Bela Guttmann

Out of the Ashes

Turbulence: I think that’s the way I would describe Central Europe in 1945. This is reflected in Bela Guttmann’s career. With 17 club changes from 1945-1967 I think that sounds like a turbulent career. Bela Guttman did actually manage a third season during this period – it was quite a third season. His passion and innovation saw him introduce great tactical formations and disseminate them around the globe. The world of football is all the more colourful for his blitzkrieg personality. He is a phoenix of a survivor.

Rising out of the ashes of the Holocaust Bela needed to resume his career and his passion. As someone looking for security he turned to his first love, football. After years of adapting he was now ready to insist on total control. If you demand absolute control then you have to have instant success. Gutman took responsibility for his players and the club so why, in his words “should I have let others control me?”

What a Reputation.

He was a charming man. He built up a wide circle of contacts and supporters probably as an instinct to survive but this network would be world changing. As an outsider, he had no natural loyalty to authority. He explained that it was “ due to the fact that I am everywhere a foreigner, and the other is because I am a Jew”. His success was based on results and as his last result was winning the Mitropia Cup he had a great reputation.

Food as Wages

His first post-war team was Vasas, based in a northern district of Budapest. He was paid in cash and staples. The eggs, potatoes, flour and sugar he was paid with was worth more than the money he could earn. These commodities were in scarce supply but the ever-adaptable Gutman had to eat. Here he showed his talent for finding young talent in Gyula Szilagyi who scored 300 goals in 15 years. It also showcased his uncompromising nature when talking about his principles. He stormed out when asked to explain his tactics so the presidents could show their deep knowledge of the game. He said he would rather starve than abandon his principles.

Not a Pushover.

One team that he took charge of was Kispest who had finished runners up to Guttman’s previous team, Ujapest. With all the winning there was always some falling out. Guttman became acquainted with the superstar in the making-Fernac Pushkas.  Gutman was never going to allow him the leeway the previous coach had afforded him. Kalman Vandor reported, “that Guttman refused to tolerate the sort of thing that Pushkas’s father had let his son get away with”. Guttman was not going to be undermined. When defender Mihaly Patyi was ordered off the pitch for ungentlemanly conduct it was Puskas who urged him to stay. Guttman walked out. In the changing room, he told the defeated team that he “didn’t belong” to them anymore. Guttman was also barred from coaching in Hungary for a month. It was time for Gutman to leave his native Hungary once more before he was accused of disloyalty to the Communist state.

The third Italian team to employ Guttman saw them finish the season third. Managing AC Milan was a pressurised job and certainly thrust him into the international spotlight. It was here he showed his skill at taking a star player and making him follow his regime of fitness and hard training regime. Once the top player was on board the rest of the team would comply. When Ricagni said he was unable to follow the rules he was told he would be put up for transfer. When he was shown a letter confirming this he backed down.

This did not have the desired effect on the team and after three successive draws, the board went into meltdown. Guttman went out for a meal with rival manager Czeizler of Sampdoria. The two had a physical fight and when AC Milan was defeated 3-1 on the pitch it was make or break time for Guttman. It didn’t matter that Milan were still top of the league. Guttman was sacked. With a cryptic statement, he said goodbye. Milan were the eventual champions that season. It seems that success doesn’t buy you leeway.

The Language of Football

Unsure of where to go one of his next destinations was to a country where he did not speak the language. In Brazil you just need to speak football-a language he was fluent in. With a tough training regime and a tactical approach, he led Sao Paulo to victory. It was all about the 4-2-4. Some say that it was Guttman who brought this formation to Brazil, others say that it was already being employed by some Brazillian teams. It was hardly a secret as the Might Magyars used that formation to defeat England. Vicente Feola, the assistant coach to Gutman became the manager of the Brazil side that won the 1958 World Cup. He said, “The victory is 50 per cent down to Guttman, I copied his method”. Guttman had to return to Europe. No drama, no fallout. His wife couldn’t take the climate. He could not be without her so the wanderer returned to Europe without a plan.

He had a little Portuguese so he took up the offer of coaching Porto. He was confident his methods would work in Portugal as they had worked in Brazil. He won the League for the first time of asking. Porto won on the last day of the season by a single goal. It seemed that Guttman could take a team and make them into winners. It didn’t inspire loyalty from Guttman. He had been offered more money to manage Porto’s rivals.

Bold at Benfica

So the following season he took charge at Benfica. He really took charge and sacked the old guard. He then promoted young talent. Talent he could mould and work with. He kept his opponents guessing by using 4-2-4 or W-M formation. Either way, his teams played attacking football. Benfica won the Portuguese League in Guttman’s first season-1959/60.

An attacking team needs a great striker. It was Guttman who poached one. Even though Guttman was famed for his fallouts he was equally as good at networking. A haircut lead to the greatest snip of all time. He bumped into former colleague whilst having a haircut. Jose Carlos Bauer was about to tour Africa with his team, Ferroviaria. Guttman said if he sees any young talent let him know. A month later he said he’d seen a young Mozambiquian but they wanted $20,000 for him. That lad was Eusebio da Silva Ferreira.

Tipped to go to Sporting Lisbon Gutman went to see Eusabios brother.  He liked Gutman’s approach as Guttman paid twice the price. Eusebio flew off to the Algarve where he was kept under armed guard for twelve days. As previous years champions, Benfica were progressing strongly in the European Cup of 1961. New signing Eusebio was ineligible to play in Europe but he was given as many chances to play as possible.

The Eusebio Show

In the 1961 European Cup final, Benfica beat Barcelona in Berne. It was a beautiful match. Guttman had done the unthinkable and conquered Europe. Could he repeat this success the following year? Could his youthful Portuguese team defeat the combined brilliance of Di Stefano and Puskas? The simple answer was Eusebio. Despite a record-breaking second hat trick scored in a European Cup final, it seems that Guttman’s team would eclipse Puskas’s 5-3. It was the Eusebio show. Guttman may have forgiven Pushkas’s youthful arrogance but his team certainly punished Real Madrid.

With paise and plaudits, Guttman dared to ask the board at Benfica for a raise. Let’s face it Benfica were only two times European Champions because of Guttman’s passion and control. The board didn’t see it that way. Guttman and Benfica parted ways. Whether he cursed Benfica or not its been eight European Cup finals without a victory for Benfica. Eusebio certainly believed his former team was cursed as he reportedly went to Gutman’s grave in Vienna to pray for forgiveness and mercy before they lost 1-0 to AC Milan. There are another 43 years of this curse to go and it doesn’t seem like its going end before Bela is ready.

Bela had his three seasons with Benfica and what three seasons they were. His story is the stuff of legend. A lightning strike of a legend. Legend also has it he wanted to manage an English Club. Rumour has it that third division Port Vale were the only ones interested. Guttman wasn’t interested. I can only wonder what he would have done with that club had he decided to manage them.

Bela Guttman was a remarkable man. Born in an era where many of his family and friends were eradicated for being born Jewish his survival is miraculous. To have come back with all the uncertainties of being a Holocaust survivor. It made so many crumble.  He used his tenacity and charisma to be the first coach who would dominate the club he trained and bring them unprecedented success. Clough, Shankly, Ferguson, Mourinho and Guardiola can all trace their success to the one who inspired them-Bela Guttman.