Opinion

How the Nazis Destroyed a Golden Age of Jewish Soccer

Real Madrid, Torino, Bayern Munich, Benfica: Jews were pivotal in the development of European soccer. But then they were kicked into the concentration camps

Bela Guttmann in his Hakoah Vienna jersey, 1925
Wikimedia

This week, the Jewish world will mark Yom HaShoah. "We must never forget" will be the usual cry. That is far easier said than done. Much of what constituted European Jewish society before its destruction has been buried forever, never to be unearthed again.

I reached that conclusion while researching my book on the great Jewish football coach, Béla Guttmann. Jews like to joke that they make better lawyers or accountants than sportsmen or women. When they laugh at these jokes, they are inadvertently laughing at the extermination of their own people, at the devastation of Jewish collective memory, at the fact that Jews haven’t got a clue who they used to be.

What I discovered amazed and shamed me in equal measure. It transpires that Jews were pivotal in the development of European football. There were many outstanding Jewish players and trailblazing Jewish coaches. And yet here was I, a Jew with a lifelong passion for football and a longstanding fascination for modern Jewish history, who knew virtually nothing about this distinguished history.

And if we know nothing about the very significant Jewish contribution to the world’s most popular sport, how much else don’t we know about this lost European Jewish civilization?

This is what genocide does. It eliminates both the people and any trace of those people in the minds of those who live.

When Béla Guttmann made his debut for an excellent Hungary team in 1921, beating Germany 3-0, there were six Jews in the starting XI. What’s more, that game was played during the White Terror, when 3000 Jews were being butchered across the country. Even in the midst of this fanatical anti-Semitism, Hungarian football needed its Jews.

Haaretz Archives

In 1925, Guttmann was playing for Hakoah Vienna, the best-known of many Zionist football teams that had sprung up around Europe. The team won the high-quality Austrian championship that year despite facing a constant barrage of violent racism.

Wearing the blue and white of the Jewish national movement, and a large Star of David on their shirts, Hakoah sparked a sporting fervor throughout a Jewish Central and Eastern Europe that was soon to be wiped off the face of the earth.

Early in his career, Guttmann played with Árpád Weisz, a fellow Hungarian Jew. Weisz was the most successful coach in the great Italian league of the 1930s, winning the national championship three times with Inter Milan and Bologna, before being murdered at Auschwitz with his wife and two young children.

Hugo Meisl was an important mentor to Guttmann in his early coaching career. Meisl led the great Austrian wunderteam of the inter-war period, and heavily influenced the rise of a new passing style of football throughout Europe. Thankfully, he died in 1937, before the Nazis could take pleasure in murdering him.

In late 1944, Guttmann found himself in a slave labour camp near Budapest together with another great Jewish coach, Ern Egri Erbstein. They discovered that their labour battalion of Jewish men was about to be deported to almost certain death.

The Hungarian national football team of 1924, including Bela Guttmann (center)
Wikimedia

Rather than suffer the fate of 600,000 Hungarian Jews, they escaped by jumping from a window.

Erbstein won the Italian championship less than five years later as the coach of Torino, before being killed in an air crash together with his team.

Another of Guttmann’s friends was Imre Hirschl, a Jewish butcher from Budapest, who bluffed his way into coaching two massive South American clubs, River Plate of Argentina and Peñarol of Uruguay. Remarkably, the impostor won the domestic title with both teams.

So many of the giant football clubs of Europe have a Jewish past, being either founded, supported or coached by Jews. The first time Bayern Munich won the German championship, their coach was Richard Kohn, a Jew. The first time Real Madrid won the Spanish championship, their coach was Lippo Hertzka, a Jew. The first time Benfica of Lisbon won the Portuguese championship, Hertzka was again at the helm.

Hakoah club memorial to the Jewish sportspeople murdered in the Holocaust. Ramat Gan, Israel
Wikimedia

Guttmann was the greatest of them all. Before his labor camp experiences, he hid in an attic above a hairdressing salon while 8000 Hungarian Jews were being transported each day to the gas chambers and ovens of Auschwitz. His sister and 78-year-old father were among those murdered.

But less than two decades later, he had twice won the European Cup as coach of Benfica, the most prestigious sporting competition, in a continent which had so recently wanted him dead.

Europe’s Jews don’t play such a role in football now. That’s because, for the most part, they are either dead or gone.

On Yom Hashoah, we will watch interviews with representatives from a diminishing pool of survivors. But by virtue of having survived, they are an anomaly. The norm was annihilation, both of Jews but also of Jewish memory.

David Bolchover is an author and commentator. His latest book is The Greatest Comeback: From Genocide to Football Glory (Backbite, 2017).  Twitter: @DavidBolchover 

This op-ed was first published on Apr 08, 2018