The remarkable story of Bela Guttmann – a Hungarian Jew who survived the Holocaust to become the first superstar football coach, and whose methods have had an enduring impact on the modern game.
For someone who has had such a seismic impact on football, it’s crazy that Bela Guttmann is not a household name among most semi-knowledgable football fans.
I have to admit, when I came across The Greatest Comeback, I had not known of Guttmann before. While reading this book, and as I discovered more about his life and career, I asked my colleagues – all sports journalists with decades of experience – what they knew about Guttmann.
There were a couple of “I’m sure I’ve heard the name before” and a few “that sounds familiar”, but no one could definitively say who he was. When I said he was the manager when Benfica won back-to-back European Cups in the 1960s, the reaction was one of mild acknowledgement.
But Guttmann’s lasting influence on football extends far beyond a few trophies, no matter how remarkable the achievement with Benfica. Innovative tactics, unique man-management, a focus on fitness and nutrition – all expectations for top-level managers nowadays, but light years ahead during the 1950s and 60s.
Mourinho says the same things today that Guttmann said more than fifty years ago
Even Guttmann’s ability to berate board members, ostracise players, demand hefty pay rises and storm out of clubs are common antics around world football in the 21st century, but not so much 50 or 60 years ago.
Guttmann was undoubtedly a trailblazer, whose imprint on modern football is larger than most in the long and storied history of the beautiful game.
But while Guttmann’s life was consumed by football – from his accomplished playing days in Budapest, Vienna and New York, to his illustrious, colourful and globetrotting coaching career – the story of this Hungarian Jew extends far beyond the confines of a football pitch.
A Holocaust survivor, Guttmann hid in an attic in Budapest as thousands of his fellow Jews, including close family members, were forced into labour camps and murdered. Guttmann was eventually captured by the Nazis, but managed to escape after a daring and risky plan.
After the war ended and Europe started to piece itself back together, Guttmann quickly resumed his extraordinary management career that would take him around the world – with varying degrees of success – and culminated in the pinnacle of any club manager’s career: the lifting of the European Cup. Twice. In two years.
From the death pits of Europe to champion of Europe in little more than sixteen years
This oversimplification of a stranger-than-fiction life is almost insulting. For that I apologise. Thankfully you don’t have to rely on me to learn all about the remarkable Bela Guttmann.
David Bolchover’s The Greatest Comeback is the gripping biography that does Guttmann’s story justice and brings to light just how big his influence has been on the game.
Bolchover starts each chapter with a historical reference placed in the wider context of Jewish history of either the time or place Guttmann finds himself. This background not only offers necessary historical context to Guttmann’s story, but provides numerous shocking reminders of the persecution of Jews throughout human history, allowing us to gain an understanding of the prejudice Guttmann faced throughout his life and coaching career.
Bolchover also includes plenty of fascinating footnotes that help flesh out Guttmann’s story. Some simply explain the introduction of new football rules, while others offer snapshots of wider Jewish influence on football.
And then there are footnotes that could be expanded into their own fascinating stories. One that springs to mind is of Leo Horn, the Jewish referee who took charge of the 1962 European Cup final between Benfica and Real Madrid.
As well as undertaking exhaustive and painstaking research to tell the complete story of Guttmann, particularly when trying to piece together his movements during the war years, Bolchover also explains why this story has not been etched into football folklore to the extent it deserves.
Fortunately, The Greatest Comeback is a remarkable, compelling piece of work that captures this most important story of human survival, and as Bolchover writes, “the prime sporting example from a generation of inspirational Holocaust survivors who cast off the horrors of the past decade to achieve personal success”.
A brilliant book worthy of this astonishing story and its brilliant, inspirational, complicated and flawed protagonist that historians and football fans alike will thoroughly enjoy.