The Greatest Comeback review: a sombre salute to Béla Guttmann

David Bolchover’s biography of the great Benfica coach is a deeply personal project

Keith Duggan Chief Sports Writer


In the spring of 1926 Henri de Rothschild was among the soccer enthusiasts struggling to secure a ticket to see Hakoah Vienna play a New York All-Stars select in the Polo Grounds. The game was a 46,000 sell-out, and the “Unbeatable Jews” were hailed as a marvel. The team travelled to the White House, in Washington, DC, to meet President Calvin Coolidge and attracted more than 250,000 fans on their 11-match tour.

Nathan Straus, a Jewish philanthropist, was at the game in the Polo Grounds. He had donated most of his fortune to Jewish projects in Palestine. Before the match the two teams paraded the pitch, carrying American and Jewish national flags, and both The Star-Spangled Banner and Hatikva, the anthem of the Jewish national movement, were played. When the players stopped in front of his box Straus began to sob. The day was both a triumphant acknowledgment of Hakoah’s brilliant existence and the beginning of their quick demise.

Hakoah Vienna (1909-38) was a phenomenal organisation whose members excelled in many sports. Throughout the 1920s its soccer team and its supporters encountered a degree of racial hostility that David Bolchover believes to be unprecedented. The sides in the famous soccer rivalries of Glasgow and Buenos Aires are, he contends, “just playing at animosity”. Hakoah wanted to promote Zionism and the idea of Jewish athletic prowess. Its football wing was an exoticism; breathtaking in its style of play, a lodestar for the European Jewish community and, in the words of George Kay, the West Ham captain whose team lost 5-0, “the best team I have ever seen”.

For we readers the benefit of historical hindsight shrouds their exploits in a terrible unease. Ten players decided to stay on in New York to play for teams there. At least 37 Hakoah athletes were murdered in the Holocaust. The soccer team was relegated and later expelled from the Austrian league. Hakoah was, Bolchover writes, “a light in the gathering gloom for a few glorious and inspirational years”.

Béla Guttmann, then Hakoah’s centre back, and the subject of this biography, was one of those who stayed in New York. It was one of a series of instinctively smart decisions the Hungarian made during an extraordinary life. His father, sister and wider family were among those who were massacred in Nazi Europe. Guttmann survived, despite electing to return to his native Budapest in 1938, when Jewish persecution was rampant.

Harboured in an attic by Pál Moldován, a Budapest gentile who became Guttmann’s brother-in-law, the former player lived through the Holocaust, escaped from a labour camp and 15 years later established himself as one of the great 20th-century soccer coaches in guiding the Lisbon side Benfica to consecutive European Cups. He was charming, quick-tempered, utterly restless and wedded to the principal of expansive, romantic football. He walked away from his greatest triumph in 1963 because the Benfica board quibbled over his salary.

“I am the most expensive coach in the world, but, looking at my achievements, I’m actually cheap,” he would say later, with some justification.

Two clubs solicited his services. Both began with P. One was Peñarol, from Uruguay, arguably then the best club team in the world. The other was Port Vale. “Such was the parochialism of English football that this is the only recorded approach by any English club to this great manager, a man who spoke decent English after six years spent in the United States,” Bolchover writes.

Guttmann opted for Montevideo over Stoke-on-Trent. He roamed constantly in the years afterwards without ever fully recapturing the totality of influence as coach, life force and tactician. He died in 1981, respected by soccer historians and keen fans but a relatively obscure name in the sport globally.

This is not a straightforward biographical story. It was clearly a deeply personal exploration for David Bolchover. His research and interview sources are impeccable, and he allows that Guttmann’s story became for him a personal obsession. It isn’t until page 266, in his acknowledgments, that we learn he had been working on the manuscript for a considerable time before finding a publisher.

Bolchover is an English soccer man and he is Jewish. He wanted, through walking Guttmann’s iridescent path, to reclaim the Jewish contribution to the development of soccer in pre-Holocaust Europe. And in tracing Guttmann’s journey he seeks to remind his audience of the unceasing scourge of anti-Semitism, “a virus that survives by mutating”, he writes, quoting Jonathan Sacks, former chief Rabbi of the UK.

In 1939, 9.5 million Jewish people lived in Europe. Now that number is 1.4 million. In 1925, when Guttmann scored for Hakoah in a famous 11-2 victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv, 200,000 Jews lived in Vienna. Today it is home to fewer than 10,000.

The book’s 11 chapters are preceded by disturbing vignettes of the systematic purging of the Jewish population in central Europe on either side of and during the second World War. Guttmann’s life is in turn inspiring, bleak, heroic and, occasionally, comic, and his legacy is stained by his role in a hit-and-run death in Milan in 1955.

Overall, the book is a deeply sombre salute to a flawed, uniquely gifted soccer man who negotiated a path through the horrors of Nazism. The only wish here is that Bolchover had written his emotional imperative as a more central strand of the narrative. Because, in writing this book, Bolchover was chasing a ghost. And as we read about Béla Guttmann’s pilgrimage from club to club and idea to idea, always searching, it is hard to escape the conclusion that he was doing the same thing.