The Greatest Comeback by David Bolchover

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This book ends with a journalist from Manchester praying at the Viennese graveside of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who managed Eusebio’s Benfica to two victories in the European Cup. It’s certainly something different.  I read a *lot* of books on Central European history and I read a fair few books about football, but I don’t think I’ve ever read one that combined the two before. The author clearly got extremely involved with his subject, and he does a great job of drawing the reader in as well.  I’ve read better-written books, but (it was only 99p on Kindle special offer, and) it was a fascinating story, both from a historical viewpoint and from a footballing viewpoint.

Football history as political history isn’t really a big thing in England, but it is very much so in many other countries.  We’re seeing that at the moment, with FC Barcelona issuing official statements about the situation with the Catalan independence leaders being unfairly jailed; and it can tell us a lot about politics and about in general.  The author obviously feels very strongly that insufficient recognition has been afforded to football players and managers who were affected by the Holocaust, both those who were killed and those who survived against the odds, and, amongst other things, he’s seeking here to redress a little of that balance.

This is a biography of Bela Guttmann, a Hungarian footballer and manager, whose name is surprisingly little well-known considering that he was the first manager to win the European Cup twice – although, as the author points out, managers weren’t as high-profile in his day as they were later. OK, everyone’s heard of Matt Busby and Bill Shankly, but how many non-British managers from the ‘60s can you name? Guttmann, although he doesn’t sound like the pleasantest of people – he was always falling out with players and club officials, and was involved in a rather unsavoury incident involving a fatal car crash – had a fascinating career, and a fascinating life in general.

He started off at Torekves, and then moved on to MTK Budapest, who aren’t one of the top Hungarian clubs now but won six titles in a row in the 1920s … and was with them whilst they were managed by Herbert Burgess, who was from Manchester and played for both United and City – he was one of the group of players, Billy Meredith et al, who moved from City to United after the 1905 bribery affair at City. The author clearly enjoyed getting in as Mancunian links as possible. Gold star for that!

Then he moved on to Hakoah Vienna, the all-Jewish Viennese team who won the Austrian league title in 1925. If the idea of a top football club in which all the players were of one religion seems weird now, remember all the hoo-ha when Mo Johnston became the first Catholic to sign for Rangers? It wasn’t that long ago! Hakoah were the poster boys of the “Muscular Judaism” movement of the inter-war years, which saw a far higher proportion of Jewish players and managers in football than there’s been before or since.  In terms of clubs managed by Austrian and Hungarian Jewish managers of this generation, we’re looking at, amongst others, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Torino, Feyenoord, Panathanaikos, Flamengo, River Plate … these are some of the biggest club names in world football.

The author clearly feels that this is a part of footballing history that’s been forgotten. However, it was largely a Central European thing so it’s perhaps understandable that it hasn’t received much attention in English-speaking countries.  It wasn’t until the 1950s that TV coverage and European club competitions brought about increased awareness of domestic football in other countries.  And the fact that Hungarian football in general, domestic and international, was so good in the 1930s has largely been forgotten: most football fans are familiar with the Magical Magyars of the 1950s, Ferenc Puskas (whom Guttmann managed in the late 1940s) & co, but certainly far less so with the teams of the ‘30s.

Hakoah went on a number of overseas tours, and became the first Continental club side to beat an English club side in England. Their victims were West Ham, LOL.  However, the club inadvertently shot itself in the foot with a tour of the US – seeing what a rapturous welcome they received there, as opposed to the anti-Semitism they so often encountered in Austria, Guttmann and a number of other players chose to join American teams. However, he later returned to Hakoah, also spent some time with Twente Enschede in the Netherlands.

In 1938, he got a much-prized permanent residency visa for America, and with many Hungarian Jews desperate to get away, you’d have thought he’d have grabbed it both hands – but, instead, he returned to Hungary, to become manager of Ujpest, and consequently ended up being in Hungary all through the war years, under the Nazi-allied Horthy regime, the Arrow Cross regime and then the Nazi occupiers. He was hidden for a while by the family of his Catholic girlfriend, but was then sent to a slave labour camp – alongside Ernest Erbstein, who later became manager of Torino and sadly died in the 1949 Superga plane crash. He survived, but many of his relatives were killed at Auschwitz.

After the war, he spent time as manager at umpteen different clubs – in Hungary, Romania, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Switzerland, Portugal, Greece and Austria, as well as a spell as manager of the Austrian national team – but the pinnacle of his career was his first spell at Benfica, during which time they won the 1961 and 1962 European Cups. After a falling out with the club’s directors, he’s supposed to have said that Benfica wouldn’t win another European Cup for 100 years, and some Benfica fans genuinely believe that this was a curse – including Eusebio, who’s prayed at Guttmann’s grave to ask that the curse be lifted!- and that it’s the reason they haven’t won the European Cup since, despite losing five finals! He died, aged 82, in 1981 – not exactly in poverty and obscurity, but not all that far from it.

So that’s the actual story, but there are various themes running all the way through it. One is football tactics and managerial styles, with numerous references to Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho (who was manager of United when the book was written) and Pep Guardiola. Another is the impact of politics on football. Hakoah Vienna were shut down within a few days of the Anschluss. Kispest, the year after Guttmann left them to move to Italy, were taken over by the army, and renamed Budapest Honved.  They were just referred to as Honved when I was a kid. We knew that Honved, Steaua Bucharest etc were army clubs, and that Dynamo Moscow were the Soviet police team, and so on, and it didn’t seem weird at the time because it was just the way it was … but it doesn’t half seem strange now, and it must have seemed even stranger at the point at which the clubs were actually taken over by the authorities. It’s not just an Eastern bloc thing either – when you look at the impact of politics on Bayern Munich, Barcelona … just be very grateful that we’ve never had these issues here.

And another is the ongoing history of anti-Semitism in Europe. Every chapter in which Guttmann moves to another European city is prefaced with a short account of an incident in that city or area involving anti-Jewish persecution – mostly from the Middle Ages, and not directly relevant to the subject matter, but clearly something that the author wanted to get across.

I think what most struck the author, though, was the fact that Guttmann didn’t speak about his wartime experiences. No-one in the footballing world really knew about his time in a slave labour camp until David Bolchover researched and published this book. Obviously a lot of Holocaust survivors didn’t talk about their experiences, because they found it too painful … but the impression you get with Guttmann is that he didn’t say anything because he thought it might affect his career, or, at least, because he didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that this had happened to him.

Last December, I went to Munich for the Christmas markets, and, whilst I was there, I went to see Bayern Munich’s stadium and museum. Bayern, who had a Jewish president and manager in the 1930s, were deeply affected by the onset of Nazism, but it wasn’t really spoken about until the 1970s, because they became seen as a great West German success story and no-one wanted to dwell on the horrors of the past.

In former Eastern bloc countries … this is a really sensitive area, and one which is still a big issue now, and it’s hard to think how best to put it. There does seem to be an ongoing issue with coming to terms with the past, even now. There haven’t been the educational programmes, or, until recently, the museums or memorials, which exist in the West. In Hungary and Romania, in particular, there’s the very delicate subject of the extent to which the local population were involved. And now, at least in Poland and the Baltic states, there seems to be an increasing emphasis on Soviet atrocities, with Nazi atrocities being emphasised less as a result. It’s a very difficult area to speak or write about, because it is so sensitive. And times are changing now. But it is an issue.

In June, Poland played Israel in a Euro 2020 qualifier in Warsaw, and, before the match, there was a ceremony to commemorate Josef Klotz, who scored Poland’s first ever international goal, and later died in the Warsaw Ghetto.  I didn’t know his name.  I’d heard of Hakoah Vienna, but I hadn’t heard of Maccabi Warsaw or Jutrzenka Krakow, the clubs whom Klotz played for, both of which (as far as I can gather) were dissolved in 1939.  As the author says, this is a part of European footballing history which isn’t spoken about.  This is a biography of a man who had a very interesting life and career, but it’s also a real eye-opener into a neglected area of history.

And, yes, footballing history does matter.  It tells us about life, and society.  The governments of both the UK and Bulgaria got involved after the recent disgraceful scenes in which black English players were abused and Nazi salutes made by Bulgarian “fans”.  And scenes like that show exactly why everyone should be aware of stories like this.  Very interesting book.

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