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.
Iain Dale of Biteback Publishing has acquired world rights to a new book by former Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin from Toby Mundy Associates.
This book is Letwin’s attempt to explain how the central ideas and policies of the modern Conservative party came into being, how they have played out over the period from Mrs Thatcher to Mrs May, and what needs to happen next.
In it he focuses on how one set of politicians has tried to lead the country in a certain direction as a result of holding a particular set of views about what will make it a better place in which to live. Far from being a sugar-coated version of history, Letwin hopes that by telling the story in this way, he will persuade the reader that politicians are capable of recognising their mistakes and learning from them – and to show that social and economic liberalism, if correctly conceived, are capable of addressing the issues that confront us today.
The book also describes Letwin’s own journey from a remarkable childhood with American academic parents, via Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit, into the very centre of first the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, and then the Cameron government, where as Minister for Government Policy and then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, every piece of government policy crossed his desk.
It will include Letwin’s personal reflections on two devastating electoral events: the EU referendum and the general election of June 2017.
Toby Mundy said:
‘Oliver has written a grown-up and incisive book about politics — part memoir, part political history, part history of ideas — that I believe will be extensively reviewed and crystallise a wide-ranging debate about the state we’re in.’
Iain Dale said:
‘One of modern politics’ foremost thinkers, Oliver has produced a fascinating work that will set the pace for political writing for years to come.’
Hearts and Minds: The Battle for the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the Present will be published in October 2017.
This is surely one of the greatest stories in football history.
Before Pep Guardiola and before José Mourinho, there was Béla Guttmann: the first superstar football coach, and the man who paved the way for the celebrated coaches of the modern age. In 1961 and 1962, Benfica lifted the European Cup – the only times in the club's history – under his management.
More extraordinarily still, Guttmann was a Holocaust survivor. Having narrowly dodged death by hiding for months in an attic near Budapest as thousands of fellow Jews in the neighbourhood were dragged off to be murdered, Guttmann later escaped from a slave labour camp. Rising from the death pits of Europe to become its champion in just over sixteen years, Guttmann performed the single greatest comeback in football history.
In 1992, the European Cup completition was replaced by the UEFA Champions League. As Juventus face Real Madrid in tomorrow's Champions Leage final, we celebrate Guttmann's historic success and personal story with The Greatest Comeback by David Bolchover available at HALF PRICE for this weekend only.
“If you’re a football fan and Béla Guttmann is just a name you have seen in the lists of European Cup-winning managers, take the time to read about the man. It is an astonishing journey.” – Oliver Holt, Chief Sports Writer, Mail on Sunday
“Original and definitive.” – Patrick Barclay, football writer
“Moving, original, full of insight, this is a gripping tale told by a skilled storyteller.” – Daniel Finkelstein, associate editor, The Times
“David Bolchover has expertly woven one huge, tragic strand of twentieth-century history together with a great footballing story.” – Henry Winter, Chief Football Writer, The Times
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Michael Smith of Biteback Publishing has acquired world rights to a major new study of Britain’s economy by The Observer’s senior economics commentator William Keegan.
Nine Crises: Fifty Years of Covering the British Economy, from Devaluation to Brexit combines the author’s memories of Chancellors of the Exchequer, Governors of the Bank of England, influential economists and Fleet Street legends with vignettes on nine major economic crises, to tell the story of how the British economy seems to lurch from one disaster to another but somehow survives, at least until now.
In a book peppered with anecdotes and memories from the author’s widespread political connections, Keegan draws on his own unparalleled experience to explore, among others – the 1967 devaluation, the three-day week, Black Wednesday and the 2008 global financial crisis – and explains why the prospect of Brexit is potentially the biggest crisis he has witnessed in fifty years.
Michael Smith said: ‘Everyone at Biteback is thrilled to be publishing William’s new book. William is such a huge name in economic and political journalism and this promises to be an important and timely book, as the spectre of Brexit poses an existential threat to the British economy in the years to come.’
Nine Crises will be published in April 2018.
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