The Curse of Béla Guttmann

imageI write this not as a superstition, but as an intriguing series of events, which defies logic. Nevertheless, the element of bud-dua exists in our belief system. For the rest, Allah knows best.

As I watched the football match between Benfica and Bayern in the European Champions Cup Quarter-Final, my mind flashed back to when Eusebio was king of Europe and Benfica the best football team in the world. Picked out of Mozambique, based on a chance discussion in a barber shop in Lisbon (about a soccer wonder kid), this 20 year old had made Benfica European Champions in 1961 and then again in 1962. It was no mean achievement, as they had beaten Barcelona and then Real Madrid in those finals.

Béla Guttmann was the manager behind Benfica. Much traveled and besides playing for Hungary, had been in the USA, South America and various European clubs. His history besides being adventurous, was also one of hard nosed independence and eccentricity. He rarely lasted beyond two seasons and was attributed with the quote “The third season is fatal”. After World War II, Europe being short of food, he asked that his managerial compensation be in the shape of fresh vegetables, so that he could feed himself and his family. He also had renowned arguments, which meant he had to move on from his job. He was fired from AC Milan in the mid 50’s despite the Rossoneri leading the Italian Serie A. He also took on Ferenc Puskas, the Captain of the Mighty Magyars of the 50’s and got fired.

So here was a man at the peak of his career. Acknowledged as the main force behind Benfica, he had already mentored Eusebio to greatness (who eventually became Ballon d’Or) and was looking at his last years of management spent at the top of world football. He was however, in his third season at Benfica, and maybe he should have reflected on his own words.

Somethings never change. Guttmann’s history was one of them. Having beaten Real Madrid in the 1962 European Final and Eusebio ending runner up in the Ballon d’Or election, Guttmann approached Benfica for an increase in salary. In todays monied world this is such an obvious move; Benfica would have done well to increase Guttmann’s pay. They chose to refuse and Guttman being who he was, walked. Much regret from everyone, but it seemed not the end of the world. However, as Guttmann left Benfica, legend has it he cursed the club, declaring “Never in a hundred years, will Benfica ever be European champion”. This is what in our words, is called a bud-dua.

I am no one to judge the merits of this curse. But, 54 years on, as Benfica lose to Bayern Munich in another European Champions Quarter-final, they have lost all eight of their subsequent European finals, comprising five European Cup finals (1963, 1965, 1968, 1988, 1990) and three UEFA Cup/Europa League finals (1983, 2013 and 2014). An amazing series of events and a statistic which has intrigued many in football. This course of events is similar to the much spoken “curse of the Bambino” on the Boston Red Sox, which took almost 90 years to break.

Just to show that in Portugal they take this curse very seriously, before the 1990 European Cup final, which was played in Vienna, where Guttmann is buried, Eusébio (Guttmann’s former star player) prayed at Guttmann’s grave for the curse to be broken. As I finish writing, the score ends Bayern 3- Benfica 2. Another year gone.

* picture is from Sportskeeda.com

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Winner Takes All

imageIn late 1973 Red Star Belgrade came to Anfield in the European Cup (Champions League today) and ran the legs off Liverpool. Liverpool were one of the favourites, and couple of years later won the same European trophy twice back to back, besides winning the UEFA Cup twice in this period, and five League Championships in eight years and being runners-up in the remaining three. So no mugs.

Anfield must have been shocked. Absolutely, no argument about that. At the end of the match, the Kop (at the time, the most celebrated football crowd in the world, pre Heysel and Hillsborough), simply stood up and gave them a standing ovation, genuine and appreciative of the great skill of that Red Star team.

History records this particular Red Star Belgrade team was one of the great underachievers of club football. They were one of the best football teams in the world, but simply disappeared into the unknown. A later Red Star team won the European Cup in 1991, and that is what Red Star Belgrade is known for today. Like some other underachievers, namely Puskas Hungarians of 1954 and Tele Santana Brazilians of 1982, they won nothing and today, even very knowledgeable football fans do not know of them.

Who really remembers the 1970 South Africans? Except that they were one of the most magical cricket teams to exist. But they never won on the world stage, other than the 4-0 drubbing of Australia. Players like Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock and Mike Proctor were kings of their era.

This winner takes all mentality is a modern phenomenon. It has several aspects to it. Firstly, it expects that people win something to be acknowledged and become somebody. Secondly, the expectations and loyalty of supporters is also short and variable.

If, it’s a question of numbers and probabilities, one wonders how people will achieve acknowledgement in this world. Only 2 percent are outstanding in the Bell Curve. I am presuming title winners will come from within this 2 percent. So, what of the 98 per cent? Are they to be consigned to the scrap machine? Will these people live out an also-ran existence, because fortune did not smile on them?

The other point is of patience and loyalty. I read the Liverpool and Manchester United forums. In the old days, Shankly and Busby were given deep loyalty. When their teams were not doing well, the supporters never lost patience. Nowadays, Rogers, Moyes and Van Gaal, have had praise and then dung heaped on them. Sometimes this variability is week to week. A good performance and the manager is up in the sky; a bad performance and he is buried. The recent case of Mourinho is a stark reminder, ‘success is now measured in concrete returns – the trophies’.

There is a more obscure third matter, people my age will notice. In the past, there used to be a case for aesthetics in sports. Today it has been replaced by efficiency, because of the need to win. Guardiola, Benitez and Mourinho are all about this efficiency. Used to be that the luxury, skilful, maverick player would roam the park. They would deliver supreme beauty of skill, but were not too pushed about marking opposite players or getting back in position. Nevertheless, the joy of watching what they did with the ball was enough. Today these players have disappeared. Messi and Ronaldo, the most skilful players today, do not exercise their skills in matches as a Finney, Zico or Rivera (thats right, how many have heard these names, they were great, but never won a famous trophy). The same with a graceful batsman. They crunch the beauty out of his game and leave instead an efficient, slogging or boring run machine. One has to watch a free-wheeling Kanhai to understand what I mean. The joy of the visual has gone and the efficient deliverer has to perform on the stage.

Now just imagine this thinking spread across sports, art, literature and more. The flamboyant beauty of a Sobers innings, the risky manoeuvre of a Senna in F1, the audacious paint strokes of a Van Gogh, the long styled challenging writings of a Dickens. All these have disappeared and been replaced by efficiency, which cuts out risks and delivers results. Today, the winner takes all and so we also refine our lives accordingly. Imagine you advising your child to pursue a profession which is guaranteed good returns, shunning any particular artistic skills which may have been the real passion. Drabness starts to take over life.

The breaking moment!

imageIt was concentration, just before half time. Perhaps perpetrated by frustration or by a needless desire for Liverpool to score a goal. The 33 year old, took his eyes off the ball and it slipped under his foot. Next thing you know, there is a goal forty yards away and the goal keeper is picking the ball out of the net. Liverpool are one down and lose that day.

On such fine margins are fates decided. Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool manager would say, “hey, the slip was not even mine”. True you cannot legislate for such things. Especially, if it is your most reliable player. But stuff happens. Fact is that the Steven Gerrard slip cost Liverpool the Premier League title. Something broke that day, in the hearts and mind of the Anfield dressing room. It was never the same again.

I have seen this before. There are times when you give your all, you believe intensely and you are actually good enough. Its the real thing and the world believes also. You have your hand on the prize and everything in fate is going for you. But fate has something else planned for you, just before the final line. When it happens, the final last moment failure is too big to handle. It breaks you.

Back in 1982, Brazil had the World Cup in their hand. There were no equivalents in the history of football, barring Puskas and his Hungarians of the 1950s. Tele Santana and his team seemed in-human. They floated on the ground and created magic, which I have not seen again in these forty plus years of watching football. Never will, because football has become too safety first and structured. Watching them quietly was Enzo Bearzot, grizzled professional and a knowing Italian. He saw things which no one else saw. On that fateful afternoon in Barcelona, Paolo Rossi, rose out of a disastrous World Cup, to score the most famous hat-trick in football. Brazil lost, just! It broke all of us. I saw many friends cry that afternoon. But it definitely broke Brazil and Tele Santana and they were never the same again.

Coming into the 1999 final, Pakistan looked the real deal. We had beaten the Aussies at Headingly, a couple of weeks before and we looked like champions. The fastest bowler, the wiliest left armer, the best spinner and two of the best all rounders. Then we had very good batsmen. That was the team. It was a mature team, with a combination to fit. One just felt right. When I arrived at Lords that morning, the only misgiving was a fresh looking pitch. It looked like a Brisbane pitch on the first day. It was. Our team, on a high and expecting things to role their way, collapsed that day. It was built on a belief, which was based on the normal English summer conditions. We lost badly and for me its the turning point of Pakistan cricket. We lost a lot more that day. It broke us and over the next decade and a half we have never fully pieced it together again.

So to Brendan Rodgers. Liverpool manager. For twenty plus matches, he created a sublime attacking machine. Its philosophy steeped in offence, it simply scored more than it let in. It was exhilarating to watch and for a few months we all believed in the magic. Then it happened and we came down to earth. It broke him and I think, he did not have the wherewithal to repair the heart. In todays world of commerce, even sports is subservient. Success is the only answer. BR found that out. He has been dismissed as Liverpool’s manager.

For Liverpool I will say, what I have said these forty four years. You Will Never Walk Alone. For Brendan Rodgers, a thank you for the 2014 season. Good luck for the future. There may be other pastures, where this wound may heal.

*picture courtesy Premierleague.com

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