Football’s greatest comeback

David Bolchover's new book examines the life and legacy of legendary football coach Bela Guttmann


In the 54 days between May 15 and July 8 1944, approximately 430,000 Jews were deported from Hungary, almost all of them to Auschwitz. A rate of 8000 Jews a day — on average one Jew sent to their death every 11 seconds.

The conventional wisdom has been that the great football coach Bela Guttmann missed this imagination-defying slaughter and lived out the war years sitting peacefully in neutral Switzerland. But the reality was quite different.

Guttmann actually spent much of 1944 hiding in a dingy attic on the outskirts of the Jewish ghetto of Újpest near his native Budapest.

Later in 1944, he found himself in a slave labour camp, primarily reserved for Jewish men. In the last days of the war, he got wind that his battalion was about to be deported to Nazi Austria. Facing almost inevitable death, he and four others escaped by jumping from a first floor window.

Guttmann’s father and sister were murdered, so too his wider family, his friends, his former team-mates. His natural habitat, the Jewish world of central and eastern Europe was obliterated.

But by 1961, Béla Guttmann had completed the most remarkable turnaround. As coach of Benfica of Lisbon, he lifted the most prestigious sporting prize in this continent, the European Cup. He did it again the following year. From the death pits of Europe to champion of Europe, and all in little more than sixteen years.

It may seem difficult to believe now but before Guttmann the role of the football coach had been considered relatively unimportant. He was the first of a breed of superstar coaches, moving from country to country selling his talent, a pioneer who changed the most popular sport on the planet. His fearless and pulsating brand of attacking football lit up packed stadiums throughout Europe and South America. His tactical acumen, his ideas on diet, fitness and conditioning, his approach to man management, the way he handled the media to gain advantage for his team — all these would be considered standard among top coaches now. Sixty years ago, many of them were groundbreaking.

The trajectory of Guttmann’s life largely traces that of the Jewish nation as a whole, and this broader story features throughout my book about him. The book’s title — The Greatest Comeback — has another connotation. If Guttmann achieved the greatest personal comeback in football history, then the Jews of the twentieth century performed the greatest national comeback in human history. As Guttmann’s Benfica took to the pitch for their first European Cup final against Barcelona in 1961, the reborn Jewish state of Israel, almost unbelievably, was prosecuting Adolf Eichmann, the principal Nazi architect of the Hungarian Holocaust, in a Jewish court with Jewish judges in its ancient capital of Jerusalem.

Also in the background throughout the book is the whiff of Holocaust denial, in its various forms still more common in Europe today than generally acknowledged.

Deborah Lipstadt, the Jewish historian, divides Holocaust denial into two — hardcore and softcore. Hardcore denial involves the outright refusal to acknowledge that the Holocaust happened, or the claim that the numbers of fatalities have been deliberately exaggerated; the received wisdom in certain parts of the world. It exists at the extremes in Europe too, but here more refined forms of denial are usually at play.

It is principally the dejudaisation of the Holocaust that Lipstadt refers to as softcore denial, the constant false comparisons with the fate of European Jewry. Guttmann himself instinctively understood Europe’s reluctance to acknowledge the uniqueness and enormity of the Holocaust.

In his autobiography published in German in 1964, he wrote simply: “In the last fifteen years, countless books have been written about the destructive years of struggle for life and death. It would thus be superfluous to trouble my readers with such details. I suffered and endured no more or less than many millions of my European contemporaries.” The word “Jew” did not appear in the entire book. An ambitious person seeking to make his way in post-war Europe, with his target readership being primarily male Austrians and Germans of a certain generation, Guttmann knew the score. “We all experienced bad times, didn’t we,” he seemed to be saying, “so let’s just talk about football instead.”

His words may have sought to camouflage the truth but his life story merely exposed it. While Lipstadt has focused on the wrongheaded lumping together of all victims, both from during the Nazi years and thereafter, I would add two more forms of softcore denial, both refuted by Guttmann’s own history.

Just as the list of victims has expanded, so the list of perpetrators has narrowed. In this convenient portrayal of history we are constantly told, without any further elaboration, that it was the Nazis who carried out the Holocaust. The Nazis certainly conceived and led it. But Béla Guttmann lived in several countries whose governments or populations also participated, often enthusiastically, in the murder and persecution of the Jews, or were happy to see the back of them, or simply turned a blind eye to mass murder.

Another form of softcore denial involves detaching the Holocaust from its historical context. It is normally presented to us as a terrible blip, an appalling but brief episode which we must never let happen again. It’s almost as if it came from nowhere. The efficient mechanisation of mass murder was certainly new, but the associated Jew-hatred has been around for many centuries. The Holocaust can only be properly understood within the broad sweep of European Jewish history.

Again, Guttmann’s life betrays the truth. As a young man, he fled Budapest in 1920, escaping the Hungarian White Terror as 3000 Jews, many of whom had just returned from fighting in the First World War, were strung up and butchered throughout the country. He and his team-mates at the great Zionist football team of the 1920s, Hakoah Vienna, heroes throughout the Jewish world, were subjected to vicious racist abuse on the pitch, while their many fans were terrorised off it.

He lost his job as a highly successful coach in still independent Hungary in 1939 due to anti-Jewish laws, consigning him to poverty. In the immediate post-war years, he lived in a Central and Eastern Europe where up to 2000 Jews who had somehow managed to survive the Holocaust were then murdered by local populations.

In 1964, just after his autobiography was published, the then two-time European Cup winner resigned as coach of the Austrian team, citing intolerable antisemitism among the players, media and footballing establishment.

And this edited list excludes the carping about his alleged money-grabbing that he was forced to endure. He certainly experienced this innuendo in Portugal, scene of his greatest glory, where in other respects anti-Jewish agitation was not so prominent, possibly because that particular country had murdered, expelled or forcibly converted its own Jews almost 500 years before.

Jews like to joke that we make better accountants than sports people. But this humour is founded on ignorance.

The sheer extent of the Jewish impact on football history was a revelation to me. When Guttmann made his debut for an excellent Hungary team, beating Germany 3-0 in 1921, there were six Jews in the starting XI. And this, don’t forget, was in the midst of the White Terror. Despite the pervasive and fanatical antisemitism, Hungarian football needed its Jews.

The first fully professional league in Europe, the high-quality Austrian league of 1924/5, was won by Hakoah Vienna, whose story is the most inspirational, gripping and tragic of any team in the history of football, let alone a Jewish one.

Great innovators of strategy and tactics, Jewish coaches were everywhere. The first time Real Madrid won their league, their coach was a Jew. The first time Bayern Munich won their league, their coach was a Jew. The first time Benfica won their league, their coach was a Jew (it wasn’t Béla Guttmann — another Jew, Lippo Hertzka, got there before him).


The most successful coach in the great Italian league of the 1930s was a Jew. Árpád Weisz, Guttmann’s former team-mate, won the league three times with Inter Milan and Bologna before being murdered at Auschwitz with his wife and two young children.

Jews in Europe don’t make such an impact on football now. That’s because, for the most part, they are either dead or gone.

People should be aware that when they laugh at jokes about Jews and sport that they are, in a small way and inadvertently and indirectly, laughing at the destruction of the European Jews. Laughing at the fact that Jewish collective memory was so devastated by the Holocaust that we simply don’t know who we were.


The Greatest Comeback: From Genocide to Football Glory ( Biteback Publishing £20)  JC readers can buy it for £16.99 through the publishers' website, quoting JC17

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