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'He used to repeat that footballers should only have sex once a week’

In an extract from ‘The Names Heard Long Ago,’ Jonathan Wilson profiles legendary Benfica coach Béla Guttmann.

Bela Guttmann, Benfica coach.
Bela Guttmann, Benfica coach.
Image: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘The Names Heard Long Ago’ by Jonathan Wilson. 

At São Paulo, Béla Guttmann had taken over from Vicente Feola, who became his assistant.

As Dori Kürschner had discovered at Flamengo, that could be awkward, but Feola was a far more relaxed, genial character than Flávio Costa, a bon vivant who would often fall asleep on the bench during training.

Brazilian football, anyway, had moved closer to Hungarian football in the two decades since Kürschner’s arrival. Guttmann found a world that thanks to Flávio Costa’s development of Kürschner’s ideas, was not unfamiliar to him.

The 4–2–4, the shape towards which Hungarian football had been slowly progressing as József Zakariás dropped deeper and deeper in midfield, was already accepted.

Guttmann’s role was not to introduce a new formation but to lessen the self-indulgence that so often slowed attacks, drilling his players in playing more quickly and more directly. His calls of ‘pingpang-pong’ and ‘ta-ta-ta’, encouraging greater rapidity of passing, became catchphrases.

Guttmann led São Paulo to the Paulista championship in 1957 and although he then returned to Europe with Porto, Feola carried on his work. Feola was subsequently appointed national coach and, introducing the world at large to 4–2–4, led Brazil to World Cup glory in 1958.

To call it a Hungarian triumph would obviously be an overstatement, but Brazil’s revolutionary style had been laid down by one Hungarian and honed by another.

By then Guttmann seems to have accepted his fate was to be a wanderer, never staying anywhere long enough for his ideas and his manner to become abrasive or repetitive. ‘The third year is fatal,’ he said. ‘A coach dominates the animals, in whose cage he performs his show, as long as he deals with them with self-confidence and without fear. But the moment he becomes unsure of his hypnotic energy, and the first hint of fear appears in his eyes, he is lost.’

Portugal saw Guttmann at his peak. He helped Porto overhaul a five-point deficit to pinch the title from Benfica, who promptly appointed him themselves. He sacked 20 players on his arrival but, promoting youth, won the league in both 1960 and 1961. More significantly, in 1961 in Bern, which seven years earlier had been the graveyard of Hungarian dreams, Guttmann led Benfica to victory over Barcelona in the European Cup final, ending Real Madrid’s five-year domination of the competition. Nobody doubted how significant Guttmann had been to the win.

‘Guttmann was obsessed with discipline,’ said Mario Coluna. ‘Maybe that was the secret of his success. It was good to give us discipline. If he hadn’t done that, maybe we would never have achieved what we did. The players were afraid of him and had a lot of respect for him. He would fine the players for the smallest thing… We had to be very careful. Guttmann was always advising us. He used to repeat that footballers should only have sex once a week.’

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As the players celebrated in the dressing room there was no champagne; Guttmann had prohibited alcohol. A day after that game, Guttmann gave a competitive debut to Eusébio, whom he had signed after a chance meeting with a former São Paulo player, José Carlos Bauer, in a barber’s shop in Lisbon.

Bauer alerted him to an extraordinary talent playing for Sporting’s feeder club in Maputo (then Lourenço Marques), the capital of Mozambique; Benfica hijacked the deal and so landed the greatest player in their history.

‘By signing Eusébio,’ Guttmann said, ‘I was able to play Mario Coluna deeper, more as a wing-half than an inside-forward. He did not like it at first because he did not score so many goals, but he became my best player.’

Like Hidegkuti, his creative potential was enhanced by a deeper starting position. Eusébio was only 20 when he inspired Benfica to their second European Cup. Guttmann by then seemed able to adjust his players’ mood at will.

At half-time in the final, with his side 3–2 down, as he made the decisive shift to Cavém’s role, he went round congratulating his players, telling them, ‘We’ve got this sewn up.’ Mario Coluna said the words made him feel about half a metre taller.

Even with the looming threat of catenaccio from Italy, who knows what might have been achieved had Guttmann stayed? But he didn’t. He fell out with the board that summer over their refusal to give him a bonus for his successes in Europe and, it’s said, cursed the club on his way out, telling them they would not win another European trophy for 100 years.

57 years later, despite appearing in eight further finals – and despite Eusébio praying for forgiveness at Guttmann’s grave in Vienna before the 1990 European Cup final – they still have not.

Guttmann wandered on, to Peñarol, the Austria national side, back briefly to Benfica, Servette, Panathinaikos, Austria Wien and Porto before he finally settled back in the city where he had always felt most at home: Vienna.

Aged 75, he bought an apartment near the opera house on Walfischgasse, going to the coffee house every day to drink a Melange, something he had dreamed of wherever he was living. He died in Vienna six years later, in 1981.

The Names Heard Long Ago: How the Golden Age of Hungarian Football Shaped the Modern Game by Jonathan Wilson is published by Blink. More info here.

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