Béla Guttmann – The Making of a Football Legend

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


It is an injustice that so few have heard of Béla Guttmann and most of those who have remember him for cursing Benfica to a century of heartbreak in European football. Guttmann led Benfica to break Real Madrid’s domination of the European Cup. The Portuguese giants won the trophy in 1961 and retained it against Real Madrid the following year. Guttmann asked the new President Antonio Carlos Cabral Fezas Vital for a pay rise – he had earned it – but was refused.

Guttmann not only left the club in acrimonious circumstances, but cursed them to a century of failure in European competition. The Curse has held firm. Whenever Benfica play nearby flowers are placed on Guttmann’s grave – Vienna. Not even the intervention of perhaps Benfica’s greatest ever player Eusébio da Silva Ferreira could lift the curse.

In 1990 Benfica reached the final of the European Cup. They faced another of Guttmann’s former clubs AC Milan. Now there was a club who deserved a curse for their treatment of Guttmann. He was bizarrely sacked with his team top of Serie A. Eusébio tended to Gutmann’s grave and prayed for him to left the Curse, but Guttmann remained unmoved. Eight defeats in finals and 52 years on Benfica remain unable to break the Curse. Not even a statue of Guttmann holding the two European Cups he won at their stadium has appeased Guttmann’s Curse.


Domestically, it is a different story. Benfica has won 45 domestic trophies since Guttmann pronounced his sentence of 100 years in the European wilderness – the Primera Liga 22 times, Taça de Portugal (Portuguese Cup) 14 times, Taça da Liga (league Cup) five times and Supertaça Cândido de Oliveira (equivalent of the Community Shield) four times. Nevertheless European success eludes them.

Their greatest player Eusébio scored an incredible 474 goals in 440 matches for Benfica, but not even he could end the Curse. He had been recruited by Guttmann following a recommendation by former Brasilian international José Carlos Bauer who had played for Guttmann when the Hungarian managed São Paulo in 1957. Bauer had played in the infamous Battle of Bern – a match that could have permanently soured relations between Brasil and Hungary.

Both sides played attacking football, but this was a niggly exhibition of all that is wrong in football. Nevertheless, close ties emerged. Guttmann was one of the young breed of managers that helped Hungary become the Mighty Magyars. Gusztáv Sebes managed the national team and benefited from the tactical formations played by Guttmann and Márton Bukovi. The latter’s innovative use of a deep-lying forward was used to great effect by Sebes during Hungary’s routing of England in 1953 and 54. The formation developed into 4-2-4.

Having helped Sebes to develop Hungary into one of the best sides ever to play the beautiful game, Guttmann helped to launch an international football dynasty. Brasil had threatened to deliver great things without quite managing to fulfil the promise – 1950 being the classic example. But the nomadic existence had plenty of travelling to complete before Guttmann set foot in South America.

Spreading the Word

Guttmann walked out on Kispest (Honvéd) after Ferenc Puskás tried to get another player to ignore his instructions, although he had some justification. Guttmann was unimpressed with the performance of Milhaly Patyi and ordered him not to go out for the second half. Puskás, who already had a strained relationship with Guttmann told Patyi to ignore Guttmann. He did and the fiery coach walked out during the match.

Italian football was next on his list. Padova had just been promoted to Serie A in 1948. Guttmann coached them in 1949-50. Triestina had a season of Guttmann before he left Italy for Argentina in 1952 and a very brief spell with Quilmes who remained in the second tier of Argentinian football. Guttmann joined APOEL in Cyprus that year, leaving the following year for Italy again and the chance to manage a great team, AC Milan.

Gunnar Gren had left, but Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm remained and the World Cup-winning Uruguayan great Juan Alberto Schiaffino joined. AC Milan sacked Guttmann after 19 games of the 1954-55 season. They were top of the table and went on to win the title. Gutmann left with a bizarre but memorable parting shot. “I have been sacked even though I am neither a criminal nor a homosexual”, Guttmann said. “Goodbye”. Rather than issue a Curse – perhaps a good thing given that AC Milan won Serie A that season – Guttmann had a clause in future contracts. He could not be sacked if his team were in first place.



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