THESE are troubled and uncertain times for Britain’s Jewish population. With accusations of anti-semitism aimed at the country’s biggest political party, the mere mention of which sends a shiver down the spine of anyone with knowledge of the Holocaust, there is an underlying fear that history could be repeating itself.
From that dreadful period, the tale of a hugely influential football figure has emerged, written by author David Bolchover. It is the story of Béla Guttmann, the man who led Benfica to two European Cup successes in 1961 and 1962, breaking the stranglehold that Real Madrid had on the competition in that era.
Bolchover’s book, The Great Comeback: From Genocide to Football Glory is a moving and fascinating account of one of the game’s great innovators. As well as a brilliant story of an often overlooked character, the book is also a reminder of the contribution made by Jews to the development of football. Progressive football, a genre that spawned the Austrian Wunderteam, the Hungarians of 1954, the Dutch and Germans in the early 1970s and even Barcelona in the 21stcentury, owes much of its origins to coffee-drinking Jewish intellectuals and chess-playing idealists from central Europe.
“Football wasn’t really a working class sport in places like Vienna, Prague and Budapest in the inter-war years,” says Bolchover. “It was, essentially, middle class and these people brought an entrepreneurial spirit to the game. Many of these were Jewish and were eager to adopt a more cerebral approach to football.”
In depressed Europe in the 1920s and 30s, Jews often found they were up against severe prejudice and as they have often done down the decades, combated isolation by creating things for themselves, including football clubs. In the coffee houses of the region, Jewish football people, such as Hugo and Willy Meisl, would discuss football and develop a new way of playing, which became known as the “Danubian” style. “These men broke the mould in many ways, preferring a very distinct passing game to the more basic approach we knew in England. It wasn’t just in Austria, though, for in Hungary, there were many fine coaches that left their mark on the game across Europe for many years. People often forget that Hungary reached the World Cup final in 1938,” says Bolchover.
The Austrian team that threatened to win the World Cup in 1934 was lost to the world once Anchluss arrived in 1938 and its star man, Matthias Sindelar, probably died at the hands of the Nazis. Sindelar was a gentile, but lived in a Jewish neighbourhood in Vienna. He was also defiant in the face of the Germans, refusing to acknowledge the new unified regime in Austria.
The Hungarian team of 1938 included a Jew, Ferenc Sas, which was quite remarkable given the mood in Europe and the threat of war. That same year, Hungary’s Miklós Horthy passed a series of anti-Jewish measures in response to Germany’s Nuremburg Laws. Hungary became a dangerous place for a Jew – in 1944, a Jew living in the countryside had a less than 10% chance of surviving 10 months. Sas, who was born “Sohn”, migrated to Argentina in 1938 and avoided the chaos.
Béla Guttmann’s own life mirrors events in Europe during the 1930s. Hungarian Jewry was all but wiped out in the second world war and for a while, Guttmann hid in an attic in Újpest. He was sent to a labour camp and just avoided being sent to Auschwitz. Tragically, his father and sister were both murdered at that camp.
After the war, just 16 years later, Guttmann led Benfica to their first European Cup triumph, beating Barcelona in the final in Bern. In 1962, they did it again, recording a memorable 5-3 victory against Real Madrid. “These were astonishing achievements, notably because he had staged a comeback from extreme misery to win football’s biggest club prize in a continent that tried to exterminate him,” says Bolchover.
But while Guttmann was an undoubted success, the light had gone out for Jewish football. Some historians blame Communism for the decline of the central European game, but that’s too easy – and possibly convenient – an explanation. Countries like Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslavakia and Poland had their moments in the post-war years, but what was missing was the devotion to making something unique and lasting. Communist football did create, with a little help from the past, one of the finest teams never to win the World Cup in the form of the 1954 Magyars. Austria, however, lost all impetus with its annexation into Germany and after the war, the people that had built a footballing culture that gave the world Das Wunderteamhad gone, murdered in camps like Auschwitz. “European Jewry was almost obliterated,” says Bolchover. “Today, around 90% of the world’s Jews are either in Israel or the US. Israel had a brief moment on the world stage in 1970 under coach Emmanuel Scheffer, another football man with a story, but the Holocaust effectively ended Jewry’s significant influence on the game.”
Thankfully, people like Béla Guttmann and Ernst Erbstein, who died in the infamous Superga disaster in Turin with Italy’s first great post-war team, continued the work started by the Meisls in Austria. David Bolchover’s book is, to some extent, a monument to football folk that overcame great odds to contribute to the rich history of the game. It is also a reminder that anti-semitism, in any shape or form, is something that rises to the surface when things get out of control. We should not forget that, whatever our faith, political persuasion or personal beliefs.
The Great Comeback: From Genocide to Football Glory by David Bolchover is published by Biteback.