmann did not take this defiance well, instead of returning to the dugout he marched up to the stands and spent the duration of the game quietly engrossed in a racing paper. He took the tram home that night and did not come back.

During that era it was not uncommon for Hungarian players and coaches to test themselves in Italian football and Guttmann followed suit. Following the Honvéd debacle he journeyed to Padova and then Triestina, spending a season at both and learning the Italian game. The biggest test for Guttmann came on November 11th 1953, when he was appointed manager of the great AC Milan. The Milano team he joined featured two of the great Gre-No-Litrio, consisting of the prolific Gunnar Nordahl, dubbed Il Cannoniere and compatriot Nils Liedholm (the third of the trio – Gunnar Gren – had moved to Genoa just before Guttmann’s arrival). Guttmann also found himself coaching one of football’s greatest creators, Uruguayan legend Juan Alberto Schiaffino.

With Nordahl, Liedholm and Schiaffino spearheading the Rossoneri attack Guttmann had them topping the table after 19 games in the 1954/55 season. Behind closed doors things were not as good, Guttmann – true to form – had been engaged in a succession of feuds with the Milan board. So, after those 19 impressive games the board sacked him. The press gathered for what was likely to be an unforgettable press conference, Béla Guttmann did not disappoint, uttering the immortal line, “I have been sacked even though I am neither a criminal nor a homosexual. Goodbye.”

It was because of this that from then on Guttmann always stipulated that his contract must include a clause that prevented him from being sacked should his team be at the top of the table. After a surprisingly uneventful spell at Vicenza he returned to Honvéd to be reunited by the core of theMighty Magyars. The Hungarian side had grown more impressive while Guttmann was travelling Italy, and now featured Ferenc Puskás, Zoltán Czibor, Sándor Kocsis, József Bozsik, László Budai, Gyula Lóránt and Gyula Grosics.

In 1956 Honvéd qualified for the second European Cup, drawing Athlétic Bilbao. They lost 2-3 in the first leg at Bilbao, but before the home game could be played the Hungarian revolution collapsed and the Soviet Union had reinstated their control of the country. Due to the hostilities back home the players opted against staging the return leg in Budapest and hastily organised the match to be played in Brussels Heysel Stadium. During the match Honvéd keeper Lajos Farago was injured and with no remaining substitutes Zoltán Czibor was forced to don the gloves. Despite this the Hungarians held the Spaniards to a 3-3 draw but were dumped out of the competition on aggregate.

This left Guttmann’s side in limbo, the players did not want to return home but faced expulsion from the Hungarian league and a financial crisis should they not. Having called for their families to join them the team decided to embark on a fund raising tour of Portugal, Italy and Spain. The trip was heavily opposed by FIFA and the now Soviet controlled Hungarian Football Federation, but Guttmann and co stuck to their guns, and his team set off on their globetrotting adventure. In Spain they claimed the scalp of FC Barcelona with a 4-3 win, and drew 5-5 with Real Madrid. Despite the turmoil around them the team was spectacular.

Honvéd were still in crisis however and now facing closure thanks to their disobeying of FIFA’s demands. The Mexican National League offered the team asylum and a place in the league, but they declined that in favour of playing a mini tournament with Flamengo and Botafogo in Brazil. Guttmann had first been to South America as part of a tour with Hakoah All-Stars in the summer of 1930, he returned leading a team of exiled Hungarian superstars.

FIFA eventually declared the team illegal and banned them from using the name Honvéd, thus ending one of the greatest Hungarian club sides. The team returned to Europe and disbanded for pastures new, all except Guttmann, who had found himself a new home in the heat of São Paulo.

He spent the 1957/58 season winning the Paulista with São Paulo with his pioneering 4-2-4 formation, the one that brought the World Cup to Brazil the following year. Despite success and minimal reports of bust ups in Brazil Guttmann left South America and headed to Portugal after six games of the 58/59 season, taking over the Porto role. When Guttmann took over the Portistas they were trailing O Clássico rivals Benfica by five points. Under him they closed the deficit and claimed the title.

Despite his success in Hungary and Brazil it was Portugal where Béla Guttmann defined his legacy. Following his title success he made a stunning switch to Benfica, the team he had just denied the title. If moving across Portugal to Porto’s bitter rivals was not shocking enough the uncompromising Guttmann sacked no less than twenty senior players from the Benfica senior side, replacing them with members of the youth team.

Then came the final piece of the jigsaw. During a conversation in a barbershop with player-turned-scout José Carlos Bauer the Brazilian told Guttmann of a lightning fast teenager plying his trade in Mozambique. His name was Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, known simply as Eusébio. Guttmann immediately flew to Mozambique to sign the youngster, meeting with the boys mother and brother before offering a sum of (roughly) €1000 over three years. Eusébio’s brother asked for the sum to be doubled and Guttmann agreed without hesitation.

Unfortunately for Benfica they had plucked Eusébio from Sporting Clube de Lourenço Marques, a Mozambican franchise of Sporting and feeder club to the Lisbon giants. A row erupted between the two and Benfica officials even feared a kidnap attempt on the young Eusébio, who was forced to hide out in an Algarve hotel for a fortnight. When Benfica smuggled him into Portugal he was given the codename Ruth Malosso, such was the tension surrounding his move.

So there it was, a team full of youth players, an unknown teenager from rural Africa. One can only speculate at what the board and fans thought of the radical Hungarian who was controlling their club’s future. Despite the pure insanity of the situation Guttmann had got everything spot on. With The Black Panther up front and Mario Coluna in a deeper role he created some of the most beautiful attacking, flowing football the world had ever seen. His philosophy simply being, “I never minded if the opposition scored, because I always thought we could score another.”

He led his Benfica side to two league titles in 1959/60 and 1960/61 as well as a Portuguese Cup in 61/62. He also took Benfica to historic back-to-back European Cups in 61 and 62, beating Barcelona 3-2 at the Wankdorf Stadium in Bern and Real Madrid 5-3 in Amsterdam’s Olympisch Stadion.

This was an era when Real Madrid were totally dominating the European Cup, and so for Guttmann to defeat them with his radical formation and young squad made the achievements even more astounding. At the end of that final Puskás handed his shirt to the young Eusébio, a gesture that many saw as a symbol of the end of Real’s dominance and what looked to be the start of Benfica’s era.

Following the 1962 final he approached the Benfica board and asked for a pay rise. Breaking the Madrid stranglehold on Europe and making Benfica the dominant force in Portugal was almost certainly enough to warrant a pay rise, or at least a generous bonus. He was rebuffed, the board pointed out that nowhere in his contract did it state that he was owed such remuneration for success. Guttmann was furious and stormed out of the club. What exactly was said we will never know, but the popular myth suggests he uttered the words, “Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champion.”

Guttmann had just finished his second season at the club, and as a man who famously stated, “the third season is fatal”, perhaps the denial of his bonus was not the sole reason behind his exit. Reasons aside it was a huge blow to the club. It looked as though Guttmann and Eusébio had only completed one chapter of many in the story of Benfica’s European dominance, however what might have been will forever remain nothing more than speculation.

When hearing of his departure from Portugal 3rd division Port Vale wrote Guttmann a letter expressing their admiration for him and their desire for him to take the rudder. Sadly for them and English football he declined, or totally ignored the letter and headed back to South America with his well stamped passport. As nomadic as ever he led Peñarol to the Uruguayan title before leaving South America for the last time. It was to be his last trophy as a manager.

Understandably his career never reached the heady heights he had known during his conquests at Benfica. His latter years as a coach were spent as coach of the Austrian National Side before returning to Benfica for a short lived and largely unremarkable spell. He then completed brief spells in Switzerland, Austria and Greece before finally finishing his illustrious career at Porto, the club he had so coldly left in the summer of 1959.

He died on the 28th of August 1981 at the age of 82. His eccentricity and frankly extraordinary ability to fall out with people often overshadowed his tactical approach to the game. During his time in Austria Guttmann had become part of the Hungarian ‘coffee house’ scene, comprised of radical tacticians and coaches. His immersion in this forward thinking atmosphere was key to the pioneering tactics that he developed later in his career.

Guttmann was a part of the sub culture of football thinkers who were catalysts for a very early foundation for Total Football. The 1930’s had seen the Austria Wunderteam develop a style of quick passing taken from the legendary Scotsman Jimmy Hogan. The triumvirate of Gusztáv Sebes, Márton Bukovi and Béla Guttmann adapted this to include rigorous training regimes, fluid movement and versatility amongst players. The Hungarian side also featured perhaps the earliest incarnation of the false 9, a tactic that was unprecedented at the time.

The great Barça team masterminded by Pep Guardiola has its roots in the Hungarian football constructed by those three men. The successes of many other famous sides can also be linked back to their tactical innovations. In modern football the idea of a coach dominating headlines is not unusual for we have been exposed to Mourinho, Clough, Ferguson et al. Before Guttmann however it was unheard of.

When writing about Béla Guttmann there are so many adjectives one can use to describe the man; charismatic, determined, eccentric, brash, egotist, pioneer, visionary, maverick, nomad, adventurer, wanderer, genius. All are relevant to one of football’s greatest forgotten pioneers. The curse he left upon Benfica still resonates however. Since he stormed out of the Benfica boardroom the club has reached eight European finals, 1963, 1965, 1968, 1983, 1988, 1990, 2013 and most recently last week’s penalty shootout defeat to Sevilla, losing every single one.

For many the curse is just an amusing tale, but perhaps an unforgiving Guttmann is still watching over the club.

By Alex Philpott

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona

  • Tammo Lotz

    It’s still a long way to go until 2062…