Béla Guttmann – A Football Pioneer

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (May 24th 2010)

At Their Feet

The Champion’s League Final takes place tonight at the Estádio da Luz – now known as the Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica. Adorning the stadium is a statue of Benfica’s greatest manager, Béla Guttmann holding the two European Cups that his teams won aloft. The Hungarian coach had led Benfica to back to back successes, beating Barçelona in 1961 and Real Madrid in 1962.

The football world was at their feet. One of football’s all-time greats Eusébio da Silva Ferreira had made his breakthrough into Benfica’s side and both he and Guttmann held each other in very high regard once Eusébio had proved his worth. Real Madrid dominated the early years of the European Cup, winning the first five until Barçelona broke the trend before losing to Guttmann’s Benfica.

It was no one-season wonder either as Guttmann’s team beat a Ferenc Puskás inspired Real, despite a hat-trick from the Galloping Major. Puskás was so impressed that he gave the Mozambican-born Eusébio – hailed by many as the greatest ever African footballer – his shirt. A dynasty should have followed, but Benfica have never won a European trophy since.

The Curse

Guttmann is probably best known for the curse that bears his name. Having guided his team to two successive European Cups, the Hungarian coach wanted a pay rise. He had earned it, but Benfica’s new President Antonio Carlos Cabral Fezas Vital foolishly refused. Guttmann, never one to stay put for long – his three years at Benfica was the longest spell in management – left the club acrimoniously.

According to some he cursed Benfica. The most popular version of it is this: Not in 100 years from now will Benfica win a European Cup”. And to date – 52 years and counting – they haven’t. Guttmann had built an exceptionally talented side, playing thrilling attacking football. The victory over Real Madrid established their credentials to build a footballing dynasty. Instead an exhibition of crass short-sightedness robbed the team of its tactician and ushered in half a century of failure. But there is so much more to Guttmann than the curse.


Guttmann began his football career with MTK in 1919, winning the league title in 1920 and 1921. Magyar Testgyakorlók Köre Budapest FC (usually called MTK) was the dominant team in Hungary at the time. They won the league every season from 1917 until 1925. He made just four appearances for Hungary. His international career ended abruptly when he protested the accommodation facilities and that there were too many officials by hanging dead rats to their hotel doors.

Two years earlier he was forced to leave the country of his birth by rampant anti-Jewish racism. Guttmann was born in the dying generation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hungary had secured co-empire status in 1867. It lasted until defeat in the First World War

Gutmann’s career began in an era of massive upheaval. The Hapsburg Empire had collapsed – the compromise that resulted in the dual monarchies (Austro-Hungarian) lasted just over half a century. It resulted in political uncertainty. A communist coup led by Béla Kun had seized power in 1919, ushering in a Red Terror, which was countered by an even more brutal counter-terror and reactionary regime.

Former war hero Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya became Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary until he was overthrown in 1944 and detained by the Nazis. He never faced charges for his wartime collaboration. The White Terror that followed the overthrow of Kun was led by Pál Prónay de Tótpróna et Blatnicza a military colleague of Horthy who revelled in the Sadistic cruelty of the torture he inflicted. Anti-Jewish brutality was a feature of the White Terror.

It resulted in some Jews fleeing Hungary. Guttmann had to flee the persecution. He played for Hakoah Wien (Vienna) – a Jewish club. Hakoah toured extensively including the USA. In 1926 Guttmann stayed in the USA, suffering losses in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He returned to Europe three years later. A year later his playing career over Guttmann forged a new a career – one that would define his contribution to football  –  coaching.

The Coaching Nomad

Hakoah were the first team to employ him for two seasons. Dutch club FC Twente (now known as Twente Enschede) hired him for the next two seasons in 1935 before he returned to Hakoah. It should be remembered that Austria’s Wunderteam played the type of attacking football Guttmann believed in – a prototype of total football at this time. Guttmann was an advocate of uncompromising attacking football, saying he didn’t mind opponents scoring as he always believed that his team would score. With Europe drifting towards war Guttmann won the Hungarian championship with Újpest.

Being a Jew in Nazi-sympathising countries meant Guttmann’s life was in peril again. He lost relatives, but survived World War Two. Guttmann preferred not to talk about those experiences. After that war Guttmann returned to football, helping to change the way football was played. His first job was in Hungary at Vasas SC. His next stop was also brief – the Jewish club Maccabi Bucureşti (now known as Ciocanul)  – before returning to Újpest.

His Way

He was a very gifted coach, but things had to be done his way and only his way. At one of these clubs he insisted on being paid in vegetables due to food shortages. His tenure ended quickly when that club’s President tried to influence team selection. He walked out, After Újpest Guttman joined Kispest (now known as Honvéd), but despite no shortage of great talent, it proved to be an unhappy first spell in charge of this team.

He left abruptly after the young Ferenc Puskás was overheard telling another player at half-time to ignore Guttmann – Puskás had cause over this though. Guttmann had had a fractious relationship with Puskás previously. His instructions ignored Guttman went to the stands, disinterested in the rest of the match. He walked out on the club for that. Guttmann had succeeded Puskás’ father as coach. He was appointed again after Guttmann left. In 1962 the Galloping Major found Guttmann’s tactical nous was not bad after all when Benfica retained the European Cup at the expense of Puskás’ club Real Madrid. He also found that despite their differences Guttmann stood up for his players in 1956.


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