Luck has always played a role in football, smiling on some teams and frowning unforgivably on others. Take Benfica, for example, beaten now in eight consecutive European finals, a run that would have any other set of fans lamenting their misfortune. Not so for Benfica supporters, with followers of the Portuguese giants convinced that luck has nothing to do with it. Instead, they pin their continental woes on Bela Guttmann – despite their former coach having passed away in 1981.
The 'curse of Bela Guttmann' was supposedly saddled on Benfica in 1962, the night they clinched their second European Cup win. Unable to reach an agreement with club officials on an appropriate bonus, a furious Guttmann immediately quit his role as coach – and vowed that, unless he was paid, the Lisbon outfit would toil away without a European trophy for the next 100 years. Since then, Os Encarnados have lost European Cup finals in 1963, 1965, 1968, 1988 and 1990, to go with a UEFA Cup showpiece loss in 1983 and further defeats in the 2013 and 2014 UEFA Europa League deciders.
Guttmann's grudge is clearly made of firm stuff. It has also endured despite a statue to the great man being installed at the Estadio da Luz, plus an official apology from the club in 1990 – delivered by none other than Eusebio himself, the legendary forward even wielding a bouquet of flowers. All to no obvious effect. If anything, Guttmann appears as uncompromising from beyond the grave as he was during his career. "A coach is like a lion tamer," he once said. "He dominates the animals as long as he shows them self-confidence and no fear. But when the first sign of fear appears in his eyes, he is lost."
'Talent is not enough'
That outlook could well explain why Guttmann racked up as many altercations as he did successes during his eventful life. Born in 1900 in Budapest, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he followed in his parents' footsteps by becoming a dance instructor at the age of 16, before opting to try his luck as a footballer. Starting out at amateur side Torekvas, Guttmann joined local powerhouse MTK Budapest in 1919, but was forced to flee Hungary in the early 1920s due to the local regime's anti-Semitism. He ended up in Vienna, where he turned out for Hakoah Wien, the club of the city's Jewish community.
It was only a temporary respite from political pressures, and Guttmann left Europe for New York, where his playing career stagnated. He kept himself busy, however, running a Prohibition-era speakeasy and dabbling in the stock market until the 1929 Wall Street Crash, before he returned to Vienna for one final season with Hakoah in 1932. Having hung up his boots, he then tried his hand at management and embarked on a veritable tour of the world during his 40 years in the dugout. Incapable of staying in any one place too long, he was regularly on the move between his first assignment with Hakoah in 1933 and his last at Porto in 1973, with just a seven-year interlude as he escaped the fate that befell so many Jews during the Second World War.
Stopping off for stints in countries including Argentina, Brazil, Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Uruguay, Guttmann changed jobs 25 times in total, successfully passing on his know-how to clubs both big and small – and always with the same philosophy. "It doesn't matter if we concede three or four goals as long as we score five or six," he used to say, while emphasising that "talent is not enough. Players have to have a hunger to win every time they step out on the pitch."
Memorable Guttmann anecdotes abound from his years on the road, but few sum him up as well as his time at Maccabi Bucharest, where he arranged to be paid in vegetables – a rare luxury just after the war – before he walked out due to club officials meddling in his team selections. He was not a man who appreciated having his authority questioned, and he proved that again at Honved, where he managed a certain Ferenc Puskas, along with fellow future 'Magical Magyars' Sandor Kocsis, Jozsef Bozsik and Zoltan Czibor. The fledgling 'Galloping Major' did not see eye to eye with his coach, and tensions between the two bubbled away constantly.
Contracts and a transfer coup
They finally reached breaking point during a game against Gyor, when Guttmann lost his cool watching the first-half performance of Mihaly Patyi. So angered was he that he forbade the defender from returning to the pitch for the second period, preferring to play with ten men. Puskas protested, and ordered his colleague to rejoin the action, an affront that drew an instant response from Guttmann – he walked out of the stadium, and then the club.
That infamous temperament likewise landed Guttmann in hot water at AC Milan, where he was dismissed due to frictions behind closed doors despite his team leading Serie A after 19 games. As a result, he made sure to include a clause in all his subsequent contracts preventing him from being fired if his side were top of the league. And top they often were, with Guttmann working wonders not just at Benfica, Honved and Milan, but also Sao Paulo, Penarol and Porto.
His forthright personality and impressive CV tended to allow him free reign, and Guttmann even took the step of beginning his Benfica spell in 1959/60 by offloading 20 players under contract. Preferring to give the youngsters a chance, he promptly steered his callow line-up to the Portuguese title that season. And he was no less decisive in December 1960, when he pipped Sporting to the signature of a promising forward from Mozambique who looked set to join Benfica's fierce local rivals. Guttmann squirrelled the young marksman into Portugal using fake identity papers, and kept him holed up in a hotel for several days until a contract had been inked.
His name? Eusebio. The gifted striker would later help the Eagles lift the European Cup in 1961 and 1962. Those remain their sole continental victories and – who knows? – possibly their last until 2062, if the 'curse' is to be believed. After all, Bela Guttmann, who died 35 years ago today, still seems in no mood to change his mind.