A footballing nomad and a wandering tactical evangelical, the hot-tempered Bela Guttmann has come to be regarded as one of the most astute coaches to emerge from the sporting intellectual set that arose in Eastern Europe during the 1930s. An adventurous centre-half by trade, Guttmann’s playing career saw him undertake spells in his native Hungary, Austria and New York before he joined Hakoah Vienna in 1933 to embark on what would become a marvellously successful, if fragmented, coaching career.
As Jonathan Wilson points out in Inverting The Pyramid, Guttmann’s mantra was “The third season is fatal” – a motto he appeared to take very seriously, few of his managerial engagements lasting longer than two years. After flitting from club to club throughout the war, the Hungarian got his big break in 1953 when he was hired by AC Milan and promptly guided the Rossoneri to within striking distance of the 1954/55 Serie A title before being dismissed after a series of disputes with the board. “I have been sacked even though I am neither a criminal nor a homosexual!” he pronounced in typically bombastic style upon his departure.
Just two years later, after crossing the Atlantic to undertake a tour of South America with Budapest club Honved, Guttmann decided to stay behind and take on a coaching role with Sao Paulo, Brazil being the place where he left what was arguably his most permanent of legacies. In 1957, his first season with the club, the fiery Hungarian guided Sao Paulo to the national championship and – at least according to his own version of history – introduced the 4-2-4 system to Brazilian football.
Through the work of Guttmann with Sao Paulo it is believed that the system – one which had long been theorised but rarely practised in South America – was gradually implemented as the default for a number of Brazilian teams. The 4-2-4, which became the foundation upon which the attacking ethos of the Brazil teams of the 1950s, 60s and 70s was built, certainly owed much to the progressive attitudes and imagination of Guttmann, even if a good deal of the groundwork had been done by his compatriot Gusztav Sebes.
The continually travelling coach departed Brazil in 1958 and cropped up at Benfica a year later where he was to win the most illustrious trophies of his career. After claiming both the 1960 and ’61 league titles, Guttmann guided his young team to the 1961 European Cup, Benfica becoming the first club to break Real Madrid’s five-year dominance of the competition.
A year later – spearheaded by an electric young Eusebio – the Portuguese team repeated the trick as they overcame the Madrid of Gento, Puskas and Di Stefano 5-3 in one of the greatest European finals ever seen. Guttmann, however, was infuriated by the Benfica directors’ decision not to award him a sizeable financial bonus after the second continental triumph and left the club with a hail of invective, joining Servette in the aftermath and bringing an end to the most bounteous spell of his career in the process.
The Budapest-born coach eventually retired from his labyrinthine career at Porto in 1974, leaving the game having, in the words of Wilson, “more than anybody since [Herbert] Chapman, defined the cult of the manager”. In many ways Guttmann was the last of his kind, an old-fashioned individualist intellectual steeped in an attacking ethos and a philosophy which demanded attractive football and unadulterated positivity at the expense of any semblance of negative defensive tactics.
With football evolving to become an altogether more defensive creature in the years after his retirement and quickly developing into a multi-billion pound industry with results its primary concern, whether we will ever see the like of Guttmann again is, sadly, very doubtful. However, for his work implementing the 4-2-4 in South America and his great success with Benfica, the Hungarian nomad deserves to be considered as one of the greatest coaches there has ever been.